Cashing in on our misfortune
Injuries are biting, but Ireland look well placed for the long season that lies ahead, says Brendan Fanning
Published 30/01/2011 | 05:00
Never mind Stephen Ferris, it was when Tommy Bowe's name was added to the list of casualties last week that people began to struggle with the notion of every cloud having a nice little trim of silver. It had been an extraordinarily protracted process, seeing if the wing's knee would be up to it or not.
Lumping him in with Andrew Trimble -- he has a lot of bad luck with his hands, that lad -- Shane Horgan, Geordan Murphy and Rob Kearney, made it a uniquely stressed area of the team coming into a Six Nations Championship.
Ireland fans are consoling themselves that it's only Italy first up, albeit in Rome. And that while a year ago the prospect of going to work without Jamie Heaslip was unthinkable, the emergence of Sean O'Brien has meant that we can get on with the job.
The bit about dismissing the Italians is always a dangerous starting point even if statistically it is understandable. But leave that aside for a moment and consider another reason why people in this corner of the world should be upbeat. Look around the Six Nations and for three of them -- England, Wales and France -- there are real fears that in a World Cup season their coaching directors might be sending them down the wrong road.
At this point we have a fair idea of where we're going and who is going to take us there. The route is up for debate, but by comparison with the others we are fairly secure.
Three years ago in the ballroom of the Shelbourne Hotel we watched from a close distance as delegation after delegation made its way to the table of Warren Gatland. It was the night of Wales's second Grand Slam in four seasons and they were falling over themselves to pay respects to the coach. The scene was completed by the unbeaten path to the door of Eddie O'Sullivan across the room. Wales being Wales, you wondered how long it would last before Gatland got to sit in O'Sullivan's seat.
Coincidentally, just after Gatland has signed an O'Sullivanesque deal taking him through to 2015 he has never been more insecure. He has said himself that if his side don't make the World Cup quarter-finals in New Zealand then he'll be out on his ear. In itself this is a statement of confidence that he is safe until then. The WRU have a history of trigger-pulling around World Cup seasons. Ron Waldron got the heave-ho in 1991; Alan Davies in '95; and Kevin Bowring was shown the door in the run up to '99. With Graham Henry it was a bit further out -- after the hammering by Ireland in 2002 -- but then 2007 was chaos with the World Cup around the corner. They lost Mike Ruddock, then the caretaker Scott Johnson who didn't want to stay, and eventually put Gareth Jenkins in place only to sack him, reportedly in a car park, in France when their World Cup had just gone south.
So while Welsh kingmaker Roger Lewis thinks the world of Gatland you can understand the coach's unease. If for example they lose in Cardiff on Friday night then the trip to Murrayfield will be like setting off for the Arctic. And if that was to blow another chill wind then Gatland would be looking at two wins from 15 games.
Losing Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones have been hammer blows, particularly Jones, who has done such a good job for them at tighthead. There is no ready replacement, and with England's Andrew Sheridan straining at the leash Gatland fears it could get ugly. Which is why he has tried to unnerve the England hooker Dylan Hartley about his lineout throwing.
In fairness he has a point. When two weeks ago England lost their go-to men in the lineout, Courtney Lawes and Tom Croft, the first fellah to get a shiver down his spine was Hartley. Of course this pair can be replaced with Simon Shaw, who showed impeccable timing with such a big game against Toulouse last weekend, and Joe Worsley, but not without losing quality and stability. When they were beating Australia in Sydney and Twickenham last year, Lawes and Croft were on duty and key to the whole thing.
Their absence poses an interesting dilemma for Martin Johnson. His favoured route forward is to use the lineout pair to feed Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall down the middle of the field. If the lineout loses quality then he has to reassess the usefulness of his battering rams. We don't expect that reassessment to change anything. Against Wales they might get away with it but there is no future in the Johnson approach.
They were at their best in the Twickenham Test against the Wallabies when they countered from their own line for Chris Ashton's try which, if it doesn't win try of the season, might get a gong for most replayed try of the season. That day England looked like a side who had just come through into the daylight after many weeks stumbling around in the dark. Then they were biffed by the South Africans two weeks later.
They have parked that setback and come into this Championship with great expectations. Typically they have gone over the top. And when they come down the other side the drop will be horrendous.
The Scots too have ideas about this tournament, and the wins over Argentina in the summer and South Africa in the autumn back it up a bit. They have huge faith in Andy Robinson and his defence man Graham Steadman, late of Ireland. And the players feel good about themselves.
"The same group of players have been together for a wee while," says John Barclay, their outstanding flanker. "The same group has grown up a bit too. A lot of guys are coming through like Graeme Morrison and John Beattie who have really established themselves in this team. These guys were good club players a few years ago and they have now become potential world class players in the space of a few years."
