Absent friends will be missed in Japan

HUGE LOSS: Injured talisman Sean O’Brien celebrates with his Leinster team-mates after Saturday’s Guinness PRO14 final win over Glasgow Warriors at Celtic Park. A day later, Leinster announced O’Brien will miss the World Cup due to a hip complaint. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

And before we know it, another season comes to a sudden and dramatic end. At least it finished on a positive note with Leinster retaining their Guinness PRO14 title in front of a record crowd of 47,128 brave souls at a rainswept Celtic Park in Glasgow.

Normally around this time, Joe Schmidt is left surveying the walking wounded in an effort to decide who should travel on some tour or other Down Under with Ireland and who would benefit from an extended break.

This time the dynamic is different with preparations for the World Cup in Japan already coming sharply into focus with the announcement by Schmidt of his wider squad of 44 players that will be whittled down to 31 in the week leading into the final World Cup warm-up game against Wales on September 7. Injuries will play a major part in that announcement.

In every World Cup cycle, some player has their dreams shattered by injury on the eve of departure. Think Geordan Murphy against Scotland in 2003 when breaking his leg and David Wallace in 2011 after a tackle by England’s Manu Tuilagi shattered his knee in Dublin.

The curse of the openside has struck again with two key players in Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien already ruled out of contention for the global event. Leavy’s loss went under the radar somewhat during the Six Nations given the quality available to Ireland in that position but, on reflection, his absence proved enormous. While O’Brien returned during that campaign after a year’s absence from the international stage, he struggled to make the impact we had come to expect.

Nevertheless his loss to the squad, with Leavy already ruled out, leaves Ireland and Schmidt exposed in a key area. The value of a quality No. 7 cannot be overstated, so much so that in New Zealand it is always the starting point for selection.

In Richie McCaw, the All Blacks had a force of nature that drove their successful campaigns in 2011 and 2015. As the captain in one of New Zealand rugby’s darkest days when losing the 2007 World Cup quarter-final to France, McCall dedicated the rest of his All Black career towards making sure his side never lost a World Cup game again. Incredibly, they remain unbeaten at the tournament since that shock defeat in Cardiff.

Schmidt has now to plan a campaign without two massively influential figures, on and off the field. O’Brien’s presence will be sorely missed as it now appears a certainty that, with his imminent departure to London Irish, we have seen the last of a truly outstanding figure in Irish rugby on the international stage.

Given the confirmation of O’Brien’s unavailability due to hip surgery, Schmidt could do with a positive update on the well being of Devin Toner’s knee. His injury-enforced absence during the Six Nations highlighted just how critical his ball-winning abilities are along with his role in calling Ireland’s lineout and his ability to put the opposition set-piece under pressure.

For the players, their three-week break appears far too short after the rigours of the season but, have no doubt, the medical and strength and conditioning staff within the Irish management set-up will design a training programme and activity levels over the next three months to have the squad fresh but also primed to hit the ground running once they arrive in Japan.

With their pool-defining game against Scotland set to open the campaign, there will be no margin for error. Psychologically, it was very important Leinster beat Glasgow Warriors last weekend, not only in the context of winning the league but also in terms of creating doubts in the heads of several of the Glasgow players that feature for Scotland in that crunch tie.

In that respect, Munster’s Champions Cup quarter-final win over Edinburgh at Murrayfield was equally significant given that Richard Cockerel’s side are the bulk suppliers to the Scottish pack.

Scotland have made strides under Gregor Townsend, with their second-half showing against England in that amazing 38-38 draw at Twickenham offering Schmidt a clear picture of what they are capable of once they throw off the shackles.

Problem was, they had to wait until the half-hour mark, when they were 31-0 down, before reaching that point. It will be interesting to observe in their World Cup warm-up games, home and away against France and Georgia, whether they go for that wide-open style from the outset or revert to their more structured format. If playmaking No 10 Finn Russell gets his way, it will be the former.

While the World Cup is set to capture all the attention from August onwards, before signing off on this season, it is worth looking back on the progress, or otherwise, made by the Irish provinces since last September.

Leinster apart, there are many reasons to suggest Connacht have most reason to look back on their season with the most satisfaction.

Their two main goals at the outset of the campaign were to qualify for the Champions Cup, which they managed by virtue of their consistent performances in the PRO14.

Making the knockout phase of that competition along with progression to the Challenge Cup quarter-finals before losing out to a strong Sale Sharks side got the entire province behind the side. New head coach Andy Friend has enjoyed a marvelous first season and has rekindled the magic and connection with the public they enjoyed under Pat Lam.

With planning permission granted for a major revamp of the Sportsground, and five players involved with Ireland in the Six Nations campaign, Connacht have plenty to look forward to. Ulster too made serious progress after a horrendous 2017/18 season, on and off the field.

The highlight was pushing Leinster all the way in their Champions Cup quarter-final in Dublin. Who knows what might have happened had Jacob Stockdale not dropped the ball over the line in the act of scoring that second-half try?.

New head coach Dan McFarland has proved an inspired appointment and with a full pre-season in charge can influence matters even more. The big downside was the meek surrender to Glasgow Warriors in their 50-20

crushing at Scotstoun in their PRO14 semi-final which took all the gloss off their achievement in reaching that stage. Suffice to say, much achieved but still a distance to travel.

That brings us to Munster.

As I wrote last week, so many clubs would give their eye teeth to make the semi-finals of Europe and of their domestic league with the regularity Munster have achieved in recent times. Yet the underlying feeling endures that they are capable of achieving more while the circumstances surrounding the departure of Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery have raised more questions than answers.

Despite that, there is a clear necessity for fresh coaching input, especially on the attacking side of the ledger and a recognition from the IRFU’s David Nucifora in his state of the nation press conference last week that Johann van Graan needs of a director of rugby to lighten his workload.

The problem with that is Munster are facing a deficit close to €1.6m for the season and that has to impact on the quality of new appointments. Yet Munster are in need of three new coaches with that potential addition of a Director of Rugby.

Those key appointments will keep the Munster administration busy for weeks to come and will define what happens next season. That leaves us with Leinster, whose prospects of achieving a remarkable double-double were derailed by a superb Saracens side, led by the most under-appreciated Irish coach of them all in Mark McCall. There was no shame in that however.

Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have delivered three trophies from a possible four over the last two seasons, Saturday’s PRO14 success Leinster’s 10th trophy in 12 seasons. That is why they remain at the summit of Irish rugby and the chief suppliers to Schmidt’s World Cup squad.

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