Ireland: Season in Review aka The Kidney Clock

At this stage, after 11 months and 17 tests, only three of which produced memorable performances, our over-riding emotion is relief… that it’s over. Ireland’s season started dismally with four desperately scratchy pre-World Cup warm-ups. It ended horribly with a 60-0 drubbing at the hands of New Zealand. In between it huffed and puffed, briefly sparking into life intermittently only to collapse in a heap again. Ireland produced one good backs-to-the-wall performance in each series, offering themselves a shot at redeeming the season (or genuine glory in the case of the World Cup) but couldn’t see the deal through to the end.

The year will be characterised by three pallid performances: against Wales in the World Cup, England in the Six Nations and the final Hamilton Massacre, and epotimised by three passive defensive moments from our centres – formerly the bulwark of our defence: Keith Earls ushering Ooooooooooooh Manu Tuilagi in in the Aviva, Ferg being bumped badly by George North, and Sunny Bull’s ruthless treatment of Paddy Wallace in Hamilton.

The Coaching Ticket

Kidney and his team finish the season under serious pressure. Not before time, a hugely supportive media are finally asking questions of the performances, game plan and selection. This was Ireland’s third poor Six Nations in a row, and the win-draw-loss record for the year stands at 6-1-10 with four of those wins coming against Italy (twice), the USA and Russia. So we’re not winning. And yet blooding new talent is a can that gets kicked down the road at every series – for fear we might lose.

We need to get the team right for the World Cup. The Six Nations is our annual target, we can’t change now. You don’t experiment in New Zealand.

Next year’s Autumn internationals have already taken on an air of must-win to ensure second seeding for the World Cup. Then it’s the Six Nations again – so what’s the solution?

To be fair, new players have been introduced to the system, but more by accident than design. Injury continues to be the single biggest driving force to get new faces into the team. It was responsible for Sean O’Brien and Mike Ross’ belated entrances to test level (after being overlooked for the entire November before  immediately becoming un-droppable), and McFadden, Tuohy, Fitzpatrick, Donnacha Ryan and Kevin McLoughlin would probably still be awaiting test debuts if it wasn’t for injury to others.

Ryan has been a starter for all of five tests, yet is a key man already … at the age of 28. Ireland survive week-to-week, with little in the way of forward planning. Does Kidney have a long-term plan, you wonder, for Iain Henderson, the outstanding Ulster lock who has shone in the U20 World Cup and has already impressed at Pro12 level?

Dan Tuohy, for example, was in terrific form during the Six Nations but was overlooked for a way-below-par Donncha O’Callaghan and Mike McCarthy. For the summer tour, he was eventually elevated to first choice. It would have benefitted him to have tasted test rugby during the Six Nations before being plunged in against the World champions. Ireland had home games against Scotland and Italy that they were never in danger of losing, but Deccie stuck to the usual suspects. McCarthy himself was surplus to requirements in NZ despite being capable of the type of impact that Donncha only makes when windmilling on the touchline these days.

When Kidney is forced to delve deeper into the well (again, through injuries), he tends to look southwards. Simon Zebo and Peter O’Mahony managed to elbow their way into the squad by generating column inches becoming regular starters at Munster  – a source of huge frustration in Ravenhill where better and more consistent seasons from Craig Gilroy and Chris Henry went virtually unrecognised – Ireland doesn’t need more inter-provincial carping, but Kidney doesn’t do himself, or the fans, any favours in this regard.

It’s hard to see how things will improve. Deccie now faces into the last 12 months of his contract. Unless his paymasters in the IRFU have lost their minds, they won’t be offering Kidney a new contract before the Autumn games or even the Six Nations. (In truth, they will probably be looking for a new coach to start in Autumn 2013). Already an embattled leader, Deccie will have to face questions about his winding-down contract and whether he’s effectively living on borrowed time. It’s not the best point from which to move forward.

