Balancing act begins at start of hectic year
Injuries at this time of year are a new and worrying trend in a World Cup season, says Brendan Fanning
This time four years ago, Eddie O'Sullivan was preparing to face South Africa in the first of our three November games, the first challenge of a 12-Test game programme that would take his squad to France for Rugby World Cup 2007. At that point, pretty much all was right in Eddie's world.
The previous summer they had lost Tests in New Zealand by 11 and 10 points respectively, which in the context of our competitiveness down there wasn't at all bad, before collapsing from exhaustion against the Wallabies on the way home.
And the platform for that trip had been another Triple Crown, a four from five Six Nations campaign which had included a third win in a row over England.
Was the coach secure? He was rock solid. And with an understrength South Africa coming to Lansdowne Road, the prospects were about to get better. After those losses to two of the big three in the summer, O'Sullivan needed his team to give the Springboks some hurry-up. In fact, they rushed them out the gate, delivering for the first time in our modern history a level of physicality which left South Africa second best.
That was the day Ireland supporters started getting excited about the World Cup. A week later, when the Aussies had been kept to just six points in a comprehensive win, the punters started booking their tickets. The Celtic Tiger was still our national symbol. And our rugby team was the rallying point.
Given the closeness of the two perhaps it was instructive that if the team could fall so far so fast then the economy could suffer the same fate. If only the recovery of the country could be so dramatic.
A Grand Slam from the wreckage of that lot? A Grand Slam from a start, against New Zealand in Croke Park in November 2009, that was as empty a performance as Ireland have ever produced in that winless fixture?
So from that spectacular climb to the tumble back down of last season, Declan Kidney is now somewhere between the two, and with a few things floating around in his head. The stat of five defeats in a row, including the Barbarians and Maori games, is the immediate backdrop. Further in the recesses of his mind are the uncomfortable facts about Ireland and the World Cup, and Ireland in the Southern Hemisphere. The connection is that in order to get over the first hurdle, you have to climb the second.
We have never been very good at world cups. We are the only one of the original Five Nations never to get to the last four. Even back in 1987 there was real awkwardness about getting past Tonga, long before we were humiliated by the Wallabies. In order to get somewhere serious in that competition, eventually you have to beat one of the Sanzar nations and we haven't done that away from home since Ollie Campbell was our hero in 1979.
Kidney only has to look back to the last World Cup to appreciate that it was the optimum time for this group of players -- the core of whom are still around -- to achieve something. And when he looks to the tournament in 11 months' time he knows that it might be the last time Ireland get to roll the dice at the big show when all their players are centrally contracted.
As we stand, virtually all of those players are not contracted beyond the World Cup. And the way we are headed, with the twin prongs of recession and Communications Minister Eamon Ryan sticking in our behinds, who knows what the landscape will look like when the union finally get around to closing that door?
By then, for example, the likes of Jamie Heaslip will have ticked most of the boxes on his wishlist, including Lions starter, Heineken Cup winner, Grand Slam winner, World Cup participant. If his form then is anything like it is now, he won't be able to open his front door for the offer letters stacking up in his hallway. So while 2007 was prime time, 2011 might be more than just the next time. And certainly for Kidney, whose contract extends to the end of that tournament, it is the only time.
Getting there requires that the players be in one piece, one functional piece, which of course was the message from the 2007 fiasco. So when you look around at the trail of rehabbing players -- where Paul O'Connell, Jerry Flannery and Keith Earls are all in the chronic category -- you wonder are we going through an extraordinary phase of bad luck.
The memory of sitting down with Andrew Trimble a few weeks ago was not of his unbridled enthusiasm for the game right now, but the hideous state of his finger which was broken and dislocated on the tour to New Zealand and Australia last June, and diagnosed only after he came home.
The positive side to having a small system such as ours is that you can compensate for lack of numbers by paying attention to detail. When you're not getting the benefit of that detail then you need to ask why, and for Ireland to be going into a November series -- typically our strongest time of year -- with a handful of lingering injury issues is a new and worrying state.
That would explain how the photograph of Paul O'Connell hitting a tackle bag in training with Munster last week got national prominence. It reminded you of the pr pics that were issued from the All Black camp in early 2007 when controversially their players had been withdrawn from the Super 14 series, with a view to arriving at the World Cup later in the year in perfect shape. They were wired around the world, these images of strapping athletes in terrific condition, so that outsiders could marvel at their progress and locals would accept that it wouldn't have happened had they not been taken out of the Super 14.
