Ireland will be missing some heavyweight frontliners but that does not mean their pack are about to get bullied by Wales when their RBS 6 Nations title defence begins in Dublin on Sunday.
That was the message from forwards coach Simon Easterby yesterday as the Ireland camp continued to shift the narrative away from fears that Warren Gatland’s battle-hardened Welsh team might overpower Joe Schmidt’s depleted ranks at the Aviva Stadium this weekend.
Head coach Schmidt had himself contributed to the sense of foreboding when he cited the average weight of the Welsh team from 1 to 15 as 106kgs, which made them the biggest team at last autumn’s World Cup.
Schmidt, mastermind of Ireland’s back-to-back title successes, also highlighted a front five missing the injured Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Iain Henderson, and the retired Paul O’Connell, as well as a back row from which long-term injury victim Peter O’Mahony will be absent.
Against an experienced Welsh pack, Schmidt had contended his tight five may have to find an alternative means to power in order to outsmart the team that ended his Grand Slam ambitions in Cardiff last March.c
Yet Easterby insisted there was no fear of his forwards being pushed around.
“Listen, we still have Jack McGrath. James Cronin has done really well when he’s come in. We have Rory (Best, the captain), Richardt Strauss, Sean Cronin, big guys in that front row that can really go and meet the Welsh and physically match them.
“I don’t feel there’s any issue in terms of our physicality.
“Having lost players like Pete (O’Mahony), Iain Henderson, Cian Healy, Rossy – who have been mainstays of the side for a number of years – I still feel we’ve got the physicality and the awareness of how it can be best used.
“If we are smaller than other teams, we can use ourselves in different ways, making sure that we get things right in our tackle, get things right in our clean-out, technically be very good and very smart about how we do things.
“When it comes to scrum, we have ability.
“The work that Feeky’s (scrum coach Greg Feek’s) done the last couple of days, this week and last week, to try and counter certain things Wales might do, but also enforce certain things that we do as a scrum, has been really effective.
“Across the board, whether it be loosehead, tighthead, or the second row, we’re really tight as a unit.
“Hopefully that will show at the weekend in terms of physicality and what we’re able to produce.”
Easterby suggested Ireland equally had players capable of bullying opponents.
“We’ve got to work with what we’ve got and the quality of guy that’s come in.
“Ultan Dillane, if you’ve seen him tackle this year, he’s been outstanding; Mike McCarthy’s tackling has been outstanding for Leinster and he’s bullied players in Toulon and in other teams.
“I don’t see that as a massive issue.
“Yes, we’ve got to do all of that with a lot of discipline but certain guys have come in and, when you lose one player with qualities - and Paulie had a huge amount of qualities across the board - and you bring another guy in those qualities slightly change but we fit around those players and make sure we make the best of those players who we do have available to us.”
Ireland, who lost versatile back Luke Fitzgerald for the tournament after suffering a knee injury in training last Friday, are confident powerful flanker Sean O’Brien will be fit to face a Wales side featuring two opensides in its back row, captain Sam Warburton named at No.6 by Gatland with Justin Tipuric at No.7.
That despite O’Brien sitting out training yesterday with a tight hamstring.
“He stood out training today, more precautionary than anything,” Easterby said. “We have got Friday and Saturday, because we have a longer week this week with a Sunday game. We are in a good place.
“A tight hamstring,” he added. “Nothing unusual there.
“He might have had it in the past. Other players have these things and we have to just manage him and he doesn’t have to train again until Friday.
“We are pretty comfortable with the amount of work he has done in the early part of this week and last week to feel that we could manage his tightness.
“We haven’t replaced Luke Fitzgerald yet. Garry Ringrose has come in to cover for him because Leinster have no game this week.
“We are pretty happy with where we are in terms of guys’ availability.”
Easterby will be doing some covering of his own during the championship as he shares responsibility for Ireland’s defence with Schmidt and skills coach Richie Murphy in the wake of Les Kiss’s departure to the Ulster director of rugby post after the World Cup, with new defence coach Andy Farrell unable to begin work until the summer.
“It’s working well. We are sharing that responsibility.
“We have had a really good defensive record in recent seasons.
“There are certain things we wanted to tweak, at most, since the World Cup and we have done.
“The players have really bought into it and it has been really productive.”
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