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Gerry Thornley: Avoiding injuries is critical for Ireland’s Six Nations

Recent history shows the more settled an Irish side, the more likely they will be contenders

Aside from the glaringly obvious – uppermost amongst them being a good squad well coached – prospective Six Nations Champions require a few other factors that are somewhat out of their control.

A buzzword this week is momentum, but another ingredient is assuredly a healthy chunk of good luck, or at any rate avoiding a sizeable amount of bad luck, with regard to refereeing, maybe even the weather and the pitch, given the advent of bonus points, but particularly so with regard to injuries.

This is perhaps even truer for the Celts and Italy, given that England, more than anybody, and France have more strength in depth.

Nothing illustrates this more than the first and last Championship campaigns under Declan Kidney.

In 2009, Ireland achieved their first Grand Slam in 61 years, and only the second in history, thanks to the lowest injury profile imaginable.

The team that kick-started that campaign with a thrilling 30-21 win over France on the opening Saturday at the Aviva Stadium remained unchanged for the ensuing two wins over Italy in Rome and England at home.

The only change in the squad for the 14-13 victory against England saw Malcolm O’Kelly dropped from the replacements to be replaced by Mick O’Driscoll.

For the penultimate win in Murrayfield, the four changes were by choice, with Gordon D'Arcy, Peter Stringer, Rory Best and Denis Leamy all, somewhat surprisingly at the time, promoted from the bench instead of Paddy Wallace, Jerry Flannery, Jamie Heaslip and Tomas O'Leary.

Decisive try

Heaslip scored the decisive try after a brilliant snipe and offload from Stringer. Despite Stringer’s man of the match performance, O’Leary, as well as Flannery and Best, were all recalled to the starting line-up for the finale over Wales in the Millennium Stadium, with D’Arcy retaining his place.

As it transpired, Stephen Ferris suffered a dislocated finger inside the first 10 minutes, to be replaced by Leamy, who had a superb game, while Best, Stringer and Wallace would all be on the pitch when Stephen Jones' penalty from half-way drifted just wide – Wallace somewhat memorably so.

Thus, all told, Kidney used only 19 players in his five starting line-ups, and given Mick O’Driscoll never appeared off the bench in the last three games, only 22 players were used in total over the course of the five wins.

In 2013, Ireland began with 30-22 win away to Wales, and then the wheels gradually if spectacularly came off.

After naming an unchanged team and replacements for the 12-6 defeat at home to England, Johnny Sexton, D'Arcy, Simon Zebo and Cian Healy were all ruled out of the trek to Murrayfield through injury, and to compound this Kidney preferred Paddy Jackson over Ronan O'Gara (leaving him on the bench) for his full international debut, and likewise Luke Marshall alongside him, with Keith Earls, Tom Court and Donnacha O'Callaghan all called up, and three more changes on the bench.

Ireland lost 12-8, and for the home draw with France, Craig Gilroy joined the casualty list, to be replaced by Fergus McFadden, while Healy and Mike McCarthy were recalled and O’Gara was jettisoned altogether, with Ian Madigan named on the bench.

Come the final outing, an historic defeat in Rome, Zebo, D’Arcy and replacement Luke Fitzgerald were all forced off in the first-half, forcing Peter O’Mahony to play the second-half on the wing, as Ireland also suffered three yellow cards.

Such was the carnage that Ireland used 23 players in their starting line-ups and 33 players in total. Ireland finished fifth and Kidney was replaced.

Blessed

Joe Schmidt was similarly blessed in his first campaign of 2014, when Ireland began the Championship without Paul O'Connell and D'Arcy for the home win over Scotland, but both returned for the ensuing win over Wales and 13-10 loss to England.

In fact, the only other change for the remainder of that Championship was Iain Henderson replacing the hamstrung O’Mahony for the penultimate win over Italy, with O’Mahony returning for the title-clinching win over France in Paris.

In other words, there were a dozen ever-presents in the five starting line-ups, in which only 18 players were used.

Some rotation amongst the replacements meant that 29 players were used in total.

It was a similar story when the title was retained in 2015. Sexton, Heaslip and Sean O'Brien, when tweaking his hamstring in the warm-up, missed the opening win away to Italy, when Ian Keatley kicked five from five in the 26-3 win, while O'Brien's replacement, Tommy O'Donnell, scored a try in a Man of the Match performance.

Title-clinching

Sexton, O’Brien and Heaslip returned for the win at home to France, as did Cian Healy on the bench, with O’Donnell missing out on the 23, before Jordi Murphy again deputised for the injured Heaslip in the win over England.

The only other changes saw Healy promoted above Jack McGrath, and Luke Fitzgerald restored instead of Zebo, for the title-clinching 40-10 win over Scotland in Murrayfield.

Thus Schmidt only used 20 players in his five starting line-ups, and 21 players in his five match-day squads.

By contrast, those figures rose to 21 and 33 last season, when the retirement of O'Connell and long-term injury to O'Mahony were compounded by the absence of Mike Ross, Sean O'Brien and Rob Kearney for the opening draw at home to Wales, with O'Brien returning in Paris a week later only to hobble out of the remainder of the championship.

Jared Payne, Keith Earls, both Dave and Rob Kearney, and Healy were all sidelined along the way, resulting in Test debuts for Stuart McCloskey, Josh van der Flier, Ultan Dillane and Finlay Bealham.

Ireland salvaged third. Not bad in the circumstances. For the truth is that the more settled a side, the likelier they’ll be contenders.

Simple as.

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