Rugby | Irish pull-outs devalue SA tour

Cape Town – It has become increasingly difficult to fill South African Test stadiums anyway … Ireland’s greatly diluted troops will make that even more of a challenge for SARU over the course of the three June home fixtures.

Mass Irish squad withdrawals through injury, including an unwelcome fresh wave this week, have damagingly sucked gravitas from their first visit to these shores since 2004.

If anything, the situation only emphasises the urgency of finding a long-overdue solution to the “north v south” impasse over Test and other first-class scheduling.

Under the status quo, it has become all too common for northern hemisphere Test sides to trudge across the equator in June significantly under-strength after the just-completed exertions of their season, and much the same often applies at year’s end when the southern heavyweights – also barely off their long regular annual campaign – go to chillier climes for a November adventure.

Bill Beaumont, captain of the British and Irish Lions on their 1980 tour of South Africa and newly-elected chairman of World Rugby, has promised that he will “address the challenge of the global calendar immediately … this complex and important issue must have a solution designed to benefit the entire rugby community”.

Seeing is believing, of course: the north’s pride-and-joy annual Test tournament, the Six Nations, would probably have to be pushed from a February to March start if the “south” finally gets it way and sees the current June Test window pushed out to July (potentially allowing for no late-tourney interruption to Super Rugby).

The delicate matter has been debated among key administrators for years, without anything tangible coming of the haggling.

Sadly this is not the first time that one of the Six Nations participants visiting South Africa for a June series – even at fullest strength, they generally struggle to beat the Springboks and much the same occurs when they go to New Zealand or Australia — has arrived shorn of many of the players likeliest to lure bums to stadium seats, as it were.

Fairly recent tours by the likes of Scotland and Wales over the equivalent period have also seen notably weakened parties arrive.

What it means is that new national coach Allister Coetzee, whose appointment and then first squad selection have been broadly welcomed in the country, is on a bit of a hiding to nothing straight away, a situation he has done little to deserve.

After initial thoughts that the three-Test series – starting at Newlands next Saturday – had the potential to be pretty competitive (Ireland have never won a series or even lone Test here), many local pundits are likely to expect no less now than comfortable Springbok wins in all three clashes.

That may be a little unjust, given that Coetzee will start out with a reasonably fresh-looking batch of Bok players who could require a bit of time to gel … but it is also a near-inevitable sentiment given the frustrating extent of Irish absenteeism for the meetings between teams ranked third and sixth respectively on the world ladder.

Ireland, the 2014 and 2015 Six Nations champions but limited to mid-table this year, have been in the throes of some regrouping anyway following the gradual retirements of such luminary bastions as pack figurehead Paul O’Connell and the legendary midfielder Brian O’Driscoll.

The debilitating whammy now, however, is the confirmed non-presence for this trip of several current Irish names well known and admired by closer followers of the global rugby scene in South Africa.

It is an awful shame to be deprived, especially, of seeing Johnny Sexton (64 Test caps, including three for British and Irish Lions), Rob Kearney (72, including three for Lions), Tommy Bowe (72, five for Lions), Sean O’Brien (44, two for Lions), Luke Fitzgerald (35, one for Lions) and other stalwarts like Simon Zebo, Peter O’Mahony and Cian Healy.

I would argue that, in cricket terms, this is roughly the equivalent of an Australian Test team of their late 1990s or early 2000s heyday coming to South Africa minus Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and the Waugh twins: just not quite the same.

Some consolation, perhaps, is that the Irish do still have intact for the series as things stand – perhaps we’d better touch wood on that? – the vast majority of the pack which started their final Six Nations match earlier this year against Scotland, a 35-25 triumph in Dublin.

That includes the full tight five, comprising Jack McGrath, captain Rory Best and Mike Ross in the front row, and locks Donnacha Ryan and the extraordinarily lanky Devin Toner.

Yet it remains impossible to escape a feeling of somehow being short-changed.

In a grim economic climate where creating a budget for Test rugby tickets (especially for a family) already requires some determination and the occasional wince, that’s not good news for SA rugby fans.

Roll on that elusive global season?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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