Sport Rugby

Saturday 18 November 2017

Able deputies will ease strain of front-row casualties

Sean Cronin has stepped off the bench impressively in replacing Richardt Strauss at hooker
Sean Cronin has stepped off the bench impressively in replacing Richardt Strauss at hooker
David Kelly

David Kelly

When news broke about the luckless Cian Healy's latest injury interruption, one of the first reactions to this writer on Twitter echoed Fr Jack's repeated refrain from 'Father Ted'.

Suffice to say, the word began with 'f'. Should Ireland supporters be so worried? Losing one Irish front-row Lion is unfortunate itself; to lose two of them in such a short space of time could be calamitous for Joe Schmidt.

There is, at least, a fair chance that both ankle victim Healy and Rory Best (fractured wrist) could return in the projected time allowed for their rehabilitation, meaning they could limber up in Pro12 fare before the February 2 Six Nations kick-off against Scotland in Dublin.

However, instead of bemoaning the potential absence of two of his most combative and rugged world-class operators, Schmidt will reflect on the contributions already being made by their putative stand-ins.

At hooker, Sean Cronin is arguably in the form of his life after eventually deciding to commit his future to Leinster last spring and, despite the catastrophic loss of Richardt Strauss, his form in green and blue this past month brooks little argument.

In the case of Healy's absence, the prognosis is equally vibrant, such has been the surge of prospective candidates for the No 1 jersey he also so lucklessly ceded on the Lions tour with another ankle injury.

In Munster alone there are two dogged contenders in the shape of Dave Kilcoyne and James Cronin, while Jack McGrath established his place in the Ireland pecking order last month during an outstanding hat-trick of November displays.

Tighthead Mike Ross, about whom there was almost a tribunal of inquiry following his enforced departure from the fray in Twickenham in 2012, agrees that it is far better to drink in another inevitable injury blow with one's glass half-full.

Packing down alongside Cronin -- a 30-capper, mind -- and the relatively inexperienced McGrath for Leinster and Ireland would not represent a problem to him in February.

"No," he avers assertively. "Then around the provinces you have Dave Kilcoyne, Tom Court. I think loosehead is a pretty healthy position at the moment."

As for Leinster, their smooth progress on Pro12 and European fronts diminishes the sense of anguish, particularly given McGrath's rapid ascension.

"Jack has had a breakthrough season," agrees Ross. "He has come on hugely over the past 18 months. Last year, if we lost Cian, okay we had Heinke van der Merwe around.

"But now seeing the way Jack has progressed is great. You've got Michael Bent doing well at loosehead and behind him is Jack O'Connell. So I think we're pretty well stocked there."

Even at tighthead, Ross' more specialised position, the availability of an extra player on the bench, allied to the new scrum law changes which have reduced the impact of the hit, have removed much of the sense of terror engendered when the Corkman was prematurely evicted from Twickenham 17 months ago.

"Things have changed since then," appreciates Ross. "Having one prop on the bench is never ideal. Asking a loosehead to play tighthead is a recipe for disaster sometimes.

"It is not fair to them. If you've been playing on one side of the scrum and you suddenly have to swap over to the other, you're not going to look too good, I don't think. Definitely, that new rule change has made a big difference there."

So too, for Leinster and Ireland, has the emergence of Lucan man Martin Moore, not merely as a fallback option but a genuine challenger to the most technically acute position in the sport.

"He's pushing me pretty hard at the moment," reports Ross.

KNOCKING

"He has come on well over the past six months and has been playing well when he gets his chance. I would say he'd be certainly knocking on the door for the Six Nations, or if not then, for the summer tour."

Coach Matt O'Connor will hope that Healy's deputies can be suitably motivated to grab their unscheduled opportunity with eager paws.

"Cian is a world-class player and it's always difficult to lose someone of his calibre," he said. "He rolled his ankle last week, and it wasn't until we scanned it that we had any indication of how serious it was.

"But we've got an all-Irish front-row and we know they've done a fantastic job for us this year."

That Irish sides can now resort to domestic players to fill in such gaping vacancies presented by the absences of key players such as Ross and Healy offers an eminently pleasant silver lining.

Irish Independent

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