O'Connell at last seems to be getting close to playing rugby again. By now we are desperate for good news on this front, such is the low confidence level regarding Irish players and their state of fitness. It didn't help that the season started with another poorly timed event: the resignation of IRFU strength and conditioning coach Paul Pook, just as things are ramping up for New Zealand 2011.
Maybe it will work out for the good. His replacement, Philip Morrow, was in the frame for the job two years ago but somehow was out of it when the appointment was made. Obviously technical know-how is key to doing this job well, but seemingly Morrow adds value to this in the enthusiasm he brings to it. So does that extend to optimism that the time missed now by players we want to be playing will pay off at the World Cup?
"You never want the guy to be injured," he says. "The bottom line is these guys are rugby players. They want to play the game and we want them to play the game. Looking at the bigger picture: if someone gets less game time now will they be fresher coming in to the World Cup? Perhaps, but they could be rusty because they haven't played a lot of games.
"The nature of rugby is that injuries happen. I had years at Ulster where we picked up no injuries and then, doing nothing different, we had lots of injuries the next year. That's the nature of it. But we want the guys fit because if they're injured not only can they not play but they can't develop physically. When I talk to young, up-and-coming strength and conditioning coaches I ask them what's the number one priority, and some people say it's getting the players bigger or faster. Our number one priority is to have our guys fit to play, making sure our guys are stable enough, mobile enough and flexible enough to withstand an impact and continue to play the game."
How much they play has been a key and contentious component. If you go back 10 years, to when Declan Kidney was still in Munster and the uneasy Warren Gatland/Eddie O'Sullivan combo was running the senior show, Ireland had just completed another successful age-grade tour of Australia where between Irish and Leinster schools trips there over a five-year period the tourists had racked up 25 games unbeaten. It looked like the start of something.
And when they came home Kidney said: "I think the important thing for all the coaches who will be dealing these players now is the recommendation that senior players should play no more than 30 games a season."
So the concept of less is more is not new to him. Morrow, who is centrally involved in who does what and when, maintains that individualism is the key to this strategy working. So he who needs more game time gets it.
Evidently, this is working for Ronan O'Gara who had started five games in a row coming to this weekend on top of two games off the bench before that. And his form is that of a player who is in good nick and moving well. It won't be enough to start him ahead of Jonny Sexton on Saturday but it will mean we're getting the perfect replacement if Kidney springs him from the bench.
He might opt to leave him there and start him elsewhere in the month, and that's the luxury the coach has currently. More than that, he is obliged to rotate as much as possible. The upside of going down under last June with half a squad was that the new half came home better for the experience. And they may be pressed into service when it really matters.
"I'm lucky -- I now have a good grasp on my top 45," Kidney says. "You're talking about 30 I presume with maybe a year from now in mind. It would be silly to talk about 30 because with bangs and knocks there will always be a percentage missing if you don't cover yourself off so I have a good idea of my 45. That's been the benefit of working with people.
"We've done the Churchill Cup in America and Canada and they were beneficial to us. Last summer the tour has been beneficial to us to try and put a starting order so let's see how the form of fellas goes because within that 45 at any time things could fluctuate."
The measure of that fluctuation is best illustrated by Fergus McFadden. A year ago the Leinster centre was looking a reasonable bet for a World Cup spot and was included on the summer tour. Breaking his jaw in the Barbarians game didn't help and suddenly Johne Murphy gets in as a late call-up. And now Murphy is in the squad with a licence to play pretty much anywhere beyond the half-backs.
The fact that he is there now means he has to get game time over the next month, but Saturday -- provided Brian O'Driscoll continues his recovery -- will surely be a standard gathering with Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe in two of the back-three positions, and Luke Fitzgerald and Andrew Trimble squabbling over the third. O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy should make up the midfield with Jonny Sexton and Eoin Reddan at half-back.
The issues up front are at tighthead, where at last Kidney has two options, neither of which involves John Hayes, and in the back row where you would hope he starts with Sean O'Brien at openside along with Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris.
It would be a setback not to sort out the Springboks who are far from optimum shape, on and off the field. Eddie O'Sullivan discovered four years ago that starting off on the right foot doesn't guarantee all the steps will fall into place thereafter. The advantage for Kidney however is that he has more firepower. Much of it may have been fired a fair bit by the time RWC rolls up, but at last the coach has a bigger arsenal.