Monday 26 August 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'Leavy blow another reminder of rugby's capacity for carnage'

Joe Schmidt will have been lamenting the valuable game-time lost to Joey Carbery, his back-up man to Johnny Sexton. Yet he had to be impressed with the composure of Tyler Bleyendaal. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt will have been lamenting the valuable game-time lost to Joey Carbery, his back-up man to Johnny Sexton. Yet he had to be impressed with the composure of Tyler Bleyendaal. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It was an instructive weekend for Joe Schmidt. It was an instructive weekend for all of us. Wrapped up in the compelling drama that was two of the four Champions Cup quarter-finals were a few messages for Ireland, and a reminder for the game in general.

The Dan Leavy story speaks to both. We first heard of the Ireland flanker when he was in St Michael's. 'Freakish' was a word used a few times to describe his ability to physically impact a game. It doesn't always follow that lads in that category are prepared to put up with severe discomfort to maintain that influence. Leavy never had an issue with sucking it up and coming back for more.

The grotesque outcome to him trying to poach the ball at a breakdown in the second half of the game against Ulster is the worst thing we have ever seen on a sports field. Football has produced its fair share of hideous injuries from full force contact between studs and shins - the David Busst leg break in Old Trafford in 1994 was a stomach-turner - but rugby is one of the few sports that create circumstances in which wholesale carnage can occur in an instant.

Leavy managed the full house of ligament ruptures to his knee - anterior, posterior and both sides - as well as a hamstring torn off the bone, a torn calf and a broken fibula. Given his nature, he was quick out of the traps with a message to say he will be back. If he is to achieve a return to top-flight rugby, then the team effort and skill from his surgeons combined with his own determination will need to be top of the range.

In the meantime, the episode is another plank pulled away from the platform of rugby as a great game. Never would you say this game is safe, and its physical contact is intrinsic to its appeal, but its capacity to produce devastating injury is deeply unsettling. And evidently very hard to control.

Leavy's injury reduces the chances of Irish success at the World Cup. He was an automatic pick, and his removal puts a greater premium on getting something out of Seán O'Brien, who is well past the point where a World Cup presents him with an appealing work schedule. Leavy's loss is not the hammer blow Australia received when losing David Pocock in the run-up to the pool game with Ireland in Auckland in 2011, but it is massive nonetheless. And longer term.

At least Schmidt, who arrives back tomorrow morning from a break in New Zealand, will have come away from the weekend with increased options at out-half. And in that package the wins for Leinster and Munster produced storylines worthy of Roy of the Rovers.

If you were not at the Aviva then you wouldn't have had the freedom to focus almost exclusively on the lame duck version of Swan Lake as performed by Ross Byrne in Leinster's backfield. He had gone back there late in the game, hobbled by cramp, in search of refuge. A couple of the Ulster players looked like dogs worrying sheep as they looked for a gap through which to drag Byrne into the game.

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Had they succeeded then the Leinster 10 would have been defenceless, and Leo Cullen would have been answering different questions post-match. Instead the coach was showering praise on his out-half for extraordinary courage under fire. If Leinster go on to retain the Champions Cup then Byrne's penalty to retake the lead against Ulster may well be the equivalent of Johnny Sexton's drop-goal in Paris for Ireland's Grand Slam last season. It was extraordinary.

Byrne had been overtaken in the Ireland pecking order this season by Jack Carty, who was in fine form for Connacht. We've never been slow to point out that Byrne's international aspirations are hampered by his less than Bolt-like pace. Carty isn't considering a career change to the 100 metres either but he's a got a yard or two on Byrne. On that front, however, Joey Carbery would leave the pair of them for dead.

Carbery's hamstring issues revisited him at the worst possible moment for Munster in Murrayfield, just as the home side had gone into a 10-7 lead. Watching this unfold in the early hours in New Zealand, Schmidt will have been lamenting the valuable game-time lost to his back-up man to Johnny Sexton. Yet he had to be impressed with the composure of Tyler Bleyendaal.

Keith Earls may have been the two-try hero of the day for the Reds, but in the space of two minutes, leading to the winger's second try, Bleyendaal did the following: he got every last centimetre out of a penalty to touch to give Munster a try-scoring platform; he read and collected perfectly, over the back, a lineout throw aimed at Tadhg Beirne; and then he nailed the 41-metre conversion from the touchline to leave Edinburgh needing a try to save themselves.

With Sexton, Carbery and Carty/Byrne at his disposal, Schmidt isn't falling over himself to put the Ireland-qualified Bleyendaal in a green shirt. But while it will feel like the World Cup is upon us in no time, there are lots of landmines for players to avoid between now and the squad of 31 getting on the plane.

Between the closing stages of the Pro14, Europe and the World Cup warm-ups there will be travel plans shredded for a few unfortunates. You can only hope they don't have to face the same road stretching out ahead of Dan Leavy.

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