Rory Best is the latest casualty in Camp Ireland, and his doubt for Saturday heaps more pressure on Declan Kidney in a sequence that gets worse with each passing day. Damian Varley has been called in to the squad as cover.
The Ulster hooker would be a shoo-in as captain in the absence of Paul O’Connell, but he injured his ribs in Paris two days ago and is battling to make the start line against Scotland. The good news for the coach is that Best has a history of overcoming setbacks like this: in the World Cup he was given no chance of being fit for the quarter-final against Wales, after leaving the field against Italy in a heap, holding his shoulder and grimacing with pain.
A couple of days later Mike Sherry was landing in New Zealand as cover, and just when we expected Best to be named on a flight heading in the other direction he came through the far side. More than that, he was outstanding against Wales.
So Kidney is offering up decades of the rosary that his first choice hooker can repeat the trick. Who knows, perhaps the second choice hooker, Sean Cronin, is doing the same. If he looked under pressure coming on in the last five minutes in Paris – running himself and Tom Court on at that point looked like another example of Kidney remembering there were some subs still looking for action – then what will it be like if he is throwing to a lineout that has lost its leader as well as its coach?
And if Kidney goes with the Donncha O’Callaghan/Donnacha Ryan combo in the row, at least one of them will be like a fish out of water, jumping in the middle of the line. How Richie Gray would like that. There are scrummaging issues concerned with that pairing as well, but it’s the lineout that stands out as a glaring area of weakness.
So far in this tournament Ireland have struggled there (5/0 v Wales; 6/2 v Italy; 5/3 v France) and the struggle has not just been with the return, but with the stat of a miserable 5.3 lineouts per game to throw to in the first place. The premium on getting those spot-on is massive.
So if Best is to make it for Saturday, will he be fit enough to throw to the new second row pairing in training this week? And if not, how will Sean Cronin cope with a new lineout leader and a forwards’ coach whose international experience in this area measures one game?
Maybe he won’t have to. Surely O’Connell, who I understand suffered a grade two tear of his medial ligament, will run the lineouts in training this week. Along with Conor Murray he was seeing a specialist at 5pm today. So if he’s allowed to be on his feet after that then he’ll be the de facto lineout coach ahead of Saturday.
A week ago all of this looked like a good gig for Anthony Foley. Suddenly he is a close-up spectator of a group that seems to be falling apart.
Of the five man management team Kidney put together after he got the job in 2008 – manager Paul McNaughton, forwards’ coach Gert Smal, backs’ coach Alan Gaffney and defence coach Les Kiss – only two remain: himself and Kiss. We don’t know if, or when, Smal recovers from his health issue, will he be able to rejoin the fold.
Add in Brian O’Driscoll, followed by Paul O’Connell, and the personnel losses on and off the field are catastrophic. And now Best’s name may be added to the list for this week at any rate. If Kidney can keep the show on the road over next two Saturdays it will be Ireland’s version of the Great Escape.