Andy Farrell says two humbling tour defeats in New Zealand and mounting injuries has provided the ideal chance to assess who has World Cup credentials within the Ireland squad.
The Ireland coach was in a defiant mood after Ireland’s 42-19 loss to the ruthless All Blacks in Auckland on Saturday, three days after his second-string side succumbed 32-17 to the Maori All Blacks.
He acknowledged the tourists will need to dig deep to reverse those results in the two remaining Tests and a second match against the Maori.
Despite the tour falling at the end of the northern hemisphere season, he won’t accept fatigue as an excuse.
“We’re to see if our players have got excuses or not in regards to backing up,” Farrell said. “Doing it that way, to me, makes us stronger as a group. It makes us ready for what’s going to come our way over the next 18 months.
“There’s nothing like a tour of New Zealand to keep you on track and find out about yourselves. Who can deal with pressure like this? Staff and players.”
Ireland impressed in patches and recovered in the second half after trailing 28-5 at the break on Saturday.
Farrell admitted his team lacked clinical finishing but pointed to other key aspects – the scrum and breakdown – as areas where they struggled with the interpretation of English referee Karl Dickson.
He said he would make a point of highlighting issues with Jaco Peyper, the South African who will control the second Test in Dunedin this week.
Captain Johnny Sexton, who was replaced in the first half with a head knock, must pass an additional assessment on Monday to be available for Dunedin.
Losing the veteran flyhalf will be a heavy blow although Farrell praised the bench contribution of playmaker Joey Carbery.
Farrell confirmed midweek starter Jamie Hume (groin injury) had become the second player ruled out of the tour after lock Iain Henderson, and the young centre would be replaced by six-Test back Stuart McCloskey.
Injuries are mounting in the front row where prop Jeremy Loughman and hooker Dave Heffernan are unavailable for Dunedin with concussion while hooker Rob Herring is battling injury.
Finlay Bealham was a late exclusion in Auckland with Covid and fellow prop Cian Healy wasn’t risked off the bench because of an ankle problem.
Adding to Farrell’s headaches, Leinster’s Ed Byrne was due to arrive as front-row cover on Saturday but a delayed flight resulted in a hasty call to New Zealand-based former Irish prop Michael Bent, 36, who raced to be on standby at Eden Park.
“There’s that much that’s gone on over the last 10 days, I can’t keep up with it myself,” Farrell said. “But that’s the game and we have to find out about ourselves.
“If we come away from this tour with five gems that we know can play at this level by being good examples day in-day out… then we’ve won on this tour.”