The best laid plans of men and mice. Already consigned to being without the hamstrung Robbie Henshaw for the opening skirmishes of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the calf injury which Rob Kearney is understood to have sustained in training will force the Ireland management to delve into their resources more than they would have liked for their tournament opener against Scotland.
An update was expected from this morning’s press conference in Chiba, ie overnight in Ireland, regarding the latest misfortune to afflict the Ireland squad in their preparations for the opener against Scotland in Yokohama on Sunday (kick-off 4.45pm local time/8.45am Irish).
However, all the indications are that Kearney will be unavailable for both Sunday's encounter and the ensuing meeting with Japan six days later at the very least. With doubts also surrounding Keith Earls following the quad injury which forced his withdrawal after 53 minutes of his delayed seasonal re-appearance against Wales last Saturday week, Ireland's resources are already looking a tad threadbare.
Were Earls also ruled out, that would leave Jacob Stockdale, Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway as the only three outside backs still standing. Garry Ringrose or Chris Farrell will presumably partner Bundee Aki in midfield, with one or the other an option on the bench along with Joey Carbery (seemingly recovered from the ankle injury which has sidelined him since the first warm-up game against Italy).
In keeping with the IRFU's policy on injuries the extent of Henshaw's hamstring strain, or more likely tear, has not been divulged. But in describing the results of Henshaw's scan as "reasonably positive", scrum coach Greg Feek hinted that the player himself was targeting the second pool game against the hosts on Saturday week. More likely, Henshaw will be fit for one of the ensuing games against Russia and Samoa, and likewise Kearney.
Otherwise, as Feek admitted, keeping Henshaw or any injured player in camp indefinitely could become an issue.
“That’s always a question we’ll be asking ourselves. You have to make a call, you have to do what’s best for the team and within our squad we’re a tight-knit group and when you name a squad you want to give everyone an opportunity. This means that if there is something like this, that someone else gets an opportunity, that guy can support him, and then we can just go from there.”
In other words, they can pick from Aki, Ringrose and Farrell over the next two or three games, by which point Henshaw should be back. But while it’s seemingly not disastrous, not least for Henshaw himself, now comes Kearney’s setback and this after he had looked so sharp in his tryscoring performance against Wales.
As an aside, Feek has combined his Ireland duties with being in charge of the forwards and defence at the NEC Green Rockets in Japan for much of the last two years. It’s a dual role which, helpfully, has exposed him to the country’s thunderstorms and heavy downpours at this time of year. Despite the latter being forecast for the opening weekend of the World Cup, Feek maintains that the weather patterns are wildly unpredictable, meaning teams have to be prepared for all eventualities in any case.
Of his own experiences in Japan, Feek said: “We’ve had trainings, and training matches and things like that, where the lightning has come and we’ve had to get off the field. So I’ve experienced that a couple of times. But in terms of games, I’ve had games where it’s been torrential but nothing that has been called off.
“Last year we were in Fukuoka at exactly the same time, almost to the week, and it was predicted thunderstorms, 26 degrees, but nothing too major last year.”
Feek said the surfaces would hold up well, due to the pride the Japanese take in their pitches, while the contrast between training in temperatures of 32 degrees on Saturday and yesterday’s rain in Chiba was helpful.
“I think compared to Saturday it was a bit different, but in a good way, you know what I mean, with a bit of rain, but it was still reasonably warm. I think you get varied preparation while you’re here, so it’s ideal.”
If the forecast holds true, this should lead to more scrums and heighten the importance of this set-piece against the Scots. Feek is reluctant to compare the Ireland scrum with four years ago, but with the emergence of Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter and John Ryan, the frontrow stocks look more complete, and with more impact off the bench.
Compared with four years ago, Rory Best (37) and Seán Cronin (33) are four years older, but Niall Scannell is two years younger and has six more caps than Richardt Strauss had then.
Two of the five props, the then 22-year-old Furlong and the 34-year-old Nathan White went into the 2015 tournament with two and three caps respectively. By comparison, Porter (23) is the least experienced but has 18 caps, while the five props have 198 caps compared with the 143 of the quintet four years ago.
Kilcoyne and Porter are also modern day props, who provide real ball-carrying ballast off the bench. In this respect anyway, Ireland appear to be in a better place.