Something just doesn’t sit right about rugby in August.
World Cup years? Okay, fine. And we’ll obviously give a pass to our friends on the far side of the equator. August for them is prime time. A month in which the Super Rugby campaign reaches full bloom with the grand finale before the first seeds of the Rugby Championship are sown. Other than that? No. Just ... no.
Like Brown Thomas opening their Christmas stores in Dublin, Cork and Limerick last week, it feels like a two-fingered salute to the concept of summer’s circadian rhythms when we find ourselves scanning the sports pages for news of Munster’s meetings with London Irish and Exeter Chiefs. Or an update on Leinster’s pre-season trip to Montauban.
All this before the (earlier-than-usual) All-Ireland hurling final was even put to bed.
What we know without doubt, though, is that sport never sleeps. Coaches and admin staff would have been back at their desks around the provinces by late June.
And those players who didn’t make Joe Schmidt’s tour of Australia have been paying for their summer sins since pre-season started in July. What’s changed is the alacrity with which rugby now wipes its eyes, brushes its teeth and presents itself in a shiny new suit in the form of season launches and other promotional packages.
Munster have already begun their weekly press conferences. Leinster held their annual meet-the-coaches evening a fortnight ago. The Guinness PRO14’s season launch has been and gone, too.
It’s no-one’s fault but the absence of any competitive games to dissect, or new storylines to distract, ahead of the new season makes for a lot of hypotheticals and reminiscences. Some snippets of genuine interest did emerge from this week’s big get-together in Glasgow, though.
Among them were a couple concerning Joey Carbery.
Jonathan Sexton’s observation that his Ireland counterpart left Leinster in "strange circumstances” hinted again at the annoyance in the Dublin region at the manner in which the talented and versatile Carbery was lost. How the 22-year old fares in Munster is probably the most eagerly awaited subplot ahead of the new campaign. But the greater issue is how Leinster manage in his absence.
Both Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster, the province’s head and senior coaches, were reluctant to dwell on the loss of Carbery when they met the press.
Their focus is on the void left behind and one that is all the more glaring with the news that Ciaran Frawley is to miss the opening few weeks with injury. With Carbery gone, and both Sexton and Ross Byrne being eased gradually back following their duties down in Oz in June, this was supposed to be Frawley’s time.
His opportunity to prove why coaches had been dropping his name last season long before news broke of Carbery’s departure.
For Cullen and Lancaster, it must feel like a bad case of déjà vu.
The plan last season was to give Carbery an extended run at out-half but injury intervened then too. They badly-needed Frawley to find his sea legs in the PRO14’s waters. Only 20, the Skerries man has played just three times, two of them off the bench.
The main alternative now is inside-centre Noel Reid, who posted the lasted of two starts at out-half in 2013. After that and it’s the callow crew of Jimmy O’Brien, Tom Daly and Harry Byrne.
This may be Leinster’s problem but it’s hard not to view it as one that could have considerable repercussions for the other three provinces. All have profited from the overspill of talent emanating from the academy system in the capital but Carbery’s switch is the first of a genuine Test regular from one city to another.
This, then, is a litmus test for the IRFU and the attempts by performance director David Nucifora to spread the pool of talent around the country and ensure that players with a role to play for the national team aren’t stuck in a traffic jam of bodies at their clubs because Leinster have needed to start both Carbery and Ross Byrne at ten in Europe this last two seasons.
If Frawley, or one of the other youngsters, is required to do something similar this term, then it won’t just be Leinster’s fans awaiting the outcome with bated breath.
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