Brisbane victory would be tragedy in the long term
Protection of hurting, brave Irishmen must come before results, writes George Hook
The tour has been saved, trumpeted the experts. The team had shown the character necessary to fight back against the Maori and the group could now travel to Brisbane in good heart ready to take the fight to the Wallabies. However, it would be a tragedy were Ireland to beat Australia, because it would disguise problems for the game that have not seen the light of day. A victory for Ireland would disprove, the apologists will say, the theory that players are in the grip of fatigue, playing when hurt and risking long-term physical and mental damage.
Brian O'Driscoll, 24 hours before he was due to line out against the All Blacks in a Test, was not fit to take part in the captain's run. An attack of vertigo we were told was the problem. The symptoms of vertigo -- ringing in the ears and dizziness -- are coincidentally the same for concussion. Ireland's greatest, and indeed the bravest player of all time, has played below his best this season. Not a match has taken place that he has not received on-field treatment. But worryingly, all too often he has looked dazed and not fully aware of his surroundings after yet another trademark hit in defence of his country's sporting honour.
Early in his career, I watched him make a full-blooded tackle during a Heineken Cup match in Donnybrook. He was clearly damaged in the impact but was allowed to continue and indeed finished the match. The television replay confirmed that the centre had mistimed the hit and his head was marginally in the wrong position. He was millimetres away from a catastrophic injury that could have ended his career and confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. I suspect he has been lucky many more times since.
What worries me is that to the best of my knowledge, Brian O'Driscoll has never been officially concussed and subjected to the mandatory rest period of three weeks. But the captain of Ireland has not been alone. I watched Rob Kearney in Croke Park wander aimlessly behind the goalposts after taking a heavy hit. The player finished the game.
More worryingly still was the interview given to Vincent Hogan of the Irish Independent by hooker Bernard Jackman. The player surmised that he had, maybe, 20 concussions in the last three years. "By the end, I'd say I could have been knocked out in a pillow fight," he said.
In the London Irish game at Twickenham in January, Jackman was engaged in the warm-up drill that involved hitting a tackle bag and off-loading. Jackman took a pass from Jonny Sexton and collided with the bag head-on. And, maybe for a split second, there was blackness. He got to his feet "unbelievably dizzy", took himself to the back of the group and skipped the next cycle. He said nothing. He never did.
Jackman's tale is cautionary. The medical profession has a responsibility to young men who will risk long-term damage for the pride of playing for their country and earning substantial sums of money. If Malcolm O'Kelly's assessment of their investment strategies is correct, then players may be risking injury to fill depleted pension plans. They must be protected from themselves.
In the rugby, Ireland yet again gave their opponents a flying start. It is now a matter for concern that Declan Kidney's team seems incapable of getting in to play mode for 20 minutes in international games. The Maori were given a 15-point start in as many minutes before appalling discipline problems allowed Sexton to kick his team into equality and near victory. However, it was not his kicking that hauled his team back from disaster but Sexton's magnificent control and aggression.
He must be a certain starter against Australia. Sexton, with his team's back to the wall, consistently brought his outside backs into play and threatened the Maori defence. The penalties came because Ireland had the ball in hand and their opponents were impotent and impatient.
Two other players were at the root of the Ireland fightback. Niall Ronan gave the best display of open-side flanker play in years and one had to wonder what has he been doing in the last 12 months to keep his light under a bushel? Perhaps Ronan, like centre Paddy Wallace and Stephen Ferris back home, has been the victim of poor selection.
Wallace and Ferris had careers stunted because they were seen and used as out-halves and open sides respectively. Out of position, two talented rugby players failed to flower until belatedly they found their true metier. Eddie O'Sullivan and Ulster did them no favours. On Friday, Ronan lubricated the continuity and Wallace was the acolyte to Sexton's creativity.
After 67 caps for Ireland, Geordan Murphy was finally rewarded with the captaincy of his country. It was a belated recognition of the enormously gifted full-back who has yet to play under a coach at international level who allows his talent to flower. Belatedly it may be about to happen. Murphy was at the root of everything good about the Irish back play in Rotorua. He is a far more creative runner and passer than Rob Kearney, whose wonderful fielding disguises an inability to enter a back line with pace and angle to discomfit the defences.
Kidney must rest key players who are tired and nursing injury. It would be a big call to leave out O'Driscoll, but Wallace should play and give the captain the break he so urgently needs. So too Tony Buckley should be selected instead of John Hayes.
The rookie tight head will not be troubled by Australia's puny scrum and should have the energy to give free rein to his play in open field. With Murphy at full-back and wearing the captain's armband, the Irish head coach could show the perceived man management that is so much of his public image. We have seen too little of that ability in recent months. If the coach really decided to go for broke he could start the back row against Australia that performed so heroically against the Maori. Chris Henry, Ronan and Rhys Ruddock would match the Wallaby pace around the field and David Pocock's skill on the ground.
Personally, though, I do not care about the result of the game. I care deeply about the medical tests conducted on the players when they return.