Opportunity knocks for a variety of players
Ronan O'Gara looked decidedly rusty in his first game since Munster's penultimate Heineken Cup pool match against England last Sunday.
RUGBY:The circumstances are hardly ideal, but rarely has a Rabo PRO12 interregnum midway through the Six Nations had so many implications. Declan Kidney and his fellow coaches will be out and about this weekend before conferring on Sunday as opportunity knocks for a variety of players, due to the injuries which have sidelined Jonny Sexton, Simon Zebo and Mike McCarthy for the Scottish game and beyond.
Sexton’s hamstring has been diagnosed as a grade two tear, sidelining him for an estimated four to six weeks and thus making him highly doubtful for Ireland’s penultimate Six Nations game against France, as well as ruling him out of the Scottish match on Sunday week.
After deputising for him in the 32nd minutes, Ronan O’Gara looked decidedly rusty in his first game since Munster’s penultimate Heineken Cup pool match last Sunday, and remained with Munster this week with a view to obtaining much-needed game time away to the Scarlets tomorrow.
He looks sure to start against the Scots, and judging by the autumnal selection against Fiji and the Wolfhounds’ pre-Six Nations game against the Saxons in Galway, Paddy Jackson is next in line ahead of two other uncapped players, Ian Madigan and Ian Keatley, for a place on the bench.
Furthermore, the Ulsterman was the only outhalf called into the Irish squad’s three-day training camp this week. “Ronan picked up a knock the last day, and wasn’t able to train fully on Tuesday, so if he’s to play on Saturday he needed a good training session under his belt today with Munster,” explained Kidney.
Up to speed
“He already knows what we’re at. Paddy (Jackson) was already with us for the Wolfhounds week and has an appreciation of what we’re at but a training session today will help to bring him up to speed too.”
Jackson will start for Ulster at home to Zebre tonight and barring a calamity has seemingly been pencilled in for the bench in Murrayfield. However, not alone does Madigan seem to be in a more confident vein of form, he would provide more options off the bench, given he has also performed steadfastly for Leinster at fullback this season. As was seen in the Aviva against last Sunday, by opting for specialists at scrumhalf and outhalf as two of the three backs on the bench, this can be very restrictive.
There looks to be more to play for with regard to a position on the left wing or as the third player covering the back line. Keith Earls, along with David Kilcoyne will be rested this weekend, which may be instructive, as might Fergus McFadden’s inclusion in the camp yesterday.
Even so, in addition to McFadden, one imagines the equally versatile Luke Fitzgerald has an opportunity to remind the management of his well-being after three encouraging games since returning for Leinster.
Zebo’s broken metatarsal left the Irish three-quarter line looking a little light against England, compounding the loss of a strong carrier à la Tommy Bowe to get them over the gain line. Just possibly, therefore, Andrew Trimble’s strength might come into the equation, although he would seemingly need a stormer.
Like Jackson, Trimble, Chris Henry, Tom Court and Declan Fitzpatrick (likely to be the back-up props in Murrayfield), Iain Henderson plays for Ulster tonight, albeit at blindside flanker, whereas the Irish management might have preferred to see him at lock given McCarthy’s damaged medial ligaments will be in a brace for two weeks. “It is quite possible Iain will move to the secondrow at some stage during the game,” said Kidney. In fairness to Mark (Anscombe), this is the balancing act that is Irish rugby, he has other injuries as well then too. The provinces don’t have to do what we might ask. We try to work with them, the important thing is to have Ian on the pitch.”
Donncha O’Callaghan looks favoured to partner Donnacha Ryan, himself sidelined from training this week with a lower back injury, with Henderson providing cover from the bench, although Devin Toner’s inclusion in yesterday’s Irish camp shows he’s in the frame.
The management’s options are limited by the back spasm which has sidelined Dan Tuohy for Ulster tonight, and Ireland are so battered it almost looks as if they lost two games in one last weekend. “You wouldn’t want to understate it, you wouldn’t want to overstate it, so what words do you pick? The injury list is quite extensive,” said Kidney, as he also reminded us of the absent Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe and Richardt Strauss.
“But we have always said that we would not complain about it, that we would work a way through it and that one man’s loss is another’s opportunity. There’s going to to be fellas looking for a chance and they’re going to get that chance now and we’ll look forward to seeing them play.”
Coupled with Scotland’s restorative win over Italy, it’s hard to imagine how much worse last weekend might have gone from an Irish perspective. “It is daunting,” Kidney admitted. “If you’d have looked at it on paper earlier in the season people might have made us odds-on for it but I’d say that’s changed now with the circumstances that have unfolded over the weekend. You can either be consumed by that, get depressed by it or say ‘Well, this is the challenge and that’s what makes the competition what it is’.
“It’s an eight-week story, you never know what’s around the corner. This isn’t where we wanted to be, we wanted to get the win the last day but we didn’t. It was a game probably we lost rather than we were beaten in, and that’s for us to rectify.”