The Irish players aren’t the only ones glad to see the back of this season’s Six Nations.
A combination of very poor weather conditions, even worse refereeing, scrum resets, a dearth of tries and an endless stream of injuries which undermined Ireland’s challenge from the outset, marked the 2013 championship as the worst since the expansion of the tournament back in 2000.
Only Wales and Italy can afford to look back on the tournament with any real degree of satisfaction despite the fact that England travelled to Cardiff on the final day in search of a Grand Slam. Their last two outings against Wales and Scotland negated much of the good work that characterised what had gone before and has left them with a sour taste. That said, it will probably serve Stuart Lancaster and his coaching team no harm, as their young and inexperienced squad continue to develop towards their ultimate goal, the 2015 World Cup.
For Ireland, things aren’t quite as bad as they appeared at the final whistle in the Stadio Olimpico and for confirmation of that, we need look no further than the turnaround in Welsh fortunes since the opening weekend. That defeat to Ireland was their eighth in succession with a number of those defeats extremely tight on the scoreboard when forced to play without a number of front liners due to injury. Ring any bells?
During that period they lost the services at various stages of Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones, Luke Charteris, Alun Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies, Matthew Rees, Rhys Priestland, Ryan Jones, Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies. Like Ireland, their reserve strength in certain areas, not least tight head prop, was wafer-thin and that had a major impact. Yet it afforded opportunities for players such as Justin Tipuric, Andrew Coombs and Richard Hibbard to showcase their talents to such a degree that, in all probability, Tipuric and Hibbard will travel with the Lions this summer. In times of adversity, Wales showed admirable character and resurrected their season in Paris, of all places.
Similarly, in the fullness of time, I believe there will be a lot of positives to emerge from the character examination a number of Ireland’s younger players have had to endure over the last two months with the strongest mentally going on to have stellar careers in the green jersey.
The injury to Johnny Sexton was, in my opinion, the single biggest loss to the side. While selecting Ronan O’Gara in his stead may have offered stability in the short term, at least the fact that Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan have now been exposed to the demands of international rugby will open their minds to what is required to succeed at that level. It will also offer an appreciation of the journey they need to travel to match the standards set by Sexton and O’Gara. JJ Hanrahan will also be in the mix to challenge that duo and should be brought on the summer tour to North America.
In Luke Marshall, Ireland have found a player worthy of succeeding Gordon D’Arcy and when one considers how he handled himself at this level, given that he has yet to start a Heineken Cup match, he will only get better. The decision to start him in Rome after being concussed the previous week seriously calls into question the cognitive test and protocols that the modern player goes through in such circumstances.
Players were offered far better protection in the amateur days with a mandatory three-week break set in stone after a concussion. Bernard Jackman and John Fogarty highlighted issues on this front after their retirement, not least the fact that by the end of their careers, even the slightest contact was concussion-inducing. Marshall’s bang on the head on Saturday was not that traumatic but having suffered a similar fate only seven days earlier, the impact was rapid. He is a player with a great future but needs to be protected better. We cannot afford to lose another bright young talent.
The impact of the multiple injuries this season has been seismic. Ireland have lost their shape in attack since that exhilarating display of creativity and invention against an admittedly exhausted Argentinian side, scoring seven tries in the process. Yet by the time Ireland played France in Dublin, only two of that back line were fit to play. By that stage Simon Zebo, Tommy Bowe, Craig Gilroy, Sexton — that quarter alone accounted for six tries between them that day — and Gordon D’Arcy were crocked with only Keith Earls and Conor Murray still fit to play. At least Brian O’Driscoll was back in harness at that stage.
The other try scorer against the Pumas, Leinster’s Richardt Strauss, has also been a loss to the squad.
That said, the invention that saw Gilroy used as a trail runner inside Sexton off lineouts has disappeared as has the licence that Bowe and Zebo had to trail off midfield runners.
Rob Kearney, Earls and Gilroy were still there to provide that option but for some reason, it never materialised in this championship.
Throughout the campaign and especially in the most difficult of circumstances in Rome, Sean O’Brien was outstanding and continued to carry the game to all opposition. Peter O’Mahony wasn’t far behind him in his first full championship as a starter and is a future Irish captain. He along with Gilroy, Zebo, Marshall, Jackson, Iain Henderson and Dave Kilcoyne have experienced a massive learning curve over the last six months.
With the remarkable careers of O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, O’Gara, Donncha O’Callaghan and possibly even Paul O’Connell coming to an end, it is time for the middle management of the team in O’Brien, Sexton, Kearney, Bowe, Cian Healy and Donnacha Ryan to take ownership along with Jamie Heaslip and Rory Best.
One of the biggest voids to fill will be O’Driscoll’s No 13 shirt but Bowe could well be the man to do so. As it is, Ireland are flush with wingers in Gilroy, Zebo, Earls, Luke Fitzgerald — how unfortunate has he been with another serious injury to contend with — Andrew Trimble and Fergus McFadden. Earls is best suited to the wing and should now concentrate on playing there.
Bowe has the power, pace, experience, temperament, passing game and intelligence in defence to play outside centre and could be a revelation. If he does not recover from his knee injury in time to make the Lions tour, I’d bring him to North America and start the process of playing him in midfield. Aurelien Rougerie made the same switch with good effect for both Clermont Auvergne and France and Bowe has more footballing ability than him.
Quite who will be on board to make all these decisions is another point with Declan Kidney’s future as head coach apparently up for discussion in Dublin this evening. For a man who has given so much to the cause and handled himself with such dignity, humility and pride in the role, he deserved far more than has been his lot over the last few weeks.
The only time I have ever seen anything like the litany of injuries suffered is on Lions tours at the end of a long and demanding season. For it to happen halfway through a season is unprecedented. At least the Lions are blessed with strength in depth. Unfortunately, in a number of positions, Kidney did not have that luxury.
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