Europe's finest prepare to enter the danger zone
The pre-World Cup friendlies are fraught with injury perils, writes Eddie Butler
At the risk of igniting a firestorm of career-threatening injuries, the rugby players of Europe have never been in better shape. While the southern hemisphere countries hurl themselves into the Tri Nations -- or in South Africa's case, limp up to Rustenburg for secret conditioning -- the hard graft of our summer has finished. The heavyweights have been lowered and stories of recovery outweigh tales of woe.
For every Hugo Southwell who has to be declared out of World Cup contention, there is a Stephen Ferris back in the Irish reckoning, or a William Servat starting to rediscover his aim into the French lineout after surgery to his left knee. Every nation bristles with rude health. Gavin Henson has passed every test at -140C in Poland. Maxime Mermoz, perennially unavailable, is just one of so many French players running around and leaving his coach, Marc Lievremont, in the wonderful position of not really knowing what his best starting lineup is. Mauro Bergmasco, who last appeared for Italy in the Six Nations of 2010, is back. Goodness, even Jonny Wilkinson is fit.
It is only a fleeting moment in the World Cup cycle. Admiring a full stable of bodies beautiful is one thing; having them ready for the rigours of New Zealand in just over a month is another. And so it is that Europe's finest are about to enter the danger zone, the August of friendlies that will clarify a few selections for Lievremont and leave a few star names on the same list as Southwell. August is going to be a cruel month of ins and outs.
"Friendlies" is a strange word. Wales play England twice, home and away before full houses. It is not a fixture that bears friendliness easily.
Common sense should prevail, but rugby was not invented with rational behaviour in mind. Danny Care said the games were going to be "huge and a real battle", which hardly introduces an element of caution.
Courtney Lawes going off on a stretcher in the England trial only underlined the perils ahead. Martin Johnson was quick to stress that his second row should be available for the huge and real battles ahead, but it was not clear whether Lawes could nod in agreement, what with his neck being in a brace.
The only way to alleviate the tensions of history is to shuffle the packs vigorously. I think we should be prepared for rolling substitutions that create a breeze strong enough to clear any red mists. Striking the balance between match readiness and soreness is going to be a delicate business and a greater test of the coaching craft than the World Cup itself.
Declan Kidney (pictured), armed with an extension to his contract, has opted for a full calendar of four friendlies: against Scotland, France twice, and England. This is presumably to avoid the sluggishness that afflicted Ireland at the 2007 World Cup.
Still, Ireland remain the form team in Europe. If Lievremont is scratching his head over his bountiful options, imagine the agony of having to fit David Wallace, Jamie Heaslip, Seán O'Brien and Ferris into three positions. It may require all four games for Kidney to make his choice. It will also be interesting to see if Felix Jones, the Munster full-back, is revealed in August. He is one to watch.
England have settled on three games, but threw in the trial for good measure. Dave Strettle, who limped off, may not be a fan of the internal test to see who may face the outside world.
Wales, fresh from building a full-contact session at 5.15am into their Polish schedule, have also gone for three matches. Scotland are playing two. Perhaps they are mindful that summertime Murrayfield does not offer the same commercial rewards as stadiums elsewhere. The lack of international games in November is a factor in all these warm-ups, the treasurer never far from the planning process.
The temptation is to look beyond the trials of August to the reality of September, but the World Cup will be seriously tempered by what happens in the next few weeks. Might there be an inclination to be a little more expansive in August? Hard grounds and all that.
To anticipate an extravagant style in the knock-out stages of the real thing may be fanciful, but we may see a little more frivolity in our high summer.
With that approach comes the most extreme warning, however. It is one of the eternal truths that anyone who tries to tread lightly through friendlies is bound to be undone as a team, injured as an individual.
So, we should simply admire the players as they roll up their sleeves a month earlier than usual and cross our fingers that the casualty rate does not make a mess of this snapshot of a sport in blooming condition. Observer
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