Wallace has to put his shoulder to the wheel

 

Rugby: Gerry Thornley on David Wallace's race to prove his fitness and earn a place on Ireland's World Cup squad

Keith Wood apart, no-one has found the long road to Australia more tortuous than David Wallace. But unlike Wood, who looks set to lead his country again against Wales next week and, touch wood, on into the World Cup, for Wallace, time is running out.

Two seasons ago, it would have seemed unthinkable that Wallace - something of the prototype for the modern-day, dynamic, ball-carrying forward - would possibly miss out, Ireland not being over-endowed with such strike runners. Moreover, he would appear well suited to the hard, dry tracks in Australia.

But even when he was cutting a swathe through the French and English defences, it transpired Wallace had been playing with a shoulder injury which ultimately required an operation a year ago. A difficult recovery virtually wiped out last season for him. In camp and in what little time he gets in Ireland's final three warm-up games or for Munster, Wallace now has to make a compelling case for his inclusion in the 30-man squad to be announced on September 7th.

Encouragingly for Wallace and other fringe candidates, Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan is clearly leaving enough scope in the next month for anyone in the existing squad of 40 to earn themselves a seat to Sydney at the end of September.

O'Sullivan maintains the Irish management are not that close to choosing the final 30. "I don't see all of the panic about having my 30 done at the moment because there's just too much to play for," he says. "Players realise that too, and that gives them everything to play for in the warm-up games.

"I mean, there are certain guys who will be on the plane. I think we can all assume Brian O'Driscoll will go out if he's fit, but really there are a lot of slots up for grabs, particularly in the back five (of the pack) and the outside backs and midfield; there's a lot of guys jockeying there."

Basically, as O'Sullivan has intimated, nine out of the 13 back-five forwards in camp are likely to make the cut. He has hinted this could comprise four second rows and five back rowers, with one of the locks doubling up as back row cover, or three locks and six back rowers, with one of the latter providing second row cover.

Given Donncha O'Callaghan would now seem the best equipped to cover second row and back row, the odds favour him as one of four locks, which would leave just five out of the current eight back rowers. Some big names are going to miss out. In any event, nobody, but nobody, can afford a dip in form.

In his absence, Wallace has been eclipsed as an out-and-out openside by Keith Gleeson, who looks about the one name you'd pencil in with certainty at this juncture. The influential Anthony Foley and the reborn Victor Costello, after his barnstorming return last season, also look probable picks.

After that? Eric Miller and Simon Easterby did their candidature no harm on the summer tour, but then again the versatility of Alan Quinlan and Wallace - more likely understudies to Gleeson at openside - means one of those two ought to make the cut, and possibly enhances their claims over the other specialist number seven, Kieron Dawson.

Wallace admits that, like any other player involved in a prolonged recovery, he wondered if the spark would return. "I came back about six or seven months after the operation and I just felt I didn't have a shoulder really. I was trying to tackle and it just wasn't happening. After that there might be times when I was just sitting at home and the thing would be throbbing. But when I found out it was a cyst, that was a relief again. At least it was fixable."

In the contrived end-of-season, pre-tour representative games Wallace made an encouraging second return, especially with the ball in hand, but admits defensive lapses undermined his performances. As is the way after shoulder operations, there may well have been ongoing concerns about his willingness to fully test his shoulder in the tackle on tour. More than anything, he has to dispel those concerns.

"Since the tour, it's been getting stronger and stronger. Before, the aggression mightn't have been there because I was worrying about it. That's gone now. I can feel the aggression coming back and that's what I'm concentrating on now rather than protecting my shoulder, which is the big step really."

All the while, making the World Cup was to be the light at the end of the tunnel. "And I suppose I never really panicked because it always seemed so far away. Now it's right in our faces. It's the ultimate shop window for players and being every four years you don't know how many you might get to play in. I was a little off the last one and this one you're coming back from injury. But I'm very happy now where I am, because I have full confidence in my shoulder and that's the main thing."