Wednesday 29 March 2017

'It's the guys who lose out who are the important ones this time, aren't they?' -- Irish coach Declan Kidney, August 20, 2011

David Kelly

David Kelly

LAST Saturday morning, Luke Fitzgerald and Tomas O'Leary collected the last of their personal belongings and checked out of the Shelbourne Hotel before making the short coach journey to Lansdowne Road.

There, they would seek to make one final lasting impression upon Kidney and his coaching staff before the 30 names were appended to an email the next afternoon confirming the final World Cup squad selection.

Those who didn't make the cut would be told personally by Kidney before that.

Both Fitzgerald and O'Leary had experienced the joys of winning the Grand Slam and the Heineken Cup, but this would represent one of the biggest challenges of their professional lives, for the World Cup is the pinnacle of a rugby player's career -- a level to which neither had before managed to ascend.

Those dreams of reaching that career peak were comprehensively dashed when Kidney informed them of his decision to omit them; the anguish of the coach was nothing compared to the devastation felt by the players.

Last Saturday, the players had been free to return to their own homes; every one knew that there would be a camp training session on Monday morning, but whether that would be as a World Cup-bound player or not was another story.

Thirty players received an email on Sunday afternoon informing them that their presence was required at a meeting on Monday morning and to bring their passport if selected.

When Fergus McFadden received his email, he was still a tad unsure as to whether he was in or out.

The dreaded telephone calls from the coach to O'Leary and Fitzgerald, however, left them in no doubt. Of course, they were not the only ones.

How can one possibly conceive of the crushing disappointment visited upon the luckless Felix Jones, swiftly ushering Geordan Murphy back from Leicester, to where he had reportedly flown after discovering he would be surplus to requirement?

Or the sad postscripts delivered to the careers of Peter Stringer, Marcus Horan and John Hayes, stellar names redolent of so many legendary days in Munster red and Irish green?

"You are asking me to be in the mind of the players, but I would imagine it is so stressful," acknowledged Kidney on Monday, clearly amplifying the awkwardness of being the arbiter of such a significant selection.

"But the way they conducted themselves over the last week or 10 days, it can't have been easy for them. The older guys would see it as now or never, the younger guys can be so full of confidence they can say 'well it's now'.

"I didn't go to anyone and say, 'look you will get your chance in four years'; they wouldn't appreciate that."

Whatever about the other 12 excluded players, for O'Leary and Fitzgerald in particular, the cruellest of cuts must have run even deeper.

confident

Both men would have felt reasonably confident that they would be included in Kidney's squad as they rose from their slumber last Saturday morning.

Little did they think that this weekend, instead of facing England in an eagerly anticipated World Cup send-off, they would both return to the relative mundanity of pre-season fare with their provinces, far away from the glare of the TV cameras and the passion of the Irish sporting public.

Fitzgerald was eager to inform Leinster coach Joe Schmidt that he wished to play in this week's Heineken Cup final rematch against Northampton Saints; O'Leary said the same to Tony McGahan, although he is nursing a slight injury.

Yet, despite their exclusions, both men could still have a role to play in Ireland's World Cup build-up against England this week should a rash of sudden injuries emerge.

And, as in 2003, when both Alan Quinlan and Denis Hickie were replaced by David Wallace and Tyrone Howe, both players may yet be called upon to join their Irish colleagues in New Zealand should misfortune strike any of their team-mates.

"The plan is just to stick to the 30 by and large," confirmed Kidney on Monday, although he admitted that he would not hesitate to reintegrate excluded players if required.

"If we need to bring in somebody from the lads who weren't selected I wouldn't be shy of doing that either if it helps, if it assists with training."

Hence, Fitzgerald and O'Leary, no more than the other excluded players, will remain in the coach's thoughts all through the World Cup should an emergency arise.

The players will doubtlessly struggle to absorb the disappointment, Fitzgerald for a second successive World Cup and O'Leary after cruelly missing the 2009 Lions tour after suffering a horrific ankle injury.

But their renowned professionalism and determination will prove admirable features as they kick off the Pro12 League with their provinces in 10 days' time.

And so, while O'Leary is understandably immersed in "a world of hurt" according to the reports of his friends, and Fitzgerald's desolation is easily understood, the nature of professional sport insists that they must somehow manfully face up to their situations as courageously as possible.

"I don't think anyone likes the idea of handing out bad news," said Kidney.

"At the end of the day, we're all people. For the lads involved, it's been an extremely tough week. I can't say much more than that."

Irish Independent

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