Can Joe Schmidt find a lucky No7 and lift injury curse?

With Dan Leavy out of World Cup, Ireland coach will be forced to dig a little deeper

Ireland’s Josh van der Flier in action against France in the  Guinness Six Nations Championship Round 4 at the Aviva Stadium on March 10th.  Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Ireland’s Josh van der Flier in action against France in the Guinness Six Nations Championship Round 4 at the Aviva Stadium on March 10th. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Dan Leavy’s horrific removal from the World Cup equation comes with a warning.

Missing the chance at world domination in Japan is “haunting my thoughts,” he posted following his serious knee/leg injury at the Aviva stadium last Saturday.

The removal of such a destructive talent, fleetingly visible since entering the rugby consciousness as a phenom 15-year-old in 2010, might haunt Ireland as well.

Seán O’Brien, last seen on the Lions tour of New Zealand in 2017, probably remains the incumbent by default, despite indications during the Six Nations that Joe Schmidt would discard the London Irish-bound veteran before the big tournament in September.

Schmidt named Josh van der Flier ahead of O’Brien to face England before dropping the 32-year-old from the squad entirely after a poor display against Italy.

With Leavy ruled out indefinitely and van der Flier in a race against time to recover from his latest surgery, a groin operation, after being forced off after just 23 minutes against France, Schmidt and Leinster coach Leo Cullen are being forced to dig a little deeper.

Jordi Murphy’s frustration at being denied a sustained run in the position for Leinster prompted his switch to Belfast

This information is hardly a revelation. Leavy has suffered an array of injuries since the summer tour of Australia, yet was so influential in 2018 Grand Slam and European successes, he was primed for a return to Ireland’s backrow in Japan. In fact, Leavy has been cursed by injury since his teenage years. That and O’Brien’s constant career interruptions allowed van der Flier to climb through the ranks, but the merry-go-round of damaged flankers already removed him with serious knee ligament damage, also against France, in February 2018.

Sustained run

Jordi Murphy’s frustration at being denied a sustained run in the position for Leinster – due to the above trio – prompted his switch to Belfast. The idea was simple: become the undisputed Ulster openside – which he has achieved to the tune of 1,082 minutes in 14 appearances – to increase chances of Ireland selection.

Ulster’s Jordi Murphy and Jamie Ritchie of Edinburgh in their Guinness Pro14 match at Kingspan Stadium, Belfast, on September 7th 2018. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Ulster’s Jordi Murphy and Jamie Ritchie of Edinburgh in their Guinness Pro14 match at Kingspan Stadium, Belfast, on September 7th 2018. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

The plan remains a slow burn, with Murphy’s only Ireland start at seven coming in the first Test defeat to Australia last June. In the meantime he has gathered five caps as a replacement and a tricky start at number eight in Rome.

When push came to shove in the series decider against the Wallabies last summer, Schmidt went with Peter O’Mahony over Murphy, so that remains an option.

Currently, O’Brien and Murphy are the established (and available) opensides, but both have missed more rugby than they have played these past two seasons. Van der Flier is due to reappear for the World Cup warm-up games in August but, failing that, next up are Jack O’Donoghue, Scott Penny and Max Deegan.

Tommy O’Donnell is injured, again. Beginning to see a pattern?

Despite suffering a concussion against Edinburgh, O’Donoghue remains a powerful alternative

Studies list hooker as the most susceptible position to injury, but World Rugby is already planning to make an openside’s life less perilous by outlawing the jackal role.

For the unaware, jackalling is when a player digs his or her claws over the tackled body in the hope of stealing the ball or winning a penalty before their vertebraes can be rattled by opposing shoulders smashing into the ruck. 

Let’s play a game. If the World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand or South Africa was today, who would wear number seven?

Answers on a postcard.

Powerful alternative

Despite suffering a concussion against Edinburgh, O’Donoghue remains a powerful alternative, followed closely by the latest androids off the St Michael’s College production line.

The presence of Jack Conan and Caelan Doris prompted Leinster to shift Deegan – the 2016 junior world player of the year – to flanker, with instantly positive results. 

Then there is Penny. The 19 year-old scored eight tries in seven matches for Leinster A and made four impressive senior appearances before helping Ireland capture the under-20s Grand Slam. 

Japan may come too soon, especially if he’s sent to Argentina for the Junior World Cup in June. 

“I probably won’t get that many more opportunities because there’s a certain amount of games you can play – 25 a season – so I’m probably coming up close to that now,” Penny said a few months ago.

“He’s only a pup,” said scrum guru John Fogarty before adding, “We don’t worry about Scott, he’s physically very good.”

The first-year academy man remains central to Cullen’s double-chasing plans and, with the promise of further injuries further up the food chain, he remains an Ireland openside contender in 2019.

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