Cold comfort for Whelan


In an inevitable, if ironic, postscript to the much-troubled fixture between Italy and Ireland in Bologna, the Irish captain, Keith Wood has been sidelined for a mandatory three weeks after sustaining concussion.

Thus the Harlequins captain will be unavailable to his side for their festive league programme, and in a final twist to this saga, it means he will miss next Saturday's league game against, of all teams, London Irish.

Wood cut a pallid figure on Saturday night and though there was more colour in his cheeks yesterday, his dome-shaped head was still bearing the stud marks of the kick which caused his departure from the game.

The Irish management studied the video of the game, and in particular the incident which led to David Humphreys sustaining a broken nose and five stitches (he may still be fit to play against Harlequins). However, despite a strong belief that he was elbowed or head-butted (most probably the former), the video evidence was not conclusive and the Irish management decided not to cite any Italian player.

Their decision may also have been based on fears of a tit-for-tat response from their counterparts given video evidence of Wood's boot connecting with the head of Massimo Giovanelli early on, causing the Italian captain to leave the field temporarily and have his head bandaged.

Irish manager Pat Whelan reaffirmed their belief that the two Irish injuries did not have a significant bearing on the outcome, which is most probably the case. Instead, Whelan maintained that: "We certainly had the winning of the match, but we failed to convert good scoring chances from attacking scrums late in the first half and early in the second.

"We badly needed to score at those critical moments which every match provides. If we're to progress as a team, the players need that confidence which comes from taking chances. That was the disappointing thing; not taking chances at critical stages, or holding out at key moments.

"But having said that, we played some fine rugby; I feel the best rugby we've played in the three matches this season," added Whelan, still trying to accentuate the positive a day later. "Compared to the game against them last year, we played more constructive rugby. That was one small crumb of comfort."

The ability or otherwise to make a feast out of the famine depends largely on the management coming up with, and sticking to, a more settled team. Whelan pointed out that six of the eight changes from the Canada game were enforced but added: "We're conscious of that. Too many changes do disrupt any sort of cohesive pattern.

"Brian Ashton knows where he stands in terms of the players available to him and we intend to have a much more settled team - assuming we stay clear of injuries. We're very aware of the benefits which accrue from that."

Nonetheless, several more changes seem likely, beginning with both props and both flankers, and perhaps one or two more in the backs. Other players expected to come back into the equation are Nick Popplewell (whose nagging hamstring problems again prevented him from playing for Newcastle in the European Conference on Saturday), Paul Wallace, Kieron Dawson, Conor McGuinness, Rob Henderson and Richard Wallace, with the likes of David Corkery and Conor O'Shea also more firmly back in the frame by then.

The squad will come together again on January 14th and again a fortnight later at the ALSAA complex, with the selectors planning to pick the side to face Scotland in the Five Nations opener on February 7th prior to the January 28th session.

Brian Ashton will travel to Treviso on January 24th for the friendly between Italy and Scotland, a useful barometer for the Irish coach. "It's a golden opportunity for him to see how Scotland are going about things. They're not going to be able to change their game in two weeks," said Whelan.

The Scottish game now clearly emerges as the most important game of the season. After that pivotal Five Nations opener, there is a four-week gap to the trip to Paris, followed by the home game against Wales and the concluding match in Twickenham.

Victory, therefore, could conceivably keep the Triple Crown alive until late March, and possibly even early April. Defeat doesn't bear thinking about.