‘He’d go wandering. He’d fall over. He had no control over anything’

At 11.40am last Tuesday in the Coroners Court on Dublin’s Store Street, coroner Dr Brian Farrell delivered his findings in the case of the late Kenny Nuzum.

Over the previous hour and 20 minutes he had listened to evidence from a consultant neurologist and a consultant neuropathologist. The coroner accepted what he had heard, he said, and found that Nuzum’s death ultimately had been caused by CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) — a degenerative brain condition brought about by repeated head trauma. Over the course of an extraordinarily long rugby career, Kenny Nuzum, who died in March last year aged 57, had suffered a whole heap of head trauma.

This was a landmark case in the game in this country, the first time the death of a rugby player had been referred to this court. By confirming the link between the demise of an ex-player and a condition which has haunted the NFL in America, the coroner moved the issue of concussion onto a new level here.

If you reckoned that it was only a matter of time before CTE washed up on these shores then you won’t be surprised where we are now.

CTE is not new, but only since the NFL agreed last year to shell out $914m to more than 5,000 former players, who had sued the league because of head injuries sustained playing gridiron, has it moved centre stage.

You will be familiar with the casual, blanket description for someone’s irrational behaviour as being down to ‘a chemical imbalance in the brain’. When it comes to CTE there is actually some truth in this. We all have a protein called tau which is pivotal to the maintenance of healthy nerve cells in the brain. When you suffer concussion, however, a biochemical reaction takes place which leads to loss of function of the tau protein. And the affected nerve cells cease to function. If you are unlucky then the next stop is CTE, and your life will never be the same again.

Currently the condition can only be clinically diagnosed in an autopsy, but advances in imaging techniques are likely to make it identifiable in the living by virtue of developing ultra-high-tech PET (positron emission tomography) scans. For the moment though we are relying on brain donation to science so that pathologists can diagnose exactly what has gone wrong. And had Kenny Nuzum’s family not gone down this road we would be none the wiser.

If you are new to the rugby world then you will never have heard of Kenny Nuzum. If your familiarity with the club scene in Leinster goes back to the 1980s, however, you’ll remember him well. Team-mates were relieved that he was in their line-up and not the opposition’s. Opponents wondered how it was that someone could play with such disregard for his own or others’ safety. 

“Only for his discipline I’m told he could have gone further,” his son Andrew says. He got sent off a lot.

Nuzum played the game when the laws relating to the scrum were significantly different to those that obtain now. In the 1970s and ’80s especially it was routine for heads to clash on engagement at the scrum. Sometimes this would have been accidental, a by-product of two front rows meeting head on and without the graduated protocol we have now. It was common enough though for prop forwards to try and intimidate their opponents by headbutting them on contact. Nuzum had a well-earned reputation as a fearsome competitor who took no prisoners. Nobody was keeping count of the number of times he saw stars. Or, in other words, was concussed.

“He got an awful lot of clatters,” Andrew says. “A lot of people are going to say he didn’t play rugby the way a lot of normal people played. That’s what’s going to come out as well — that he was a different animal to the rest of us.”

Kenny Nuzum was born in Kildare in December 1955, raised in Rathfarnham, and on leaving school at 18 joined Lansdowne, then the most powerful club in Leinster. He was a fixture in the front row of a heavyweight pack in a team that at various stages included internationals Moss Keane, Donal Spring and Mike Gibson. Long after those individuals had hung up their boots, Nuzum was still lacing his.

Andrew reckons he played regularly until he was almost 50, and intermittently thereafter, by which stage he had settled in with junior club Aer Lingus. In 2005, when they had become Swords Rugby Club, Nuzum was awarded the inaugural Hall of Fame accolade. “Referees, opposition front rows, disciplinary boards, players past and present: love him or loathe him, they all knew Kenny,” ran the introduction for that award.

Despite his fearsome reputation on the field he was very popular off it. And colourful. One former team-mate remembers a story of Nuzum driving down Mary Street in Dublin’s north inner city when he saw two men messing with the lock of a car.

Having had his own car robbed a few weeks previously, he pulled over and physically assaulted them. It turned out they were plain clothes detectives. “When they had finished sorting him out they went on the piss with him for the afternoon,” he said. “Off the field he was a very decent fella — he actually had a heart of gold.”

It was his head that was the problem though. Things started to go wrong noticeably around 2006. Nuzum ran a tarmac and line-marking business — roads and sports courts — along with Andrew, with the father looking after the paperwork.

