Operation to sideline Kearney for 10 weeks
RUGBY:IRELAND AND Leinster have been dealt a decidedly ill-timed blow with the news that Rob Kearney is to undergo an operation on his troublesome back and will be sidelined for around 10 weeks, and to compound this, Leinster will also be without Isa Nacewa for an estimated four to six weeks after he sustained a broken hand in their win over the Scarlets last Saturday.
The immediate consequences for Declan Kidney, who announces his 30-man squad for the forthcoming November Tests against South Africa and Argentina, are fairly grim given the options at full-back beyond Kearney are more skeletal than ever due to something of an injury crisis in the position.
Kearney has been an ever-present in the Ireland number 15 jersey for their last dozen tests, dating back to the pool win over Australia in the World Cup. But he was troubled by back problems toward the end of last season and then sustained a slightly freakish bang in his lower back barely half-an-hour into his seasonal re-appearance in the away defeat to Connacht at the end of September.
That forced him from the field and was said to be unrelated to his previous problem, with Leinster regularly suggesting his return was imminent, but apparently he has suffered a setback in training and after examinations by a specialist it has been decided that last season’s ERC European Player of the Year requires an operation.
The Lions’ Test fullback in South Africa will miss the November Tests and the crunch December back-to-back Heineken Cup matches with Clermont, but if all goes to plan Kearney will hopefully return in time for the final two rounds of the pool stages as well as the Six Nations.
Of the other six active players who have played at fullback for Ireland, five have been injured of late for various spells. The other full-back in the World Cup squad, Geordan Murphy, has since retired and though he has said he would never reject an Ireland call, he too has been sidelined since mid-September, as has Gavin Duffy with a knee injury.
Felix Jones, who won his first cap in the World Cup warm-up game at home to France in August last year and would have gone to the World Cup but for injury, only played his first 20 minutes for Munster last Sunday after another long-term absence. Luke Fitzgerald, who had a stint at full-back in the 2011 Six Nations, is another long-term absentee with a neck injury.
Ulster have been playing the Kiwi Jarred Payne, who won’t become Ireland qualified for another two years, and Connacht’s talented 18-year-old Robbie Henshaw was playing schools rugby at the end of last season, while both Munster and Leinster have shown a liking for converting their young back-up outhalves Ian Keatley and Ian Madigan.
Since Kidney gave Keith Earls his debut at fullback against Canada in November 2008, his only other cap of 32 at fullback was in the win over England in March 2011. He would be the likeliest option, but like Stephen Ferris and Ronan O’Gara, there is an injury cloud over Earls, who has missed both of Munster’s Heineken Cup outings with a groin injury.
Were he ruled out the most viable option would be Denis Hurley, who won his sole cap against the USA Eagles in Santa Clara under Kidney in the summer of 2009 and was included, in the absence of Kearney, in the 33-man squad for a two-day training camp in September.
Likewise, the options for Joe Schmidt are not exactly plentiful, as Nacewa’s broken hand means Leinster have been hit with a double whammy. Schmidt will presumably be allowed to play Jonathan Sexton at outhalf this week, thereby permitting Ian Madigan to continue at fullback against Cardiff Blues this Saturday, and at least Nacewa should be back for the critical December games away and at home to free-scoring Clermont.
As for the visit to the Ospreys on Sunday week, and the trek to Glasgow on the weekend Ireland host Argentina, with Madigan likely to be back at outhalf his only options would appear to be David Kearney (who might return from a hip operation this weekend) or Fionn Carr, bearing in mind Luke Fitzgerald is also sidelined until at least December with his neck problem.
In the interim, it is likely Kidney will name both Earls and Denis Hurley in the 30-man squad today, when he will also reveal whether Richardt Strauss is included for the first time in light of him becoming eligible to play for Ireland at the beginning of November, and which of the uncapped players currently on upward graphs have made the cut.