Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has dismissed questions of player burnout ahead of the first of three Tests against South Africa’s Springboks.
The Southern Hemisphere are in the middle of their current season while the Northern Hemisphere are at the end of a season that included the Rugby World Cup.
While Southern Hemisphere players had almost three months off over December and the New Year, Northern Hemisphere players continued playing.
Ireland are yet to chalk up a win on South African soil and will be hoping to break their duck by exploiting the untried and untested game plan and combinations from Allister Coetzee’s first international outing as Springbok head coach.
While the Springboks still have to play their first Test match in 2016, the Irish already have the Six Nations tournament behind them, where they finished third overall, failing to retain their 2015 championship title.
Factoring the Rugby World Cup into their season, Irish players who featured at the 2015 showpiece have barely had a moment to recuperate between the Six Nations, European Rugby Champions Cup and the Pro12 tournament.
“From my perspective, our game minutes are down this year so our players have actually played a little bit less this year compared to last year,” Schmidt told the Irish rugby media, referring to the early exit of Ireland’s provinces from the European competition.
“It’s a World Cup year – any year post-World Cup, I agree, that season is long.”
“By the time you take the pre-season, the four warm-up Test matches, and as soon as you’re playing matches at a high level, they’re more attritional mentally as well as physically because you’ve got to really extend yourself because you know your opponent is at a very high level.
“From that perspective, it is tough. From the coaches perspective, we’re incredibly excited about the opportunity this gives us.”
Ahead of their departure to South Africa, the Ireland touring squad lost the likes of Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy, Rob Kearney, Dave Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald, Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony to injury.
Some of Schmidt’s harshest critics have already argued that this forced his hand into selecting players on form and not reputation – players who would have otherwise remained sidelined.
“If there are guys missing, I’m going to know more about Tiernan O’Halloran, more about Matt Healy in a week-to-week environment,” Schmidt said of the two new uncapped recruits in his squad.
“But you get to know a player more and you see him slot in and you say, ‘there’s the level, here it is now, how will he go? Gee, you’re coping really well’,” he said. “That’s another stride you can take, so this is a really good opportunity for us.”
“One of the things a lot of people reference is the depth of our playing pool. I think this is a really good opportunity to extend that depth and find out more about players.”
Although an unsettled Springbok squad brightens the prospects for an Irish side hungry for a win, Schmidt remains pragmatic of his team’s chances.
“I think some of the media comment is that they are going to be a little bit more expansive,” he said.
“I thought Heyneke Meyer had them mixing their game up a little bit anyway. I don’t expect anything massively different, there is a number of the same personnel there.”
“Anywhere they’re inexperienced they’ve got great talent and where they are experienced they’ve got great talent. That’s part of what is the excitement and the challenge.”