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Irish core of pull strings

Tomorrow is the start of a long drive where every game and every selection will ostensibly be framed by next year's World Cup. A coach's job at this stage of the cycle becomes very much like a balancing act, keep the squad fresh, win matches, prepare for a competition next year and keep everyone happy.

It is all part of the job and yet this year it has taken on a far complicated view. Joe Schmidt brings baggage but it is of an enviable variety. He has engendered a sense of confidence and expectation that Ireland can win things.

His first season in charge led to a Six Nations and an autumn against two of the Big Three doesn't fill us with the usual fear of a come-uppance. This is something I would nearly always wish for but in our present circumstances with an injury list of 17, yes 17 players out, can we somehow keep our expectations in check?

This autumn has to be about performance and unearthing new stars and combinations. The wish is that these will lead to victories but if not we need to give this skeletal team a break. That is an unlikely sentiment from me, I know, but I'm wary of the hyperbole that can erupt this early in a season.

But back to the absentees... If one injury is a mistake, and two is careless what the hell do we say about 17?

One would be tempted to ask has there been a change in emphasis on the physical conditioning side or some new technical aspect of the game being brought forward but for the fact that the injury trend is across all the teams on these islands? England are shorn of an equal amount of players and Wales have been compelled to play George North in the centre such is their dearth of fit centres.

I was interested to read several weeks ago comments from Steve Hansen where he suggested that the laws of our game should be ripped up. I believe this is a topic for another day and one worthy of much discussion but whatever is the root cause for this disastrous run in injuries, something has to be done. The supporters deserve the opportunity to see the best players on show.

So we are down numbers and yet the team still looks pretty strong. We have improved our strength in depth radically over the last number of years and provided we still have our experienced core in the team we are able to put a decent side on the field.

The importance of Jonny Sexton being fit, the re-emergence of Peter O'Mahony and the evergreen Paul O'Connell gives the team a distinct sense of stability. Add to that the comfortable leadership that Conor Murray has brought to his game and we know we a have a group that can pull the strings when needed.

UNCOMFORTABLE

This core looks increasingly important when you look at our new centre pairing of Payne and Henshaw. I have been uncomfortable with both as outside centres for their respective provinces. They both look more at ease at 15 and have yet to come to terms with the uniquely exposed nature of defending in the 13 channel.

But we need real options in the centre and if not now then, when? They are the first pairing to get their chance to put down a marker for next year's World Cup. But you can be sure than Heyneke Meyer will make certain his expansive style will target the rookie pairing.

My only other concern is with the over reliance on Mike Ross (pictured, left). He has played little rugby this season and has struggled with his match fitness due to injury.

To have to come back into, what can only be described as a maelstrom of a South African scrum, is going to test him to the full.

Not only that but the need for the full pack to protect their tighthead becomes an imperative.

And maybe that should be the clarion call for this weekend.

Ireland are exposed by the injury toll. Exposed by the lack of game time of some of their players.

The sense of 'team' needs to be at the absolute forefront of everything that happens because nothing can be taken for granted tomorrow evening.

Whereas New Zealand and Australia had an easy run out last week, Sout Africa will not be as sharp. This new Irish team will need to get to the pace quickly, protect the weaker more uncertain areas, and hope the leadership can pull out a huge performance.

Because on the back of what we have witnessed in the Rugby Championship, Ireland are big underdogs.


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