They have to deal with the here and now. There is no avenue of speculation to saunter down when you are competing in the fast lane of Test rugby but after a frustrating stalemate against France, Ireland head coach Declan Kidney finally admitted that the injury levels his squad has been battling have shaped the way this RBS 6 Nations campaign has unfolded.
The numerous injuries, 40% of the Ireland squad by Kidney’s calculations, have been well documented and this morning, Ireland begin preparing to face Italy in Rome next Saturday with a further six players in need of assessment and treatment. Even worse, a seventh, scrum-half Eoin Reddan, faces three months on the sidelines following the bad lower leg fracture he suffered in the final minute of a game a full-strength side might have had the experience to win.
“You can carry so much for so long,” Kidney said, “and then some things are going to catch you a little bit. That’s no discredit to the fellas that are on the pitch. They’re putting in a huge effort. There was probably trepidation coming out here against a French side under challenging circumstances and we’ve come close to winning it.
“I’m just trying to say we’re working under certain circumstances, we’ll get a power of advantages in the years to come. It’s not what anybody would want to go through... what we have to do now is just roll up our sleeves and go and look to be positive and try and, even though people won’t be satisfied, try and go for third place.
His words followed a compelling draw that kept France still winless in 2013 but did little to ease the frustration of Ireland’s players, management or supporters.
Yet with Donnacha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony and Luke Marshall all serious concerns and Conor Murray, Brian O’Driscoll and Fergus McFadden all needing to rest up following less worrying knocks, Kidney is still determined to see the positive in it, even if talk of Grand Slams, Triple Crowns and championships has been replaced with hopes of a third-place finish.
Despite a second game to ease Paddy Jackson into life as a Test No.10, the likely return of Jonny Sexton at fly-half will restore some confidence but the bald facts are that Kidney has had to make do and mend and blood young players who ordinarily would not be seen anywhere near a Six Nations squad.
On Saturday, as Ireland yet again ceded greater possession and territory to a more clinical and stronger finishing side, it did indeed catch up with Kidney’s players as for the second year in-a-row they blew a double-digit half-time lead over Les Bleus and walked away scoreless in the second half.
This was another game Ireland should have won from 13-3 up at half-time. Ireland had not scored a point past the 43rd minute against Wales and 58 minutes versus England. The scoring ceased on 44 minutes in Scotland and on Saturday, the shutters came down just 32 minutes in, Jackson taking his tally to two penalties and a conversion of Jamie Heaslip’s excellent try from a powerful lineout maul in the 10th minute.
Jackson had spurned a penalty opportunity straight after the break, and then aborted a drop-goal attempt under pressure by bailing out to Rob Kearney, whose kick, equally under duress, was poorly executed.
France had their sloppy moments too as Frederic Michalak missed from the tee for the second time in three attempts, Morgan Parra taking over and nudging the visitors back to 13-6 before missing a shot at goal of his own. And there was a try that went begging as full-back Yoann Huget ignored a two-man overlap and went into contact as Ireland were stretched to breaking point.
Yet experience showed with five minutes to go as the French, trailing by seven points, finally turned the screw. On its five-metre line, Ireland’s scrum creaked yet again, its 33 per cent success rate another seriously worrying statistic. The outstanding No.8 Louis Picamoles took a quick tap penalty and bulldozed through a phalanx of green jerseys to grab the try. The conversion from the left, five metres in from touch, fell to the right-footed Michalak, who nailed it to tie the scores.
And still Ireland searched for victory, this time denied by referee Steve Walsh, as Keith Earls beat Vincent Debaty for pace only for the substitute prop to elbow the wing off the ball and away from Eoin Reddan’s through kick. Walsh went upstairs to the TMO to ask “try or no try” and look for possible foul play, then watched the big screen replays and decided for himself that the wing and the loosehead had merely been engaging in shoulder to shoulder running, Earls losing out fairly in a lop-sided physical match-up. Harsh. Ireland deserved a penalty, yet such has this Six Nations gone, you expected nothing else from Walsh.
All of which has left Ireland, battered, bruised and bereft of any fortune, heading to Rome in the hope of securing third place in the championship. The sunshine of Cardiff on that giddy opening day back on February 2 seems a very long time ago now.
IRELAND: R Kearney; F McFadden (L Fitzgerald, 62), B O’Driscoll (C Murray, 72-76), L Marshall (I Madigan, 71), K Earls; P Jackson, C Murray (E Reddan, 62, replaced by S Cronin, 80); C Healy, R Best, M Ross; M McCarthy, D Ryan (D O’Callaghan, 68); P O’Mahony (I Henderson, 77), S O’Brien, J Heaslip, capt.
Replacements not used: D Kilcoyne, S Archer.
FRANCE: Y Huget; V Clerc, F Fritz (M Bastareaud, 52-58, 68), W Fofana, M Medard; F Michalak, M Parra; T Domingo (V Debaty, 65), B Kayser (G Guirado, 68), N Mas; C Samson, Y Maestri (S Vahaamahina, 51); Y Nyanga (A Claassen, 65), T Dusautoir, capt, L Picamoles.
Replacements not used: L Ducalcon, M Machenaud, F Trinh-Duc.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)