“The business went downhill because his memory started going,” Andrew says. “He used to know Dublin inside out but then couldn’t find his way around, leaving cars all over the place. We put it down to depression at first because we lost our mother 10 years ago. Eventually he gave in to it, we’d known for a few years, and said, ‘Yes my memory is going’. We were losing work left, right and centre. Forgetting invoices, forgetting prices. Things just went downhill.”

He was referred by his GP to the Memory Clinic in St James’s Hospital in June 2011. A neurological exam was largely normal and he was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. Six months later, he wound up in Blanchardstown A&E department. That set in train a sequence that saw him assessed by occupational therapy and psychiatric services. They concluded he did not have any psychiatric symptoms, including depression or anxiety. His primary difficulty was memory and disorientation.

By the next year things had got considerably worse. He was back in the Memory Clinic in summer 2012 for reassessment, and they referred him to the Neurology Clinic the same month. He was diagnosed with suspected PSP (progressive supranuclear palsy), a rare brain disorder that causes problems with gait and balance. At that stage he was still living at home, in Clonee, with carers coming in at night.

“He’d go wandering,” Andrew says. “He’d fall over. He’d been off the road for a year at this stage, he’d wander and be lost. No control over finances, no control over anything. In October 2012 we got him into James’s. We said: ‘This man can’t live on his own anymore.’ He’d rung me one night — thought he was in London. I found him in the garden, he’d fallen over and couldn’t get back up. We got him into James’s but he absconded twice from there, one day in his pyjamas, walking frame, slippers. Spotted first at the Aviva Stadium, at Lansdowne’s clubhouse. The guards were out looking for him. He was missing for five hours. Then someone reported him in Donnybrook Stadium and the guards picked him up there and brought him back. That was just before the Six Nations (in 2013). He was going to play rugby.”

In fact, he was trying to line out for the Ireland Legends against their England counterparts. A few weeks later, he would develop pneumonia, and after a poor response to antibiotics was admitted to the intensive care unit. He rallied briefly and was discharged to a general ward, but within 48 hours the beginning of multi-organ failure had set in. “A few days later he was gone,” Andrew says.

Initially he thought of donating other of his dad’s organs but the hospital explained to him that the brain would be the most useful, so it was arranged to hand it over to the Brain Bank in Beaumont Hospital. That’s where neuropathologist Professor Michael Farrell got involved.

“The family, along with Kenny, made arrangements for his brain to be donated and I suppose I saw that name,” he says. Farrell has a long background in rugby as a member of St Mary’s and having played for RCSI and Longford.

“‘Jesus, that can’t be Kenny Nuzum?’ I approached it on the basis that he had been seen by superb neurologists, they had a working diagnosis that he had PSP. At the back of my mind all the time was ‘could it be (CTE)?’ And you’re trying all the time not to jump to conclusions. So you’re doing everything you can to show that it’s what the clinicians thought it was but when I began to see the changes around the blood vessels then it dawned on me that this was not ordinary PSP. It was 10 times worse than any PSP I’d ever seen before in my life. Normally with PSP you see tau changes in certain parts of the brain but in Kenny’s case it was everywhere. We did all the genetics and looked for mutations in the tau gene, for the family’s sake: we didn’t want to be calling this chronic traumatic encephalopathy if it wasn’t, if instead it was something inherited.”

Farrell referred his findings to his colleague in Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital, Willie Stewart, a leading world figure on the issue of brain trauma. Dr Stewart spent a day in Beaumont examining slides and took away a tissue sample. He told the Sunday Independent last week: “In my research I’ve seen a lot of cases of CTE, but this was one of the most severely affected I have seen, particularly in such a young man.”

So how did Kenny Nuzum finish up in such a state? Had he a series of work accidents or other incidents where he was getting dings in the head? No. There had been one incident at work where he was struck in the side of the head by a metal bar which he was loading onto a truck. He hadn’t lost consciousness and he didn’t attend hospital. On the rugby field however he lost consciousness three times that he admitted. His family and team-mates said he had been concussed multiple times. Did nobody try and dissuade him from playing then?

“I knew when he would have been 50 he wasn’t the full shilling but I didn’t know what it was,” Andrew says. “We didn’t see it getting as bad. It was a bit of a heart problem that the doctors found out that stopped him playing. ‘You’re going to have some 20-year-old that runs into you and you’re going to get fucking killed.’ He played a game with Lansdowne over 35s maybe three years ago, and the boys said he wasn’t the full shilling at all.”

