It’s been an eventful week, to say the least. The Wednesday before last was spent at Stade de France, preparing for Saturday’s Parisian derby. It was a lovely, sunny, wintry day in Paris, kicking balls for two hours on the beautiful Stade de France turf ahead of the meeting with Stade Francais. And then we were heading to Charles de Gaulle airport for the flight home to my testimonial dinner.
Thursday night’s dinner at City Hall was an overwhelming and hugely enjoyable experience but time for reflection was scarce as I was at the airport, flying ‘home’, at 5.15am on Friday morning, back in Paris for the captain’s run followed by kicking practice for all the backs. I’m lucky it was just a half-day, because Thursday night rolled into Friday, and needless to say I had no problem sleeping the night before the big derby.
I must say, following that Wednesday kicking session at Stade de France, there was a serious pep in my step after the demolition job I did on Johnny!!! There’s life in the old dog yet! I’m just glad he returned the favour with another 100% kicking return in the match on Saturday night. We were by far the better side but never put Stade Francais away and we very nearly paid the ultimate price as they lay siege to our line in the last three minutes.
The plan for this week was to leave Johnny in Irish camp all week as the Racing coaches are very pleased with his contribution thus far and from several weeks ago it was earmarked that he would not be involved in tomorrow’s match against Biarritz.
That, however, changed on Tuesday morning when Juan Hernandez broke down in training with a hamstring injury. It’s thought his recovery period will be four to five weeks, and it’s an untimely injury, to say the least. Johnny will start on the bench against Biarritz as a result and that may change again if Racing’s other fly-half in the squad, Jonathan Wisniewski, fails to recover from a quad injury which kept him sidelined for the last five matches. He looks ready to play but has only had one meaningful training session so it’s hard to tell.
From Johnny and Ireland’s perspective, ahead of the November Tests, it is not ideal but like all good players, he will make the necessary adjustments required to keep performing on a Saturday.
From Ireland’s point of view, they would have wanted to give him a weekend off but you don’t have a weekend off if you’re sitting on the bench. He had a flight from Dublin to Paris last night, he’ll train today with the team on the pitch, fly Paris-Biarritz Saturday morning and then fly Biarritz-Dublin on Sunday. All going well for us, he could have done without that and the coaches wanted to give him every chance.
But the coaches’ hands are tied, Hernandez is injured and they need Johnny. And if there’s something gone majorly wrong after 50 minutes, they’ll bring him on, I’d say.
Yesterday morning went well for Wisniewski and the other side of it is it could be worse for Johnny, he could be starting against Biarritz, but the club are actually trying to do whatever they can and when all’s said and done, they have to look after their bread and butter and that’s the Top 14. Now he’ll have to be careful how he manages his workload next week. We don’t know whether Joe Schmidt will play him in all three internationals but you’d think he’d be playing against Australia and New Zealand anyway.
And playing Samoa first up, they’re no pushovers either. It’s Test rugby and you need the result. Joe Schmidt wants a winning start and I think he’d go as strongly as he can with his team selection against the Samoans.
There’s no doubt Johnny’s the number-one choice at fly-half and if he doesn’t play this weekend for Racing, he’ll play against Samoa. The question for Schmidt is if he togs out, warms up and comes on for 50 minutes at Biarritz, Joe’s got to decide what’s best for his team and maybe that’s starting someone else.
Johnny would be in great shape if he got the weekend off, that’s the ideal. I always used to think playing three weeks out of four was ideal but now Johnny’s probably going to be playing 10 weeks in a row, which means now he’s entering dangerous territory, in terms of injury.
That said, the coaches here want to get the best out of Johnny, too. The games here are probably a little bit slower-paced than a European Cup game and there’s a lot more kicking for territory than you’d see at home.
What he’s got watch is the amount of training he does during the week. If you train very hard during the Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, you’re covering as much miles in each of those days as you are on a game day, and that’s a tough ask.
As an Irish pro, you get pushed hard during the week and what he has to do now is the reverse of that and manage that because it’s not as if he’s getting beaten up in any of those games and I don’t think the tackle count is in double figures in any of the games.
So perhaps the overplaying argument is being overplayed a little bit in Ireland. There’s certainly a double purpose to it in order to keep players in Ireland, you can see that. The reality is yes, he is playing a lot of rugby but he is being managed well and he is looking after himself exceptionally well.
He’s based in a five-star hotel and he gets the best medical treatment, the best conditioning and I think he enjoys it. The important thing for Johnny is from a mental point of view, that he has the hunger there. Instead of going to Irish camp and looking to get through, he has to be going there looking to excel because that’s what international rugby is about. So it depends on what mental attitude he brings to it and that’s never usually in question where Johnny is concerned.
With the tax and legal changes announced by the Irish Government during the week, it’ll be interesting to see how many of his Irish colleagues join him in the Top 14 next season.
This rule change, which means players no longer need to finish their careers in Ireland to avail of certain tax breaks will, I feel, have significant implications for Irish rugby. It is a game changer and rugby agents around Ireland will have been smiling on Tuesday morning when the news broke, because their job has become so much easier and the opportunities for their players are endless now.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved