Hectic schedule puts bodies on the line
Ireland's top players are showing the effects of too many games, says Jim Glennon
Is it just me or have our leading players looked absolutely knackered recently? Watching last week's final round of Magners League games, admittedly following as they did immediately upon our European disappointments of the previous weekend, it was difficult at times to avoid the impression that at least some of our top players are running on empty.
When one sits down and thinks about it, the last 12 months for our top internationals have been hectic. The Grand Slam was followed by extended Heineken Cup involvement for two of the provinces; then came the Lions trip to South Africa in the summer, leading into an attritional season in which, coincidentally or otherwise, injuries have seemed far more prevalent than in previous years.
With the end of the club season now in sight, there is the trip to the southern hemisphere for winter matches against New Zealand, Australia, and the New Zealand Maori. Looking further forward, a marathon World Cup season, in which our relatively shallow playing resources will be stretched to the maximum, begins in early August with the inaugural game in the new Aviva Stadium.
There has been much discussion about a hangover from last summer's Lions trip, in terms of players feeling the after-effects of such a prolonged season. I would certainly subscribe to this theory. Hard evidence of the effect of this hangover is provided by the interesting fact that the non-participating French have emerged top of the pile in each of the Six Nations championships following the four most recent Lions tours, namely, 1998, 2002, 2006, and 2010 and that all bar one of those championship victories have been by way of Grand Slam.
Let's take Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll as an example. Including last night's game against Munster, he has played 23 games, eight of them internationals, with at least two more to come, barring injury, and not to mention possible demands on his talents for encounters with the Barbarians and Maoris. Jamie Heaslip has chalked up 26 appearances, with potentially another six before the summer holidays.
The demands on our top players seem never-ending, and the casualty list of those who have been out injured during the season is also very telling. Of Ireland's 13 players who participated in the Lions party last summer, the seasons of Luke Fitzgerald, Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris, Keith Earls, Rob Kearney, Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy have all featured injuries of varying degrees of severity. Fatigue certainly appears to be prevalent among our players, and not just the tiredness you would associate with coming near the end of a long season, but also mental fatigue which is the logical consequence of the intensity of year-round professional rugby.
In the aftermath of the defeats of Munster and Leinster in the Heineken Cup semi-finals, there was some discussion regarding the advantages accruing to the sides drawn at home, with a case being made for the introduction of a two-legged semi-final.
While the logic behind the proposition is evident for all to see, it's utterly unrealistic to insert another major fixture into the already jam-packed calendar, particularly in light of the newly-extended Magners schedule.
Looking ahead to the summer tours and beyond to next season, the schedule really is making huge demands of the players. While there are obvious benefits for Declan Kidney and his management team from the southern hemisphere trip, as they continue their efforts to build a squad for the World Cup, just what condition many of the players will be in by the time they assemble to travel, never mind when they check in for their return flights, remains to be seen.
Indeed it strikes me that, similar to Minister Eamon Ryan's plan to make major games free-to-air; there could well be a real danger of killing the goose. In the same way that over-exposure to the physical and mental demands of the game can only lead to a diminished quality of performance, so also the drastically-reduced funding from TV proposed by the minister can only lead to an exodus of players to the more lucrative fields of France and England.
The effect would be to have a free-to-air TV product that no-one would want to watch.
Finally, Malcolm O'Kelly has followed Girvan Dempsey in announcing his retirement. I'll always remember, as Leinster coach in 1995, phoning Ciaran Fitzgerald having seen the 19- year-old Malcolm in action, all six-foot eight-inches of him, and been impressed, as had anyone else who had watched him. I wanted to be sure that the youngster's development, which was coming along nicely anyway, would not be unduly hindered by premature exposure to the more intense physicality of provincial rugby. Fitzie's response was simple -- "nothing fazes this kid".
Never was that phrase more appropriate; indeed there are those who hold the view that his laid-back nature may well have cost Mal some landmark achievements in an already lengthy and honours-laden career.
Nonetheless, his achievements are, by any yardstick, immense, and his contribution to the golden era of Leinster and Irish rugby will always be remembered.