Not many people played the game the way Nuzum did. Fewer still played as long as he did. It is beyond question that he kept going far past the point at which he should have stopped. The consequences were an early death, at 57, with the last six or seven years of his life increasingly compromised by his advancing CTE.

“This case illustrates what we in the brain trauma community have suspected for some time: that chronic traumatic encephalopathy is not an American problem, it’s a global sports problem,” says Willie Stewart. “We would call on global sports to recognise that head injuries acquired during sporting pursuits can lead to long-term problems for people. One of our frustrations is that we’re battling concussion on a sport-by-sport basis, region by region, rather than just accepting that the good work in America carried out over the past decade has told us what we need to know: repeatedly injuring your brain over and over again is not good for some people. And it’s not just a boxer problem, it’s not just an American football problem, it’s not just an ice hockey problem, it’s a rugby problem, it’s a football problem, it’s a global problem.”

And it’s not new. Twelve years ago, West Brom forward Jeff Astle died from dementia that a coroner found had been caused by heading footballs over a career that included 15 years as a professional. The English FA promised a 10-year research study following the case. They did nothing. Last month FA chairman Greg Dyke wrote to Astle’s widow apologising for the failure to act, and to assure her an FA commission on head injuries had been set up. Terrific.

Three years ago in these pages Professor Farrell painted a clear enough picture on this issue: what was needed, he said, was a longitudinal study starting with teenagers to harvest enough information so that we might actually move forward. It would cost circa €1m, he said.

And what has happened since then? Above the line, very little, apart from an educational programme — which is useful — run by the IRFU. Useful but still not getting even close to the heart of the issue. Our understanding now is that a group of medics, independent of the union, are at an advanced stage of preparation for a programme that will go some way towards this.

“We will bring together the best academic minds in medicine in this country and a lot of stars from around the globe,” a source involved in the effort says. The source was a bit hazy though on how it would be funded, so with respect we’ll reserve judgement until the cash materialises.

In the meantime, there are others of Kenny Nuzum’s vintage and older who may find their golden years have lost their gloss because of what happened in their sporting lives. If they are as unlucky as he was then there is no way back. Let’s see if rugby can act now for the others, and wake itself up to move forward.

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Welsh holding out for highest bidder


As we gathered up our stuff in the stand in Thomond Park last Saturday night, to head over to the post match press conference, a couple of Welsh and English colleagues asked which was the quickest way to get there.

“Sorry lads,” I said. “It’s for Irish journos only. Just those aligned to the Celtic brotherhood and signed up to the Accord.”

It was a joke. And en route to the other side of the ground we reminded our Welsh friend in particular how his lot would be quick to jump the fence – historically they have one leg over anyway -  if they thought the grass there was a nicer shade of green.

It kept us going until we arrived at the press room and the review of Munster’s win over Gloucester took over from the issue of where both teams would be playing their European rugby next season. If anywhere.

So when news broke last night of the Welsh regions declaring their love for the proposed Rugby Champions Cup it was, as they say in text land, an lol moment. Having been earmarked as the first to drop their drawers, the Welsh had assumed the position.

This was being interpreted first thing this morning as the final nail in the coffin of the Heineken Cup. Hmm, not so sure about that.

If there were gold medals on offer for preparing the battle-ground then PRL would be top of the podium. Just before ERC kicked off this season’s round of Heineken Cup regional launches PRL grandly produced the Rugby Champions Cup title, a daft handle but one that coloured in the picture of a new game in town.

Then, on the eve of today’s talks, they succeed in getting the Welsh to declare allegiance to something that as yet doesn’t exist, and has a broadcast deal that will be subject to legal challenge and whose detail has never been put on the table.

Meantime the backing track has featured chairmen from various Premiership clubs warning the Celts of the post Apocalyptic scene they will face if they don’t get on board.

This campaign has been so successful that what’s left of the Celtic alliance are bending over backwards to compromise and keep the show on the road. And does this alliance include the Welsh?

I think it probably does, in so far as their statement was worded carefully to leave the door open: they will run with whoever sets the right pace. And if that’s ERC, giving them more cash – they couldn’t give a toss about the structure etc – then fine.

