Tuesday 17 October 2017

Walking wounded

All Blacks coach Henry fully aware of fatigue factor as players put bodies on the line to fulfil exhaustive schedules

Graham Henry's All Blacks are facing a long, hard season in the build-up to next year's World Cup. Photo: Reuters
Graham Henry's All Blacks are facing a long, hard season in the build-up to next year's World Cup. Photo: Reuters
David Kelly

David Kelly

In a week when money has shot to the top of the rugby agenda, the summer touring squad that Declan Kidney announced to more than a few raised eyebrows on Tuesday morning may have been overlooked as megaphone diplomacy took over.

Even with a surfeit of injuries to key players such as Paul O'Connell (who cannot possibly tour), Leo Cullen, Denis Leamy, Stephen Ferris and Luke Fitzgerald, Kidney could have afforded himself a roll of the dice.

However, Kidney's apparently conservative selection -- never mind Ageing Bull, where were the exciting bolters like Fionn Carr? -- is not entirely disconnected from the unmentionable pursuit of filthy lucre.

It is why Australia and New Zealand will once again haul themselves to Hong Kong this late summer in an attempt to expand rugby's limited global horizon, while at the same time lobbing in a claim for millions of dollars to the IRB for lost revenue because of the 2011 World Cup.

And it is also why the IRFU expect the world's most lucrative rugby brand name -- the Adidas All Blacks -- to pitch up at the spanking new Aviva next autumn with Dan Carter and their host of broody stars in order to guarantee bang for the blazers' buck.

And it is why there is an assumption from our southern friends that this favour would have already been returned, so ensuring that the backsides of Brian O'Driscoll et al will set forth on tour next month.

The ultimate irony is that the home side -- not to mention their Australian neighbours, who also host Ireland next month -- will themselves be forced to line out without a galaxy of big names next month.

Injuries are the elephant in the room for the game of rugby union as the IRB this week ambitiously sought to add, rather than subtract, from the exhaustive schedules of top-flight players by sanctioning the much-trumpeted "global 10-year playing schedule".

Something has to give and it's a short foot race to see which will be most broken -- supporters' banks or players' bodies. Currently, it is the players who are suffering the most.

Take the All Blacks, who could be without up to 10 leading players from their front-line squad when Ireland pitch up in New Plymouth.

Even if players like, say, classy full-back Mils Muliaina recover from injury by then, there are likely to be stern debates as to whether it may be preferable to shield him until the Tri-Nations.

In the past, All Blacks coach Graham Henry has been fairly indifferent about choosing full-strength sides -- especially against the Irish. But this time it is unlikely that he will have any choice in the matter.

It's a far cry from the globally dominant All Blacks who came to Ireland in the autumn of 2005 and, for only the third time in their illustrious history, changed their entire first XV. And they still won, backing up, 45-7.

Less than a year later, the All Blacks beat a full-strength Ireland on home soil 2-0 in the Test series, while an "advance party" led by Jerry Collins went ahead to prepare to face Argentina in Buenos Aires.

Now, the man whose raised eyebrows can cast shadows that can cloud the entire city of Auckland seems to have little choice.

"We certainly haven't got the same depth we had a few years ago," Henry says, acknowledging that the flight north of so many players will further limit his hand. "You have a lot of top players wanting to stay and play for the All Blacks and a lot of youngsters playing.

"A lot of other guys who were putting pressure on the top players have gone. They have decided they weren't going to be All Blacks and have gone overseas. You take all that depth away and it's a lot of intellectual property and intelligence in the game which helps the younger guys develop, and that is a concern to me."

Also of concern to Henry a year or so away from the World Cup is the fatigue factor, something which will prick the ears of every Irish rugby supporter who knows that there are, astonishingly, another five matches left for many of the leading players after this exhaustive post-Lions season.

"We won't have access to the players from about November this year until mid July 2011," Henry explains. "The players are going to play a hell of a lot of rugby next year prior to the World Cup. Super rugby will go into mid-July.

"Hopefully they can be kept reasonably fresh during the Super competition. It's a challenge. You just don't want 30 dead guys going into the World Cup."

Across the Tasman, despite an even lengthier injury list, Australian coach Robbie Deans is a tad more phlegmatic about his travails, appearing not to wince at a 2010 schedule that may see his side play 20 times this year alone -- even though his boss, the brash John O'Neill, is demanding a reduction in the schedule (but not, one presumes, starting with that money-spinning jolly to Hong Kong).

"Twenty fixtures this year is going to put us in really good space for what's coming next year," Deans said. "This year is our last year, our last opportunity of any significance -- of time and substance -- to be able to work with the group.

important

"Next year we've got an extended Super rugby programme, then four Tri- Nations Test matches and, one week later, the World Cup. So everything we do this year is very important in terms of building towards that.

"We'll always have 22 fit blokes running out on the ground. So there's going to be development opportunities and we don't see playing more game as a risk. There's a risk every time you strap your boots on and these blokes love that.

"We have a number of injuries-- we have essentially a full XV of players that we would consider that we can't pick in the first instance -- it's not a bad XV either, but we also have more depth.

He added: "We have a lot of tough decisions to make and it's a good problem to have. To be frank, up until now, we haven't really had that because there's only been a pool of players that we believe were genuinely of international standard."

Both Deans and Henry, you suspect, would gladly swap places with their Irish counterpart.

Irish Independent

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