Paul O’Connell wants Ireland to take a leaf out of the South African rugby playbook and start growing some Test match beasts.
The Springboks will bring their massive physicality and presence to the Aviva Stadium this evening as Ireland kick off their Guinness Series of November internationals, which will see them also play Georgia and Australia, the first and third games representing the last opportunities to face southern hemisphere opposition before next year’s World Cup in England.
Second row talisman O’Connell will be in direct opposition to South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth, the 6ft 8ins, 19st 10lb lock who has just turned 23 but has already made his presence felt in Test arenas around the world, including two years ago in Dublin when the Boks beat Ireland 16-12.
The Ireland skipper is unsure of the term “enforcer” that has been applied to Etzebeth’s abrasive manner on the pitch but O’Connell said: “I think you need a big man that is willing to stop a team mauling, that is going to work hard at scrums, that is going to shift people in rucks.
“I don’t really know if that is an ‘enforcer’. It’s a physical contact game and you can’t let teams maul you, you can’t get mauled by teams. Scrums are a massive part of the game in terms of producing opportunities for your backline. In the past they were a big source of penalties for a team so therefore a big source of either territory or points for teams.
“There is no doubt about it, the physical part of the game is suited to the South Africans. It’s a massive part of rugby and Bakkies Botha played a fantastic part in that for them the last few years and Eben Etzebeth has been the same over the last few years. There is no doubt having big athletic men helps you be successful in rugby.”
Now Ireland have to produce more of them if they are to compete with the world’s best in terms of physicality and physique.
O’Connell revealed head coach Joe Schmidt was already working closely with the nation team’s head of fitness and conditioning, Jason Cowman to realise that ambition.
“A big part of Joe’s work with Jason Cowman is trying to bring on that part of the Irish squad’s profile. We have some great athletes but we could be bigger as well, we could be more physical. If we can add that to the smartness we show, the good kicking game we showed with our provinces and with Ireland, we have the potential to be an excellent rugby team.
“But it is a big part of South African rugby that they just have naturally and Etzebeth is every bit the kind of beast you want in your team.”
Ireland have certainly opted for size in midfield as they attempt to counter the South Africans with Schmidt selecting a rookie pairing with 21-year-old Robbie Henshaw of Connacht, 6ft 3ins, at inside centre in his fourth appearance and Ulster’s naturalised New Zealander, Jared Payne, 29 and 6ft 2ins, making his Test debut at outside centre in the 13 jersey vacated by Brian O’Driscoll after the successful RBS 6 Nations campaign.
“The two boys have been picked for what they have been doing for their provinces,” O’Connell said. “They are two big guys. Jared is an inexperienced international but is a very experienced and clever player. Robbie is experienced beyond his years and is playing really well in Connacht. For the last season since he has been playing and training with us, he looks excellent in training, a brilliant athlete, very clever guy.
“It’s a massive challenge for them. They certainly don’t have as much experience as the centre partnership that is playing for South Africa but that is all part of it. When Brian was first picked against Australia, he was in the same position. It’s a brilliant opportunity for these guys. An Irish team playing South Africa in Dublin in the Aviva, it’s just one of the great opportunities of their career and we have to look after them but they are two big men. They don’t take a lot of looking after.”
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