What the Welsh want more than anything is the ability to budget with some confidence, to know that they might be involved with something that allows them turn a profit and keep their players in Wales. I’d say the eight Premiership clubs in England who lost money last season might settle for something similar.

The meeting in Dublin gets underway in a few hours and is scheduled to run through until tomorrow. Although I understand Stuart Gallacher, the Welsh regions rep, may be in town, I wonder will he skip the meeting to give his position some more clout. This is their demand to their own union, who they have been butting heads with over a new domestic accord, and ERC, to draw a new map with only prosperous countries. If that includes Wales in a revised and more profitable Heineken Cup then that’s what they’ll go for.

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Plumtree set to coach Ireland pack

Outgoing Sharks coach John Plumtree could soon be named as the forwards coach in the new Ireland set-up under Joe Schmidt, according to a well placed South African source.

The Kiwi would join Les Kiss (defence) as the third main coach in the operation where Schmidt will look after the backs/attack himself. It remains to be seen if Plumtree is expected to coach the scrum, but given that he was a back row forward through a playing career that took him from Taranaki to Natal it’s unlikely he would be able to fill that role at Test level.

Schmidt has spent much of his time, since succeeding Declan Kidney in April, figuring out a new coaching staff. Retaining Les Kiss was seemingly straightforward and when the new head coach went back to New Zealand for a few weeks after the North America tour it was as much about finding a forwards’ coach as having a holiday back home.

An IRFU source said there were at least three people on Schmidt’s shortlist, but wouldn’t confirm that Plumtree spent a couple of days in Dublin last week. A source in South Africa is certain that the Shark is Ireland’s man.  

Plumtree (48) will bring a raft of experience to the job, albeit very little of it at international level. As a player he represented Taranaki and Hawkes Bay with the bulk of his career then being spent in Durban with Natal. He started coaching in 1997, with Swansea, and after a short spell as analyst with John Mitchell’s All Blacks he moved on to Wellington’s NPC side at a time when Schmidt was with the Bay of Plenty.

He returned to the Sharks in 2007, as assistant, and then took over the top job a year later, remaining there until June of this year when he left having been told his contract would not be renewed next season. Plumtree’s exit – he was named coach of the year in South Africa in 2012 – may have as much to do with the arrival of former Springbok captain John Smit as chief executive of the organisation, as the coach’s performance on the field. When Plumtree coached Smit at the club he chose Bismarck du Plessis as hooker ahead of the Springbok captain. Brendan Venter will be director of rugby at the Sharks next season.

Clearly Plumtree had struggled this season, and the Sharks – having been tipped to lead South Africa’s challenge pre-tournament – missed out on the play-offs managing only a 50 per cent win rate in a campaign blighted by injuries to key players and rumours of unrest in the changing room.

In his five seasons with the Sharks he brought them to four Currie Cup finals, two of which were won, and one Super Rugby decider.

The ideal result for Schmidt would have been to unearth a front rower who could coach the scrum as well as the forward pack as a whole, making for a streamlined operation.

It remains to be seen what road he will travel on the scrummaging issue, and the role of kicking coach has yet to be filled as well.





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Weary feeling as Lions take final step

Last Tuesday morning Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson was conducting a video review of his team’s win over Manly the previous night at the SFS. It had been a good win, keeping them in second place behind their arch rivals from South Sydney, the Rabbitohs. In the circumstances there was much to be pleased about. Top of that list was a sequence of play where they had to defend a couple of sets too close to their line for comfort, whereupon they didn’t just lift the siege, they went after Manly with menace, and without drawing breath, and worked a score at the far end.

Robinson acknowledged that the successful defence could have been followed by a breather, and he was well pleased that that hadn’t happened. “We don’t do fatigue,” he said, to a room where you could hear a pin drop. “That’s just not us.”

It seemed an appropriate theme for Warren Gatland to adopt in the Lions camp. A Third Test that needed winning was not what he had in mind when planning the break up in Noosa. Thursday was travel day. Another travel day. And at this stage of the show packing the suitcase again and boarding the bus for the airport must have seemed like having your prison term lengthened on the eve of release.

The spin from the Lions camp is that the Wallabies will struggle to get to the same emotional level as last week when they saved the series. The return of serve from the locals is that their best form is about to unfold.

