Wednesday 19 December 2018

Neil Francis: It must be horribly uncomfortable being an Irish back row - it's the one area where nobody is safe

With injuries so prevalent and the pecking order so tight, no loose forward can rest on his laurels

Dan Leavy (left), Peter O'Mahony (centre) and Josh van der Flier (right) are all competing for a place in the Irish team.
Dan Leavy (left), Peter O'Mahony (centre) and Josh van der Flier (right) are all competing for a place in the Irish team.
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

For such a big oaf I have surprisingly dainty feet. Formal shoes or rugby boots - if they are not an absolute perfect fit then I'm like Neymar for the rest of the day. That is what I imagine it is like competing for a back-row position in an Ireland squad; like wearing a pair of shoes that are a size or two too small for you - horribly uncomfortable.

Leinster play Munster in the Aviva on Saturday week and pretty much everyone knows who is going on to Carton House after the opening matches of the Champions Cup - that is everyone except Nos 6, 7 and 8.

Jordi Murphy. Photo: Sportsfile
Jordi Murphy. Photo: Sportsfile

Ireland's brilliant Grand Slam season was underpinned by metronomic consistency by their dominant back-row.

Every time something needed to be done they did it and more.

Consistency of performance is begotten by consistency of selection.

And when injuries did come Ireland were not only not exposed, they managed to catapult the replacements into the stratosphere. Is Joe lucky or is he just good?

Peter O'Mahony played in all the serious Test matches in the 2017/2018 season - a testament to his durability and temperament.

It's hard to know how to categorise O'Mahony - is he a mongrel or a thoroughbred?

Seán O'Brien. Photo: Sportsfile
Seán O'Brien. Photo: Sportsfile

Even those with sharp memories may have forgotten that Warren Gatland picked him as his captain for the first Lions Test against New Zealand.

When the Kiwis won in pretty conclusive fashion O'Mahony was jettisoned and didn't play another minute of rugby on that tour - captain one minute, tackle-bag carrier the next.

I went out and bought a new 'Wazza' dartboard and some extra-sharp darts - the old one had too many holes in it anyway.

It's hard to keep your counsel and your pride intact when that happens to you, particularly when the series is eventually squared and saved.

Dan Leavy. Photo: Sportsfile
Dan Leavy. Photo: Sportsfile

I thought the edge in Ireland's overall effort last season came from their back-row.

They were sensational for the first 40 minutes in Twickenham.

However that performance, although it produced a Grand Slam, was a long way short of the display against South Africa last November.

That performance was the most complete and consistent 80 minutes of Joe Schmidt's tenure.

Beating the Springboks 38-3 is the stuff of dreams. Only the All Blacks have beaten them by more and in such comprehensive fashion.

CJ Stander also played in all of Ireland's serious Test matches last season, although he did not start in all of them - he was consistent and highly dependable if not as dynamic as the season before. Maybe the Lions tour took more out of him.

The duo's consistency last season came from opposite ends of the spectrum.

Stander is rarely injured and when he is it is a short-term injury and he tends to recover relatively quickly.

We must remember O'Mahony had a catastrophic injury in the last World Cup in the decisive pool match against France.

A total ACL rupture required a major knee reconstruction - it took a year which is slow these days and the rehab was painful and uncertain.

A Grand Slam after the Lions and that injury was a fitting and just reward.

The Top 14 co-ordinated a study on which position gets injured the most.

Hookers, it would seem, get the most injuries in that league.

I suppose you can point to Bernard Jackman and John Fogarty as obvious examples.

I think back-row players must have a higher attrition rate.

Last season Wales and England had to play without their first-choice back-rows for most of the season because of injury.

At the start of last season Ireland's first-choice back-row which played in November against South Africa was O'Mahony, Stander and Sean O'Brien - a formidable trio.

They were phenomenal that day and again against Argentina.

The Six Nations came around in February and O'Brien's miserable luck continued and despite some unwise attempts to make it back, his season was over - with his return hopefully coming this Saturday.

Josh van der Flier came in against the French in Paris and suffered the same ACL injury as O'Mahony.

Suddenly Schmidt was playing serious games with a third-choice openside - only that our third choice, Dan Leavy, turned out to be the best flanker in the northern hemisphere and he lit up the championship with his dynamism and athletic capability.

The Italian game came and Joe tweaked his back-row - Stander looked tired and Jack Conan started and did well.

Conan had been impressive all season and then he got an opportunity to assert himself in the championship.

Schmidt tweaked his back-row again for the Welsh game with Stander starting.

Conan came on in the last quarter but the end game is helter-skelter and Jacob Stockdale's intercept gamble paid off just as the Welsh looked like they might nick the game.

Conan's fresh legs were not productive and that Welsh revival should have been quelled by the 'closers'.

Schmidt then binned Conan for a below-par effort - even in victory. Ruthless.

Jordi Murphy - a Joe favourite - who has just recovered from another ACL (sustained in the historic win over the All Blacks at Soldier Field), came into the squad with very little match-time behind him.

Murphy gave a stellar performance in the last quarters against Scotland and England.

How did he do that with practically no game-time prior to that? Is Joe lucky or is he just good?

Murphy continued in the first Test against Australia - playing well - but Leavy was brought back into the starting line-up for the victorious second Test.

Injury struck again though as Leavy's sternum was damaged and Joe shuffled things yet again.

Conan recovered from the pit of oblivion and started against the Wallabies and gave a sensational performance as Ireland won the series. Murphy closed out the matches very competently.

Leinster v Munster pits most of them against each other - although long-term absentees Van der Flier and O'Brien may be fit and available but could end up watching from the sideline.

There are about a dozen pretenders/contenders behind that lot.

The competitive stress for back-row places in the provincial and Ireland squads would either spur you on or if you stopped to catch your breath for a millisecond, leave you three steps further down the ladder.

They all say they enjoy the fight and the rivalry but injury and tiny increments like a missed tackle in matches such as the derby in the Aviva are common themes in a scrap for a place in the national side - it is as tight and uncomfortable as a pair of ill-fitting shoes.

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