Discretion the better part of valour as Sexton is rested while Jackson to fit in
Paddy Jackson is expected to recover from a hamstring strain in time to face France. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
RUGBY:When Ireland won their only Grand Slam of the last 65 years, in 2009, such was their injury-free run they used only 22 players in the course of their five matches. However, such have been the ravages of this campaign that when Ireland take the pitch shortly before 5pm at the Aviva on Saturday, Fergus McFadden will become their 30th player in just four games.
As was utterly anticipated, discretion proved the better part of valour when Jonny Sexton was ruled out of consideration for this game so as to afford him a better chance of returning from his torn hamstring for the Stadio Olimpico game against Italy.
Buttressed by an estimated 10-12,000 Irish supporters, that game is already a 72,000 sell-out, thereby dwarfing the attendances for Italy’s previous home games against France and Wales.
Sexton was ruled out moments before the official team announcement yesterday, hence the ensuing vacancy at both outhalf and back-up on the bench. But although Paddy Jackson again felt his hamstring tighten after training yesterday, he is expected to take part in kicking practice today and training tomorrow prior to lining up on Saturday for his home debut.
The slight doubt regarding Jackson’s availability will lead to feverish speculation that Declan Kidney might yet have to pick up the phone to Ronan O’Gara. “I know what way I’ll go and when I come to that bridge I’ll cross it,” is all he would say, but the likelihood remains the uncapped 23-year-old Ian Madigan will be understudy to the 21-year-old, once-capped Jackson.
Nevertheless, at face value, the “AN Others” add a curious and unnecessary air of uncertainty to the team. Better to have delayed the announcement with Jackson in the team and Madigan on the bench.
With Craig Gilroy’s groin strain sidelining him this week, thereby joining the other hors de combat wingers Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo, McFadden leapfrogs Luke Fitzgerald into the starting line-up; in part, one imagines, as a back-up goal-kicker to Jackson.
While the other two changes to the starting line-up which lost in Murrayfield see Cian Healy and Mike McCarthy return to stiffen up the tight five, and especially the scrum, the slightly skeletal look to Saturday’s line-up is accentuated by another vacancy on the bench due to Declan Fitzpatrick suffering a slightly torn groin in training on Monday. This takes Ireland’s casualty list into double figures.
Both Michael Bent and the uncapped Stephen Archer have been called into the squad, with one of them to provide cover for Mike Ross, and were Madigan and Archer to appear on Saturday that would take the number of new caps this season to nine in six Tests.
But it’s the absence of Sexton which hurts the most. Aside from everything else, he kicked six from six in the win over Wales. Although he is training lightly, rather than run the risk of him breaking down after five or 10 minutes Kidney has decided to “let him build up the strength in the muscle properly and then he should be fit for Italy the week after.”
Kidney denied the injury toll typified the way the campaign has become de-railed.
“We’ve had our share of injuries that are totally out of anybody’s control. But other than that everything else we’ve done in a very controlled and calculated way.”
With so much negativity swirling around, Kidney has a job preventing this from permeating into the squad. “You just deal with things honestly the way they are, give out information the way it is,” he said.
“People are bound to have opinions around different things. The last two results are very disappointing. We put ourselves in a good position against Scotland. We spilled a few balls in the first half against England, got back to 6-6 and then gave away two penalties and that cost us that game.
“It’s not like we’re a million miles away from it; I know that for a fact. It’s just a case of bringing those things together. When they come together it will be a more positive result for everybody.”
The coach was asked why he risked creating another media storm by omitting Ronan O’Gara from the 32-man squad last Sunday, and said: “These calls have to be made. That’s the role of the coach. You can avoid them. It was a very tight call but when you have to do your job, you have to do your job. It’s not about bringing anything down on myself, it’s about doing my job. That’s the way I see it. The easy thing at this time is to make no decision.”
On a similar theme, it has been suggested Kidney has made this call, along with first retaining Jamie Heaslip as captain and then promoting Jackson ahead of O’Gara as, somehow, a means of lobbying for a new contract beyond this season up to the next World Cup.
“If I did hear it, I would say it was very, very wide of the mark,” responded Kidney indignantly. “Every decision I have ever made was for the good of the team.”