Paul O’Connell’s latest injury setback is deeply worrying for Ireland’s World Cup aspirations, so what are the options if the unthinkable happens and Declan Kidney’s forward colossus is ruled out? Hugh Farrelly looks at the alternatives
When Paul O'Connell was being helped off the pitch after 46 minutes of Munster's pulsating victory over Leinster last weekend, the cameras cut to the crowd and those pictures carried their own narrative.
A group of supporters gazed upon the scene, their faces a study of concern, and the fact they were wearing Leinster jerseys emphasised the gravity of the situation. In the midst of the latest compelling contest between two of world rugby's greatest rivals, tribal bias was subsumed by national concern in the face of O'Connell's distress.
He is that important.
After emerging from the harrowing experience of a nine-month recovery from a groin injury that proved far worse than originally anticipated, O'Connell's recovery was nearing completion. Although short on exposure heading into the Six Nations, the second-row's performances grew tangibly as the championship proceeded, culminating in his central role in Ireland's reaffirming, Grand Slam-denying display against England.
O'Connell's rehabilitation was one of the most encouraging aspects to Ireland's campaign and that successful process continued when he returned immediately to Munster colours to aid the province's post-Toulon recovery.
Another spell on the sidelines is the last thing anyone with a vested interest in Munster and/or Irish rugby needed and there is now an anxious wait for news on the latest rehabilitation requirements which is expected next week.
The best-case scenario would see the 31-year-old play some part in Munster's hunt for silverware before the season concludes at the end of next month. That would allow O'Connell to participate fully in the carefully constructed pre-season designed for Ireland's players to arrive in New Zealand in peak condition for their World Cup assault in September.
If, as has been speculated, he needs around three months to fully recover, the situation becomes considerably more complicated. While an injured ankle would not preclude weights or fitness work in the gym in July, it would certainly affect contact sessions and pitch-work necessary to prepare the Irish squad for their four warm-up games in August.
As the disastrous 2007 World Cup proved, Ireland need those matches against Scotland, France (twice) and England to ready themselves for the bigger task ahead and if O'Connell goes into those matches undercooked, or is forced to miss them, the knock-on effects on his World Cup participation would be significant.
Through much of the 2000s, the importance the 'three Os' to Ireland's
success was repeatedly made apparent. Ronan O'Gara is in the form of his career, but Jonathan Sexton has emerged to provide an equally effective alternative at out-half. However, the well-being of Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll and O'Connell remain pivotal to hopes of reaching the last four of the competition for the first time.
Aside from the last 12 months, O'Connell has not been bedevilled by injury in the manner of the unfortunate Jerry Flannery, Stephen Ferris or Tomas O'Leary. However, it is not hard to recall the consequences for Ireland when he was ruled out with a thumb injury for the November Internationals in 2005.
Ireland were well beaten by Australia (30-14) and New Zealand (45-7) at Lansdowne Road and, while O'Connell's absence was far from being the sole reason for the poor results, the home pack struggled against understrength southern hemisphere opponents, usually at their most vulnerable on these end-of-season tours.
It was the most testing period of Eddie O'Sullivan's reign as Ireland coach (prior to the 2007 World Cup) and he was under severe pressure before O'Connell returned to help secure the Triple Crown the following spring.
There remains a conviction -- copper-fastened by the powerful finish to the Six Nations -- that Declan Kidney can lead his side to the World Cup semi-finals, but not having O'Connell at full tilt for the critical pool games against Australia and Italy and, all going well, a subsequent quarter-final, would challenge that assertion.
Everything will be done to ensure that he is (not least depositions to whatever higher authorities Irish rugby followers put their faith in), but Kidney is not a coach to depend on blind faith and finger-crossing, and he will have begun to assess the contingency plans.
However, before we begin assessing the options, the ridiculous notion of Stephen Ferris switching to the second-row needs to be put to bed.
Ferris is a world-class player, but he is not a second-row. The Ulster man is not tall enough to be primary jumper at line-out time and cannot be expected to automatically adjust to the job-spec of playing second-row, in tight and loose; it is not that simple.
He should be allowed to concentrate on the prerogative of sorting out his own injury difficulties and getting back in time to contest for a place in the back-row. No-one can fill O'Connell's boots, but there are players who will be in the mix to attempt to do so should the worst happen.
Age: 25 (26 on June 18) Caps: 2
A very talented second-row, getting back to his best after a hit-and-miss season for Ulster following an encouraging summer tour with Ireland. Tuohy has the size and loose game to be a force at international level, but lacks the vital experience.
Age: 32 (33 on July 18) Caps: 7
Has the height and bulk to make a significant contribution to Ireland's set-pieces and no shortage of experience, but the London Irish man has been out of the international loop for most of his career and a late recall looks unlikely.
Age: 24 (25 on June 29) Caps: 3
Superb line-out operator with ever-improving ball-carrying and defensive games, but does not have the 'enforcer' qualities of O'Connell -- not helped by his struggle for regular game-time with Leinster.
Age: 27 (28 on December 11) Caps: 7
Lacks his experience, but Ryan is the player most similar to O'Connell in size and style. However, at 27, Ryan continues to be used in the back-row, due to the stiff lock competition at Munster. A decent back-row, Ryan has the potential to be an excellent second-row, but needs a run of games in that position.
Age: 32 (33 on October 8) Caps: 22
The man who replaced O'Connell on Saturday and the go-to second-row for province and country when the Munster captain was absent over the last year. O'Driscoll has been superbly consistent for Munster and has done a job for Ireland -- most effectively against Australia in Brisbane last June. However, while his handling skills at restarts and line-outs are among the best in the business, O'Driscoll lacks O'Connell's physical presence at international level, where he has never managed to truly impose himself.
Age: 33 (34 on January 9) Caps: 29
The greatest reason for optimism in the nightmare scenario of Ireland being denied O'Connell at the World Cup. Although not as prominent a ball-carrier as O'Connell, the Leinster captain has excellent line-out, restart and scrummaging skills and puts himself about effectively in defence, ruck and maul. Cullen also has tremendous presence and oozes experience, making him a key figure in Leinster's success over the past few years. The complete package.