Ireland’s prospects of making history in South Africa are bleaker than ever with an injury list now creeping into double figures.
In losing both Kearney brothers plus Luke Fitzgerald and Jonathan Sexton, Ireland have been shorn of close to 200 Test caps.
Going off the form of the first three, this isn’t a disaster. But take out Sexton from the equation at fly-half and suddenly Ireland look exposed.
Paddy Jackson has more than earned a serious start as Ireland’s number ten compared to his previous outings in a Rugby World Cup warm-up (Wales last year) or against a Tier Two side in a November international (Samoa, 2013).
His only run of consistent starts in important games came when he made his debut back in the 2013 Six Nations, with Sexton again sidelined, as Ireland tasked the rookie Ulsterman to steer them through three Tests against Scotland, France and Italy. They finished fifth in Declan Kidney’s final campaign.
If Ireland have (rarely) needed an alternative to Sexton over the last three years then Ian Madigan has been the chosen son, in part because of his versatility off the bench at 10, 12 and 15.
But he wasn’t included in the original squad, and his starts in that time are only against the USA, Canada, Georgia, Scotland (RWC warm-up), Romania and finally last year’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final crushing from Argentina.
Jackson has buckets of talent and has played his best rugby in Ulster’s run to the PRO12 semi-finals. There is little he doesn’t know about Ireland’s style of play or tactical calls having hovered around Sexton throughout his years in camp.
Soaking up all of that knowledge though is one thing and putting into practice another, with Jackson unable to offer Ireland the same security of Sexton’s 56 Test starts, three of course for the British and Irish Lions on that winning tour to Australia in 2013.
The other trio of injuries are a different matter, denying Ireland of Test caps but adding in their place considerable form.
Matt Healy and Tiernan O’Halloran are both uncapped but take their seats on the plane fresh from an electric season in Connacht’s back three en route to that most remarkable of PRO12 crowns.
Considerable outrage too over the omission of Craig Gilroy was justified but now he has a chance too to try and add to his six Test caps. Healy and Gilroy after all finished the PRO12 season tied at the top of the try-scoring charts on ten.
All three though are raw, just as Ireland’s new-look backline will be at Newlands, with a reshuffle likely to see Jared Payne moved to his best position at full-back in Kearney’s absence.
Schmidt is set to give Jackson and Madigan every chance to push for the starting spot in Cape Town next week before making a decision by Thursday. How he must wish though that he could write Sexton’s name in permanent marker instead.
If it is to be Jackson, and it should be, then Ireland will edge into the unknown.
To chalk up a first-ever Test win with Jackson at the helm would rank right at the top of their achievements under Schmidt. Except it was hard enough to envisage already before the loss of Sexton without Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy, Peter O’Mahony, Simon Zebo and Tommy Bowe.
What a chance for him. But also what a setting too. Ireland’s winless record in the Republic will loom over Newlands as much as Table Mountain does.