Playing Personnel

The good news is that Ireland have plenty of good players. Not all opponents will be as good as New Zealand, so we don’t have to worry ourselves overly about how, say, Rob Kearney stacks up against Israel Dagg. It’s more how Rob Kearney stacks up against Ben Foden (ah, that’s better). Several individuals performed well for Ireland this season: Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Cian Healy, Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien were the pick of the bunch. Donnacha Ryan, Keith Earls and Johnny Sexton have all shown increased authority and fierce commitment. Paul O’Connell was routinely magnificent when off the treatment table – add in our solid tighthead prop and Ireland have the guts of a quality team right there.

Others have found the going tough. Conor Murray had a poor season with province and country, seemingly caught between his duties as scrum half and being an auxiliary flanker. He has the talent to recover, and the hope will be that never seeing Dutchy Holland again Rob Penney’s coaching can help him improve. Fergus McFadden is a game fellow, but not an international wing. Peter O’Mahony’s lack of beef was cruelly exposed by New Zealand – he needs to bulk up and sharpen his tackling technique on his left shoulder, and while the man he stepped in for in Hamilton, Jamie Heaslip, couldn’t be faulted for effort, he never hit top gear.

It’s time to say goodbye to a few great servants. Nobody will forget Ronan O’Gara’s contribution to Irish rugby, but at 35 and with his tactical kicking game looking more than a touch dated, this is a good place to part ways. Ian Madigan waits in the wings. Donncha O’Callaghan is another unforgettable servant of Irish rugby, but has come to epitomise Kidney’s loyalty to a select few and has been our bête noir all season; the sight of him entering the fray only to give away a needless lineout penalty and then disappear from view ought to be his last contribution of a busy, if over-extended, test career. Better players are already in place and Devin Toner can be added to the list next year.

Inside centre is becoming a problem position for Ireland. Paddy Wallace has had a mixed international career to say the least – three World Cups (!) and the silkiest pass of an Irish 12 in many a year, yet it’s the bloodied face of 2009 and the battered defence of 2012 that people will remember. He deserved better than he got on Saturday, but again, he has the look of yesterday’s man. Gordon D’arcy is a curious case – hopeless in the Six Nations, but robust since then with BOD back outside him, he is the man you don’t miss until he’s gone. The feeling persists that we need more attacking threat than he offers at 12, but until such a player presents himself, it’s hard to see who can be put in there.

JJ Hanrahan and Luke Marshall look like future test players, but both are probably at least 2 or 3 years away yet. McFadden is a more immediate option, and he would improve his case if he can depose Dorce from the Leinster team first – it’s a bit silly to criticise Kidney for favouring Dorce there when Joe Schmidt does the same. Nevin Spence was the heir apparent to BOD at 13 last year but has slipped behind Darren Cave in his favoured position – to be honest, 12 looks more natural fit, but a Spence/Cave partnership looks a bit bosh-tastic – i’ts a big year for him, but if he does manage to get starts in Ulster, he could fit in for Ireland.

Of course, BOD might have to move inside, a la the first test in NZ, to shore up Ireland’s problem position. This would continue the succession at 13, where, amazingly, and in contrast to inside centre, we seem to have plenty of options. Keith Earls has grown immeasurably in the role this season, and wants to play there full time. Darren Cave arguably outplayed him this season at provincial level (and kept him on the wing through their underage careers), and is better than his 7-minute lose-lose cameo illustrated. Eoins Griffin and O’Malley are also in the picture.

Next Season

Here’s five things Ireland have to do next season to get the show back on the road.

1. Hire an attack coach

Attack with ball-in-hand has long been the weakest part of Ireland’s game, and failing to appoint a dedicated specialist to the role has been Kidney’s biggest error this year. The players are crying out for a new voice and new ideas. Worse still, Ireland’s defence has slipped off since Les Kiss has been asked to double-up. Kidney and the IRFU have the summer to make the appointment. We can probably forget about Schmidt stepping into this role, for the immediate future – for a start, it would be Gatty/Eddie 2000 all over again, and Schmidt would be mad to go anyway.

