Sunday 19 November 2017

Coaches play high stakes in search of the right numbers

Relying on non-specialist cover in key positions is a dangerous gamble

'A soft tissue injury to either Conor Murray (pictured) or Eoin Reddan puts massive pressure on all concerned'
'A soft tissue injury to either Conor Murray (pictured) or Eoin Reddan puts massive pressure on all concerned'
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

On the day before Paul O'Connell's final Test match in the Aviva stadium last weekend, the Ireland captain was dealing with the media, and trying to dodge the inevitable. The emotional furrow had been ploughed over and again, and he was keen to get on to pastures new.

In the course of that escape, while looking back over a career that started in the old days, he said something that jumped out at you: "You regret a mistake in training almost as much as you regret a mistake in a match," he said. "And that's a great place to be when you're trying to prepare well for big games."

If he had said that in the lead-up to the 2007 World Cup, when Ireland set sail for France with great expectations but not much chance of delivering them, you would have wondered what he was on about. Even if four years later he had made that kind of remark you'd have thought he was losing the plot.

Now, however, it fits right in. The planning that goes into a campaign like this starts a year in advance with the logistics man checking out everything that might affect the feng shui of the environment. So when it comes to the coaching, you don't expect Joe Schmidt to deviate. Rather what happens on the training field continues the theme: players arrive not just ready to work but mindful about getting everything right.

It all contributes to this image of a highly professional operation dedicated to making tiny gains in lots of areas, the aggregate of which will take them over the line first. And yet last week we had a raft of these uber-schemers and planners taking the kind of punts that, if they go wrong, could render all the other marginal gains unusable.

Michael Cheika was first up to the bookie's window with a World Cup squad list that had only two out-and-out scrum-halves, and the same number of hookers. With Matt Giteau covering the first equation, it's the second one that is loaded with risk. If anything happens one of the chosen pair then prop Scott Sio, who is no specialist, stands in.

Eddie Jones was next with a Japan squad that also had only two recognised nines. His situation is different in that, by his reckoning, there are only 31 players in Japan capable of playing international rugby in any case, so first he has to shop outside for journeymen and second he has to take chances. Because it's only Japan no-one cares too much, but still he is exposed to the same risk as the others.

Warren Gatland is in an altogether different league. Again he has gone with just two hookers. The knee injury to team leader Alun-Wyn Jones complicated the issue, so Gatland is taking an extra lock to cover while Jones rehabs. Prop Aaron Jarvis is the lucky lad who will slip into the number two shirt if required.

Then, closer to home, there is Joe Schmidt. If you wondered why the official announcement of the squad had been scheduled for Tuesday morning when the dogs on the street were barking the names on Monday - the day after the players had been told - then perhaps it was because the coach needed some space to get his ducks in a row, as one of his predecessors was so fond of saying, when it came to delivering the rationale behind his decisions. Time waits for no man, however. He was forced out front sooner than he wanted.

And he had some explaining to do. The mood music coming from Camp Ireland a couple of weeks ago was that Ian Madigan as cover for nine was a risk unlikely to be taken - that kind of stuff was best left to those high rollers over in Camp Wallaby. Either they were spinning a dodgy disc or there was a late change of heart, prompted by the need to add cover at centre, in the shape of Darren Cave. Given that we understand Madigan was given notice in pre-season that this was a possibility, the decision didn't just hit Schmidt in a flash of desperation.

The upside is that the third-choice scrum-half tends to be mostly a bag holder, so why waste a specialist on that? The downside is an injury to one of the two dedicated nines. Or rather, an injury/illness late in the week. Replacements coming into your squad for an injured player can't lace a boot for 48 hours. And the man they replace can't rejoin the squad when he is fit again. So a soft tissue injury to either Conor Murray or Eoin Reddan puts massive pressure on all concerned: the medics need to be very accurate with their prognoses; and Madigan would feel the heat as a marked man in unfamiliar territory.

Tadhg Furlong knows how that feels. He went to Twickenham yesterday in two minds: great to be part of the match-day squad again, having made his debut last weekend against Wales; deeply unsettling to be covering a position that is new to him. Again the noises - on the record - coming from Camp Ireland early in this warm-up series were that Michael Bent was doing very well. As the only man recognised with experience of both sides of the scrum he seemed a shoo-in. Then the words 'Furlong' and 'bolter' became inseparable.

Scrum coach Greg Feek has confidence in Furlong's capacity to make a success of it, and if he is right then the Leinster prop can give his agent a shout and tell him to get out the calculator. If not then the player will have to take a deep breath, and Joe Schmidt will start spinning. With Cian Healy battling to make the opening night it all adds to the risk in a critical area.

Moreover it's a fascinating element in the business of preparation. Most coaches are controlling individuals, and that often extends to every tiny detail that makes up the team environment. Uniquely for this World Cup, however, we have seen a shift in the pattern. The controllers have rolled the dice. We'll see what numbers come up.

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