Jim Glennon: Superior brain-power gives Ireland Twickenham hope as brawn levels take toll
Published 21/02/2016 | 02:30
The last 12 months have been a long and winding road for Irish rugby, from back-to-back Six Nations titles, to pre-World Cup optimism, the highs of the win over France, the lows of the Argentina loss, Champions Cup disappointment and the run-in to our attempt at a unique third successive Championship.
Confidence before the Wales game was low among supporters; some I spoke to were even slightly fearful. But midway through the first half, with Ireland leading 13-0, all was rosy, and yet it took a late Johnny Sexton penalty to draw.
Cue a week of possibly unprecedented confidence ahead of a trip to Paris, a confidence ultimately pummelled out of all concerned by a brutally physical French pack; that this current French team is one of the poorest in living memory only served to accentuate the already deeply-held sense of frustration.
The sense of the competition overall, though, is that this year's tournament has once again been about tight margins, pragmatic coaches and decision-makers, and physicality. Lots of physicality.
The new buzzwords are culture, processes, accuracy . . . Top of the list is attrition, particularly from an Irish perspective. It wins the award for 'buzzword of the tournament so far' and any doubt about it was dispelled on Friday with the news that Dave Kearney, Sean O'Brien and Mike McCarthy have all been ruled out of the remainder of the tournament.
While the losses of Kearney and O'Brien are highly regrettable, the decision to stand down McCarthy for the remainder of the season after his concussion is of particular significance for the player at this late stage of his career, but deeply symptomatic of the grave issues facing the sport.
Some will say that it's a case of swings and roundabouts, citing Wales as an example: decimated by injury at the World Cup, they now seem to be functioning with as close to a full deck as can be reasonably expected. They've generated some momentum, are unbeaten after two games and all is relatively rosy in the garden, at least until they visit the Red Roses in their garden at Twickenham in a couple of weeks, I suspect.
Time will tell whether the extent of the Irish injury list is a case of what goes around comes around, or a new normal as the game evolves ever further into something akin to a dodgem track, without seat belts, at a funfair.
My view is that every group experiences runs of injuries from time to time, but the new normal is the gravity of the injuries being incurred, the physical dangers inherent in the modern game and the implicit pressures on all concerned to take unwarranted risks with players' health.
The capacity of the IRFU set-up to maintain a high proportion of our players in a state of optimum match-fitness has always been an important feature of our professional game, but rugby continues to evolve and, with the increasing severity of the collisions, keeping our small pool of players fit and healthy becomes more difficult by the week.
From a rugby perspective too, our campaign has yet to ignite, and time is no longer an ally in this context. We've shown glimpses of form in the first half of both games thus far, but our ability to sustain these levels, particularly our failure to convert possession into points in Paris, came back to haunt us.
England approach Saturday's game at Twickenham off the back of two wins on the road under new coach Eddie Jones. They appear confident, as they traditionally tend to, and can begin to entertain thoughts of securing what would only be their second Championship since 2003. That is a remarkable statistic, and while there is a growing air of confidence around the squad, they will be acutely aware too that the outcome is by no means a foregone conclusion, even in the face of a severely depleted opposition.
Wholesale changes are not a viable remedy for Ireland. The coaches and players should stick with the plan, and think their way through the games, and the supporters should stick with them too - the subsequent home matches against Italy and Scotland will present more appropriate opportunities for introducing new blood.
One area in which we should have an advantage over the English is the superior intellectual capacity of our key decision makers on the pitch. With some tweaks, the capacity is there for a strong performance in Twickenham, but always with the reservation about an injury to the wrong player.
If we stay relatively injury-free during the game, a result is not outside the realms of possibility. Just as confidence seemed to soar unrealistically ahead of the trip to Paris, maybe the crash-landing has taken even more out of supporters than players.
Sunday Indo Sport