2. Cap Madigan and Gilroy

Both deserved to go on the summer tour to New Zealand – of the 3 players nominated for IRUPA young POTY, only O’Mahony made it on the plane. This autumn both should get their chance – Gilroy is a natural succesor to Denis Hickie on the left wing, and Ian Madigan is the best young fly-half in the country. The suspicion remains that Kidney would run a mile from his style of play, but he would offer thrilling impact from the bench for Ireland and would be an unknown quantity outside of Ireland. Both should start against Fiji, at the very least.

3. Beat South Africa

Ireland need a good autumn series. They should have the measure of Argentina in Dublin, but that’s a game its hard to look good in – the Pumas tend to come over here with chips prominently positioned on shoulders and seem oddly content to lose but make Ireland look rubbish. That seems to mean we need to beat South Africa to declare the series a success. Lose that game, even with a good performance, and the vultures will start to circle. No pressure then!

4. Win back the fans

Kidney has lost the backing of Leinster and Ulster supporters in what has become a provincially-drawn rugby public. Munster-centric selections, poor results and dull, grinding rugby have seen to that. Even loyalists from Munster are teetering, tiring of the gnomic utterances and failure to move on. Supporting Ireland is no craic at all these days. If we are to avoid another Six Nations of tedious griping and in-fighting, Kidney needs to give the paying fans a bit of excitement and get them back on his side. Positive, form-based selections and some attractive rugby would be a start.

5. Embrace the Provinces

A worrying theme from the latter portion of the season has been Kidney seemingly turning the provinces into an enemy rather than providers of players to the national team. Rather than tapping into what has won Leinster back-to-back H-Cups, he appears threatened by it, continually droning on about test rugby being much harder than provincial rugby and seemingly unwilling to pair the Leinster half-backs or get Sexton to play flat on the gainline. His dig at Ulster not giving Fitzpatrick experience was embarrassing and unnecessary. Kidney must embrace what is going on at provincial level, or risk irrelevance.

At least four of the above look like long shots. Ireland have regressed badly in the last twelve months. Wales are now far ahead of us, and somehow we have allowed an England side high on endeavour but low on talent to pass us out. Even with the changes above, we suspect Kidney is no longer capable of rousing this Ireland team to any sort of consistency. In all likelihood we’re staring down the barrel of two wins at best in the Six Nations and two from three in the autumn series.

In the interests of some balance, Kidney is badly served by his paymasters in Lansdowne Road – it seems only the Six Nations (which fills the coffers) has priority – and the immediate results-based incentives exacerbate Deccie’s conservative nature. We bet Robbie Deans, Steve Hansen and Heineke Meyer have to tell their bosses who they envisage coming through from youth level in this RWC cycle – we doubt the IRFU even bring it up.

There is a history of messy successions in professional Irish rugby (Brian Ashton, Gatty, Eddie, Deccie at Leinster, Eddie at Connacht, Brian McLaughlin, Gary Ella) and we don’t expect this one to be any different – expect himming, hawing and no little politicking, but the reality is this – the Kidney Clock ticks onwards, and Ireland will have a new coach in situ in fifteen months time.

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21 Comments

  1. Rich_aus

     /  June 27, 2012

    Excellent piece – 100% on the money – Kidney seems annoyed that Leinster won the HC – seems like a distant memory. Hopefully the provinces can support the cause by giving the young guns game time in the P12 so they can show their worth week in week out.

  2. Giuseppe

     /  June 27, 2012

    It’s worth keeping in mind that IRFU contracts tend to be based on specific criteria. Deccie is supposed to have been given a brief that we don’t fall lower than 8th in the world, win a 6N and qualify for a WC quarter final. This was fairly well covered in the meeja and and various forums a few years back. (EOS was supposed to have similar objectives). On that criteria basis then Deccie has succeeded. The problem would then appear to be that the IRFU have set the bar far too low.

