Adam Hathaway, rugby correspondent of The People, has a look at the injuries disrupting the plans of the international coaches and watches the Six Nations mind games start.
At last week’s launch of the Six Nations it was a bit like being transported back into the playground days of ‘you show me yours’ and I’ll show you mine’ as the body count was being discussed.
The launch was at a new location, the Hilton in Syon Park, but the main chat was the same as it is every year.
One head coach would tell us that he had enough casualties to fill a ward on M*A*S*H, the brilliant American comedy show, the next one would trump it by saying that their injuries would fill every episode of Casualty since Charlie, who is now about 147, finished his nursing qualifications.
Wales, bloodbath, Ireland, casualty ward, Scotland, infirmary, England, new hospital wing required and France, just plain bonkers.
It took Ben Kay in his, as usual excellent, column in The Times on Saturday to put it into perspective. We have been here before.
Kay, England’s World Cup-winning lock from 2003, recounted the saga of the missing scrum-halves during that campaign. Early on in that tournament Matt Dawson, Kyran Bracken and Andy Gomarsall were all in various states of disrepair and Martyn Wood and Austin Healey were flown out to Australia.
As it turned out Dawson and Bracken did last the course but that was 14 years ago and it proves there is nothing new under the sun. And there was more…………
As Kay wrote: “I remember going into the 2005 Six Nations without Jonny Wilkinson, Martin Corry, Mike Tindall, Will Greenwood, Trevor Woodman, Richard Hill and Iain Balshaw. We were beaten by Wales, France and Ireland to finish fourth. The result, ultimately, is all that mattered. There is no asterisk in the history books listing the injury count. Eddie Jones is preparing a team that can lose any player and still win.”
As we crank up for the start of the Six Nations this weekend you could put together a more than handy XV of players who are not going to be about for at least the first couple of weeks.
How about this lot taking on the All Blacks at Hackney Rugby Club tomorrow? And thanks to our friends at punditarena.com for putting this one together, because frankly we couldn’t be arsed.
Liam Williams; Jack Nowell, Wesley Fofana, Jonathan Davies, Elliot Daly; Dan Biggar, Morgan Parra; Alasdair Dickinson, Fraser Brown, Kyle Sinckler, Richie Gray, Jake Ball, Sean O’Brien, Sam Warburton, Billy Vunipola….
We could be arsed to put this crocks, and villains, XV together from players who could be missing from the first weekend, injured or suspended, as well……
Mike Brown; George North, Garry Ringrose, Mathieu Bastareaud, Tommy Bowe; Rhys Priestland, Rhys Webb; Joe Marler, Ross Ford, WP Nel, Charlie Ewels, Yoann Maestri, Dan Lydiate, James Haskell, Taulupe Faletau
And Henry Slade, Nathan Hughes, Semesa Rokoduguni, Jamie Heaslip, Jared Payne, Camille Lopez and all the rest will just have to be satisfied with an afternoon of shining the pine.
Should be a decent game and a right old ding-dong.
Jones is nobody’s fool. He knows you have to have at least 45 players who can play international rugby before you can half a squeak of winning a World Cup. If he has told the story about Stephen Donald, the All Blacks fifth-choice fly-half, kicking the winning goal at the 2011 tournament once he has told it a thousand times.
Why? Err, because it is true and because it demonstrates one of the truths of rugby.
In case you haven’t noticed rugby is a big boys’ and girls’ game. Sometimes you are going to get hurt – just like we used to before the PC brigade stopped us from shinning up trees and playing conkers.
Sometimes in a sport that asks players to put their bodies on the line some of those bodies might get hurt. It is a contact sport and there is always going to be a price to pay. Medics and law makers have done their best to reduce the risks but they are always going to be there and people are going to get injured. It has always been like that and that is just the way it is.
Of course the players could play less and be wrapped up in cotton wool on central contracts but for English rugby that ship sailed 20 years ago. And central contracts have not helped some of the Irish boys stay out of the casualty bay.
As Jones told us at the launch: “What do I have misgivings about? I can’t control anything. I’m not Donald Trump. I can’t build a wall between us and the clubs and ring-fence the players. All I can do is get the players and get them in the best physical condition and the best mental and physical state we can, the coaching team work with the leadership team of the players and bring forward the strongest team we can onto the field. You can only put 15 players on the field.” Which is just as well because there seem only to be about 15 fit English-qualified players walking around.
So Warren Gatland, Jacques Brunel, Conor O’Shea, Glregor Townsend and Joe Schmidt are going to have to live with and stop the belly aching or snide psychological games. Scotland’s front row problems are so deep that anyone who has ever played prop could get a game and that is why coaches will be looking at other teams’ injury list as much as their own. Wales will be going after the Scottish scrum for sure on Saturday in Cardiff.
“You have to be smart,” said Gatland. “If there is vulnerability you have to exploit it. We will be looking to potentially do that, but you have to be positive in the way you play.
“Plan one might be to target a weakness, but when someone steps in because of an injury you tend to work a bit harder in that area because as a coach you know the opposition might target you. If
Scotland’s scrum is competitive, you will see a great game of rugby because both teams are positive.”
Most directors of rugby work with the fact that at least a quarter of their squad are going to be crocked at any one point. They just have to suck it up.
And so will the Six Nations coaches. Because as Kay says, we have been down this road before.
The Six Nations would not be the Six Nations without someone lobbing a grenade at a fellow coach, having a crack at the referees or moaning about injuries.
And the Six Nations launch is normally the place where it starts. In the past we have had Warren Gatland saying Dylan Hartley was a bottler, that one didn’t work, this time we had Eddie Jones saying that England are underdogs.
And Jones got into the officials as well.
The head coaches and the some referees met at Heathrow last week to thrash out some of the finer points of the law book. Jones had two beefs to take into that meeting.
The first was the driving maul and how that would be policed. Jones reckons that the attacking team are at a disadvantage with defenders coming through the maul legally and illegally. England might just be hoping to unfurl a few driving mauls in the next few weeks.
And Jones also says that teams are still putting the ball in crookedly at the scrums. And anyone who watches the game will know that this nonsense is still going on. It is the easiest law to get right and it is the one that is ignored the most.
Jones was due to bring these concerns up with the whistlers but he thought he would get it out in the media just for good measure. The mind games have begun – it must be the Six Nations.