Shadow lurks over Ireland in Chicago as IRFU lose control of Jackson story
Management stay focused on task at hand despite off-field distraction
Published 02/11/2016 | 02:30
Given they are staying in Donald Trump's digs in Chicago, it is perhaps no surprise that the Ireland rugby team have been enveloped in controversy ahead of Saturday's clash with the All Blacks at Soldier Field.
The Republican nominee for next week's US presidential election has spent the last six months lurching from crisis to crisis and since they arrived in the Windy City the Irish management have had to balance preparing to face the best team in the world with the news that two players who started their last Test match had been arrested and questioned about an alleged sexual assault.
Both Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding deny any wrongdoing and have not been charged and, had this game taken place in another jurisdiction, the news may never have come to light.
Jackson's lawyers, KRW Law, issued a statement yesterday saying he "rejects completely any allegations made against him".
On Monday, the IRFU cited "personal reasons" for Jackson's absence from the 27-man squad that travelled to the United States, leaving the inexperienced Joey Carbery as the only back-up.
Jackson, who started all three of Ireland's Tests in South Africa last June, was guaranteed a place on the bench for the clash with New Zealand. He was named in the wider squad and was expecting to travel, but suddenly he was out of the picture.
The union were in a hugely difficult position given the circumstances and the fact that Jackson and Olding are their employees.
Over the course of Monday, it became apparent that something more than a family illness was behind Jackson's absence from the squad and late on Monday the BBC broke the news that Jackson and his team-mate Olding - who would have been part of Joe Schmidt's plans but for a hip-flexor injury - had been questioned by police.
The story was now beyond the IRFU's control.
Ulster released a statement yesterday morning confirming the story and so, when Andy Farrell conducted the first press conference of the Test week, he was faced with questions about a very serious, non-rugby-related matter.
Just over a year on from their ill-fated week when a number of external issues like Paul O'Connell's retirement and Sean O'Brien's suspension dominated the build-up of the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina, the focus of another huge game is again about external issues.
Once it became clear that Jackson was going to miss the game of the year, the story was always going to get out and the IRFU had a job on their hands.
However, by deciding to send a strong, experienced character like Farrell out to face the cameras yesterday they were able to get through a tricky press conference without adding any further complications.
Within the camp, they will attempt to isolate themselves from the controversy but there must be chat amongst the players who spent three weeks at close-quarters with Jackson and Olding last summer.
These are not fringe players, but men who are set to have an increased involvement with Ireland in the years to come after impressing on tour.
After he had answered a line of questions on Jackson with a series of effective 'no comments', Farrell was asked if the focus of the team had been affected by the news from home.
"No, not at all," he said.
"Look, the last games that we played together over in South Africa, the squad's quite a bit different, really.
"We did particularly well to deal with that then, with the amount of injuries we had going over to South Africa and win the first game.
"I feel we've had a good start to the week, got a few players back and a squad that's excited about getting out there and performing in what's going to be an unbelievable occasion. It's privilege to be here, isn't it?"
Jackson could come into the mix next week for the clash with Canada. Even if Ireland wanted to keep him out of the glare of public attention, there is such a shallow pool of qualified out-halves that Schmidt can select from.
Johnny Sexton will start against the All Blacks, with Carbery providing back-up.
In an ideal world, Sexton would then be rested for next week's game against Canada and then recalled for the second clash with New Zealand in two weeks' time, but with Ian Madigan injured that won't happen unless Jackson is included or Connacht's Jack Carty or Munster's Ian Keatley get a surprise call-up.
If Sexton goes down early on Saturday, Carbery will be pitched into the Test arena against arguably the best team ever after just five starts for Leinster.
"It's exciting for him though, isn't it?" Farrell said. "He's played well and honestly, you find out about people coming into an environment like this, straight away. Sometimes they shrink and sometimes they grow.
"Our impression of Joey has been, 'Wow, he isn't short of confidence'.He's not brash at all but he ain't short of confidence.
"He obviously feels that he wants to put his best foot forward over the next week and let's see how it goes because he certainly has been playing well."
On another week, the idea of the 21-year-old kid from Athy via Auckland would be dominating the agenda but the build-up to the biggest game of the season has been marred by the news about Jackson and Olding.
When you're trying to beat the All Blacks, you need all of your energy and concentration focused on the task at hand and it remains to be seen if the added strain will take a toll.