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Catt Sets The Scene Ahead Of ‘Massively Exciting’ Summer Tour

Catt Sets The Scene Ahead Of ‘Massively Exciting’ Summer Tour

Mike Catt is pictured during Monday's press conference at the IRFU High Performance Centre in Blanchardstown ©INPHO/Tom Maher

Ireland assistant coach Mike Catt says the newly-assembled tour squad will ’embrace the huge challenge’ that a summer tour in the reigning World champions’ backyard presents.

Ireland and South Africa are set renew rivalries in Pretoria and Durban during the coming weeks, with Andy Farrell’s 35-player squad departing for Johannesburg on Wednesday as they begin Ireland’s first tour to the Rainbow Nation since 2016.

There is a huge sense of anticipation for the two-match Test series on July 6 and 13, especially with the Springboks having retained the Rugby World Cup eight months ago, and Ireland winning their second successive Guinness Men’s Six Nations title most recently.

The provinces came up short in their own quests for silverware this season, but Catt said that the players have moved on quickly, comparing it to 2022 when there were similar provincial results before Ireland secured a historic Test series win in New Zealand.

Setting the scene for a mouth-watering couple of clashes, he said: “We went down to New Zealand to challenge ourselves to do something that had never been done before. I think that’s going to be the same situation – us going to South Africa against the World champions.

“The hype is big, it’s massive. It’s massively exciting. It’s a huge challenge, we understand it’s a huge challenge, but we’re going to embrace it and go with it.

“I think every time you pull on a green jersey is massively important. You’re inspiring the nation. Andy and the team have done exceptionally well in doing that.

“It’s making sure we maintain that and keep that level very high so we can inspire young kids to come into the game, and the rest of the nation to support us.”

There are some notable absentees from Farrell’s selection, including hamstring injury victim Jamison Gibson-Park, and Hugo Keenan who is part of the Ireland Men’s Sevens squad for the upcoming Olympics in Paris.

Also missing the trip to South Africa are Iain Henderson, who underwent toe surgery last month, Jack Conan, who is staying at home with his wife Ali due to give birth to their first child, and Mack Hansen, who is still to return from a shoulder injury.

However, there remains a strong spine to the travelling party, led by captain Peter O’Mahony and fellow centurions, Conor Murray and Cian Healy, and plenty of youthful exuberance, particularly with three potential debutants, Jamie Osborne, Sam Prendergast, and Cormac Izuchukwu, on board.

With Leinster and Munster both suffering BKT United Rugby Championship semi-final defeats, the Ireland coaching team were able to bring the players into camp a couple of days earlier, and it has been a positive start all round with no injury concerns to report.

“For us it was fine, we got an extra two days to perform. So, get over it (the play-off losses for Leinster and Munster) and let’s get up and go again,” admitted Catt, who is embarking on his final tour with Ireland after more than four years as attack coach.

“I think you have to understand that this squad has been around a long time now. They fully understand, as do the coaches, what it’s about. You don’t dwell, you don’t mope around, you get on with it.

“Like I say, the challenge is real for us, so it’s about making sure we put our best foot forward and go and perform. Get over what’s happened in the past and let’s go and do it.”

The former England international said of the squad’s general health: “There might be a few off feet still, but nobody is serious, they will all be training fully today.

“We have got no injury concerns at the moment, so we have a fully fit squad at the moment. We got the boys in for two days last week, really good two days.

“Just getting them back up to speed with the way we want to play and getting them back into the mindset that we need to go and perform at our best to win a series down in South Africa.”

Scrum half Murray was a try scorer eight years ago when Ireland prevailed 26-20 to beat the Springboks on South African soil for the first time. Robbie Henshaw and Tadhg Furlong also played that day, as did the currently-sidelined Henderson. Finlay Bealham was an unused replacement.

Murray started all three Tests in the summer of 2016, but faces stiff competition for the number 9 jersey over the coming weeks, with his Munster team-mate, Craig Casey, making 18 starts for the province this season, and Connacht’s Caolin Blade also eager to add to his two international caps.

While acknowledging that losing a player of Gibson-Park’s calibre is a blow, Catt explained: “What we have got is Craig and ‘Mur’ and ‘Bladey’ that has come in again. These guys have been around camp for the past three, four years, or 12 or 15 years whatever Mur has been around.

“It’s not going to change anything in terms of how we do things. It just gives those other guys an opportunity again to cement their place going forward.”

Twelve months ago, young out-half Prendergast was a World Rugby Under-20 Championship finalist with the Ireland U-20s in Cape Town. Since then he signed his first senior contract with Leinster, and made 16 appearances for his home province this season.

The talented 21-year-old trained with the Ireland senior squad during the build-up to this year’s Six Nations, and is now set to experience his first senior international tour, with his older brother, Connacht flanker Cian, also making the trip.

Catt clearly rates the Kildare-born playmaker highly, and noted how he ‘runs the week very, very well’ and says that ‘for the future he can learn a lot from this environment’.

“Sam has performed exceptionally well in the 20s. When he’s played for Leinster, he has done well. I think his potential and his ceiling is very, very high, and we haven’t even seen the start of it yet. He is very, very exciting.

“Again, having someone like Frawls (Ciarán Frawley) in there who has got an extremely high skill-set, but also, if you are going to look at going to a 6-2 bench, he comes into the scene because he can cover so many different positions.

“There is a good combination, and three or four players who we can choose from, so it’s a healthy environment.

“For Sam, when you are surrounded by the best of the best all the time, you won’t have an opportunity to play with a Bundee (Aki) or those guys around him, it is making sure that he sucks up all the atmosphere and the intelligence from the players around him and understands what it is all about.”

Ireland have won their last three Test matches against South Africa, two of them at the Aviva Stadium, in 2017 and 2022, and the last one in the World Cup pool stages in Paris last September when they claimed a memorable 13-8 victory.

The ‘Boks reigned supreme, though, at the end of that tournament, retaining the Webb Ellis Cup by edging out New Zealand on a 12-11 scoreline at the Stade de France.

Two heavyweight encounters await at Loftus Versfeld and Hollywoodbets Kings Park next month, the expectation growing on the back of the Vodacom Bulls’ semi-final win over Leinster at Loftus, and South Africa opening the international window with Saturday’s 41-13 beating of Wales.

According to Catt, Farrell’s initial message to the squad was no different to how they began their Rugby World Cup build-up – ‘this is Ireland, this is how we do things, this is what it is about and let’s go and face this challenge head-first’.

“The rivalry with South Africa has been good, that’s what you want at Test level. It’s why you play the game,” commented the South African-born 52-year-old, who represented Eastern Province before moving to England after school.

We’ve been pretty successful over the past three times we’ve played them, they’re champing at the bit. We know what they’re bringing, there’s a lot of emotion, physicality, and they’re exceptionally good rugby players.

“I think we have a clear understanding of what their strengths are. How to manipulate those strengths into our favour, it’s something that we need to get right in two weeks’ time.

“It’s exciting to go and challenge yourself against the best in the world. That’s the opportunity these guys have got. Hopefully we can go make the most of it.”