Imminent cull gives edge to squad sessions

 

Rugby: Three warm-up Tests and 31 days from now, the cull will be complete. Then, the 40-man squad going through their paces in Buccaneers' Dubarry Park this week will be cut to 30 when the Irish squad for the World Cup is announced the day after the third of those games, away to Scotland.

The deadline has, admitted Eddie O'Sullivan, added an extra edge to training.

The process has already begun, with the 50-man squad which was taken to Poland for Spala's ice chambers having been cut by 20 per cent. The likes of Aidan McCullen and Mike Mullins have already missed out, and there will be more tough decisions and heartaches to come, not least in the second row and back row.

"Fortunately it's very competitive. We have 13 players between back row and second row in camp, and the odds are that nine of those will go and four won't. And to be honest, you could take any nine of them and you'd be happy," admitted the Ireland coach yesterday.

Interestingly, O'Sullivan confirmed he intended naming three specialist hookers and three specialist scrumhalves in the 30-man squad.

Two days after that squad is announced on Sunday, September 7th, the chosen 30 will head off to Bilbao in Spain for a week of warm-weather training.

Bearing in mind the logistical nightmare which Spala apparently was, and how well Ireland coped with savagely hot and humid conditions in June's tour finale against Samoa, the thought occurred yesterday that Ireland seem nowadays to be having better luck in warmer climes.

As some players adeptly played "keep-up" with a football prior to yesterday afternoon's session in Athlone, a huge, sun-drenched midlands crowd, revelling in temperatures in the high 20s, descended on Dubarry Park, and later detained the Irish squad for over two hours of patient and good-humoured autograph signing.

There are, even at the end of a close-season, a number of injury concerns. Uppermost amongst these would appear to be John Hayes, who is still sidelined with a groin injury, added to which Emmet Byrne is still a couple of weeks away from overcoming his neck problem, while Marcus Horan requires another week or two to recover from an ankle problem.

Ronan O'Gara, whose fractured wrist should have healed in time for the Scotland game, if perhaps not the Italy game on August 30th, and James Topping (groin) are others likely to be ruled out of consideration next week against Wales, but against all of that Keith Wood is set to return and lead the side on Saturday week.

"Thankfully he's at full tilt again," said O'Sullivan. "We had an intense scrum session for an hour yesterday and he came through it. This morning we had a very physical session in both attack and defence. It was full-on stuff, and he came through it well.

"The month on tour where he came just to get rugby under his belt was absolutely critical because he was a good four weeks down the road by the end of it, which he wouldn't have been if he'd stayed at home. It was time well spent. He's really happy with where he is at the moment."

Wrapping Wood up in cotton wool was, O'Sullivan reckoned, "a bad idea" and aside from playing in two of the three forthcoming Tests, the Irish coach intimated Wood would don the red jersey of Munster once or twice.

Intent on rotating the squad over these games, O'Sullivan said: "We will be plugging players into provincial warm-up games if they're not involved in the internationals."

He also said players would play occasionally for their provinces after the Scotland game and during the month-long World Cup embargo on internationals prior to the competition proper.

Watching the Australians from afar, in the Tri-Nations, O'Sullivan reckoned the Wallabies were "a wounded animal" after stinging criticism from their media, "which in some ways is a disadvantage to us".

Argentina, Ireland's other main group rivals, have been buoyed by back-to-back wins over France and an unlucky last-kick defeat away to South Africa, which has left them seventh in the world rankings ahead of Wales, Scotland and Samoa, prompting O'Sullivan to describe Pool A as "the group of death".

Revelling in their week in the sunlight, Buccaneers' newly unveiled main stand provided some shade and enabled an orderly if constantly replenished line of autograph hunters to queue up for the remainder of the afternoon. With their recently built main clubhouse and car-park, Buccaneers' excellent facility seemed more akin to a French setting.

Afterwards, the club's president, Michael Walsh, announced Dubarry's 10-year sponsorship of the club, which also involved the renaming of the club's ground.

O'Sullivan, who guided Buccs to promotion and a top-four place here in the late 90s, presented Walsh with an autographed Irish jersey and heralded them as "one of the top clubs in the country, with a facility to match".

In return, the Dubarry MD and president of Athlone RFC, Eamonn Fagan, jokingly handed over a sponsor's shoe to the Irish coach and quipped: "If you make it to the quarter-finals you get the other one."

Contrary to a report in yesterday's Irish Times, Royal Bank of Scotland are the title sponsors of the Six Nations and not Lloyds TSB.