Ireland’s new generation of Test players have been put on notice that this month’s Test series against the Springboks could determine their pathway to the 2019 World Cup.
With frontline figures such as Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony absent through injury from this first tour to South Africa since 2004, Joe Schmidt’s side have an uphill battle to create history and win an away Test against the Boks.
Forwards coach Simon Easterby believes fly-half Paddy Jackson and the other inexperienced tourists primed to replace the big guns can make their mark in this three-Test series and secure their positions in the squad as Ireland progress towards Japan in three years.
“There’s a real collective drive. Those guys who have stepped out, yes that’s a blow but those guys who have stepped in see that as an opportunity.
“You’ve got different players coming in and they’ve all got different qualities to the ones who have left.
“It’s about those guys coming in and stepping up and we’ll find out a lot about them. We’ll find out over the next three weeks if those players can come with us for the next couple of years building towards Japan in 2019.
“Maybe without those injuries to some more established players we wouldn’t see that, we wouldn’t get to know about certain players the next three weeks. We’re going to find out about those players we don’t know as well as others. That’s a positive.”
Ulster fly-half Jackson was selected for the tour alongside first-choice Sexton and ahead of Bordeaux-bound Ian Madigan, only to see the latter drafted in when the Lions out-half succumbed to a shoulder injury during Leinster’s PRO12 final defeat to Connacht.
Now he appears set for a first start since the World Cup warm-up meeting with Wales in Cardiff in August and after a fine campaign for his province, Easterby believes he has never been better equipped to fill the vacuum left by Sexton.
“Just spending time with Paddy, he’s growing in that leadership role, certainly this year, some of his displays... I was up at the Toulouse game during the European Cup.
“He carried flat to the line, his distribution was excellent, his kicking skills were good... he’s getting a real good balance to his game and I think he’s had time in the squad to look at what Johnny does and how he approaches it. But he’s got to be himself and he’s got to put his own stamp on it.
“Like ‘Mads’, they both have the ability to play really flat and challenge the defence but they also have the ability to play the percentage game. That ability for those guys to step up will go a long way in the next couple of years for their continued involvement and development in the squad and that’s only a good thing.”
Having been forced to make four late changes to his touring party following injuries sustained in the PRO12 final to Dave Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Sexton as well as the withdrawal of Rob Kearney, Easterby reported no injury concerns among the 32 players who touched down in Cape Town on Monday morning.
Head coach Schmidt names his matchday 23 tomorrow ahead of the series-opening first Test at Newlands on Saturday evening.
“Everybody who travelled is available,” Easterby said. “It’s nice to have that going into the first game. The final clearly was (attritional) and players picked up injuries. You can’t do anything about that. You want the players playing in the back end of the season competing for silverware and if that’s the case then you are going to possibly lose players which we did, and that’s just one of those things.”
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