Egg read Ruchie’s book on a boring journey of late, and he found the post-RWC07 discussions illuminating. Obviously, Ruchie, Graham Henry and everyone connected with NZ rugby was devastated and disappointed with the defeat to France, both the manner of it and when it happened (quarter-finals). New Zealand had a goal of winning the World Cup and failed. So what were the next steps? The NZRU works on cycles based on the World Cup, so the Union set a goal (winning RWC11 at home) then asked how best to achieve that.
The Union then invited applications and pitches for coaches to do that. Robbie Deans applied, as did Graham Henry. Henry, though, applied as a team, with Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, with a 4-year plan (diversify coaching expertise within the team, Grand Slam tour of the NH in 2008, retain Tri-Nations, win RWC11). Deans was a better head coach candidate than Henry, but Henry came with a better plan, and got the job.
The key thing was NZRU had metrics by which to judge performance, and criteria by which to judge applicants. In Ireland, we don’t have that. We used to roll from Six Nations to Six Nations, a state of affairs which only ended when Deccie got the job – he started in the 08/09 season and got yearly, season-based contracts. His latest 2-year extension was signed in summer 2011, just before the RWC.
Ireland had an ok tournament – they beat Australia, but fell at the quarter-finals to Wales. We aren’t sure if Kidney had a target from the Union, but, if he did, you would think it was a semi-final appearance. But we don’t know, and he had a new deal anyway. So now, Kidney has 6 months left on his contract, and this tournament is about whether he will lead Ireland into RWC15 or not. If we win a Grand Slam, or just miss out, like 2007, that’s going to be Deccie. If not, who knows who it will be. Either way, we are 2 years behind everyone else come November.
Last year’s Six Nations was a write-off for Ireland – just two wins, over Scotland and Italy, a creditable draw in Paris and a pair of horrendous defeats to Wales and England, notable for a passive gameplan and a mashed scrum respectively. More importantly, squad development was negligible – Ireland picked just 19 players, with all changes injury-enforced. Stalwarts like Donncha O’Callaghan and Gordon D’Arcy, who will be long gone by RWC15, played every game, and Ronan O’Gara, who has also played his last RWC game, remained a key squad member.
Since then, development has got better in spite of more horrible results, notably a 60-0 thumping in Hamilton – the likes of Chris Henry, Richardt Strauss, Mike McCarthy, Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy have shown they have what it takes for Test level rugby, and the generation of Ryan, Sexton, Heaslip and Kearney have taken ownership of the team. A near-miss in the second test in NZ was unlucky, then a merry thumping of Argentina improved the mood somewhat. But, the fact remains, last years Six Nations was a huge missed opportunity – and its not like playing the same old faces results in a successful tournament.
Now, this isn’t completely Kidney’s fault – we don’t know if his bosses mandate him to concentrate on the Six Nations, or the RWC. Does he have license to use the first Six Nations after the RWC for squad development? You would suspect not, and, even if he did, would he, given his personal goal is to get a new contract in the space of 2 Six Nations and 1 November series? Unlikely. The nature of how the IRFU award contracts mitigates against that – the extension in 2011 was unrelated and uncorrelated to achievement in the RWC, and it doesn’t help the coach plan in a 4 year cycle.
The squad looks deep and talented right now (with 2 exceptions we will discuss below) and well set for a build into England 2015, with a good blend of youth and experience across the team. In the front row, Kidney has the luxury of auditioning candidates for bench roles at loose-head prop and hooker with the knowledge they have some Test experience and will be able to do a job. Cian Healy and Rory Best are incumbents, but there is depth, and occasionally competition.
Tighthead prop is a war zone – Mike Ross was in management cross-hairs in November for not putting the toilet seat up (or something), but the cupboard is bare. Michael Bent started off promisingly against the Boks, but has regressed to such an extent that serially-crocked Deccie Fitz is considered more reliable. After that, it’s the Scarlets’ favourite prop Stephen Archer and backpedalling Jamie Hagan – not good.
In spite of missing Paul O’Connell and Dan Tuohy through injury, Ireland’s second row resources are strong – Ryan and McCarthy had a great November, and willing winger Stakhanov is having his best season since 2009. If more injuries befall this sector, Devin Toner and NWJMB are available – neither are at Test level yet, but it’s not scraping the barrel. Even Ryan Caldwell is an option.
