First Test for Lions

The first Test match on Saturday is the first real test the Lions face on tour. The Australian club scene has put up little resistance to the touring party. After five matches only the Brumbies managed to notch up a win, beating an under strength Lions team on Tuesday as Warren Gatland opted to rest his starting fifteen. The Wallabies will be a different kettle of fish.

I think the Lions will win tomorrow, but there are *ahem* areas of concern.

Alex Corbisiero – Brought in as a loose head replacement for the injured Cian Healey, Corbisiero has made little impression in the warm up games, and has looked far less impressive than Mako Vunipola. The only logical reason for Gatland’s selection could be a wish to introduce Vunipola as an impact sub to create havoc in the loose for the final twenty minutes or so. Should the Wallabies win the first scrum of the match, even Gatland will know that his gamble has failed.

The Lineout – The throwing of Alex Hibbard and Rory Best in the warms ups left Gatland with no choice but to select Tom Youngs at hooker. Over the six matches played the Lions have won 51 lineouts and lost 17, meaning that one in three lineouts are going to the opposition. However the stats are slightly misleading: the Lion’s greatest lineout weapon Paul O’Connell has barely caught a ball (seven Lions have caught more than him) in an effort to keep the Australian coaching staff in the dark.

The Centre – Injuries to Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi have forced Gatland to select Jonathan Davies at inside centre. Ordinarily selected at 13, Davies will have a steep learning curve to fulfil the battering ram role designed by Gatland for the tour. As a rangey all-rounder, Davies will depend on the two Irish men flanking him for support. However should either Jonathan Sexton or Brian O’Driscoll fail to perform in their attacking duties, the Lions will be in trouble.

Wide Australian play – There are rumours that the Aussies could switch to spinning the ball wide (ala the Brumbies on Tuesday) which could test the Lions on both wings. With Alex Cuthbert’s defence a perennial subject of conversation and George North coming off a hamstring injury, the Lions could struggle against fast attacking play. However the Lions might well be able to take advantage of any expansive Australian play through the open field territory kicking of Halfpenny and the counter attacking pace of both Cuthbert and North.

The Bench – No Conor Murray, no Sean O’Brien. Talk about impact players…. Their exclusion defies logic.

The Aussies – They’ve been warming up behind closed doors; they’ve been written off by the English press; they’ve waited twelve years to revenge losing to the Lions in Brisbane because of Brian O’Driscoll’s genius. They will not go down without a fight.

Video: Rugby Media


Concussion turning rugby pitches into gladiator arenas

Picture via Fergus McFadden @fergmcfaddenWhen a picture of a Dublin cafe advertising ‘Free coffee for Dave Kearney’ hit the internet yesterday a colleague of Kearney’s, fellow Leinster rugby player Fergus McFadden, was the first to reply: ‘Nice gesture but don’t think he is out of hospital yet…’

Responding from his hospital bed, Kearney mustered a joke: he would accept skinny latte deliveries to his room. Yet two days earlier as he lay unconscious on the turf of Thomond Park no one was joking around. Following a kick to the head from Munster’s Paul O’Connell, Kearney was stretchered from the field, brought to hospital and diagnosed with concussion. O’Connell’s swipe was considered ‘careless’ rather than intentional by the independent citing commissioner and no suspension, warning or fine was issued.

Concussions in rugby are a ticking time-bomb for the sports’ administrators. As players continue to become stronger and fitter, the risk of head injury and brain trauma is multiplied. In response the International Rugby Board has formulated a detailed list of guidelines surrounding concussions which states that players suspected of having concussion be removed from play and sidelined until a thorough medical assessment deems them fit to play again.

However a controversial amendment to the guidelines, introduced on a trial basis last summer, has raised eyebrows. It states that a player suspected of suffering concussion will be allowed return to the action if they can pass a series of touchline tests lasting five minutes. Test questions include, ‘What’s the score?’ and, ‘Who are you playing against?’

The introduction of the ‘five minute rule’ led to a high profile resignation from the IRB’s own medical advisory committee. Barry O’Driscoll, a medical doctor and former Irish international, stood down after fifteen years with the IRB, arguing that ‘rugby is trivialising concussions’.

‘They are sending these guys back onto the field and into the most brutal arena. It’s ferocious out there. The same player who 18 months ago was given a minimum of seven days recovery time is now given five minutes.’

Quite apart from the O’Connell-Kearney incident, these comments follow on from a number of serious concussion cases involving Irish players. During Ireland’s clash with France in March, a blow to the head left Brian O’Driscoll confused and shaken. Visibly unsteady, he was helped from the pitch only to re-enter the fray minutes later and play to the finish. Frightening footage of O’Driscoll stumbling around the field as the final whistle was blown shows the need to completely remove the decision to play from the player, and to do away with the proposed ‘five minute rule’.

