Key absences will make Ireland’s SA trip even tougher

Rugby

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Jamison Gibson-Park and Hugo Keenan celebrate a scoreInpho

With Andy Farrell having revealed his 35-man Ireland panel that will head to South Africa for two Tests next month, the summer’s most anticipated series is now under three weeks away.

The sides ranked numbers one and two in the world will meet twice in July, first in Pretoria on 6 July and then in Durban a week later.

Ireland have certainly had the better of recent meetings, including beating the Springboks in the World Cup pool stages last year.

Rassie Erasmus and his side can, of course, point to their back-to-back triumphs in the global showpiece as a mark of their own superiority.

A huge series awaits with Ireland’s squad selection offering a number of new areas of interest.

No-go for Hugo

One day before Farrell’s travelling party for the summer Tests was confirmed, Ireland named their panels for the Olympic sevens in Paris. While his return had been widely reported, Hugo Keenan’s presence in the squad remained the headline inclusion.

The Olympic rugby will run from 24 to 27 July, ruling Keenan out of the South African tour.

Having originally come through the sevens pathway, Keenan has been a hugely dependable presence for Ireland since making his XVs Test debut when international rugby resumed after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Such a fixture in the full-back position, Ireland have had little need to unearth an understudy, though Keenan did miss two games during the most recent Six Nations with Ciaran Frawley and Jordan Larmour filling in against Wales and Scotland respectively.

The return from injury of the versatile Leinster back Jimmy O’Brien gives Farrell another option as he seeks to establish a pecking order behind one of the first names on his teamsheet.

South African experience

Having won two of three Tests in New Zealand two summers ago, and got the better of Australia and Argentina in previous trips, South Africa remain the last of the southern hemisphere’s ‘Big Four’ that Ireland have never beaten in a Test series.

Indeed, prior to their last visit in 2016, they had never won an international on South African soil.

They would tick that particular box in the first Test eight years ago, winning despite a red card for CJ Stander after 22 minutes, but ultimately lost the series two games to one.

There are four survivors from that tour this time around in Conor Murray, Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Furlong and Finlay Bealham.

Murray, Henshaw, and Furlong were also on the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa three years ago. Captain Peter O’Mahony, who missed out on the 2016 series through injury, Bundee Aki and Tadhg Beirne all joined them on that trip too.

Of course, the entire squad are now all used to visiting the country in the United Rugby Championship, with the Leinster contingent having tasted defeat to the Bulls on Saturday in a domestic semi-final played in the same Loftus Versfeld venue that will host the first Test.

Gibson-Park’s absence a huge blow

Gibson-Park plays a pass against Ulster

Inpho

While Keenan’s absence for this trip has been suspected for some time, to be without Jamison Gibson-Park is a more sudden loss.

The scrum-half started for his province Leinster in that defeat to the Bulls last weekend but was removed for an HIA and misses out this summer with a hamstring problem.

His injury is a considerable dent to Ireland’s hopes.

The 32-year-old has been one of the real success stories of Andy Farrell’s tenure, displacing veteran Conor Murray in the starting side and excelling in recent years.

His form for Leinster this season, most especially against Leicester in the last 16 of the Champions Cup, has been strong too.

A player who sets the tempo in Ireland’s attack, his absence will be keenly felt in terms of playing style. The vastly experienced Murray has a CV that few can match, but is a very different type of nine.

Munster’s Craig Casey and Connacht’s Caolin Blade are the other scrum halves who will travel.

New faces

While the retirement of Johnny Sexton, and subsequent ascension of Jack Crowley into the number 10 jersey, has been one considerable adjustment in the wake of their World Cup exit, Ireland’s side has largely been settled in recent seasons.

Calvin Nash was one player who emerged during the Six Nations championship, with the Munster man filling in for Mack Hansen who again misses out through injury.

Lock Joe McCarthy has become an important piece over the last 18 months too, all the more so in the continued absence of Iain Henderson.

Debutants have, by and large, been few and far between but Farrell will bring three uncapped players to South Africa.

Ulster’s Cormac Izuchukwu has impressed at both lock and blind-side flanker since Richie Murphy took over at the province in March and has been rewarded with a first call into the national squad.

Midfield has been a tough area to break into in Ireland teams but Jamie Osborne’s form for Leinster has warranted his inclusion, while his provincial teammate Sam Prendergast has been touted as one with a big future.

The starting 10 when Ireland’s under-20s made the World Championship final last summer, he appeared 16 times for Leo Cullen’s side this season and has been chosen ahead of brothers Ross and Harry Byrne.

Opportunities for loose forwards

Nick Timoney against Harlequins

Inpho

The Irish back row has long been considered one of the most competitive areas of their squad.

Indeed, the unit has often included their captain, Peter O’Mahony, arguably their most influential forward, Caelan Doris, and a former World Player of the Year in Josh van der Flier. Backing up that trio from the bench has usually been Jack Conan, a British and Irish Lion in 2021.

Such has been the wealth of options available to Farrell that for a first time during the Six Nations he began using a 6:2 split among his replacements to accommodate Ryan Baird, although it was a tactic that backfired somewhat against England in Twickenham.

Conan will miss this tour due to personal reasons, leaving a rare opportunity for others in his position.

Ulster’s Nick Timoney has been a model of consistency for his province in recent seasons, though the 28-year-old won the most recent of three Test caps against Fiji in November 2022.

Connacht’s Cian Prendergast, older brother of Sam Prendergast, made his debut in the same game but his only subsequent outings under Farrell came in the World Cup warm-up fixtures before he ultimately missed out on the squad for that tournament.

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