Paul O’Connell will be available to face Samoa on Saturday but doubts remains over the lock’s ability to last the 80 minutes of his first Ireland Test in 19 months.
O’Connell, 34, who has not worn the green jersey since March 2012, is on the way back from a calf injury that has kept him sidelined for the past two weeks. He returned to training on Monday, having played no part in last week’s sessions under new head coach Joe Schmidt and having come through yesterday’s session, forwards coach John Plumtree declared the captaincy candidate available for the first game of the Guinness Series this weekend, albeit with reservations.
“It was good to see Paul. He had a pretty light week last week in camp and over the weekend his calf has got better and he had a good session, we reduced his running but increased his intensity yesterday and he was training really well, and today as well,” Plumtree said.
“He’s loaded that calf with a bit of a scrummaging so it was good to see that he’s available.”
Yet, when asked directly if O’Connell would start the first game of the Schmidt era, Plumtree replied: “That would be a medical decision based on whether he could do 80.... whether he can do 80 or not I’m not sure.”
What is not in doubt, even to newly installed forwards coach Plumtree, is O’Connell’s importance to the Ireland pack, particularly with the challenges of Samoa, Australia and world champions New Zealand visiting the Avivia Stadium in successive weeks this month.
“He’s our most experienced lock, and he has been the glue in that pack for a while so he is important and enthusiastic and still loves playing for Ireland so he is important.”
Plumtree, in tandem with defence coach Les Kiss, took the session at Carton House yesterday while Schmidt attended a Tier 1 IRB coaches meeting in London and the New Zealander reported returns to training for previous injury doubts Sean O’Brien and Robbie Henshaw
“Everyone trained today. No fresh injuries,” Plumtree said, before adding of Brian O’Driscoll, who is on his way back from a calf injury that has kept him out for over a month: “Today was his first real training with the team and he went through all right. He looked good.”
The former Natal Sharks head coach, who replaced Gert Smal as forwards coach this summer following Schmidt’s appointment as Declan Kidney’s successor, said he was still getting to know the players but had been impressed with what he had seen so far.
“No surprises. I’ve really enjoyed working with senior players, Paul… getting to know Brian O’Driscoll and obviously I’ve seen these guys play for long periods of their lives being in another country and the younger players as well, seeing the enthusiasm on their faces coming into this environment, how excited they are.
“So no surprises really, I’ve just soaked it all up. I didn’t really know too much about the Irish players before I came over here so it’s been good, I’ve enjoyed it.”
One of his chief roles will be to plot a course through the current minefield of scrummaging as players, coaches and referees alike adjust to the new IRB scrum laws in a bid to turn Ireland’s set-piece into a potent weapon.
“The scrums have been a real problem since the new rules arrived. Hopefully the scrum that we’ve got, we’re pretty sure that if we can get our individual performances and roles done accurately then we can get the platform that we want.
“Obviously the referee comes into play a lot when deciding the outcome of a scrum. Hopefully at the weekend we’ll see Steve Walsh have a good game and two packs that will comply to what he wants and we can get a good outcome because we want to launch from our scrums.
“We want to get that percentage (of launching that platform) up because what we’ve seen in competitions, the Rabo and Heineken Cup, that percentage is really low.”
Against Samoa, success will also involve overpowering the Pacific islanders in every other facet of the game as well as the scrum. .
“They are big boys,” Plumtree said. “You can’t avoid that confrontation, it’s there it’s in your face, but I don’t think that’ll be a problem for the Irish boys. They’re physical and tough.
“For the people who come to the stadium at the weekend, we want to play a style of game that they enjoy. That’s hugely important and for the players the Joe Schmidt style of rugby is something they enjoy.
“To do that, we need quick ball and that needs confrontation. With their big ball carriers, there is going to have to be big tackles going into stop them. So it will be a big test for us.
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