“(We’re) Very confident,” Will Genia said today. “We can honestly say we haven’t played our best footy right throughout the series thus far, and probably made too many errors to give ourselves an opportunity to play any fast-flowing footy. We were able to do that in the last 20-30 minutes of the Test match in Melbourne, and we will probably take a lot of confidence out of that moving forward. We just have to make sure we start well, you know?

“I think we have we been chasing a bit too much in the last two Tests, and just playing off the back foot. If we can start well, and give ourselves the opportunity to get into the game, we will definitely back ourselves to play some good running rugby and really have a go.”

That line is credible for three reasons: the Lions are more tired; the home team should always find their best rhythm in the final Test; and when it comes to emotional investment, the tourists scraped together every penny they had and put in on being 2-0 by close of business in Melbourne last Saturday. Seeing that go down the pan was painful.

Now they need a load of things to go right: a scrum that yields penalties; a lineout that for the first time in the series yields positive ball; and enough breaks in play to frustrate the home team. Expect the Wallabies to continue the tactic of offering up the front of the lineout, but more usefully – on two counts – to limit the number of Lions’ lineouts in the first place.

In each of the games in Brisbane and Melbourne the home team allowed the Lions 12 throws to the lineout. Keeping the ball in play – something Gatland used to aim for with Wasps and Wales, when he was so confident of their conditioning – would not only tire the tourists but reduce their chances of launching Jamie Roberts down the middle of the field.

As for the scrum, they will continue to hit off-centre, as the Lions successfully did to the physically superior Springboks in 1997, and hope that the disaster area that is the scrum in rugby continues to claim casualties, primarily the referee.

If they get that much right then their only worry is if George Smith can climb the sheer cliff face that is required in order to get to the pace of this contest after so long out of the picture. And with a readymade replacement on the bench in Michael Hooper, they don’t plan on asking him to see out 80 minutes.

If the Lions are still in the hunt when the clock is counting down to that figure then Warren Gatland will have worked wonders. More likely he will be looking at players who are going backwards, and gasping. Some of that Roosters mentality wouldn’t go amiss.



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Dismal end for O’Driscoll

“We have not come up to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast to be tourists. We have come north to this holiday resort to get body and mind in just the right place.”

When Brian O’Driscoll was giving that quote yesterday it was in response to criticism – from former Lions coach Clive Woodward among others – that the spin to Noosa was not a great idea. Whether or not O’Driscoll was toeing the party line or not is irrelevant in the light of the unique setback which Warren Gatland laid at his door earlier today. O’Driscoll is now, barring an injury to one of his midfield colleagues between here and Saturday, in the bucket and spade brigade.

In his delivery of the match 23 for Sydney, Gatland acknowledged that O’Driscoll was disappointed with the news, but that he would still be a key part of the leadership in the build up to this winner takes all Test. Eh, no Warren, he won’t. If you wanted him to fill that role then he’d be starting in ANZ Stadium on Saturday night instead of wearing his numbers ones in the stand with a camera in one hand and a match programme in the other.

As conversations go between coaches and players, the chat between Gatland and O’Driscoll must have put in the shade the short meeting between Declan Kidney and the same player six months ago when captaincy was the only item on the agenda. Back then Kidney got it in the neck for raining on the parade of the most famous player in Irish rugby history when O’Driscoll was, as we thought then, on his last lap. Heaslip struggled so badly in the role that it hastened the exit of the coach.

Gatland too will be buried in an avalanche of criticism if the Welsh midfield fires blanks on Saturday. It’s worrying that there will be 10 Wales players in the starting line-up when their record against Australia is so poor, winning just one of the last 13 Tests (losing the last eight in a row).

Leading that band will be Alun Wyn Jones. Given the recent history between himself and James Horwill the coin toss will be a Kodak moment, but you have to wonder how highly Gatland rates him as a captain. Clearly he is an outstanding player, but if Jones is such a good leader why has the coach not given him the job with Wales instead of passing him over several times when the opportunity arose?

Suddenly Jones finds himself trying to steady a ship in a storm. The squad will come down from Noosa tomorrow – another travel day so close to the Test doesn’t sound great – after a break where it spilled down for three days and the Lions seemed to be doing everything possible to forget about their predicament.

And their predicament is this: in Melbourne they came off second best in providing front-foot ball for their backs, which contributed to both O’Driscoll and Jonathan Davies having ordinary games. There was a time in O’Driscoll’s career when he was capable occasionally of creating something out of nothing. Not anymore. If your game plan is predicated on making headway off your set-piece to get quality go-forward from your midfield, then your set-piece needs to be dominant. And that wasn’t happening.

