Sunday 17 December 2017

Brent Pope: Luke Fitzgerald should get a shot at playing centre stage

Ireland's Luke Fitzgerald
Ireland's Luke Fitzgerald

John F Kennedy once toured NASA headquarters, and on his rounds he kindly stopped to talk to a man sweeping the floor, when he asked what he was doing? The man looked up and proudly said "Mr President, I am helping to put a man on the moon."

Jason Cowman may not be a household name in Irish sport, in fact many people won't even know who he is. But if Ireland do conquer their physiological Everest and make it to a World Cup semi-final and beyond, then Cowman, Ireland's strength and conditioning coach will be every-bit a hero as anybody else.

Nearly every other team in this competition has been hit by injury, most notably Wales who have a casuality list akin to a battlefield. Add in heavyweight contenders such as Australia, England, South Africa and even France and it is already pretty safe to say that some of the pre-tournament favourites will be forced to dig to the very bottom of their squad resources before this World Cup ends.

Ireland, apart from the odd bump and bruise still remain in pretty good health with no significant long term injuries to report, apart from a hamstring strain for centre Robbie Henshaw and some ankle problems for Rob Kearney and Jared Payne.

Henshaw's injury looks the most questionable, given that for the past few weeks we have been repeatedly told that he is primed and ready for action, only for the centre to be pulled and not risked. Perhaps Henshaw is not quite as fit as we would have been led to believe?


Joe Schmidt is the master man manager, a humble coach who always puts his team and his backroom staff first, and Cowman is high up on that list having worked with him in Leinster. For the past few years Ireland has seemed blessed with luck when it comes to injuries.

Granted there have been some, but in a lot of the cases players have been actually returning at key times during the season rather than being out for protracted periods.

Success at this RWC will come down to a simple fact that if Ireland can keep a certain number of key players fit, namely Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, then they have a real chance and that is where Cowman must trust the work that he has put in over the past 6 months.

It's all about peaking at the right time and having the players injury free and fresh, but is a very hard thing to juggle. It is no coincidence that Ireland has been avoiding more injuries than other teams? Their return to play protocols are strong, as is domestic player welfare all backed up by a superb medical staff.

One imagines that Joe Schmidt will select his strongest possible starting XV this week with an eye on a tough match before France. Full-back Rob Kearney and Payne maybe being the exceptions given their injuries.

This could spell uncomfortable news for Payne who is yet to copperfasten his spot at centre, it is also a worry in that whatever centre partnership that is selected for this week or next, neither combination will have had any discernable game time together.

Symbiotic, almost telepathic, combinations are crucial in the centre of the park and that can only come with significant game time together. Each player should instinctively know what the other will do, all great centre partnerships in rugby have it.

The only consolation is that France also seem unsure at this late stage what their best centre combination will be as well. Payne is an excellent defender, it is just the lack of creativity in this area that worries me.

Last week, albeit against a flimsy defence, only Darren Cave looked a player that would inject some real gain line breaks, with Payne at times kicking away ball, and looking like he lacked that 10 metres of dynamic pace that you need.

If Payne is injured then I would certainly look at the inclusion of Luke Fitzgerald at outside centre at least for some game time on Saturday if Ireland get a cushion.

Fitzgerald has the bulk and quick feet that is needed in that position to unlock tight defences. It will be interesting to see who fills the wing spot opposite Dave Kearney. Will it be Keith Earls, Tommy Bowe, Fitzgerald or even Simon Zebo?

Up front the main decision for the French match lies in the second row. Schmidt will be interested to know that nearly 70% of the tries in this World Cup have been scored from either lineout play or turnover ball, that means the back row and second row selections become crucial.

Devin Toner will guarantee you a target out of touch that few teams can match but at the breakdown Ireland may need to get more numbers to the collision areas quickly and that helps Henderson's claims as effectively another loose-forward.

Prop Cian Healy needs another hard game under his belt, and while he is improving with each outing, he still lacked that extra zip last week when he was put into the clear.

Italy has been one of the disappointments of this tournament, and the team not only appears old in age but also in style.

The team is at constant loggerheads with their coach Jacques Brunel, who will of course leave the role at the end of this World Cup. Talismanic captain and No 8 Sergio Parisse will make them more competitive, but based on current lack of form, Ireland should win with plenty to spare.


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