    This objective setting combined with a rumoured money issue (Gerry alluded to a lack of cash the other day in the IT) means that not everything can be dumped at Deccies door. Granted he has his issues, too much loyalty etc etc but I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s more to this than the public are privy to.

    • Yes, but wasn’t that his first contract? Surely he had a set of targets for the two years of his extension (I know he got this prior to the World Cup)? I can’t imagine these included a two-win Six Nations and three-zip tour in New Zealand? If we have another mid-table Six Nations I cannot see how the IRFU would be foolish enough to extend his contract for another two years. We’ll watch with interest.

      • Giuseppe

         /  June 27, 2012

        I forgot about the contract renewal actually. I don’t think they’ll extend it either (unless he stuns everyone and wins a GS next year).

        The next question is who do the IRFU bring in when Deccie’s deal is done?

        Schmidt? Cheika? Probably viewed as too Leinster centric.
        An Irish Coach like McCall or the Son-in-law? probably haven’t done enough at a high level.
        Conor O’Shea? I can’t see him leaving his Quins project myself and I’d argue that he hasn’t set the world alight with them either.
        Someone outside of Ireland would be good, in my eyes Jake White would be ideal.

        I’m probably getting ahead of myself though. If DK stops the rot and gets a few results in Nov and next years 6N he could be staying on!

  3. Rich_aus

     /  June 27, 2012

    So if money is the issue – then where do we go after 6 nations assuming kidney is not offered an extension? I can t imagine OShea/Schmidt etc will leave prosperous positions to take the reigns? Or promote Ruddock from the under 20’s (a bit flavour of the month I know)

    • Giuseppe

       /  June 27, 2012

      Ruddock could be an interesting one, he does have a decent record with the U20’s (not to mention the GS with Wales).

  4. HenryFitz

     /  June 27, 2012

    If the IRFU wanted to get rid of Kidney now, the only viable caretaker choice would be Ruddock. Otherwise, they would have to pay twice. Once for breaking Kidney’s contract and once for getting some other coach (like O’Shea) to break his. With Munster posting a heavy loss last year and many AIL clubs in financial difficulties, I don’t think there will be any great desire to do that at the moment.

    • There’s no chance of the IRFU getting rid of Kidney now. They won’t want to be seen to fire the coach who delivered a first grand slam in 60+ years; on top of that there’s the obvious cost issue you refer to.

      We haven’t even considered this possibility, because we know it just won’t happen.

      • I wouldn’t be so sure about that. There is a real anger out there at the continuing under performance at national level. Even as insular and stubborn an outfit as the IRFU will eventually have to recognise that.

  5. James

     /  June 27, 2012

    How is all this so obvious to everyone and their mothers but not Deccy? I’ve never been as depressed/angry/hopeless as an Ireland fan before and it doesn’t look like things will get better anytime soon.
    All the points made above are spot on but another I’d add is to put the A team back into the Churchill cup. It’s a decent development ground for young talent, and they get a small taste of an international set-up (albeit at a lower level). Just look at the team that won it in 2009, some excellent players with great futures. What are the players who are too old for the U20s but not yet senior level doing? And what will happen them when they get thrown in at the deepend

  6. For some reason, I always (stupidly) forget about/overlook Ruddock. He is clearly the heir-apparent (for a multitude of reasons). One hopes he would be able to get a good team around him too. The sooner the better I say.

  7. Rich_aus

     /  June 27, 2012

    James – spot on – would be a great outlet for us.