In the back-row, Fez is a long-term injury loss, yet we can still afford to have the likes of Roger Wilson and James Cawlin nowhere near the matchday squad. This unit is a strength, if badly-balanced – the absence of Chris Henry from the starting lineup against Wales is a criminal offence – the man has been just about the best openside in the HEC in the last 12 months, and offers badly-needed groundhog abilities. It reinforces the feeling that we stumble across our best selections when injury forces the coach’s hand. An unbalanced back-row has proved our Achilles heel very recently; but has that key learning been absorbed?
The halves pick themselves by now, and Conor Murray has able deputies in the 2 Leinster scrummies and Paul Marshall. Murray’s delivery was excellent against Argentina, and he is having a good season. Outhalf is a weakness on the depth front – Sexton might be the best outhalf in the Northern Hemisphere, but
he killed Bambi we can only hope the Racing business is not a distraction, for we have nothing else. The great Radge is past the stage of relevance at HEC level, never mind Test, and it’s too much to expect him to revert to 2009 form – an outhalf who will be contributing through RWC15 should be given a chance to get some experience, be it Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan or Ian Keatley.
The centre partnership is still as you were – neither will be around in 2.5 years time, but no-one has yet demanded their shirt, with the possible exception of Luke Marshall, who we feel might have started a game or 2 were he not on the treatment table. Keith Earls has had a solid season at 13 for Munster, but didn’t take his chance in November – he’s still first deputy to You-Know-Who, but still deputy for now. Ferg is another option at centre, as are Dave McSharry and Darren Cave.
Wing is where we have the nicest selection issue – our best and most consistent wing of the Kidney era, Tommy Bowe, is out, but we can still afford to have Luke Fitzgerald and Ferg out of the twenty-three. We think Gilroy and Zebo are uber-exciting, but maybe both a bit too similar – we’d have like to seen Fitzy picked for Wales, but it’s a good problem to have.
With Bob back in the mix, the 15 shirt is nailed down. Simon Zebo provided a creditable alternative in November, and Robbie Henshaw has come right up to the cusp of the squad. Jared Payne will be eligible in 18 months too – this is another position of strength for Ireland.
So how will they do, in the latest make-or-break tournament? The France and England at home schedule is one which served us well in 2007 and 2009 – we always feel we can beat Wales on our day, and Scotland and Italy are bunnies right now. All of which is both a blessing and curse, for anything less than 4 wins isn’t good enough.
It all hinges on the Wales game – win, and we have momentum going into the England game, and should be beginning to whisper about France meaning Grand Slam. Lose, and we’re pretty much cooked – we could end up with just 2 wins and 2 home defeats. The Puma game in November carried hints of a new style, dictated by that new leadership corps, the Sexton, Heaslip, Ryan, Kearney group. It is essential Ireland take that up and go into these games with a coherent plan, for if we don’t, we are snookered. The lack of a definable “Ireland” style has undoubtedly contributed to our inconsistency, where we can go from nearly beating NZ to losing by a record margin in a week.
Another habit we want to break is the slow-starting one – against Wales, New Zealand and South Africa last year, we began series as if in a trance, and never recovered poise. If we lose to Wales, Deccie is basically a lame duck, and who knows how the season is going to pan out. Win, and as we said above, possibilities are endless.
If we can do both of the above (win, with a definable style), we are showing development as a team, and perhaps Kidney is the man to being us through to RWC15. If we do win 4 games with a near-miss on the other one, that’s definite progress, and something to build on. We may be behind the rest in this cycle (except Scotland), but a good tournament will go a long way to changing that.
It’s a pity the first match is the key one – a nice little trip to Embra to start would be perfect, but it’s pretty much win or bust from this Saturday. Regretably, we are leaning towards bust as the more likely outcome – a one-off performance against a disinterested Puma XV does not override the dross which preceded it in 2012. In addition, we have picked a side with no openside flanker to go in against a Welsh team with 2 of the best in the Northern Hemisphere. Wales will try and kick the ball long and in-play and force us into a succession of rucks. Given Henry isn’t playing, we will need to go into the game with a clear and executable gameplan in order to win – that seems unlikely to us, based on recent history.
The next game, home to England, is an obvious bounceback opportunity – we have a good record in recent years against the English and owe them one for Court-gate in Twickers last year. The English side is young and exciting, but ours is experienced and occasionally clinical – we think it has the makings of a memorable win. We’ll beat Scotland, but then lose to the French – we’ve a serious mental block against them, and the new-look snazzy bleus will fancy themselves – home loss. A wrap-up win in Rome on Paddy’s weekend will draw the curtain on the memorable but over-long Declan Kidney era, and it’s back to the drawing board for RWC15.