Perhaps more worrying than the injuries to O’Driscoll and Kearney were those sustained by Luke Marshall who suffered three concussions in as many games. Twenty-two year old Marshall was concussed in Ireland’s draw with France and another head injury saw him substituted seven days later in the Ireland-Italy game. Eleven days later, while playing for Ulster against Saracens, Marshall was knocked unconscious for the third time in four weeks. Coaching and medical staff from both Ireland and Ulster confirmed that Marshall was fit to take part in all games over the four week period.

The IRB tread a well-worn path when it comes to player safety in sport. Recent research into the long term effects of concussion on American Football players by Boston University has led to public outcry and the demand for rule changes. In 2011 the National Football League advanced the ball five yards for kick-offs; a minor change which resulted in a 50 percent drop in concussions on those plays. For the 2013 NFL season, independent neurological specialists will be present on the sidelines for all games to work with the team staff and will act autonomously.

Yet for many, these changes are too little too late. Boston University’s research has confirmed many former players suffer from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated brain trauma which can result in memory loss, mood swings and depression. The suicide of former players suffering from CTE has prompted an ongoing lawsuit involving some 4,000 former players against the NFL. The players allege the League knew the dangers of head injuries and failed to act accordingly.

If rugby administrators wish to protect players and the future viability of the game they would do well to heed ongoing developments in the NFL and the words of current NFL star Eric Winston, ‘We are athletes… We are not gladiators and this is not the Roman Colosseum.’

Picture via Fergus McFadden

Ireland Six Nations Preview: The good, the bad and the ugly

Six Nation’s time. The question is will Ireland show up for the party or will they just be like drunken also-rans flapping about on the dancefloor?

The Good
As 2013 is an odd year Ireland will face the two favourites for the Six Nations title, England and France, at home. Winning the tournament’s opening match in Cardiff against Grand Slam holders Wales would create huge momentum for Ireland, and home support against les Blues and na Sasanaigh could be enough for Ireland to reclaim the championship.

The success of Munster and Ulster in this year’s Heineken Cup has bred confidence in the likes of David Kilcoyne, Craig Gilroy and Felix Jones while in Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson and Ian Keatley there is hope for a future star at out half. 22 year old Simon Zebo has solidified the potential he showed in 2011 and should play a major role as a try finisher and broken field runner this year in a green jersey.

Leinster’s failure to qualify to the knock out stage of the Heineken Cup is a blessing in disguise for Ireland. With places up for grabs on the Lion’s Tour of Australia this summer, the Six Nations represents the last chance for Leinster’s marquee players to showcase themselves on an international stage.

The Bad
Untimely distractions have come thick and fast for the Irish camp and as of yet the dust has not settled. Declan Kidney’s decision to permanently install Jamie Heaslip as team captain in the place of Brian O’Driscoll has left a bad taste in the mouth for what is to be O’Driscoll’s final Six Nations. While his position in the team has come under pressure, there was no need to replace O’Driscoll as captain, and Heaslip’s leadership qualities will be pushed to the limit if he is to guide Ireland to victory.

Jonny Sexton’s move to Racing Metro has bred uncertainty among the Leinster camp with Rob Kearney believing Sexton’s departure could “open the floodgates” for an Irish exodus to overseas clubs. It’s a professional game and of course money talks, but rumours that Sexton demanded the tag of “top player wage” from the IRFU means that unity is far from a given in the Irish camp.

Over the past year pressure has mounted on Declan Kidney and his coaching staff. Repeated backroom changes mean that Les Kiss no longer holds both roles of Attack Coach and the Defence Coach, with Anthony Foley taking charge of the latter. Kidney’s current contract ends after the Six Nations and should only be renewed if, 1) he is proven right about Heaslip’s captaincy; 2) he successfully mixes youth with experience in the backline; and 3) Ireland perform well at Lansdowne against France and England.

The Ugly
Since this time last year Ireland have played ten games and only won three of them; beating Italy and Scotland in the 2012 Six Nations, and then defeating an exhausted Argentina in the 2012 Autumn series. Anything short of a good campaign this year will see fans calling for change.

Ireland Six Nations Schedule
Wales v Ireland Millennium Stadium Sat 2nd Feb 13 13:30
Ireland v England Aviva Stadium Sun 10th Feb 13 15:00
Scotland v Ireland Murrayfield Sun 24th Feb 13 14:00
Ireland v France Aviva Stadium Sat 9th Mar 13 17:00
Italy v Ireland Stadio Olimpico Sat 16th Mar 13 14:30