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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Brendan Fanning

Ireland should be alarmed by their mounting injury list – and it could be about to get worse

Tadhg Furlong is still sidelined with a troublesome calf injury. Image: Sportsfile.

John Hayes used to joke that just because he was a farmer didn’t mean he had no trouble minding calves.

By no means was his career plagued by issues with that big fat muscle group so important to tightheads locking a scrum, but when it popped it was a cause for consternation, far and wide.

Hayes’ importance to Eddie O’Sullivan’s plans for the 2003 World Cup was in the same bracket as those massive steel beams that keep buildings upright. Brian O’Driscoll was the star of the show; Ronan O’Gara was a key man but still had a way to go before becoming the undisputed first choice 10; and Paul O’Connell was already the alpha male of a forward pack that was competitive, but still a distance behind England.

And Hayes? He was never mentioned in the same breath as the most destructive scrummagers of the era, but O’Sullivan couldn’t consider leaving home without him. If his scrummaging was more competent than devastating – he was a converted second row, after all - then his lineout lifting was high-end hydraulic.

To defend against an Irish lineout when they absolutely needed clean, bankable ball, then simply follow Hayes.

The bonus bits were in his soft hands and willingness to endure discomfort. The package was appreciated by all who played with him. As for the coach, the first name on the team-sheet didn’t require much thought.

Neither was there any debate about pushing the boat out to get him fit for Australia in ’03. Towards the end of a session ahead of the warm-up game against Italy, the clock stopped.

“I thought I was after getting a cramp, but thought no, Jesus, this is worse,” he recalled subsequently. “Couldn't put my leg down. I couldn't f**ing believe it at that stage. Oh Jesus, this can't be happening.”

The rehab required Hayes moving into the Grand Hotel in Malahide, to be close to the clinic of Mark McCabe, a sports scientist and physiotherapist who was consulting for the IRFU at the time. For a fortnight the prop was doing morning and afternoon sessions, each of two hours. It included mountain biking around the grounds of Malahide Castle, and up and down the hills of Fingal.

It also meant a lot of hard time to put in on his own in the hotel where mealtimes were the highlight of his day. He became part of the furniture. By the end of the fortnight, the staff were out at the front door, waving him off like a celebrity patient recovered from critical illness.

He may as well have been just that as far as O’Sullivan and Ireland were concerned. Back then there was room for only four props in a World Cup squad. Simon Best, the back-up tighthead, had just three caps – his only start, against Wales, was in a warm-up game when Hayes was wrangling with his calf.

We are two decades on from those days when the bus driver was told to wait for John Hayes – however long it took. That’s 20 years of advances in sports science. Here we are again though, not just with a tighthead – Tadhg Furlong - battling a calf but also a loosehead with a torn hamstring and a scrumhalf with a hamstring injury too.

The way those injuries unfolded in the countdown to Cardiff was alarming. Cian Healy, it is understood, suffered a Grade 2 tear during the captain’s run, 24 hours before the kick-off. For Jamison Gibson-Park, whose season had been delayed because of a hamstring tear, the problem also emerged at a time when surely the management team thought they could relax, that the coast was clear.

What kind of captain’s run could result in a player getting a Grade 2 tear? Would you be tempted to add some hot sauce to the mix at that late stage just to get players in the right mental space?

Keeping hamstrings in a functional state has already proved difficult. For Ronan Kelleher, it’s becoming a saga. He missed the tour to New Zealand with a shoulder injury and then had a hamstring tear that cost him a November series. Having recovered in time for Christmas, it pinged again on Ireland’s Portugal training camp which led directly into this Six Nations.

That’s a lot of Leinster lads in rehab, including Robbie Henshaw, whose autumn was disrupted with the same complaint. Now it's feared Andy Farrell won't be able to name either Dan Sheehan or Conor Murray in the team to face France, with the former an injury doubt and the latter potentially unavailable.

Injury prevention is a branch of the business hardly explored back when John Hayes was having to move to Dublin temporarily to get himself right for that World Cup.

It’s a different world now. For example, the IRFU have a data scientist in the control room since 2019, whose job includes clearing the path for all sorts of relevant, detailed info on players to be available to the qualified people who matter. So the picture presented on the injury and wellness profile of any elite player is wifi compared to the dial-up of those early, clunky, years of the pro game.

How is it then that international matchdays could change shape so dramatically in the final few metres of the run-up?

An enduring problem in elite collision sport is the marriage between strength development and injury avoidance. Coaches want both, naturally enough, but because they are judged solely on results, they can’t always see the wood for the trees. And they are surrounded by people whose agendas are not on the same page.

To compound the issue, sometimes, there is so much noise you can’t hear the signal. Maybe this is why, like in Cardiff, plans have to be relaid at the last minute. Clearly Andy Farrell likes a challenge, but it’s hardly that.

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