independent

Monday 21 April 2014

O'Connell's plight a sign of dark days

Brilliant autumnal colour at Carton House estate and, as the leaves continued to fall readily, it is difficult to escape nature's annual exercise in renewal. Would that the Irish rugby squad residing there could so confidently assert that, as yet another player is ruled out of combat against Argentina, they too could boast of imminent regeneration.

As the country's rugby writers feted their player of the year in Lansdowne Road last night, the injured Rob Kearney's deserved award seemed to compound the feeling that, everywhere one turns, there are oppressive reminders of the less than rude health of the current international side.

With Stephen Ferris now confirmed as a drop-out from the side to arm-wrestle Argentina on Saturday week for, perhaps, the inglorious scrap to remain within the world's top eight teams, our immediate international prospects appear bleak. Declan Kidney's troops currently lie in eighth – one place behind Argentina, but a win for ninth-placed Scotland over South Africa could see them leapfrog Ireland.

Six of the country's leading lights will remain absent for that Test and, if one ignores Satruday's contest against Fiji – quite easily, for it is not a contest in the true sporting sense and does not count for ranking points – Kidney's attempts to prompt a change of fortunes appear undermined before the first whistle.

Ireland were compelled to bring Fiji to Thomond Park – commercial realities dictated that the islanders, who gleefully mix ineptitude with inspiration, would prove as much of a draw to Lansdowne Road as the Greek national soccer side.

Impotence

That Ireland are only playing two serious rugby nations this autumn indicates their immediate concern with the preservation of their world ranking; that they are now relying on the absence of a Scottish or Samoan miracle reflects the utter impotence of the country's international side at this present moment in time.

A gaggle of fresh talent will be fast-tracked into combat this weekend but the lessons to be learned about international rugby will be minimal, as England confirmed following the rout witnessed in Twickenham last Saturday.

Ireland versus Fiji offers only a pregnant pause in supporters' assessments of the direction of this Irish international side without its leading lights; the evidence last Saturday was hardly a compelling vote of confidence.

That the most positive plaudits were for a naturalised hooker, a prop who first set foot in this country a month ago and a pair of locks who are rapidly approaching the age of 30 is instructive. As much as Irish rugby had dreaded the arrival of a day when they would be forced to peer beyond the greatness of those who backboned a Grand Slam, it is difficult to assess how carefully those charged with responsibility for the game have prepared for it.

Whether it is in the utter ignorance of Sevens rugby or the inadequate husbanding of underage resources, the historic neglect of Connacht as a potential source of playing talent or the failure to propagate a coherent scrum coaching policy, Irish rugby is in danger of failing its first generation of world-class professionals.

At the weekend, Tommy Bowe claimed that Ireland were still a world-class outfit; for how much longer is a question tinged with as much uncertainty as the immediate health of one of its current world-class players.

At 33, Paul O'Connell's career may not have as much road to travel as he might wish for, given his historically difficult relationships with protracted injuries.

For now the greatest worry is when or where he will play again this season – if indeed he does play again this season. Because nobody seems to know – including the best rugby medical minds in the country.

Two years ago, O'Connell's pubic bone infection prompted much speculation; this time, albeit the rumour mill is less frenetic, similar concerns about his well-being abound.

And, just as Munster were seemingly unable to accurately assess the deepening nature of a back concern that followed last season's knee surgery, so too the Irish camp are nonplussed.

"It's out there that he's had a couple of injections," says team manager Mick Kearney. "He had a further injection on Friday. That's all the detail I can give at this stage. He has a bulging disc in his back.

"It will be managed for the next while and the hope is that it can settle down over the next few weeks.

"He had the injury before he came into the squad and it settled down well. The nature of the injury means that it's a question of wait and see.

"It isn't a black and white situation in terms of knowing the exact prognosis for what you do from this moment on.

"I'm sure there is a time limit but that will be decided between Paul and the specialists who are treating him."

When Munster were dealing with the player this season, coach Rob Penney's tireless exhortations to the team's supporters became a mantra: "Paulie will know when Paulie is ready."

Now it seems, sadly, that the player is less certain than at any time this season about what the future holds for him.

In many ways, his insecurity reflects the sentiments of so many supporters of the national team, who seem to be drifting aimlessly through the autumn breeze like so many perished leaves.

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