AN EARLY exit from Ireland’s summer tour Down Under proved to be the ideal tonic for David Wallace. The flanker returned home to Ireland for the birth of his second son, Harvey, missing the Test against Australia as a result.
But the five-week break from the game also gave him some respite from an ongoing back injury, and left him feeling fit and refreshed.
The same back injury has been troubling him since before last year’s Lions tour, perhaps a sign that ten years of top-level rugby are finally starting to take their toll. A series of injections has left him feeling a bit like a voodoo doll, but the latest treatment, in a new place in his back, seems to have done the trick – for the time being at least.
This is welcome news for Declan Kidney as this month Ireland face South Africa, Samoa, New Zealand and Argentina at the new Aviva Stadium – and they will need their experienced stars to be on top form. Despite the gruelling nature of this autumn schedule, Wallace is relishing the chance to face the world’s best teams. “We’re getting a lot of high-quality games during this period, and the more you can play the likes of New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina, the more you improve and learn from it,” he says.
“It’s brilliant to get a selection of those sort of teams playing us one after the other. Challenging, but brilliant.”
Ireland have lost their last five games, to Scotland, the Barbarians, New Zealand, the Maori and Australia. But although Wallace was as disappointed as the next Irishman, he remains unconcerned about their recent poor form, claiming that it was the loss of just one game, against the Scots, that turned their season on its head. “The Scotland game was the one that really broke our season. If we’d won that last game of the Six Nations it wouldn’t have looked so bad,” he insists. “The New Zealand game was a strange one because we had the red card, a yellow card and a guy with a broken arm (John Muldoon) on the pitch at one stage, and New Zealand took full advantage. We nearly beat Australia in Australia and, especially with a lot of young guys coming through, they did well down there.”
Now’s the time for a fresh start. Ireland open their campaign against South Africa on 6 November and will take confidence from the knowledge that the world champions not only grabbed the wooden spoon with both hands in the Tri-Nations, but have lost on their last three trips to Dublin.
Next up are Samoa, who have defeated Ireland just once in four meetings, but it’s the match-up with New Zealand on 20 November that really gets Wallace’s blood pumping. Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks, but this current crop is champing at the bit in anticipation of having another chance, this time on home soil. Wallace, who will be up against Richie McCaw, insists that a win over New Zealand is not as out of reach as the odds suggest.
“New Zealand are the team to beat, and I don’t think we need to do anything majorly different, although we can look at the tactical side and ways of attacking,” he says. “Any time you play them with Ireland you’ve a chance of being the first team to do it, but sometimes we get a little carried away with saying that. First you need to focus on getting everything right about your game and the result will take care of itself.
“New Zealand lead the way on a lot of things; they’re on a pedestal and they’re up there to be knocked down. Richie’s probably the world’s best No 7, and if I’m lucky enough to be playing for Ireland then I’m always going to be up against the best in the world.”
The last Test in the series will be played against Argentina, with whom Ireland have a fiery history. The two countries have taken turns in knocking each other out of World Cups, but Ireland came out on top in their last meeting in the autumn of 2008. Although the Pumas were beaten twice by Scotland in the summer, they went on to hammer France, and Wallace knows they can’t be underestimated.
“They’re always a very difficult opposition and they’ve proved that playing us over the years. Any time you play Argentina you’re going to get a very physical game up front, and they’ll probably look to play a lot of territory; they’ve got a very strong kicking game.”
Leinster’s Shane Jennings was quick to step up to the plate in Wallace’s absence against Australia, but all being well you’d expect the older man to run out with a seven on his back this month; Wallace is not ready to relinquish his place in the Ireland team just yet.
“If I don’t feel competitive any more or have the will to go out there and win then I may as well hang up my boots, but luckily that doesn’t seem to be the case. You can’t get too far ahead of yourself, just put one foot in front of the other and take little steps.” That is exactly what Ireland will be doing this autumn, too.