Ireland have the foundations, now it's time to build
Presence of both Conway and Addison suggests Kearney unlikely to be in the match-day 23
Andrew Porter and Jonny Sexton sharing a light-hearted moment during Ireland’s squad training session at Carton House. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
The question remains as to how on earth Ireland follow that.
An unbeaten November, a Grand Slam and a comeback series win Down Under was always going to be tough to follow, and virtually impossible to emulate this season without an end-of-season summer tour.
That said, of course, this autumnal programme again includes two teams from the Rugby Championship.
But while the Guinness Series starts as last year’s ended, against Ireland’s World Cup conquerors three years ago, Argentina, a week subsequently the All Blacks are back for the first time in two years.
They also remain, and probably always will, the most prized scalp of all, and there’s the additional carrot of becoming the first Ireland team to beat them on home soil.
In any event, this Ireland appear to look upon this season blank canvas.
“Jeeze, I forgot about that! I’d just totally forgotten,” quipped scrum coach Greg Feek when reminded of last season’s triumphs.
“This is a new start again for us, and I think ‘behaviour’ is one thing I suppose that’s driven in our environment a lot. That results in standards, that results in how things are lived and how we are.
“And once you establish those sort of things, it’s hard to actually go back from that because you have built those layers on top. So, then you just keep moving forward and don’t look back because all the ‘learnings’ are what you are working on and you can kind of keep that growth going.
“It’s quite infectious. The environment – in a good way – can be contagious to that and everyone wants to be a part of it, and contribute to making it better.
“You get really good input from guys, the senior players now really stand up, like Johnny, Rory, Pete, CJ, Robbie Henshaw, Earlsy – those guys all contribute so much to that that we just have to make sure we don’t ruin what we’ve built, if that makes sense.”
One imagines Rob Kearney would normally be one of the names on that list and, while one can read too much between the lines, Feek did not sound too confident of the fullback overcoming the shoulder injury which prevented him from taking part in yesterday’s contact session at Carton House. Instead he was restricted to working with the physios.
Asked to put Kearney’s chances of playing against Argentina into percentages, Feek quipped: “I only ever deal in percentages when it comes to sharing a pie . . . and even then it’s difficult.” Reluctantly, he then ventured: “He’s probably in the middle, 50 per cent. Everyone else is tipping away.”
The presence of both Andrew Conway and Will Addison further suggests Kearney is unlikely to be included in the match-day 23, and also that Joe Schmidt is perhaps taking more of a rotational selection policy in these games than anticipated.
It looks as if the Pumas’ game has also come too early for Dan Leavy, who played 80-minutes for Leinster against the Southern Kings in South Africa on Sunday and, due to a delayed return, will not rejoin the national squad until Wednesday evening.
This in turn would suggest Seán O’Brien may be in line to start his first Test since the 28-19 win over Argentina a year ago, although Feek gave a rather cryptic answer as to how O’Brien had been shaping up in training.
“I’m not sure actually. Normally when he’s nearing his best, you hear him, you hear him more. You hear Seán O’Brien before you see him and that’s when I get excited. I might have to turn up the volume of my ears just to see if I can hear him a bit more this week.
“It was a bit like Jamie Heaslip. Once he was in good form, you’d hear him down the other end of the hall walking in. But Seanie’s very vocal on the pitch and when he starts getting that, you get excited. So I’ll let you know.”
As for Feek’s own specialist area, even Mario Ledesma conceded on being promoted to head coach that the Pumas scrum, the famed bajada, had lost its bite.
But Feek maintained: “We always know they’re a weapon and as long as [Agustin] Creevy’s there and they’ve got [Ramiro] Herrera who might be there and [Nahuel Tetaz]) Chaparro, they’ve got a lot of caps, a lot of experience. We’ll take it as the reputation they’ve always had.”
Feek has helped to oversee quite a transformation in the Irish scrum, not least in its much-improved depth, but while he can look back with pride on his time in Ireland, he said: “It’s not something that I walk around high-fiving myself about. I’m not sure you can do that anyway.”
Yet it’s incredible to think that Andrew Porter was only starting his 11th senior match for province or country last Saturday, and the first of those was at loosehead before being converted to the tight side.
“He’s unlucky and lucky to be playing with him [Tadhg Furlong], do you know what I mean, because I think he’s not getting the game time,” said Feek.
“But I felt at the weekend, the longer the game went on the better he got, and when you see that you get excited. . . because you should see that game by game. But seeing it during a game is a real positive.”
“And what I mean by lucky to be with Tadhg is obviously being alongside someone like that drives him. He sees good habits, he sees what he talks about and I try to make sure that all the learnings Tadhg is getting, Ports is getting it at the same time. So you get that accelerated learning happening and I think creating good habits and those sort of things is probably good for him because he’s at such a young age doing it.”