Joe Schmidt admitted he was taking a step into the unknown by sending rookie Test centres Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw up against South Africa tomorrow.
Naming a side to take on the number two-ranked rugby nation, fresh from their Rugby Championship defeat of New Zealand, was always going to be difficult for Ireland’s head coach at the start of this month’s Guinness Series given the injuryprofile of his squad and the vacuum created by the retirement of iconic No.13 Brian O’Driscoll following last spring’s Six Nations success.
Yet, for all the absentees, when Schmidt named his team yesterday, he opted to go without O’Driscoll’s long-term midfield ally Gordon D’Arcy after he missed training sessions last week.
D’Arcy, now fully fit, had been earmarked to provide an experienced senior role as he shepherded a lessexperienced outside centre but Ireland will face the Springboks with Connacht starlet Henshaw, 21, in the veteran’s No 12 jersey and the uncapped, newly naturalised New Zealand-born Payne, 29, on his outside shoulder.
It is a potentially exciting pairing of two players possessing the physicality to compete with their opposite numbers Jean de Villiers, the Springboks captain, and Jan Serfontein and provide a cutting edge link between fly-half Johnny Sexton and his outside backs but Schmidt admitted it was pairing of necessity rather experimentation and that it would take more than 80 minutes to come to fruition.
“In reality we have had five full training sessions. I didn’t even make Tuesday because of the referees’meeting so that’s your window of preparation. That’s your reality,” Schmidt said.
“What I saw of both of them is an ability to carry ball, an ability todistribute ball, an ability to work hard defensively and be physical defensively. To make a pairing of them, I don’t think that’s going to happen overnight.
“I think inevitably there are going to be things that we progress from this Saturday through the succeeding weekends, and there will be changes through the succeeding weekends. So this combination obviously won’t last throughout the series but I’m reasonably excited about seeing how they do adapt and equip themselves in anincredibly challenging environment.
“But they want to be measured by it and I’m looking forward to seeing how they measure up. I guess it’s incredibly difficult (to know). There’s no soothsayer. There’s no-one who can predict how it will go but we can influence how it will go by the preparation we’ve done and that continuity through three or four training sessions they matched up as a pairing. Hopefully, that’ssufficient to give them the confidence to perform well on Saturday.”
As for Henshaw, just three games into an Ireland career laden with promise, Schmidt said there was no ideal time to expose the Connacht youngster to the best players at Test-level intensity.
“He’s as ready as he’s going to be after three caps and I think he’ll be more ready after 10 caps, that’s thenature of it. We all know that, when you’re put in a circumstance that we haven’t been in often, that we’re a little bit more tense, a little bit more uncomfortable and that does dissipate a little although tension is foreverrelevant for any Test match player.
“I think we will see continued improvement, but when do you start that staircase? We need to start now with Robbie and a number of other guys and that’s why through this series there will be changes week to week.”
The New Zealander was at pains to lower expectations at the start of a 10-month lead-in to the 2015 World Cup in England and eager to warn that the challenges of facing this Springboks side were perhaps greater than those the All Blacks posed in Ireland’s final game of 2013.
“To be absolutely frank this is a fresh team, fresh off the plane. We got the All Blacks after 14 Test matches, probably with an eye to getting back and getting a rest. I think we probably did catch them on the hop a little bit in that first half. I think we merited a fair bit of what we got but we also got a little bit lucky that they were a bit under par on the day.
“I just don’t see that happening with the Springboks.”
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