Lost amid the furore over All Black indiscipline and the performances of both referee and TMO at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday was the latest damning evidence that players are all too often their own worst enemies.
With 21 minutes on the clock, CJ Stander was felled by an illegal no-arms tackle from Israel Dagg (which the officials failed to spot). The Ireland flanker stayed on the turf, disorientated, before resuming his feet and showing clear signs of agitation.
Though attended by the team’s medical officer, Stander insisted on re-entering the fray and within eight phases he was barrelling into a ruck on the Kiwis’ try line with ball in hand before finally being removed for a Head Injury Assessment (HIA).
He would not return from it.
It is a conundrum no amount of player education, publicity, or concussion scare stories can solve: when the adrenaline flows, wild horses can’t drag players away from the heat of battle, especially one as fierce as Ireland versus New Zealand last weekend.
“It is very dynamic and things happen really quickly,” said Ireland team manager Mick Kearney when asked about the period between Stander’s injury and belated removal. “Players will get up automatically and go back into the defensive line.
“All I can say is our medical staff are all over it in terms of knocks. There is also our doctors on the sideline who have got access to the plays in real time and I think in terms of picking these things up, it is way ahead of where it was before.”
The question is: could more be done?
Simon Zebo was another Irish player to suffer a heavy, illegal blow when Malakai Fekitoa’s forearm caught him flush on the face in the second-half but Kearney was adamant that the on-field attention received by the winger was sufficient.
But should a player be taken off automatically in such a scenario?
Kearney’s assertion was that the game would be stopped “every two minutes” if a player was removed for every contact to the head area and there is no getting away from the fact that danger will always be a bedfellow.
“Sometimes, someone gets a shot in the head,” said Jamie Heaslip. “A lad falls on you, you get a knee in the head. All sorts of things can happen, you know what I mean? You just hope that you have the medical team around you to look after you.”
Whatever the answer — if there is one — the toll right now on Ireland is obvious. For a start, Jonathan Sexton has been ruled unavailable for Saturday’s encounter with Australia due to the “minor” hamstring he suffered against New Zealand.
Also out is Robbie Henshaw, who was knocked unconscious three days ago. CJ Stander and Rob Kearney are following return-to-play protocols after their concussive symptoms and are highly unlikely to face the Wallabies, given they cannot be cleared medically until Thursday at the earliest.
Simon Zebo experienced minor cramp against the All Blacks and may be afforded light duties for a few days, Peter O’Mahony, Keith Earls, and Ultan Dillane are expected to return to training this week while Munster’s Rory Scannell and Ulster’s Stuart Olding have been drafted in.
Expect changes come Saturday, basically.
There is nothing new in such turnover of personnel but the manner in which some of the injuries have been recorded continues to leave a bad taste, even if Kearney was forced to refute a suggestion that the sense in New Zealand is one of Irish “whingeing” after a defeat.
All teams meet with the citing officer before and after games but Ireland, as is their policy, refused to suggest possible incidents worthy of inspection in the wake of the 12-point defeat. Even with that, the citing officer Bruce Klukinski saw fit to pick out a dozen incidents of note during the game.
Eleven of those involved potential New Zealand indiscretions. The only one picked up by an Irishman was ultimately dropped and it now remains to be seen what retrospective punishment, if any, Sam Cane and Malakai Fekitoa receive as their citings are dissected.
“It is disappointing, to be honest,” said Kearney, “there were a number of tackles and bangs around the head.
“We received the edict from World Rugby in the last week or 10 days and Joe (Schmidt) would have sat the squad down, showed them the various footage, including examples of tackles around the head and neck area. World Rugby had said if these incidents occur, then you are liable to a red card possibly. That obviously didn’t happen at the weekend.”
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