It would help if they could score some tries. Since Robinson came to town the Scots have managed just seven in 13 games. And while their pack are good, it's not as if they are producing so many kickable penalties that they can win by planting the ball over the bar all the time.
The French on the other hand don't have to rely exclusively on the top-class accuracy of Morgan Parra or Dimitri Yachvili. First they have to pick the right team -- which should feature Clement Poitrenaud at 15, Maxime Mermoz at 13 and either Francois Trinh-Duc or David Skrela (who is leaving Toulouse for Clermont) at 10 -- and they have a chance of getting off on the right foot against the Scots.
There has been a whole change of presentation in France for this Championship. Coach Marc Lievremont opened up the press conference in Paris last week without his sidekicks Emile Ntamack and Didier Retiere. The 'we' has been replaced by 'I'. So, like Gatland, if their campaign is looking like a crock before the closing bell of round two, there will be no ambiguity about who is in the firing line.
France's horror at the hands of the Wallabies in November had a lot to do with picking Damien Traille at 10 and Jerome Porical at 15. And losing the ageless William Servat at hooker after half-time. They can fix the first two bits but with Dimitri Szarzewski a long-term casualty it will be harder to back up Servat.
But France have the lethal combination of a team than can do damage at the set-piece and counter-attack with real threat. Their performance in Croke Park two seasons ago was outstanding, and it came before the refereeing weather vane started pointing in favour of the team in possession.
It is at this time every year that we look at the latest hot spots to be highlighted by the IRB. The scrum is right at the top. The coaches met with IRB people last week, as is the norm now ahead of autumn and Six Nations games. You would have thought it useful to bring along a referee from every country rather than leave it to Paddy O'Brien to impart the info but we'll see if his message has any material effect.
Forgive us for being cynical here but we've lost faith in O'Brien's ability to generate consistency among his referees. It is a blight on the game that in last year's Six Nations nearly seven of every 10 scrums had to be reset. This requires co-operation from the players as well as the referees but since we've got the new scrum engagement sequence we've had much variety in how it is implemented.
Meanwhile at the tackle, week-in week-out in, game after game, the first player on the scene from the attacking team bridges illegally over the man and ball on the ground, putting all his body weight immediately onto his hands. It discourages involvement by the opposition -- thus clogging up the midfield -- and it undermines the central tenet of rugby: that there should be a fair contest for possession. Why don't referees blow it up? Because they don't want to be seen to be stopping the game at every other tackle. And it's easier to let it go.
Ireland are as guilty on this count as anyone else, but that will hardly feature on Declan Kidney's agenda. We like to make fun of his obsession with the middle ground. Tell him that the planet will disintegrate next week and he will declare it a great opportunity for effective time management. In his world there is no such thing as an injury crisis, rather a bonanza for those who have been waiting their turn.
This time we agree with him. This is a good time for Ireland to be struggling to fill the jersies. Saturday in Rome is the first of a minimum 13 Tests this calendar year, and a run free of injury now will leave you with untried and untested when it strikes later on. And it will strike, so let's get on with it.
This puts Gavin Duffy in the frame. Selected in the autumn squad but unused, he went to Netherdale with the Wolfhounds on Friday night playing for a place in Italy. In the haute cuisine of rugby Duffy is perceived as being meat and two veg, which is a bit unfair. For all their good rugby this season, backtracking to help the man who collects the ball with 29 players in front of him is not Connacht's strongest suit. It's not always easy to be Serge Blanco in the Sportsground. Duffy is short on match practice but deserves the run and he came through on Friday night in one piece.
So does Fergus McFadden, who has the best form of the four contenders -- Duffy, Keith Earls, and Luke Fitzgerald -- lining up for the back three.
And on that subject it's worth mentioning Ronan O'Gara. The Munster outhalf has struggled in his head to adjust to the emergence of Jonny Sexton in the last two seasons. He ran the endgame against London Irish, however, as if he was the only outhalf worth his salt in European rugby. It was top class.
Up front there are decisions in all three rows. Taking Tony Buckley off at half-time on Friday night will be interpreted in Fermoy as bad news for Mike Ross. The Leinster tighthead is the form choice -- simple as that -- and if Kidney wants a solid scrum then he will start Tom Court on the other side, put Leo Cullen in the second row with Paul O'Connell, and see who's fit in the back row before deciding who plays either side of Sean O'Brien.
Clearly Stephen Ferris doesn't think that will include him, and his line about "hoping to catch some of the Six Nations" is ominous. Nor would you put your money on Rory Best making the starting line in Rome. Not only does this put us into the same orbit as the summer tour, when injury hobbled the squad, it also makes the time and effort invested in the Player Management Programme look like a poor return. Perhaps it's bad luck. The upside is that Ireland can cope. And will be the better for having done so.
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