Tuesday 15 October 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Over to you - provinces charged with rehabilitating wounded Ireland stars'


Cullen: Tough task ahead. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Cullen: Tough task ahead. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

When they bade farewell to their internationals at the end of January, Leo Cullen, Andy Friend, Johann van Graan and Dan McFarland parted on strong terms. All four provinces had negotiated safe passage to the European quarter-finals and the Ireland squad members headed for camp with a spring in their steps.

They return after a confidence-rattling Six Nations. Joe Schmidt said his team had been "a bit broken" by the experience of losing to England in round one. We can only speculate as to what state they've been in as they've arrived back into their day jobs in the past few days.

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Cullen, Friend, Van Graan and McFarland are charged with doing the state some service in the next 10 weeks.

Their mission is ostensibly to finish a promising season on a high and they each have different goals to achieve. Schmidt will hope that fresh focus can rehabilitate some of his ailing stars.

The majority of the players who struggled so badly for Ireland in Cardiff last weekend have been given the weekend off and will return to provincial duty for the three European quarter-finals with Irish involvement next weekend.

Some will have taken a holiday, others will have been banging down the door to get back in training to work away the bad vibes.

The challenge for the four provincial coaches is to alter the mood of despair within Irish rugby after a campaign that fell well below internal and external expectations.

"For us, it will be about heading off to the provinces," Schmidt said of his crestfallen players.

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"Dusting themselves off, getting some confidence through their provincial performances which are usually of a very high standard and then we will get back together."

Having struggled to get a tune out of his front-liners all spring, he is hoping a change of pace will get them back on track.

The season moves on with almost indecent haste and there is little scope for wounds to be licked.

Next Saturday, the Aviva Stadium will be packed to the rafters for the first all-Irish European game since Leinster played Ulster in the 2012 final.

The rematch of these two teams will hog much of next week's focus, but there is also the small matter of Munster's tricky away quarter-final against Edinburgh and Connacht's Challenge Cup clash with Sale Sharks to consider.

The first job for the coaches to assess the body count of a bruising campaign.

Connacht aside, the three Champions Cup sides are counting the cost. Iain Henderson is a major doubt for Ulster, Joey Carbery is in a race to be fit for Munster and Devin Toner and Robbie Henshaw look set to miss out for Leinster.

Then there is form to consider.

What does Cullen do with Seán O'Brien now that he finally has Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier and Rhys Ruddock fit.

How does he pick up Seán Cronin after he was cruelly cast aside mid-tournament and, perhaps most importantly, how does he coax Johnny Sexton back to form when he was last seen at war with himself as his radar deserted him in front of 70,000 Welsh fans and the folks back home.

In Munster, Van Graan is tasked with getting a performance out of Conor Murray who improved as the Six Nations went on but never hit the heights we know he can.

He has Alby Mathewson for cover and the All Black has proved a key acquisition, but Murray is Munster's talisman and is an almost certain starter. They need him at his best at Murrayfield.

Connacht can at least count on some players who made progress this spring, with Jack Carty impressive during his limited involvements and Quinn Roux a player who made big strides.

Ultan Dillane too had some strong showings, although he lost his place for the final game.

Up in Ulster, McFarland's key concern is over Henderson but he'll also be watching Rory Best closely. The 36-year-old got rolled back the years after beating the All Blacks, but he'll have taken his team's struggles personally. Like Munster and Murray, the northern province need their skipper at the top of his game to stand a chance.

The next 10 days will tell us a lot and Schmidt will be watching closely as he looks for his players to regather World Cup momentum while wearing their provincial jerseys.

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