It is a recurring theme in a coach’s lexicon when discussing the loss of players to both injury or poor form that one player’s misfortune is another’s opportunity.
So with that in mind, there may well have been a spring in the step of some players as they returned to their provinces yesterday as they sensed the door reopening for World Cup squad selection following last Saturday’s awful Ireland performance against Wales in Cardiff.
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt did not exactly throw his misfiring team to the wolves in his dissection of their miserable performance at Principality Stadium as Wales delivered a second demoralising defeat of the 2019 Six Nations championship on a side which had been world beaters throughout 2018.
The losses to England in round one and the Welsh in round five provided uncomfortable parentheses for a campaign short on fluency and confidence with the opening hour against France in the penultimate game the only period of consistently good play in the tournament.
Yet Schmidt did hint on Saturday evening, as Wales celebrated their Grand Slam success, and coaching rival Warren Gatland cancelled his post-match review in favour of an afternoon on the beer, that opportunity for those outside the core group of starters and even beyond the wider squad still had time to stake their claims to the 31 places in
Ireland’s World Cup squad
for Japan this autumn.
While in the immediate aftermath it had been “too early to tell” whether there would be changes to the playing group he had had in his mind two months ago ahead of the 2019 Six Nations, the Ireland head coach did not rule it out.
“We will certainly be watching the last two months of the season and the other thing is, you don’t know who is going to be fit and able, so we are very open minded still. But we feel at the same time, we have made an investment on what we are trying to do, going forward,” Schmidt said.
For now, the task of steering those players through the final two months of the 2018-19 season has fallen to the four provincial head coaches. Each of them welcomed back a group of players which, broadly, speaking, will have fallen into two groups — those psychologically bruised by the experience of two chastening defeats having scaled such heights as recently as November when they defeated the All Blacks; and those others energised by the chance to press their cases for promotion.
The provinces may serve to rebuild confidence for those suffering the scars and Munster boss Johann van Graan spoke yesterday about helping that healing process through careful man-management.
“I think mostly it is communication,” the former Springboks assistant coach said. “You’ve got to sit down and talk to them about rugby.
“I have said it so many times that you don’t see them as players, it’s people.
“A lot of guys will be disappointed. Speaking about it, getting a plan in place and what’s the next step in getting out into the field and training.
“I think that’s the beauty of rugby, you can’t just talk about things, you have got to go out and train it.
“Hopefully through training and being in a good environment looking at a few small changes, getting your body fresh and getting your mind fresh you turn that wheel. At the end of the day, you as a coach, you take the responsibility and you have got to coach these guys, but once they get on the field it’s up to the players to do it.
“It’s up to the players to do it and only they can change it. We have an incredible leadership group, all the guys that have been in the Irish camp: Pete (O’Mahony), Conor (Murray), CJ (Stander), Earlsy (Keith Earls), Tadhg (Beirne), Niall (Scannell), Andrew (Conway), John (Ryan), Chris Farrell, Joey (Carbery, and also Dave Kilcoyne), it’s all quality people and they all want to contribute to Munster but also to Irish rugby.
“It’s great having them back at Munster either this week or next week. We have got so much to look forward to.”
With European quarter-finals looming the weekend after next, there is little time for that confidence-rebuilding process to work itself out but van Graan was nothing if not optimistic that a change of focus from Test to provincial duties will provide the necessary boost. That represents a juxtaposition from the last couple of seasons when internationals have returned to the day jobs after their heroics to re-energise the playing group they left behind in Test windows but van Graan preached the same approach.
“You’ve got to be consistent,” he said.
“It’s a big disappointment from their side to go down on Saturday like they did but it’s the environment here that they come back to and the guys are happy here.
“We’ve got to make sure that the squad, we use all the resources available and the guys coming back are very important players in our system and we’re looking forward to welcoming some of them back today, some of them tomorrow and some of them on the next week.
“There will be disappointment but the amazing thing about rugby is you’ve always got next week and a lot of those guys will be playing a quarter-final and what a great opportunity for them to get back on the horse.
“I think some players go through ebbs and flows during a season and during their careers. The only thing I can control is what they do when they’re with Munster so we’ll sit down with all the Irish guys, get a full debrief from their side as to where they’re at and where we believe they need to go, make sure they’re comfortable and they go straight back into our system and straight back into our team.
“I think the thing about rugby players is you’re only as good as your last game. Sometimes you’ve got real disappointment and you can change that around in one half of rugby.”