GERRY THORNLEY, Rugby Correspondent
RICHARDT STRAUSS and David Kilcoyne having been fast-tracked into the 31-man Irish squad which will convene next Monday for a five-day training camp at the Carton House, there could yet be an even more striking bolter for the November Tests in the considerable shape of Taranaki tight-head Michael Bent. He is evidently under consideration at any rate.
The 26-year-old, who weighs 118 kg (18st 8lb), qualifies to play for Ireland through his Irish grandmother and last April signed a two-year deal with Leinster to replace the Connacht-bound Nathan White.
Bent has been in contact with Leinster and Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek, formerly of Taranaki as well as Canterbury and the All Blacks, and following on from Taranaki’s extra-time defeat away to Canterbury last weekend which ended their interest in the ITM Cup, Bent has brought forward his arrival in Ireland to this Sunday.
Significantly, Mike Ross is the only specialist tighthead in the 31-man squad and as with full-back – where the fit-again Felix Jones and Tommy Bowe both line-out for their provinces this evening after the ill-timed loss of Rob Kearney on Tuesday – the Ireland management are clearly keeping their options open.
Declan Kidney has strongly intimated he would be adding a tight-head and another back which, though not certain to be a full-back, most likely will be, with Jones now the favourite.
Much will depend on how Declan Fitzpatrick comes through only his second outing of the season for Ulster, away to the Dragons tonight.
Fitzpatrick deputised for Ross in the first Test in New Zealand last June, and replaced him for the final quarter in the third Test. But due to a medial ligament injury has only played 49 minutes of rugby since then for Ulster, in their second Rabo Pro12 game away to the Ospreys on September 8th.
Similarly, Ronan Loughney (who won his sole cap as a 56th minute replacement in that First test) has been injured and displaced by White’s arrival at Connacht, and Stephen Archer has seen little game time behind BJ Botha at Munster.
Although Leinster’s only game after Bent’s arrival will be away to the Ospreys on Sunday week (six days before the Springboks Test) he is match-hardened. He was the only Taranaki forward to play in all of their 13 first-class matches this season, which culminated in last Saturday’s epic national provincial championship semi-final.
Taranaki lost 51-27 but only after a comeback brought them level over 80 minutes, and with a kick to win the game, before conceding three tries in extra-time.
Furthermore, for the first time at Test level, the IRB have sanctioned a trial in the November window permitting international teams to name eight replacements – including a second prop. With Tom Court now a specialist loose-head, all the more so after the pummelling in Twickenham last March, there will be a place for a specialist tighthead on the bench as back-up to Ross.
Kidney also referenced Loughney, Archer, Tony Buckley at Sale and John Andress at Worcester as contenders, but Fitzpatrick and Bent look the likelier front-runners at this juncture.
“I’ve been speaking to Feeky around getting over there earlier and getting some game time,” Bent told local media in Taranaki this week, and when asked about the possibility of being called into the Ireland squad to face South Africa, said: “They are not saying that is going to happen, I’ve just to get over there and play a bit of footy for Leinster first before they can even look at me.
“It does sound pretty positive,” he added, “but obviously I’ve got to prove myself first before they can look at me seriously. There is interest in getting me playing as soon as possible, so I’ve just got to get over there, train as hard as I can and see what eventuates from that.”
Bent, who has listed Ireland and Spain as his favourite holiday destinations, was limited to a replacement’s role in all of his six Super 15 appearances for the Hurricanes this season, though subsequently he has been touted as a contender for Player of the Year at Taranaki.
Their coach Colin Cooper said: “He is an outstanding player and I think he had a great year for us. He has improved his game, both defensively and on attack, because his scrummaging was always good.”
Date of birth:
25 April 1986 (age 26).
Place of birth:
Hawera, New Zealand.
186 cm (6 ft 1 in).
118 kg (18 st 8 lb).
Taranaki (2009-12, 29 caps) and Leinster (2012).
Hurricanes (2010-12, 11 caps).