Juggling club and country to get trickier
Ireland's leading international players should start to trickle back to their clubs this weekend and all, barring injury, should be available for the final round of AIB League games on Saturday week, December 30th, before the league takes a breather until February.
The natives, in the form of the clubs, have been growing a little restless over the last couple of weeks, citing the appearance of some international players and non-appearance of others, with the Irish management the main focus of their discontent. However, the Ireland coach Warren Gatland points out that only those players who started both November internationals have been rested for two league games and with injuries to the likes of Girvan Dempsey, Denis Hickie, Tyrone Howe, Brian O'Driscoll and Anthony Foley - all of whom would thus have been sidelined anyway - this has only meant the enforced withdrawal from club games of six players.
Some clubs were particularly put out by the surprise appearance of Irish lock Gary Longwell last Saturday for Ballymena, but then again he only started the South African game and as Gatland says: "the case of each individual player has been treated on its own merits.
"If some players were feeling tired or were nursing a knock they were encouraged not to play and those that played more than 40 minutes of both internationals were asked to take the third and fourth weeks of the AIL off. But others, such as Peter Stringer, missed the second round because Shannon's game against Belfast Harlequins was cancelled, and he didn't get a game that week. So he might play this weekend, as might John Hayes and Anthony Foley. So, too, might Malcolm O'Kelly, because he's been away and has only played 20 minutes for the Baa-Baas since the South African game."
However much the clubs might feel assuaged over the next two weekends though, the tug-of-war is liable to resurface during the Six Nations Championship when players who play more than 40 minutes in any of the internationals are unlikely to be available for their clubs the following weekend.
The international get-togethers for the last three Mondays have been invaluable according to Gatland. "It's enabled us to do an awful lot of technical and organisational stuff which we just wouldn't have the time to do in the week of an international. We worked on lines of running, for the third, fourth and fifth players arriving at ruck time, and on some continuity work, and runners off the out-half. Even though a lot of our players have been sidelined, it also allowed us to work with players on the periphery of the team and A players, which was great."
The plan was for more of the same on January 8th-9th and 15th-16th. However, as balancing acts go, the three-way pull on the leading contracted players reaches its most delicate phase in the New Year, when the situation is likely to be exacerbated by the European Cup quarter-finals being on the weekend before the start of the Six Nations Championship.
With the onset of the additional warmup games involving the four provinces on Friday January 5th, and their renewal of European group games over the ensuing two weekends, the two-day get-together has been postponed until January 22nd23rd, while the second day of the planned get-together on January 15th-16th has been cancelled altogether.
The two-day get-together on Monday January 22nd and Tuesday January 23rd is thus not likely to please the provinces, particularly Munster and/or Leinster, who could be preparing for the European Cup quarter-finals the following weekend - that of January 26th-28th - though the precise dates, times and venues won't be determined until that week.
As Gatland concedes, this is less than ideal for everyone concerned. "We do appreciate that the quarter-finalists will be compromised but that still only gives us three days between now and the week of the Italian match."
The Irish squad will come together on the night of Sunday January 28th and train the following day before flying out earlier than usual in the week of an international, on Tuesday January 30th, as it is the only day that week there is a direct flight available to Rome. Effectively, therefore, the Irish squad will only have three days' practice in the week of the pivotal Six Nations opener. In fact, as juggling acts go, circus performers have it easier.