In 2014 I joined Robbie Henshaw in the centre as we narrowly beat Australia 26-23 in a November Test match at the Aviva Stadium, my penultimate cap, as my swansong was a couple of minutes against Scotland in a friendly the following August.
It’s not the victory that I remember against the Aussies but how the game ended for me on 59 minutes. Stuck at the bottom of a ruck, players moved on, but I didn’t. The next time I was aware of my surroundings, I was being escorted down the tunnel by the Ireland team doctor Eanna Falvey.
To provide context, I was 34-years-old and desperate to go to a World Cup taking place 10 months later. My form was patchy, injuries were starting to overrun the healthy parts of my body; I needed to heavily strap my right shoulder just to play.
I started to pick up the pace in the tunnel as I wanted to get back on, a weird urgency driving me as if getting back on the field for the final 11 minutes would have a decisive influence on making the World Cup squad.
I asked Eanna about the HIA (Head Injury Assessment) test; he just patted me on the shoulder, told me to sit down, that I would not be going back on. I watched the rest of the match with a cup of tea in my hand and it was only when the adrenaline of the match began to recede that I realised I couldn’t remember entering the ruck, nor some minor details from earlier that day.
Initially I had felt fine and would have returned to the match if he let me. But then as my brain started to process events, I felt a little fuzzy around the edges, lacking clarity, and that was both disconcerting and worrying. I was protected from myself and am hugely grateful that my career was played under medics who always sought to put my interests and safety first.
I was surprised and perturbed when Australian scrumhalf Nic White returned to the pitch at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday night despite receiving hefty blows to the head and visual evidence of him stumbling and staggering on two separate occasions prior to his initial departure.
The HIA system isn’t infallible and while White passed the test, the doctors didn’t have all the information to hand. The scrumhalf has since been stood down for 12 days. Theory and practice diverged in reaching a flawed outcome on the night.
My belief is that the bias should be towards not letting a player return if there is a strong suspicion of head trauma, irrespective of the HIA result. Anyone with eyes could see that White’s equilibrium was compromised.
This might be unfair, but I do believe the Wallaby management team need to take some responsibility and acknowledge they could have done more to keep him off the pitch. Yes, the independent match doctor cleared him to play, but there were people there who could have and should have intervened.
When a player stumbles, following clear contact to the head, and in this case multiple contacts, his wellbeing supersedes all other considerations. Rugby spent a long time being blasé about head trauma, an indulgence that is no longer acceptable.
The atmosphere at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday night, unlike the unending procession of pints ferried to all points of the stadium, was flat, a contest that never really got room to breathe from a creative perspective.
Australia targeted the Irish breakdown effectively, dominated the possession stakes, and made it very difficult for Ireland to find a rhythm in attack. The visitors shaded the kicking exchanges and were better in the air – Mark Nawaqanitawase was imperious – as the Irish wings were guilty of fumbling away possession.
Only in the last 20 minutes did the supporters find their voice, an antidote to the pent-up tension of a game that was very much in the balance. The three victories in the Autumn Nations Series, against the world champions South Africa, Fiji, and Australia have been greeted with a little less celebration than might have been anticipated.
The expectation among supporters has moved on from simply winning to winning with style. We have notions once again even though history teaches us that we should be better behaved in that respect. The performances in November were less accomplished than some of those earlier in the year but that shouldn’t diminish the achievement.
There is a life cycle of emotion for Irish rugby fans that generally incorporates hope, enjoyment, expectation, addiction to the clutch matches and finally a nagging fear hovering in the background about at what stage of a World Cup will it all come crashing down.
The most recent reference point is 2018, when Irish rugby was riding the crest of a Grand Slam wave that was supposed to take them to World Cup glory in Japan.
History doesn’t repeat itself exactly per se but there are similarities. Three years ago, England were massively underperforming. Check. New Zealand, South Africa and Australia were in an experimental phase. Check. Ireland were number one in the world, but teams began to successfully stifle Ireland’s attack. Check.
Not enough credit has been given to our opposition over the last number of weeks. The analysis has been good, South Africa and Australia blunted and frustrated Ireland in attack. Andy Farrell has already said that we cannot afford to stand still for a moment; it’s all about the evolution of the game plan.
During New Zealand’s golden era they had the best attack in world rugby, whether following patterns or simply relying on the brilliance of individuals to take control of moments that defined the outcome. They made the number one ranking their own and won a couple of World Cups during that time.
The regular stream of talent to the All Blacks helped to maintain quality and momentum simultaneously. They had a deeper pool to draw from and in some ways South Africa, France and England share those lavish options in personnel.
The Emerging Ireland tour propelled Jack Crowley into the national spotlight but we are unlikely to unearth anything new in the coming months, form and injuries possibly being the biggest influence on selection. We cannot cast the net any wider and instead will need to be smarter with how we play and spread the load.
Traditionally our system with fewer numbers means that we rely on the same group of players. We can become less homogenised on an individual level within our attack shape to great effect in the coming months.
Recalling 2018 I can still hear Sir Stephen William Hansen’s words “Let’s see how they deal with the pressure of being top dog”.
In truth we were ruthlessly hunted by everyone and didn’t cope particularly well. That was then and this is now. Andy Farrell has shown himself to be a brilliant coach who has taught his team how to cope.
Ireland limped past the Wallabies last Saturday because the rigours of the workload over the past three weeks looked to have caught up with some players who appeared flat and fatigued. Tadhg Beirne was a case in point, the wear and tear of his admittedly excellent efforts over the previous fortnight catching up.
Farrell gave several players scope to put their hands up selection-wise but few managed to offer a persuasive argument. Robert Baloucoune and Stuart McCloskey are two that spring to mind, as the matches seemed to pass them by.
One of the challenges when stepping up is understanding how to play at Test level. You play a certain way at your club, playing well gets you selected for the national team but just doing what you do for your club usually isn’t enough to succeed in international rugby.
Ulster tend to get the ball to Baloucoune, rather than him having to go look for it in the way James Lowe does. Ultimately, Baloucoune paid the price for not getting the ball in his hands as Jimmy O’Brien got the nod against Australia.
McCloskey’s early withdrawal against the Wallabies recognised a lack of positive gain-lines. He didn’t adjust to the match at hand, what was needed rather than what was on the play sheet. It is a balancing act. You desperately want to play well to win and stay in the jersey.
To do this you sometimes have to briefly step outside the system: taking a sniff down the short side, demanding the ball when the system would say otherwise. If the execution is good, then everyone benefits and there are no complaints.
It takes a confident player to choose risk over the orthodox. Crowley was probably a little bit too mollycoddled initially, even allowing for the exceptional circumstances. Others took on too much of what should have been his responsibilities, panicked perhaps instead of letting Crowley run the show, which he did well when given more of a chance in the second half.
We are still light in a couple of positions, but the focus will be on refining how we attack. This can be done in general patterns but also changing personnel – James Lowe, Jacob Stockdale, Simon Zebo – to introduce creative thinking with how we launch, kick and contest. In the Six Nations maybe we see a little of both.