Ireland's stock has never been as high in world rugby
But this year's Six Nations has had a few reality checks, writes George Hook
The Six Nations Championship is the jewel in rugby's crown. It is the envy of the southern hemisphere countries that frantically ignore the laws and pressurise the referees to produce a Super 14 competition which resembles reality TV rather than a serious competition. It is predicated by the urgent need to grow audiences for the small screen and generate revenue for the unions.
However, the comfortable belief that the Six Nations series would go from strength to strength has had some reality checks this year. Injury has always been part and parcel of contact sport but the nightmare for administrators is to have a catastrophic injury occur in the full glare of the cameras.
Similarly, the juggling act to keep clubs happy with their lot during the international season remains difficult and in England and France, where the clubs are owned in the main by wealthy men, a major bust-up is only an incident away.
Tom Kiernan and Syd Miller never received due credit for the brilliant organisation of Ireland's entry into the professional era. Their vision to contract the players to the Union created the environment for this country's unprecedented run of success in the pay-for-play game. Ireland's professional players are at least twice as successful as their amateur counterparts of the past. It has been no accident.
The injury to Scottish wing Thom Evans in the match against Wales was a fraction away from rendering the player paraplegic. Evans was admitted with a very unstable injury to his neck. He was scanned and operated on within hours of admission. The first operation was critical to protect the spinal cord as the vertebra had slipped. This was performed on the Saturday night and was successful with Evans showing immediate signs of recovery. He will be in a collar for at least six weeks to allow the soft tissue to heal and his care has been transferred to a hospital in Glasgow for outpatient and rehabilitation treatment.
In that same match, Chris Paterson had a serious kidney injury which will keep him out of the rest of the championship. Scottish Rugby Union and Welsh Rugby Union medical teams delivered very high standards of care on the pitch, which almost certainly saved both players from more serious consequences. The club player would not be so lucky.
However, the championship is also in turmoil over players who are fit. French club Stade Francais are in a spat with the RFU over flanker James Haskell. Martin Johnson wants the player for squad training and the club wants him to play against Toulouse in the French Top 14 competition. France is now awash with English players so the argument is about a very important principle of release for national duty.
Stade Français owner Max Guazzini has appealed for the Six Nations committee to take action, but the RFU have refused to allow Haskell to return to play for Stade Français this weekend, despite strong threats being made by the Top 14 club. International Rugby Board regulations give clubs first call on players in a non-international week but Rob Andrew, elite rugby director at the RFU, has shifted the blame to the player. "We have been given assurances by James and his advisors that he has an agreement with Stade that he can fulfil the release periods for England training," said Andrew.
The French club has strongly refuted Andrew's claims that there is an agreement to allow Haskell to be absent from club duty whenever the England camp call on his services. The club has already sent him a written warning about missing training and may take legal action against him for breach of contract.
The French clubs are unhappy because they realise that the Rugby Football Union pay the Guinness Premiership clubs millions of pounds for additional access to their players -- but the French clubs get nothing.
The story took a twist on Thursday when Haskell sat out training after becoming the latest member of the England squad to be hit by a stomach bug. Martin
Johnson refuted suggestions of a conveniently-timed illness. "I spoke to the doctor and he said they were symptoms that could not be faked."
Meanwhile, Declan Kidney luxuriates in having almost his entire squad fit and well for the game against Wales next weekend. Jerry Flannery lost his appeal (and was lucky not to have his ban increased) and Luke Fitzgerald continues his rehabilitation, but those players apart, Ireland are in better shape than their opponents.
Off the pitch, the IRFU announced the retirement of Liam Hennessy, its director of fitness. Hennessy was instrumental in developing the strategy that reduced the playing load on elite players. When he first suggested internationals should play fewer than 30 games a year there was doubt about its value. Not anymore. John Hayes will be followed in to the century club this year by Brian O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara. When they raise the Champagne glasses, they might also toast the man who made it possible.
Ireland's stock has never been as high in world rugby. We should not forget the roles of Kiernan, Miller and Hennessy. And -- I almost forgot -- Charlie McCreevy's tax break for sportsmen must have helped somewhere.