Dropping Brian O’Driscoll is a brave call by Gatland, evidence that he has the bottle to do what he thinks is right regardless of the fallout. But if he thinks O’Driscoll is the issue then he’s on the wrong track. And yet another Lions series will be derailed.


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Captain Marvel free at last


For the second time on this tour Wallaby captain James Horwill has been the fulcrum of a significant momentum shift towards his team. The first was after the Brisbane Test, when in the space of 24 hours it emerged that he had been cleared of a disciplinary charge for shoeing Alun Wyn Jones in the face, while the Lions lost Paul O’Connell with a broken arm. So the Wallabies retained their go-to man up front – and they would not have won the Second Test without him – while the Lions lost theirs.

Then this morning Horwill did it again. The escape act that is. The result is a turbo boost to the Australia who are already feeling the way most home nations feel when the Third Test comes around: well tuned.

The retrial of Horwill has predictably divided most down here into red and gold camps. Tonight in Sydney the Justice for Horwill supporters will be raising a few glasses for two reasons: at the sharp end they have hung onto their leader, who comes across as being effective and articulate and absolutely first rate at the job; and in the second they have headed off the IRB whose intrusion in the process has been presented as selective and unfair.

It’s worth remembering that the Australian Rugby Union are signatories to the amendment made just over a year ago that allows the IRB to revisit disciplinary cases between Tier 1 nations, and only Tier 1 nations. Moreover this option is clearly understood as part of the Tour Agreement between Australia and the Lions. The shock and horror in these parts at the interjection of Big Brother is theatrical, and those who are shouting loudest are the ones who understand it least.

Why was the amendment made? To ensure consistency in the process, and to allow howlers to be rectified. The appleal hearing has found that this was no howler, but clearly the IRB thought there was an unsustainable gap between the evidence and the conclusion in the Horwill hearing, so they invoked the clause.

It was easy to see where they were coming from. When you juxtapose Horwill’s testimony from the first hearing with the actual footage from the game it’s like something from ‘the cat ate my homework’ school of excuses. He said his action – the one that made contact with Alun Wyn Jones’s face and required a couple of stitches over the Lion’s eye – was an attempt to regain balance, that he was afraid of ending up on the ground on the wrong side of the ruck and in penalty territory if he didn’t take corrective action. Hello? Earth to Captain Horwill?

When I read that I figured there were other angles that we weren’t seeing and which told a different story. This is common enough: you look at something on the standard tv footage and are horrified; then you get the angles the citing commissioner has access to and you see a different story. This was confirmed in the written judgement of the original judicial officer – well, kind of.

“With nine video clips available to me ……with different angles and perspectives to those available to the Citing Commissioner. I was as a consequence in a position of some advantage over that of the Citing Commissioner.”

Great. And what did those angles tell you that lead to James Horwill being exonerated? Eh, we still don’t know. Interestingly when at a press conference after that first hearing Horwill referred to those same angles he was asked the same question, and made no reference to a whole different situation unfolding when viewed from a grassy knoll.

This morning at eight o’clock we fetched up at the Wallaby team hotel to be told that the scheduled press conference, to deal with the appeal judgement, had been postponed till lunchtime – because, remarkably, the decision still hadn’t been handed down overnight. Whatever about the disgruntled hacks, the Aussie media man looked unsettled at the prospect of being unable to appeal the appeal if indeed it was upheld.

Well, no worries mate. Captain Marvel is still a free man. The appeal hearing concluded that in the first case there had been no error in law or principle, and moreover that it was reasonable for the judicial officer to arrive at the conclusion which let Horwill off. The IRB had argued that a pillar of the dismissal was that the incident had occurred at a ruck, when it had been a collapsed maul, but that didn’t stand up.

It is a matter of opinion if you think James Horwill’s explanation of his action was credible. I don’t think it was, but two people in a much higher pay grade beg to differ. That the IRB took action and had it knocked back doesn’t render the move either unwise or not useful. And if James Horwill lifts the Tom Richards Cup here on Saturday night, I don’t think he’ll be complaining about the swing that helped them over the line.


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Gatland gambles in high stakes game

When Wales beat Ireland in Croke Park in 2008 en route to their first Grand Slam under Warren Gatland, they did it despite not having won in Dublin in eight years, and survived having two players put in the bin. The first of those was Mike Phillips. His inclusion ahead of Dwayne Peel had been a big call, and his offence was so daft and indisciplined that you reckoned he wouldn’t appear for the second half.

