The first thing that needs to be highlighted about the vexed Emerging Ireland three-match tour of South Africa is that it was never part of the original plan for the current four-year World Cup cycle. It was foisted upon the four provinces under and by extension the United Rugby Championship – in the fall-out from Ireland’s hugely successful tour of New Zealand last summer.
Andy Farrell, the Irish management and the IRFU were entirely vindicated in the merits of the two additional games against the New Zealand Maori in addition to the three-Test series.
Of the 42 players (including Michael Bent) who ultimately were brought to New Zealand, 25 of them featured in the two Maori games and of those, 16 didn’t feature in any of Tests. Those matches were an invaluable investment in the growth of players such as Ciarán Frawley, Craig Casey, Joe McCarthy, Cian Prendergast, Nick Timoney, Gavin Coombes. Hopefully, the benefits will be felt all the way through to the World Cup, which was the primary purpose of expanding the tour.
Hence, based on that experience and on a high from their series win over the All Blacks, the Irish management and IRFU were of a mind to expose another layer of players to Ireland’s coaches, training methods and playing style in a tour environment.
“This Emerging Ireland tour is of vital strategic importance in a Rugby World Cup year,” said David Nucifora, the IRFU’s performance director.
Farrell also said: “This opportunity provides another window for players to develop and show they can thrive in the intensity of a national environment.”
One can understand the rationale. No doubt Farrell will learn plenty as an interested observer, as will Simon Easterby, Paul O’Connell and Mike Catt from coaching the 35-man squad currently in South Africa, the bulk of them for the first time, and that the players themselves will be grateful for this opportunity.
However, the tour’s vital strategic importance has been rather undermined by the quality of the opposition, judging by the first of three games last Friday. The Griquas team which faced Ireland contained only three of the starting XV and seven of the matchday 23 which lost the Currie Cup final against the Pumas (Ireland’s next opponents on Wednesday) by 26-19 last June.
It was effectively a Griquas B/C side. The standard of opposition which the Irish provinces have been facing and will continue to face in the same time span is of an altogether higher quality.
“It will put some stress on our player resources,” Nucifora also admitted at the time of the squad’s announcements. Yet this “stress” has been entirely absorbed by the provinces, to varying degrees, and the All-Ireland League. The squad in South Africa has a more even geographical spread than would be the case for a senior tour, with a dozen Leinster players, 10 each from Munster and Ulster, and six from Connacht.
Ironically, though, given their strength in depth, Leinster have been arguably the least damaged. Indeed, the tour may even have contributed toward Leo Cullen fielding strong sides in the wins at home to Benetton and away to Ulster, although no doubt the loss of a dozen players has affected his selection planning.
By contrast, Ulster possibly took the biggest hit and in light of that facile 54-7 win over the Griquas B/C side, would Robert Baloucoune not have been served better playing away to the Scarlets and especially at home to Leinster in a top of the table derby last Friday night, as well as next Saturday’s game against the Ospreys? Would the same not be true of Tom Stewart, Nathan Doak, Ethan McIlroy and Stewart Moore, who would have featured in these games too and at the very least would have been on the bench in the Kingspan Stadium last Friday night? This is now more relevant given the ankle injury sustained by Jacob Stockdale and Rob Herring’s concussion.
Just as pertinently, especially bearing in mind Aaron Sexton’s difficult night and Herring’s 23rd-minute departure, had Baloucoune started and the others been on the bench, might Ulster have completed their comeback by drawing or even winning?
One ventures that Graham Rowntree of Munster would have been the least inclined to vent his frustration toward Farrell, given his working relationship and friendship with the Irish head coach, and Catt as well, and that he’s the newest head coach with his head on the block.
A positive consequence was that Conor Phillips made his senior debut and Patrick Campbell his URC debut, while another academy player, the 18-year-old backrow forward Ruadhan Quinn, became the youngest player to line out in a competitive fixture for Munster in the professional era with his eye-catching, hard carrying cameo off the bench.
Yet, had the likes of Diarmuid Barron, Tom Ahern, John Hodnett, Shane Daly and Calvin Nash been available for the last two weeks, might Munster have beaten the Dragons rather than lose to them last Sunday week? Might they have registered a fourth try bonus point in another painful failure to score a second-half point against Zebre last Saturday in Cork?
We’ll never know. They’re hypothetical questions, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that this Emerging Ireland tour has materially influenced URC games.
Connacht were perhaps the least affected, albeit remembering Caolin Blade would have been lost to them on the Emerging Ireland tour but for injury. Already denied Mack Hansen, Bundee Aki, Finlay Bealham and Cian Prendergast for their opening URC game away to Ulster, that quartet were able to play away to the Stormers, with Prendergast and Dylan Tierney-Martin starting that game before linking up with the Emerging Ireland squad. Neither featured against the Griquas, although presumably will do so against the Pumas, but wouldn’t they have been better off playing against the Bulls last Friday and Connacht’s upcoming home derbies against Munster and Leinster?
Therein lies another rub. After playing the Cheetahs next Sunday, the Emerging Ireland squad won’t return to Ireland until next Tuesday, which may make some of them doubtful for round five of the URC as well.
The IRFU are also stakeholders in that competition, and URC have taken it on the chin and said nothing. Yet, no matter what way the IRFU dress it up, this tour has devalued the URC as well. And no matter what way it is dressed up, is this tour really going to affect a possible World Cup quarter-final 54 weeks hence against France or the All Blacks?