Joe Schmidt sent out mixed messages regarding the identity of the player to fill the number 13 jersey against South Africa on Saturday week, though appeared to suggest Robbie Henshaw had moved ahead of Jared Payne in the pecking order to begin filling the void left by Brian O'Driscoll's retirement.
Asked specifically about Payne's performances at outside centre in recent weeks - not for the first time he and the Ulster backline appeared more cohesive and potent against Toulon when he reverted to full-back - Schmidt said: "I think there's a potential for Jared Payne to start. He ran (at 13) today with Gordon D'Arcy and Robbie Henshaw, and we're keeping an eye on Stuart Olding this weekend.
“For me with Jared, his angles of running, his ability to read the defence and defend successfully has been top notch. His ability to play a little bit of a kicking game from second receiver is another asset with Jared, with his full-back skills. He’s brought a little bit of experience, I suppose. He’s played against a number of these South African players as well and we think that that’s a bit of an advantage as well, knowing your opponent, and he can bring that experience to the group.”
When then asked whether the 21-year-old Henshaw is ready to play at outside centre against South Africa, Schmidt hesitated slightly and commented: "I guess in nine days' time we'll know. I don't think you ever know until a player has been put in the position. I think there would be better ways for Robbie to be prepared. I think there could be a more gradual introduction to come up against (Jan) Serfonetin and Jean de Villiers Most likely. I think that is a massive ask. We know a bit about Jean de Villiers from his time with Munster. Serfontein is, I think, a player who's improved massively in the last 18 months. I think he's a very complete player and a big strong player, but a very good reader of the game as well now."
"Those two, and who is inside them, whether it's (Handre) Pollard or (Pay) Lambie or (Morne) Steyn, they're all an influence on how Robbie gets the opportunity to do his job and how much help he can give to the wingers, because I think we're going to need to stay connected there, whether it be (Bryan) Habana, JP Pietersen or Cornel Hendricks, or (Willie) le Roux chiming in from the back. I think there's a good challenge for him there. Whether he's ready for the challenge? As I said, I think we'll find out," concluded Schmidt, in what sounded like a clear signal that Henshaw would be starting against the Springboks.
In addition to Nathan White, whom Schmidt confirmed will be sidelined for at least three months, and James Cronin, whose ankle injury will keep him out for the series, the Ireland head coach admitted Mike Ross's lack of rugby is "a concern", albeit "he has taken part in some of the more static aspects of training".
Several players have had a lighter load and were rested from yesterday's open session in the Aviva. Ulster's Chris Henry was among them.
"His collision load was massive over the last two weeks, and Rhys Ruddock is exactly the same. They'll certainly be alright for next weekend but we just want to freshen them up and so have a spring in their step next week. Rob (Kearney) was in and out today. We're managing his return to training. That was his first on-field training this week but he came through it really well."
Regarding White’s injury, Schmidt said: “He just caught a player running past him. It was the angle and just the way it happened. It wasn’t even a contact situation. It was just one of those innocuous things and it’s massively disappointing when they do, particularly for Nathan and for us. It’s a position we’ve got some other options and we’ll be watching some of those this weekend.”
Schmidt name checked Stephen Archer, Rodney Ah You, Declan Fitzpatrick and Tadgh Furlong in this regard, and said: "On Monday we'll have enough guys in camp to resource that frontrow."
Looking ahead to the first game in the Guinness Series against South Africa, Schmidt said: “It’s an incredibly exciting challenge to play one of the form teams in the world and certainly one of the top ranked. I know the players will be motivated for that. I’m just not sure who those players are as yet.”
South Africa’s thrilling 27-25 win over New Zealand a fortnight ago was founded on their more adventurous approach this year, especially with 20-year-old Handre Pollard at outhalf.
“One of the things about South Africa that is very different when Pollard plays is that they play, and they play a lot,” said Schmidt. “The first phase of play (against New Zealand) in their most recent test went three minutes, 20 seconds. A South African phase of play traditionally went to 20 seconds. They receive and maybe put the ball out if it was deep in their own half.”
“They got the ball deep in their own half and they played their way out of their half. I think that is very much a change. Les did a super session today and the players worked very hard, but I think they’re going to have to work much harder because that would be an area we’re working pretty hard on, to make sure we are ready for a South African team that is a lot different from the 2007 World Cup winning team, with a very different coaching philosophy as to what Heyneke Meyer has adopted in recent times.”
This has also led to tries being scored from deep in their back to home wins over Australia and the All Blacks, “and to score three tries in the last eight minutes (against New Zealand), you don’t normally see that with a South African side. They’ve been worth every bit of scoring that they’ve delivered. They’ve played some super stuff and they’ve got weapons out there. I’d be delighted if they weren’t looking to use them but it seems that that is a game strategy they’ve adopted and we’re going to have to be ready for.”