Forwards coach Gert Smal has been struck by the ‘positive energy’ in the Irish camp at present as a number of young players embark on their international careers.
Chris Henry has spoken of this new-look Ireland squad having plenty of belief and wanting this to be ‘our time’, with a string of regular starters absent through injury.
Record-breaking captain Brian O’Driscoll heads that lengthy injury list and thankfully, Ireland emerged relatively unscathed from last Saturday’s bruising 16-12 defeat to South Africa.
Losing forwards of the calibre of Paul O’Connell, Rory Best and Stephen Ferris beforehand meant that some new combinations saw action in the GUINNESS Series opener.
Discussing those adjustments, Gert Smal said: “I don’t want to be giving excuses from what happened in the course of the week, but let me put it this way, I think these weeks have been the most challenging two weeks, for me specifically, with the Irish team.
“A little of the combinations put pressure on us a little bit. If we can get a little more forward momentum, playing in the right places, be aggressive in our ball carriers, get their team-mates to be aggressive in their clear outs, we’ll start creating go-forward ball.”
But the South African was keen to point out the capabilities of this young and eager Irish squad, with four new caps now on board – front rowers Richardt Strauss, David Kilcoyne and Michael Bent along with lock-cum-flanker Iain Henderson.
“This is a special group. It’s a different group to what we have had in the past. They’ve got a different ambition and they also want to create their own legacy, as they have said themselves.
“With good players coming in and out because of injuries, the excitement and ambition they have to create their own legacy is quite important.
“That’s what I’m experiencing at the moment and there’s a lot of positive energy around.”
The younger players’ enthusiasm for the Springboks game and their desire to beat a South African side – something that Henderson achieved with the Ireland Under-20s last June – struck a cord with Smal.
“It was just the ambition to beat them. The urgency and the pride that they have. I always talk about the Irish fire, there is something special about the Irish,” he remarked.
“I haven’t coached in other countries, but coming from South Africa it is difficult to put words on it. There is something very special about the Irish, the way they go about their work, their ambition, their fieriness.
“The South Africans won’t stand back, but neither will the Irish and that is why you get some players climbing into each other at certain stages. It is nothing different.”
Smal foresees a bright future for this new crop of fledgling internationals, name-checking Munster’s Kilcoyne (23) and Stephen Archer (24) in terms of the talented props in development.
“I am very excited by Dave (Kilcoyne). He is still cutting his teeth in the squad I think, but the last two weeks he has been working really hard. He is an exciting little player.
“You know what his nickname is? It’s ‘Killer‘. That’s what you experience with him, in the runs, in the practice, the way he does things. He looks like a little killer.
“He is a great little player. We also have Stephen Archer with us now in the squad, they are both exciting little players that we can work with in the future.”
The progress of the 20-year-old Henderson, in the past two seasons, has been very encouraging. He had two successful campaigns with the Ireland U-20s, culminating in their historic fifth place finish at last summer’s IRB Junior World Championship.
Provincially, the Ballynahinch clubman stepped up for the Ulster Ravens before making a try-scoring senior debut for Ulster last May at Thomond Park – the venue for Saturday’s non-cap international against Fiji.
Ireland fans can expect to see more of Henderson in action in Limerick this weekend, with Smal highlighting the potential impact he could have in the coming years.
“Henderson is a player we’ve been looking at for a long time, because we know all about him from the U-20s,“ he commented.
“Then at the beginning of the year he played one game for the Ulster Ravens and I knew that this was going to be a special player.
“It’s important to see how he develops, and how he gets his confidence up. There’s a lot of things that I like in his make-up.
“His size, obviously. He’s a nice ball carrier. We’re talking about ball carriers – we have had Sean O’Brien, Stephen Ferris and Paul, who in his own way carried a fair amount of ball, which gave us a fair amount of momentum.
“But I think definitely Henderson is one of those who is going to be very special in the future if he’s managed right.”
A player who received plenty of plaudits from the South Africa game was GUINNESS Series man-of-the-match Mike McCarthy, who combined with Donnacha Ryan in the second row.
The 30-year-old has picked up five Ireland caps in the last 15 months and the clash with the ‘Boks marked his first home start.
McCarthy has played at lock and flanker for Connacht in the past, but Smal is particularly keen for him to use his power and athleticism in Ireland’s engine room.
“The main thing with Mike, and this is something we’ve discussed in the past, is that we want him to pack behind the tighthead prop.
“We need that aggressive type of lock behind your tighthead because that’s where you want to take the opposition on.
“If you experience troubles with your tighthead and you don’t have power behind him, then you’ll really struggle.
“His technique is very good, his speed is very good but what we are trying to do with him now, and Connacht as well, is that he plays a little bit more behind the tighthead side – and the more he plays there, the better he’s going to be at scrummaging as well.”