Monday 22 January 2018

O'Cuinneagain heads for sun as Six Nations queue forms

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

IF there is never a good time to be injured then neither do spirits soar when the call comes to tell you you're dropped especially when you're captain of the national side.

IF there is never a good time to be injured then neither do spirits soar when the call comes to tell you you're dropped especially when you're captain of the national side.

In the case of Dion O'Cuinneagain, it is hardly a surprise that Ulster started him on the bench for Friday night's catastrophic European Cup match against Llanelli. It would have been disturbing had be bounced back after the World Cup as if nothing had happened. What was surprising was that he attempted to keep going at all.

He struggled during the tournament with a shoulder injury and was in a sling in the days running up to the game against Romania. His domestic comeback was in the interprovincial championship against Munster when his dreary form was attributed to the lingering condition. He lasted half the game.

His next comeback was in Ulster's opening European pool game against Bourgoin. That day he popped the other shoulder. Playing for Ballymena last week in the AIB League displayed a fitness of sorts, but out of sorts would be the most appropriate way to describe his form.

``I think it's fair to say I haven't been firing on all cylinders and the shoulder injuries certainly haven't helped, but the other guys have been playing well and I've no problem with having to play my way back in,'' he says.

``After two shoulder injuries in two months you could say I have a chip on both now, but that's enough for the season. I'll get a short break in South Africa over Christmas and I should be fine when I get back.''

By that stage Ireland will be preparing to open their Six Nations campaign against England in Twickenham, but already the queue is developing in a number of positions. Ireland supporters would be happier if the line of hopefuls covered numbers one to 15. Indeed, so would the management.

If the punters were picking the team then they would start at number 15 and Conor O'Shea would be jettisoned. He had a poor World Cup and, had Girvan Dempsey been fit to take part, then he would have been in the side by the time they left for Lens. While the Allied Dunbar is not quite the standard its clubs believe it to be, it's nevertheless significant that last season O'Shea won the player of the year award from his peers.

When you watch him play for his club he looks the finished article; when he puts on a different shade of green he looks a lesser player.

It is not attributable simply to the step up in standard. If this is not already focusing the mind of Eddie O'Sullivan then it should be. The decision may be as simple as altering the style to suit the man, or losing the man.

So too will the form of Dempsey demand attention. This afternoon he faces his biggest test since returning from injury. If it was hard to find backers for Munster in Vicarage Road a fortnight ago, it will be a whole lot harder to part Leinster men from their money against Stade Francais this afternoon.

On their last visit to Paris last season they conceded 56 points. Mike Ruddock was in Stade Jean Bouin a few weeks ago to watch Glasgow take the positive approach, and lose. Leinster will try the same thing and hope for a better indeed a unique result.

``What shone through was the way that Stade Francais played whenever they got to the Glasgow 22,'' said Ruddock. ``They are a class act with the ball in hand. These next two games will be a real test for the youngsters in our side and a lot will depend on how they cope with the mental pressure as much as anything else. We know we face a huge task in Paris, but I don't think they will be relishing coming back to Dublin five days later.''

It didn't bother them too much last season. When the going got tough in Donnybrook the Stade boys dug in literally and got away with it.

Leinster were forced to make a change to their selected side for today when recalling Gordon D'Arcy for Peter McKenna on the left wing. In the process this cuts even further the average age of the backline. With Munster bravely opting for Jeremy Staunton yesterday, it meant that in the space of 24 hours between Munster and Leinster Ireland sent out five out of a possible 14 backs who are 21 or under; and of the remainder only three are over 25.

D'ARCY'S inclusion in no way detracts from Leinster. He may not have international pace, but neither is he a dray horse and his physical commitment and footballing ability should make him a real contender in this position for Ireland.

If Denis Hickie, for example, could show the same appetite for the combative stuff then he would already be pencilled in for the Lions in 2001.

Relinquishing the Leinster captaincy has been illustrative of his career of late and, in reality, he's on the verge of extinction.

It would be understating it to say that this afternoon would be an appropriate pad for relaunch. But, with O'Sullivan and Donal Lenihan in attendance, it could be a long way down from the same platform.

It will be interesting to see if Warren Gatland returns from a break in New Zealand with any more names to add to the mix, but already there is Irish interest in former Natal wing/centre Jamie Payne, now playing with Swansea. While we wait for the IRFU to organise a comprehensive recruitment structure in the southern hemisphere, uncertainty will continue over whether or not the likes of Payne has something to offer.

At least the management will be heartened by the contribution of Mike Mullins who is the form inside centre, and they will hardly be looking far afield for out-halves. Ronan O'Gara has shown a remarkable consistency over the last 12 months and the step up into Europe has not fazed him. The only apparent weakness in his game against Saracens was when caught in contact, but clearly he has the mentality for the big days. Yesterday in Toulouse his defence was occasionally fragile but was set against a fine passing and kicking game while in Ravenhill the previous night David Humphreys had a pretty rough time of it.

The debate over scrum-half throws up a unique and unhealthy situation in that all three contestants are competing for the same provincial spot and in the process are losing out on match time. It also adds an unfair burden of pressure when the limited opportunities arrive for Tom Tierney and Brian O'Meara at any rate while Peter Stringer must constantly be looking over both shoulders.

The options in the pack are few and the only build-up in one position is at loosehead in direct contrast to the other side of the scrum. For today Leinster were able to replace a form player in Emmet Byrne with an international in Reggie Corrigan, while the talented Marcus Horan stepped into Peter Clohessy's position yesterday and embellished a growing reputation. With Paul Wallace struggling at Saracens, the lack of options at number three are worrying.

For the back five it is largely a question of the form of the usual suspects though, the play of David Wallace is encouraging and the re-emergence of Simon Easterby is timely. He was an outstanding number eight for Ireland Under 21 two years ago and, while Leinster at the time were looking at him as an open side, it never came to anything. His performance for Llanelli on Friday night was opportune.

The injury to David Corkery and the continued absence of Trevor Brennan puts pressure on the short side, a place Alan Quinlan will be pushing hard to fill. It will be interesting to see how the back rowers have performed by the time the hopefully rejuvenated O'Cuinneagain returns from the Cape Town sun.

If he needed a break to forget about Ireland's World Cup, then Ulster's predicament only adds to the need for a change of scenery.

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