Tomorrow morning the Irish squad board a plane in London for yet another long haul flight as they return to the home of the 2011 World Cup and the scene of Ireland’s international highlight of the season — Eden Park, Auckland.
On Saturday week, Ireland engage the new world champions New Zealand in the first of three Tests before bringing the curtain down on an exhaustive season that began with a World Cup warm-up game against Scotland in Murrayfield on Aug 6.
There have been many highs and a few low points since that opening defeat in Edinburgh at both provincial and international level and those players not charged with attempting to secure that elusive first win over New Zealand at Test level are just starting a well-earned four-week break from the game before the rigours of pre-season training kick in and the grind starts all over again.
Every season all teams set out with grand ambitions for a crack at the two prizes on offer. That inevitably means the majority will be left disappointed and even a side of Leinster’s quality found out on Sunday that attempting to win both is nigh on impossible. Joe Schmidt’s men looked set to become the first side since Wasps in 2004 to capture the Heineken Cup along with their domestic league but a retiring Shane Williams put paid to that ambition in the RDS. Notwithstanding that, Leinster are still the team of the season by a country mile.
Williams is lucky to be able to call time on a glittering career at 35 years of age at a moment of his choosing. The body shapes of rugby players are getting bigger and stronger with each passing year in the professional environment leading to increased physicality in all aspects of the game. Unsurprisingly, there is a price to be paid. This season alone has seen a collection of Ireland’s finest, and most decorated, players forced to depart the scene earlier than they had wished, with David Wallace, Shane Horgan, Denis Leamy and Jerry Flannery all giving way to debilitating injuries. This will become more and more prevalent in time.
Stephen Ferris is already on a restricted training regime in an effort to reduce the workload on his dodgy knees and while he misses out on the impending tour due to a calf muscle injury, a summer off will do him no harm at all. Sean O’Brien is another of the younger brigade who has also had to curtail his training programme, with hip problems already surfacing. While a final decision on Paul O’Connell’s participation has been postponed until Friday, he, like Ferris, would be better served with a summer off.
This time next year Ferris, O’Brien and O’Connell should be in pole position to tour Australia with the Lions on what looks a very demanding itinerary. One wonders will their bodies hold up that long. O’Connell is currently rehabbing the medial ligament in the same knee for the second time in a matter of months. He has already put himself under enormous pressure to recover in time for Munster’s Heineken Cup quarter-final against Ulster. Now he is in a race against time once again to make the first Test against the All Blacks on Saturday week — but at what cost?
Given the multiple retirements that Munster have endured this season, it is imperative for their development that O’Connell is fit and ready to play from the outset of next season as the province turns the page of a new chapter under coach Rob Penney. O’Connell has a vital role to play in that and one hopes that attempting to beat the odds on two successive occasions to play after that knee injury doesn’t come at a price in the not too distant future.
The Leinster players looked shell-shocked and disconsolate at the final whistle in Sunday’s RaboDirect Pro12 final. Given how they put their Heineken Cup celebrations on hold in the quest for that historic double, to lose in the manner they did at the death was heart-breaking. It also meant that with the Ospreys raining on the parade at Leinster headquarters for the second time in three seasons, Leinster were unable to parade the Heineken Cup in front of their home support. That must have rankled but in the circumstances was the right decision. They deserved more for the quality of rugby they have produced all season.
Apart from the defeat, the real issue on the day was the failure of an official to deal once again with the difficulties surrounding the engagement at scrum time. That problem has not been as pronounced this season but, for whatever reason, Romain Poite was found badly wanting in this area and it had a major impact on the result. The sin-binning of Leinster’s replacement tight head Nathan White with 10 minutes to go was particularly harsh.
From Aug, the IRB have sanctioned a trial on five aspects of law amendments but strangely none refer to the scrum engagement. The most interesting and innovative is that the ball must be used within five seconds of being made available at the back of a ruck. That will help to address the practice used by all teams to run down the clock.
Parallel to this three additional trials will take place, one which will extend the powers of the TMO to incidents within the field of play that have led to the scoring of a try — that means that forward passes or knock-ons anywhere in the lead up to a score can now be highlighted. The TMO can also highlight incidents of foul play anywhere in the field of play. However, that would rule outincidents such as in the tunnel at half time in the RDS on Sunday.
The trial that will please Declan Kidney most is the one that extends the replacement bench at international level from seven to eight for the November window as it will facilitate the inclusion of a specialist replacement tight head and loose head prop. This should negate the necessity for a specialist loose head like Tom Court having to cover tight head — as he was forced to do with disastrous consequences in Twickenham.
It will not apply for the forthcoming tour and the challenge now is to decide who provides the best back up to Mike Ross. We may be about to find out very quickly as the hamstring injury the Cork man suffered against the Ospreys could force him to miss the opening Test on Saturday week.
Declan Fitzpatrick may now have to front up against the All Blacks and a good showing could elevate him to the international bench next season despite the fact that John Afoa will be Ulster’s first choice tight head. That’s a concern for another day.
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