Ireland’s Lions could be undercooked for November Test series

Ending of October Champions Cup window has limited opportunities for players

Bundee Aki back in training with Connacht at the Sportsground on Tuesday. Photograph: Brian Reilly-Troy/Inpho

An Irish squad numbering in the mid-30s for the forthcoming November Tests against Japan, New Zealand and Argentina will be announced in the middle of next week. It won't be a form selection. It can't be.

For starters, none of the seven Irishmen who played a part in the Lions tour to South Africa have yet to re-appear for their provinces this season and there's no guarantee all of them will do so this weekend.

Hence, players will be named next week who have either played one game or none at all, with only the fifth round of the United Rugby Championship the weekend after next by way of preparation against a Japanese team who have been in camp for six weeks and match-hardened All Blacks and Pumas squads who have been together for months.

For example, while Bundee Aki is in line to make his seasonal re-appearance for Connacht in Saturday's first interpro of the season against Munster at Thomond Park (kick-off 7.35pm), it's unclear whether Tadhg Beirne or Conor Murray will do so.


The indications are that Beirne might play some part, but less so Murray. "Tadhg is back in training, training really well. Mur is also back," said defence coach JP Ferreira. "Whether we use them this weekend or next weekend, we will have to see. But they are back in training and it's going well with them."

Doing away with two Champions Cup games in October is a huge handicap for Ireland’s November preparations, and the same applies to their fellow Celts and the Italians.

When Murray returned from the 2013 Lions tour, he played three-and-a-half Munster games before the November Tests, including two European ties. Four years ago, Murray had five outings by way of harnessing his match fitness, with derbies against Leinster and Connacht either side of European games against Castres and Racing.

What’s more, with no URC games on Test weekends, the provinces have rotated more than normal, and Ferreira said Munster (who have already used 37 players in three matches) would do so again this week, in part due to the six-day turnaround.

Admittedly, Munster's performance in beating the Scarlets 43-13 vindicated the decision to make 11 changes to the starting XV, while also giving the Munster brains trust plenty of selection headaches. More fluid and potent in attack, they were also defensively more solid, witness 18 and 18 missed tackles in their two jousts against South African opposition, and 13 last Sunday.

Ferreira said that would be the benchmark, adding: “I thought [in] the first two weeks, individuals were just falling off the tackles a bit, not sticking in it. Last week with that group we had a massive chop focus and on our poach, and they did that very well. It’s something that myself and Graham [Rowntree] drive a lot, that pressure on the ball which was excellent.

“In saying that, our decision-making around the breakdown has been excellent as well, so we get the contact pressure but also our decision-making after that is excellent. That’s what we are after. We’re after that line pressure the whole time, whether it’s ruck, tackle, poach or just on the line.”

Ben Healy during Munster’s training session at UL on Wednesday. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

In both attack and defence, and in just his ninth start, Ben Healy had probably his most assured game for Munster, which Ferreira admitted had made the contest for the '10' jersey with Joey Carbery more of a debate, albeit he said this was true of every position.

“Ben has improved massively. Physically he’s a big body. He’s 98kgs, you wouldn’t say it [to look at him], but he is. We’ve worked hard on his defence and the mental side of it. Steve [Larkham] has really worked hard on his game.

“On the weekend I was really chuffed with him, just putting his body on the line, especially off that first phase in the lineouts and making his hits, and him almost setting the tone for the rest of the defence coming off lineouts.

“So he’s grown and he’s evolving and he’s really a student of the game. He sits with myself and with Steve a lot, going through different aspects of the defence and the attack, so Benny is doing really well.”

Looking ahead to the visit of Connacht, who won at Thomond Park in the Rainbow Cup last May, Ferreira is more inclined to take their winning effort against the Bulls as a barometer of the threat they pose rather than last week's defeat against the Dragons.

“Look, we know Connacht are very good in attack. Andy [Friend] has said that they want to play a high ball-in-play time and if we go back to our URC 2 game against the Stormers, it was pretty much the same template with the ball-in-play; they want to raise it and catch us on the hop shifting that point of attack.

“That’s Connacht. They’re tough, they stay in it, there’s not going to be a second where they miss, and obviously in this competition if you miss a tackle you’re going to go back 20, 30 metres or concede a try, so we’ve got to be really on our game this weekend.”

The game also marks the fifth anniversary of Anthony Foley’s passing.

“It’s so great that on his fifth anniversary we’ve got crowds back and that’s going to make it special for the group, for guys that played with him and the legacy that he’s left behind. We’ll acknowledge that and we’re looking forward to the weekend.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times