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When you are going up against some pure Springbok beef you need to have some bulldozers of your own in the pack, and from that perspective, Ireland are holding a weak enough hand ahead of their first autumn test this Saturday.
They will face South Africa without their two most bruising ball carries – Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien – but Ireland have gotten a break of sorts with the news that Ulster scrum-half Ruan Pienaar is unlikely to be ready to face Joe Schmidt’s men.
“We’ve assessed him now and we are relatively happy with where he is at the moment but we will wait until he starts running on the field before we make a decision, not only on his availability this weekend but for the rest of the tour as well depending on how it progresses,” South Africa team doctor Craig Roberts said today.
“We’ve been in contact with his club medical team but he hasn’t done a lot of field running at this stage. We want to assess where he is for ourselves but it doesn’t look like he will be available for this weekend.
“We hope he will be ready for England but if he is not then we will start to look at calling up a replacement.”
They don’t seem to make small men in South Africa and even their team doctor towers above the majority of people he meets. Roberts was asked to compare the current health of the Springboks with the ailing Irish, but stressed that he doesn’t have any magic formula to keep his players from long lay-offs.
“I don’t think there is a secret,” Roberts said with a smile.
“Everyone here is fit but we had to leave a number of players at home. We are sitting with about a 20% injury rate which I think is the norm for rugby squads.
“I don’t think injury rates themselves have gone up – when we look at our stats they have pretty much stayed the same. What has happened is the severity of injuries has gone up.
“We are having players out for longer and longer periods of time. If we have players out for more than 28 days, that is a severe injury.”
There is no question that the increased size of players – wings built like Jonah Lomu are almost the rule rather than the execption today – has played a massive role in the amount of time they have to spend on the sidelines. Roberts thinks that the way rugby has evolved is what is leading to these more severe injuries.
“The game is continually changing,” Roberts said.
“Guys are getting bigger and faster and the collisions are bigger. The game is getting quicker and the ball is in play for longer. It is multi-factorial really.”
Over the last few seasons South Africa have moved away from their traditional forward-orientated kicking game somewhat to a more expansive style of rugby. Roberts acknowledged that they needed to tweak their preparation to allow them to play such high-octane rugby.
“We are trying to play a high-tempo game and we have upped our intensity a lot at training,” Roberts said.
“The intensity of our training is certainly higher than it has been in previous years. It was great to have the guys out of the Currie Cup before this tour and we had a great week in Stellenbosch where we could top up on our fitness. I am quite happy with where they are at this stage of the season.”
According to Roberts, the days of lengthy punishing sessions are over. Instead, the Springboks have trimmed training time to ensure they can ratchet up the intensity in order to mirror match conditions.
“That is the goal [short sessions],” Roberts said.
“We try to replicate match situations by having a high intensity in training but you can’t have long intense sessions – they need to be shorter.”