Tuesday 22 October 2019

David Kelly: 'Injury crisis threatens to turn one of Ireland's biggest strengths into their greatest weakness'

Ireland have injury doubts surrounding a number of key backs ahead of the World Cup opener against Scotland. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland have injury doubts surrounding a number of key backs ahead of the World Cup opener against Scotland. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

IN a former life, Joe Schmidt was an English teacher so he will be versed with dear old Oscar’s famous maxim. To lose one player and all that.

A drip feed of depressing injury bulletins is threatening to rival the seasonally predictable weather at Ireland’s team base, submerging them in a landslide of uncertainty just days away from their latest Rugby World Cup assault, and Schmidt’s last.

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Rob Kearney has now emerged as an injury doubt for the clash against Scotland this week with another of those curious injuries which remain shrouded in mystery until uncovered by nose-twitching inquisitive sharpness, in this case by Cian Tracey of this parish, who first alerted fans to his calf issue.

This news follows uncomfortably close to the weekend revelation, again unearthed by those beyond the camp, rather than those within it, that Robbie Henshaw’s second successive World Cup participation was plunged into doubt when he pulled up with a hamstring injury in training.

Keith Earls, who has had multiple issues in an uncomfortable build-up to the competition for the Munster man, had to endure a nervous wait before being passed fit to fly out from Ireland in the first place.

Putatively, he remains available for selection this weekend but he has not yet trained with the Irish squad and surely must do so overnight in order to convince the coaching staff that he can be trusted to take his place in the back-three.

Professional teams will always secrete issues in order to regain a competitive advantage but sometimes it back-fires.

As it stands, Irish fans will have a sense that their side’s tournament progress is being imperilled before a ball is even kicked.

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And for a coach who demands to be in control of each minute particle of preparation, his tournament plans are already threatening to unravel.

For, even if Ireland should still manage to submit an amply sufficient back-line to dispatch a fitful Scottish side, the prospects of an ambush are increased with every bulletin of gloom emerging from a casualty word that is becoming worryingly busy.

The recent history of clashes between the nations suggests nothing else but an Irish win; however, when you recall how Schmidt was so discommoded by a mere burst of heavy traffic in Edinburgh three years ago, Irish supporters can be forgiven if their anxiety levels are raised by news of Kearney’s latest problem.

Schmidt still referenced that calamity of the infamously tardy bus two years after it happened.

On that occasion, as in this World Cup, Ireland opened a tournament they were expected to thrive in against the Scots but were stunned in an opening day loss against the underdogs.

Will history repeat itself? It may now be up in the air – which is where Finn Russell is likely to send the ball all day should the ultimate aerial warrior Kearney be removed from the fray.

Suddenly, one of Ireland’s greatest strengths may become one of their greatest weaknesses. This game will now need to primarily rely on forward prowess – presuming they stay fit, of course.

There has been some encouraging news.

Joey Carbery’s prospective return from an ankle injury, sustained when trapped beneath an Italian ruck last month, was broadcast with wild optimism by a member of the coaching staff.

But given the difficulties which have emerged with his stricken colleagues, it is advisable to take any official communiques with a large helping of salt.

There may potentially be seven weeks and seven matches for Ireland and the brains trust will have delicately plotted the extent to which they were going to deploy their squad, particularly given their lop-sided pool draw.

With the toughest matches front-loaded, Schmidt knows he needs his heavy-hitters early on, before gradually withdrawing them for fringe players to deal with Samoa and Russia, ahead of a prospective quarter-final against South Africa or New Zealand.

While he has included the depth chart (often over-estimated) in his calculations, the more players who need to be introduced from outside his preferred 23 will upset the tournament planning.

And we do not need to dig deep into the historical archives to recall how injuries can de-rail the best-laid World Cup plans.

It also seems worrying that the latest two injuries appear to have emerged in training which makes one wonder, given that the heavy lifting was done a month ago in the Algarve as demonstrated in the Twickenham blow-out, why have two players succumbed in sessions so close to match-day?

It means many Irish fans will have a sleepless tonight, fretful that another player may be struck by the injury curse.

And the greatest fear of all is that Ireland’s progression through this tournament will be dogged by the desperate hope that they can rely on rehabilitating injured players, instead of enjoying the comfort of relying on fit ones.

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