Ireland bid to salvage season in middle of worst injury crisis for years
DECLAN KIDNEY and his Ireland team will bid to salvage their season and their pride from the wreckage left by England's charging chariot a fortnight ago when they take on Scotland at Murrayfield on Sunday.
When an exultant England charged out of the Aviva stadium with banners blowing defiantly in the wind, Kidney's men were left to ponder the repercussions of an overwhelming defeat, conscious of the need to put matters right next time out.
They must do so in the cold embrace of one of the worst injury crises to befall the national team, making their challenge all the more daunting.
When Kidney announced his starting team on Wednesday afternoon there was no talk of the absentees. That is neither Kidney's nor his management team's way.
"We see who rocks up to camp and we take it from there," said the coach. "You don't worry about who isn't available because their time will come. That's the nature of rugby.
"Usually you'll have 10-15pc injury rate. Last November we had 30pc injury rate. When we won the Slam we had a 0pc injury rate. It is what it is now. We have made a conscious decision to just get on with things. The injury count speaks for itself. We will work with what we have."
It's a commendable attitude. There is, though, no denying that Ireland will take to the pitch against Scotland with a team patched together by sticky tape, bandages and chewing gum.
Against England, Sean O'Brien suffered hamstring, shoulder and thumb injuries, Donnacha Ryan had to leave the field during the match because of back spasms and Peter O'Mahony also shipped some heavy punishment.
Behind the pack, Brian O'Driscoll rolled an ankle and Rob Kearney sustained a dead leg.
Those on club duty last weekend didn't emerged unscathed either. Luke Marshall suffered bruising to his thighs playing for Ulster on Friday night, while his fellow Ireland debutant this weekend, Paddy Jackson, referenced his recent ankle injury as a reason why he didn't do much kicking from the hand for Ulster in Zebre.
And those are the players who are able to play. There are at least another 10 players who would be in contention for starting berths against Scotland if available.
It is an injury crisis bordering on an epidemic.
Paul O'Connell (Back)
O'Connell is winning his fitness race for Munster and the word is that their spiritual leader will be fit, available and playing against Harlequins in the Heineken Cup quarter-final on the first weekend in April.
That is cold comfort to Ireland, though. All the more so as the second-row would undoubtedly be in the starting team if fit. At his best, he is invaluable and almost irreplaceable.
He has an aura that seems to envelop the pack in a protective embrace. Pick any other seven forwards and when they pack down with O'Connell they are doing so with a father figure.
His presence alone is priceless. He is also a magnificent line-out technician. He is a truly magnificent operator and one Ireland and Munster have been missing.
If he comes back in form for Munster he is also certain to be on Warren Gatland's radar when he selects his Lions touring party.
Prognosis: Outside bet to make Italy game.
Tommy Bowe (Knee)
Bowe underwent surgery to repair lateral medial ligament damage to his knee. It had been initially hoped he would be back in time for Ulster's Heineken Cup quarter-final. That hasn't been officially ruled out yet, but the situation is not looking good.
His loss to the Irish side has been tempered by the excellence of Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy. There is no question, however, about whether he would be an automatic pick if fit.
He is pretty much the complete package. He can attack, defend, is good in the air and can play right across the backline. That versatility would be extremely valuable now given Ireland's escalating injury count, especially in light of his experience playing in the centre during his time with the Ospreys.
He was one of the successes of the 2009 Lions tour and had been favoured to make the Test team this time around, but he is now not expected to be back in time to challenge for a place in the Lions squad.
Stephen Ferris (ankle)
The flanker's season is in danger of being wiped out with the news that he will now see another specialist.
Ferris suffered "a setback" arising from the original surgery to repair ankle tendon damage and will see a new specialist next week, at which time it will be determined if he needs further surgery.
In his pomp he is an unstoppable force of nature and will be a shoo-in for the Lions tour, if fit. He is now unlikely to be back in time for Ulster's Heineken Cup quarter-final in April and his chances of being fit for the Lions are ever decreasing.
JonNY Sexton (hamstring)
The out-half was around the team hotel in Carton House yesterday and was walking without a limp, which is an improvement from last week when he was limping heavily during the squad's two-day get-together at Dunboyne Castle Hotel.
The issue with predicting a possible return date is that Sexton himself doesn't know. This is the first time he has ever torn a hamstring. Players are usually able to predict a likely return from a hamstring injury with accuracy. The frustration Sexton is encountering is that he is operating in the dark because he has no reference point he could use to make a prediction.
Thankfully, the physiotherapists working on him on a daily (if not twice daily) basis are well versed in what is needed and the Ireland camp is confident he will be available for the game against France at Lansdowne Road.
Gordon D'Arcy (foot)
He underwent surgery on Monday and will wear a special medical boot for the next two weeks. He is expected to be out of commission – training wise – for a further two weeks after that.
His Six Nations is over and he will be in a race against time to be fit in time for Leinster's Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final against London Wasps.
D'Arcy's partnership with Brian O'Driscoll has been one of the foundation stones for Ireland over the last number of years. He is an excellent defender, but his powers have been on the wane – internationally, at least – for a couple of seasons. He is still a big player for Leinster and will continue his season with them on his return.
Prognosis: Good for Leinster, not Ireland.
Simon Zebo (foot)
His Ireland season is over. His Munster campaign is hanging on. The recovery time for Zebo was put at 10 weeks. That was just under two weeks ago, so he is looking at a projected return date of April 13-15 – a week after Munster play Harlequins in the Heineken Cup quarter-final.
It is so very unfortunate on a player who blew across the face of international rugby with the power of a tsunami and was very much in the frame for a Lions place.
He has blistering pace, an eye for the tryline that is much coveted and is unbelievably accurate under the dropping ball. His defence had been suspect, but the game against Wales put those questions to bed.
Prognosis: Good for Munster, not Ireland.
Mike McCarthy (knee)
He strained medial ligaments in his knee and will be out for at least another two to three weeks, making his participation against France doubtful.
He came to the international arena late and it is hugely disappointing that a magnificent personal season has been derailed. He will, of course, be a Leinster player next season, although Connacht will want him back before the end of their season.
Prognosis: Italy a possibility.
Chris Henry (Knee)
Henry undergoes surgery on his knee today and is facing four weeks of recovery. His Ireland season is over and he will be focusing his efforts on being back in time for Ulster's Heineken Cup quarter-final.
He has been in magnificent form for Ulster and impressive off the bench for Ireland.
His place among the replacements is taken by Iain Henderson, his Ulster team-mate, who will also provide cover for the second-row.
Prognosis:Good for Ulster, not Ireland.
Richardt Strauss (ankle)
He is currently midway through his projected 12-week recovery after sustaining ankle ligament damage.
After 'becoming' Irish following three years of residence here, he did well in November and would have been on the bench to Rory Best for the Six Nations. He is a loss to Leinster, although they are fortunate to have Sean Cronin to deputise.
Prognosis: Race against time for Leinster.
Cian Healy (Suspended)
The prop will be back for the Italian game.
Ireland 'unavailable' XV: Felix Jones (knee – only just back this week), Tommy Bowe (knee), Dave McSharry (back and groin), Gordon D'Arcy (foot), Simon Zebo (foot), Jonathan Sexton (hamstring), Tomas O'Leary (back), Cian Healy (suspended), Richardt Strauss (knee), Stephen Archer (wasn't considered because of injury at start of Six Nations), Mike McCarthy (knee), Paul O'Connell (back), Stephen Ferris (ankle), Chris Henry (knee), Kevin McLaughlin (unavailable).