Saturday 16 December 2017

D'Arcy's World Cup prospects look bleak after ankle surgery

Declan Kidney will take few chances with his marquee names in the next month or so, says Brendan Fanning

World Cup warm-ups are fretful times for players, a mix of trying to play your way into the squad without playing your way out of it through injury. And before Declan Kidney can even announce his side to play Scotland in Edinburgh on Saturday, in the first of five games in August, Gordon D'Arcy looks like he won't be going anywhere with Ireland until the New Year.

D'Arcy had surgery on an ankle in late June and the six weeks rehab from that leaves him short of any pre-season, which would appear to rule the World Cup out for him altogether. Kidney conceded last week that the timeline was "getting tight" for him. In Kidneyspeak, that sounds like the discomfort a crab experiences at 40 fathoms.

You would imagine that Fergus McFadden was nailed on in any case but the likelihood of D'Arcy's demise promotes further the case of a man whose versatility will be important when September rolls around and we're counting who is left standing and what direction they're facing.

Interestingly, the Scots are taking the low road on this one. Italy will provide their only other opposition before flying south, and relying on just two warm-up games seems unwise, especially when you consider that Andy Robinson took his marquee names out of the closing rounds of the Magners League.

He has placed all his faith in the power of the training camp -- where the Scots have been for the past month -- and while you'd expect his players to look the part physically on Saturday (as they did in the corresponding fixture four years ago), they will go to New Zealand well short of a gallop. Already however the coach is upbeat.

"If you look back at the past two years, and this is what gives me great hope going into the World Cup, we've beaten three of the top four sides in the world," he says, referring to wins over South Africa, Australia and Ireland. "That's got lost in a Six Nations that was very disappointing, but while we know that we'll get beaten if we're not at our best, we also know that if we're playing to our capacity we can achieve great things."

He will rest, if that's the right word, Kelly Brown, Mike Blair, Chris Cusiter, Euan Murray and Nathan Hines against Ireland. "We're going to try out a few things that we've been working on in training, and to really push ourselves fitness-wise," says Robinson.

"But the result isn't an afterthought: rugby is a competitive sport and, above all, it's important to win. I don't expect anyone to disrespect the jersey by not giving 100 per cent. This is a full-on Test match against one of the top four sides in the world and the guys have to perform, or else."

Four years ago, Eddie O'Sullivan exposed only two of his frontliners, Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, in the corresponding game and Declan Kidney is likely to take it slowly too as far as his Leinster and Munster marquee names are concerned. The optimum is to start playing on week seven of your pre-season and only the Connacht and Ulster contingent are on schedule for that, given that they were resting up while Leinster and Munster were sorting out the destiny of the Magners title. Thereafter it's critical to have enough game-time spread around your squad by the time you land in New Zealand. "We know we need to be match-fit," Kidney says of the decision to run with five matches (four of them Tests). "If you play four teams are you increasing the odds? I don't think so really. I don't think I'll be playing anyone in all four games. I mightn't be playing too many in three games.

"The object really is to win the matches, to perform as well as we can and to get 30 fellas match-fit -- at least 30 fellas match-fit, because when you go down there, you don't know who you're going to need at any given time.

"If you go down with 15 of them fit by playing two games and then you have to call on someone and they're not match-fit, you're going to say: 'Do I go for the unmatch-fit fella or the semi-fit fella?' So five games is about getting fellas match-fit."

Those most in need of a run are Jerry Flannery, Rob Kearney, Stephen Ferris and Geordan Murphy. Kearney has not been helped by the collapse of the plan to get him a couple of games in South Africa this month. As for the others, Flannery is doing everything asked of him; Ferris is running okay but has not got into full-on rugby yet; and Murphy is making decent progress.

More recent knocks include Tommy Bowe who, according to Kidney, hasn't done much since going over on an ankle "recently" and Brian O'Driscoll, who was in a neck brace at one point last week.

"I'm just saying this in case you see a picture (of O'Driscoll)," Kidney said of his captain's predicament. "I think there was something tweeted. But he's doing 80 per cent of the training and this is just something we have to get right."

The coach has four games to get through before cutting his squad down to 30 in the week of the England game. There were 43 players in camp last week so 13 will be getting the chop then.

"They're all in with a good shot of going, nobody here is wasting their time," he maintains. "They know we're not playing mind games. We'll talk to any players -- some like to know where they stand, others fight their corner and take it at the end. Is it a time I'm looking forward to? No, but it's part of the job."

The job starts on Saturday.

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