Tuesday 17 September 2019

Neil Francis: Enough hamstring injuries - Leinster need to shut down their weights room programme

Leinster prop Mike Ross leaves the pitch with a hamstring injury against Zebre Picture: Sportsfile
Leinster prop Mike Ross leaves the pitch with a hamstring injury against Zebre Picture: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Injury - the Iscariot's kiss of the game. A good way through the season and suddenly a player's body is betrayed by either its strength or its weaknesses and an injured party is led away.

This weekend, Leinster and Connacht have to scramble their resources. Ireland made do with an injury-enforced hotch-potch backline in their final autumn Test; maybe the provinces can replicate that.

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Before we start I think it is important that I make this point: The week before last, James Ryan, second-row captain of our out-performing U-20s side that reached the Junior World Cup final, tore his hamstring off the bone.

Ryan went for surgery last week and his season is over. If everything went in his favour in his career, he would be a short-odds favourite to win 100 caps and captain the senior side. The boy is a phenomenon. Freakish ability and a rugby mind that sees the game from a champion's perspective.

A hamstring avulsion is a catastrophic injury. There is no guarantee that he will come back 100pc or even 80pc. There is no guarantee that he will ever come back. You need a structural engineer not a panel beater to get this crashed car back on the road.

Avulsions

How many hamstring avulsions is that now in the last few seasons? A potential 10-year 100-cap international and he is crocked and his future greatness a matter of conjecture and uncertainty.

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It is not happening in any of the other nations in Europe.

It is not even time for an inquiry now! Leinster have to shut their programme down in the weights room. Shut it down now! First it was hips, now it's hamstrings.

Last Friday in Franklin's Gardens, Leo Cullen's men enjoyed a good day up front. Northampton put up fitful resistance at tight, but Leinster's front five did them, and did them to a degree that you don't often see at this level against a supposedly competent side.

Yet by the 65th minute, the score was still only 20-10 to Leinster. That scoreline could be overturned in 90 seconds. Despite Leinster's domination, the match was very much alive. And remember Leinster do have a habit of stopping playing, particularly when they think they have the match won.

I have no wish for more Bent bashing, but the mere sight of Michael Bent entering the fray would only surely encourage an unlikely Northampton revival.

Where is Mike Ross? Well, he picked up a bad hamstring injury against Zebre. We didn't think that people like Mike Ross had a hamstring!

Leinster have two looseheads, Jack McGrath and Cian Healy, who will go to New Zealand with the Lions. Could they not just get Peter Dooley or Andrew Porter and either convert them to tighthead or simply play them out of position? Props with hamstrings? Ye Gods!

Healy is only now just recovering from his neck and hamstring injuries and is not even close to being back to his best.

Shut the programme down and ask questions later.

Anyway, Johnny Sexton is out in Santry, rehabbing his hamstring injury. He won't be back until the new year, and so we looked forward to some uninterrupted Joey Carbery time. Two Heineken Cup matches and a trip to Thomond on St Stephen's Day - more than just a sorbet to whet the palate.

It would have been fantastic to see what he could have done. To give him licence and tell him to play whatever way he wanted to play. Michaelangelo said about one of his sculptures, "I saw an angel in marble and I carved until I set him free."

The difference is that Joey can move. The statue, while exquisite, pales beside Carbery's fluency and movement. But Carbery won't be moving now for four or five weeks and we are robbed of the opportunity to see him showcase his extravagant ability in three high-calibre games.

It seems that Leinster will pick Ross Byrne at 10 when the team is announced at lunchtime tomorrow. Byrne is a very good prospect . . . in fact, scratch that, he is now a very good player. At 6ft 2ins, he is big and he weighs in at 14ƒ stone.

I watched him play for St Michael's and at U-20 level. He has everything; prime amongst his qualities, he is impressively quick for a big man, an imperative for the modern game. He plays right at the line when he takes ball and he is a very confident, self-assured and intuitive player.

He will do a whole lot more than not just let Leinster down. His game management as he demonstrated in the U-20 Six Nations is slick and brilliantly thought out. It is ridiculous to think that his doppelgänger Sexton is looking over his shoulder at Carbery and the pair of them get blindsided by Byrne.

A little bit of me would have liked to have seen Isa Nacewa in the 10 jersey. Nacewa is Leinster's most dangerous player.

He is still one of the most skilful players in Europe. His range of passing and kicking are just sublime, and while he still has a season or two left in him this could have been one of those great nights where he got licence to cut Northampton to pieces from the pivot position.

Nacewa does in fairness get ample opportunity while playing in the back three. You are, however, dependent on those inside you to give you the moment, or a poor kick to take advantage of.

You get the ball passed to you six or seven times more in a match as out-half than you do on the wing. Saturday night under those lights, you could forget about all those other injuries.

Leinster shouldn't think too hard about what happened three years ago. If they play well, they will win comfortably. The correct mental attitude here is imperative.

One of the things that must be at the forefront of their minds is the bonus point. Northampton won't be as fragile or disorganised as they were last week - but neither will Leinster. Leinster were a long way from brilliant.

After watching the match three times, Leinster will have had ample opportunity, as they say in the post-match interviews, to "pick out the things that they didn't do well and improve on them". That could take them all week in training.

If Leinster are serious about this competition, they need a five-pointer against a vulnerable Northampton side. They also have to hope that Castres do the usual French "we win at home and then we lose away" trick against Montpellier. It would change the dynamic in the group if Montpellier lost on Sunday to Castres after Leinster win strong the previous day.

For Leinster to progress they need 20 points for a home quarter-final - otherwise you end up playing away to Clermont, Toulon or Saracens. Silver medal territory! Whereas not many sides would fancy their chances in the Aviva in April.

So an 80-minute performance is required. A pressure game played in the Northampton half and a little bit of pace and invention should see them home. Five points is a must.

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