Out he came however. And went on to play a key role in the victory. Loyalty was always the most important card in Gatland’s pack, and he played it at half time in the dressing-room that day leaving the scrumhalf clear where he stood.

Perhaps top of his agenda when he took over in Ireland from Brian Ashton had been to provide consistency in selection, to allay the fears of players that one mistake would mean the chop. The trick thereafter is to get the balance right between players feeling secure to go out and play, and having enough insecurity to know that poor form might lead to looking in from the outside.

We saw that little swing from safe to vulnerable in Melbourne this morning. The coach was explicit in saying that it was a selection issue to leave out Phillips, that he could have played this Saturday despite the knee injury he’s carrying. Gatland could have given Phillips the comfort blanket of the injury line, but chose instead to expose him to the reality that in corners as tight as this, no one’s place  is safe.

It was good management from a man who has never looked so relaxed, but he must be deeply unimpressed by where Phillips is with his game to slot Ben Youngs into the gap. Youngs took his try well against the Rebels on Tuesday night, but it was bread and butter stuff against lower league opposition.

Replacing Phillips with Youngs is a shift to a different style of player, and not just a demotion for the man who came out here as first choice by a country mile. It’s good news for Conor Murray that he’s now in the Test squad, but while technically he has moved up from third to second, you wouldn’t bank on that pecking order obtaining when Gatland selects for the Sydney Test. Either way, Murray will be a much better player for the experience of being out here.

The other big calls from the coach saw him abandon Alex Cuthbert, a try-scorer from Brisbane and a man who sank England in the Six Nations, in favour of the player he wanted for the First Test, Tommy Bowe. I thought he would put Bowe on the bench, but you’d be happy that it will work out well.

Not so sure about the forwards however. The addition of Sean O’Brien to the bench is good business, but the nightmare scenario is an early injury on Saturday to Alun Wyn Jones, forcing Geoff Parling to shift from loose head second row to tight head, with either Dan Lydiate moving in from the back row  or Tom Croft coming off the bench.

The rationale for starting Lydiate, who played longer than I would have thought feasible against the Rebels on Tuesday, if he was starting on Saturday, is to add physicality to the forward effort. Croft’s value has been undermined by the Wallabies offering the Lions free ball at the front of the line rather than concede at the middle or tail. It lessens the value of Croft’s lineout ability.

Australia will continue that tactic but they will push up harder this time and try and mess up the delivery of that ball to the number two jumper. Moreover they will be hollering at referee Craig Joubert about the accuracy of Tom Youngs’s throwing.

When the ball is uncontested at the front then people tend not to care about the straightness of the throw, but after Youngs had, by my count, four dodgy deliveries unquestioned in Brisbane, take it that it’s an issue the Wallabies are raising with Joubert for Saturday.

They’ll be banging on about the scrummaging of Mako Vunipola as well. Gatland has taken a risk in his non-selection of a second row on the bench – the calculation being that with a closed roof and a dry ball there won’t be many more than the eight scrums we had last week – so to reduce that risk he’ll be telling Adam Jones that he’s in for an 80 minutes shift on Saturday, or pretty close to it. With a 50 caps-plus front row in the field for the first time in Wallaby history (and none of Cian Healy, Alex Corbisiero or Gethin Jenkins to worry about) the home team may even feel bullish about this phase.

Primarily they are relying on two things: avoiding the freakish run of injuries that dismantled their backline in Brisbane; and having their first-choice goal kicker available for long enough to count. You’ll remember that duty was shared unsuccessfully last weekend by the night owls Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor.

Earlier this evening Robbie Deans was peppered with questions about the two boys fetching up at a fast food outlet at close to 4am on Wednesday. The closest he came to saying that this behaviour was hard to fathom was in describing his subsequent meeting with the two lads as “uncomfortable.”

When asked soon after about how Beale would bounce back after literally slipping up on the job in Suncorp, Deans said: “He’s a stronger person (than a few years ago) and you could see that in how he approached his prep this week.”

You could? Imagine how Deans must have felt waking on Wednesday to the news that two players in whom he had invested so much faith had repaid it by being so utterly feckless. Warren Gatland has been blessed by comparison.  He’s hoping it makes the difference.



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