  8. You are far too balanced,Kidney has been in the job going on 5 years assuming he makes it to the 6 Nations(fingers crossed he doesn’t). Excuses like, financial issues,provincial bias blah blah blah,they are just soundbites thrown out by his mates in the media to confuse the real issue.The issue is that Kidney has never been up to it as a coach in terms of radical thinking or playing style.You have to look at his history as a coach,he is doing the same thing tactics and selection wise he has doing his entire career.He is losing matches without youth development as an excuse.Hes just a bad coach.
    From his time with Munster to Ireland he has relied on a core group of veterans playing grinding rugby behind a kicking 10.One only has to look at the mess the munster academy and the lack of mid-twenty something McGahan had to deal with in rectifying Kidneys Mess.
    Kidney has continued in the same vein with Ireland winning one trophy playing grinding uninspired kicking rugby and then the slow decline as the aging players inevitably lose their form as their legs go.His election policy has been inexcusable,when we ineveitably get knocked out in the WC(the only international tournament that matters) qtr final
    Kidney is a sterile coach from a different era of rugby where conservatism was a virtue.
    Nick Mallet should be appointed head coach,David Knox for the backs(only half joking,he called it right when he was leaving)….maybe Carlos Spencer from the Lions as backs coach?? Jono Gibbes or Chekia as forwards coach? Retain Kiss as a defence coach.

  9. advocatodiabolo

     /  June 27, 2012

    Agree on the fact that there’s no earthly way that Joe Schmidt would dare come on the ticket, as Ward was suggesting yesterday. He probably has too much respect for Kidney’s achievements and he probably isn’t the type to stick the knife in anyway.

    Kidney, whether some of us like it or not, has been an unwitting pathfinder in the first phase of professionalism in this country and there’s a huge amount to thank him for. He’ll need to make a big leap and abandon his mule-like tendencies in order to contribute from beyond next years six nations. I don’t see it happening though. Expect more soft Munster caps and Ravenhill looking to breakaway and join the Premiership.

    As for succession at 13, well I’ve a feeling that if Luke Fitz gets over his injuries that he may be the one to eventually – not long to go really – take over from O’Driscoll at both provincial and national level. He deserves a break, and if he gets it he’s got a lot more in the tank than any of the other contenders.

  10. Re your comments on McFadden. Joe Schmidt trusts him to replace both BOD and D’Arcy in the centre at HEC level when either of them are unavailable. Kidney didn’t even show that trust in him this month when he flew Paddy Wallace in instead.

    • Yes, that’s true. Kidney just doesn’t seem to see him as a centre. Odd really, though he’s had a couple of defensive lapses whenever he has played there for Ireland – I’m thinking of the winning try for Scotland in the pre-World cup match, one of the Russia tries in the RWC and of course, George North flattening the poor fella…

  11. Redhanded

     /  June 27, 2012

    The Churchill Cup doesn’t exist any more. The last one was in 2011. It wasn’t seen as necessary as the USA and Canada will now be included on the IRB tour schedule – Ireland will be touring there in 2013. This is a Lions year so while loads Irish players haven’t exactly put their hands up for selection, the Lions contingent won’t be involved so the opportunity will be there to broaden the selection.

    • James

       /  June 27, 2012

      Oh, this is slightly disappointing. What about the non-lions or wc years when we have to tour there? There’s no point playing our top players against them and it’s far too sporadic to just give it to the second string. I think a renewed “A” six nations, or reduced number if Wales or Italy won’t/can’t field an A team, should be brought back. There’s no reason not to!

      • Redhanded

         /  June 28, 2012

        Wales don’t have an A team at all and that didn’t stop them winning the 6 nations. A shortage of A game fixtures is just an excuse trotted out by Farelly to excuse why Kidney hasn’t been able to make more of what is coming out of the provinces.

  12. Rich_aus

     /  June 27, 2012

    I think Kidneys problem with McF is def his defensive limitations. The North bounce aside, he seems to get caught flat footed a fair bit. I can t say i disagree with Kidney on that one, although to then play Earls in the centre’s is surprising as he is the worst defender in the squad by a fair bit. I just can t see Earls as a longterm solution to the 13 issue, Luke F is a talent alright but Kidney has shunned him in the past and Cave off the radar. Young Barnes at Munster has a bit of gas, and Omalley has shown some skills but probs a couple of seasons away. Drico and Darce to start Aut tests.

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