Out of the shadows
After Jerry Flannery became the latest casualty of Ireland’s now abortive Grand Slam defence, opportunity knocks for a host of unheralded players over the coming weekend of league action
The Chinese celebrated their New Year last weekend -- this is the year of the Tiger, as it happens, and perhaps the eponymous Mr Woods just may have been absorbing a little Oriental philosophy before he emerges from all his controversy.
Apparently, the Chinese deploy the same word for crisis and opportunity. Hence the maxim which declares that just as a mishandled opportunity becomes a crisis, so a well-managed crisis becomes an opportunity. Tiger's will surely come.
Irish rugby's crisis is less rapt by such dramatic tension, but as the Six Nations campaign takes a breather this weekend, there are opportunities abounding to abate any hysterical talk of an emergency ahead of the Twickenham tie with England in just nine days' time.
And it is clear there are numerous chances for players to make their presence felt in this season's championship and, perhaps, to lay down a marker for the summer tour and beyond, towards 2011 and the World Cup.
Those long-term goals remain a priority for the IRFU, as per its Player Management Programme, but they cannot afford to neglect the immediate concerns of banking a victory in Twickenham, lest the last two home matches against Wales and Scotland become huge anti-climaxes.
A glance at the team that completed last year's Grand Slam success and the one that may start in Twickenham -- injuries and selection quandaries inclusive -- indicates the vast destruction wrought on the most decorated team in Irish rugby history in such a short time.
There is fair chance that only a third of the team that started on that unforgettable Cardiff evening will remain in situ against the English -- the midfield partnership of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy, Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip may be the only survivors.
That may be a conservative estimate, especially if the Irish camp's notoriously secretive command of their casualty list, viz Jonathan Sexton and, latterly, Tom Court, is taken into account.
Little wonder they are awaiting the written judgment of the Jerry Flannery appeal, desperately hoping that a careless 'i' has been left undotted by the disciplinary beaks.
Factor in the Irish captain barely able to walk unaided from the Parisien nightmare, as well as Ferris looking way off the pace, and there may well be further forced changes.
Thus, a mixture of injury, chronic lack of form, suspension and the desperate requirement to deploy alternatives has wrought havoc on the Irish starting XV in less than a year. It is at once a crisis and an opportunity.
For whom should opportunity knock? Some would argue players who may be relied upon to provide ballast and impact in the short-term -- examples include Shane Horgan and, specifically, Alan Quinlan -- even if they aren't likely to parade a green jersey in the World Cup.
That choice between the present and the future is a nagging one. The difficult balance is evidenced when one broaches the delicate issue of Ireland's sacred cow -- or, more accurately, sacred Bull. Should John Hayes acquire his landmark 100th cap from the start or from the bench? Those without a heart and merely cold calculation would surely decree the latter.
Declan Kidney, who demonstrated a distinct lack of emotion when terminating Malcolm O'Kelly's Six Nations swansong last season, will clearly not demur if presented with a similar moral conundrum this time around.
The main focus will be on the pivotal half-back positions. There, Leinster's duo of Sexton and Eoin Reddan will be eager to shine against the Scarlets this Saturday evening.
Peter Stringer and Isaac Boss should each believe that they have a chance to break into the 22. At full-back, Gavin Duffy is also hoping to impress this weekend. Leinster coach Michael Cheika's advocacy of Girvan Dempsey for the full-back berth is a trip too far back in time for some.
Then again, is his return any less credible than that of other Leinster colleagues Horgan or O'Kelly should they shine this weekend? The popular nod would be maintaining the development of players like Kevin McLaughlin and Donnacha Ryan, rather than resurrecting old hands like O'Kelly.
Rory Best's continued quest for game time must continue this weekend and his fitness will demand inclusion for Twickenham, with Sean Cronin, a clearly detailed pet project for 2011, best primed to act as an ideal impact replacement. He will be expected to pass his audition under the Setanta TV lights this weekend, although expect the Fogarty brothers Denis and John from Munster and Leinster respectively to push him hard.
Court's impressive cameos also demand inclusion, despite mixed signals about his fitness, while other so-called first-choices like Ronan O'Gara, Tomas O'Leary and David Wallace must be in severe jeopardy of losing their places.
Ironically, what may save out of form players is the growing carnage elsewhere in terms of injuries -- last Saturday demonstrated the chaos wrought when making more changes than absolutely necessary.
Still, as the Irish squad begin to digest the dreaded post-France DVD review in Cork today, the Grand Slam success will seem like an eternity away. Whether Paris spawns a crisis or opportunity is up to them. We truly are, as the Chinese would attest, living in interesting times.
That was then, Cardiff, 2009 -- Kearney; Bowe, B O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, Fitzgerald; O'Gara, O'Leary; Horan, Flannery, Hayes, O'Callaghan, O'Connell, Ferris, D Wallace, Heaslip.
This is now, Twickenham, 2010? -- Earls; Horgan, O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, Bowe; Sexton, Reddan; Healy, Best, Court, Cullen, O'Connell, Ferris, O'Brien, Heaslip.