Tipping Point

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.

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27 Comments

  1. Len

     /  January 30, 2013

    The out look for Saturday is kinda bleak. The one point we seem to be over looking in the run up to this six nations decider is Wales. While we had a mixed bag 2012 and finished on a good performance against a broken team, Wales started with the Grand Slam and proceeded to do what they do best after a Grand Slam, fall apart. They’ve had seven straight losses and looked completely toothless in the AI. Granted they did have a lot of injuries but then again the injury list hasn’t shortened that much coming into Saturdays game. I don’t think Wales are the same side that won the GS last year but then again but for bad on field decision making and reffing we would have beaten them last year. We can only hope that JH has a better run out as captain (must be nice to be able to confer with Drico if needed).

    The pundits at the ministry of information seem to think Wales will attack our scrum seeing as their line out is shaky at the moment. There could have been some case for starting Tom Court on this basis as he’s been so powerful in the scrum of late (and I would like to see him get at least a bench spot against England). I worry that the defence out wide will be weak and there’s not really anyone on the subs bench who would make much of an impact there.

    I’m still torn by the desire to see Ireland succeed and the desire to see Decci gone. I think that Argentina will turn out to be a one off and that we may be in store for a return to the patchy passing and slow delivery from Murray which would leave our upgraded backline starved for space. I’m expecting a fairly dire and low scoring match with the teams being separated by single digits at the end. It becoming hard to see anyone amounting to much this year bar France and lets be honest no one knows what French side is going to turn up.

  2. Rava

     /  January 30, 2013

    Another excellent read lads. A wee mention perhaps of the poor treatment of Andrew Trimble (49 caps).

    • TJ Hooker

       /  January 30, 2013

      ‘Poor treatment’? Please explain, I’m honestly confused. Trimble’s Test career has been largely mediocre, punctuated by silly, but crucial, errors.
      And what does ’49 caps’ have to do with it? Are you saying that players should be picked on the basis of time-served rather than form?

    • paddy

       /  January 30, 2013

      Someone said recently of Trimble that he’s as a good a club(provinical) player as your likely to find and probably one of the best defenders in the NH at that level but just not up to much at International level. I think Deccie has finally seen that light

      • Pete

         /  January 31, 2013

        Trimble was one of Ireland’s better backs last Six Nations. Did roughly as much running as Bowe and missed less tackles. He made none of the high profile missed tackles that led to tries. He scored a couple of tries, both of which took a fair bit of work on his part. He made some good defensive interventions, probably saving tries against both Scotland and Wales through reading the situation and top notch physicality. That was Andrew Trimble’s last major international tournament, and it was a good one, not the work of a mediocre international player, and it seems people are writing it out of the history books.

        Certainly Kidney did. As a reward for that, and for his efforts in Ulster’s season, he was dumped for the first NZ test, brought back for the second – and promptly sat back on the bench to have a grandstand view of the rout in Hamilton. Brought back in for the South Africa game – dropped again for Argentina.

        So yes, Kidney has treated him poorly, and its no wonder he didn’t look at his best or bring his form to the table in the Saxons game (his form being better than any Irish winger not called Zebo); you mightn’t be exactly full of confidence and self-belief when you’ve got ample grounds for thinking the coach is just look for an excuse to drop you again.

    • Bowe Gathers

       /  January 31, 2013

      Let’s be fair, Gillers has been number three in Ulster – it’s not time served, but a decision made by those closest to the situation, Anscombe et al. Trimble has never been used properly by Ireland and really benefits from Pienaar’s kicking prowess, where he leads the line and, like the proverbial Mountie, always gets his man. In a green jersey he’s a waste of brawn as a lack of an attacking game plan/Murray’s appalling kicking game ruin any semblance of the Trimble that plays in white.

      • paddy

         /  January 31, 2013

        @Pete
        I’m with TJ Hooker on this. I’m sick of loyalty and injury selecting the team. I think he’s a limited player whose had his chance at this level and over a 49 cap career despite some good performances has shown this to be the case. IMO he was in the team on foot of Luke Fitzgeralds injury problems and subsequent drop in form. He never made the jersey his.

        I’ve been impressed with his form(from what I’ve seen) for Ulster way more than anything I’ve seen him do for Ireland. Especially since he was dropped. Ditto Court who I think was the really harsh call to miss the bench. I think he’s been brilliant since being allowed to focus on 1 position. Trimble isn’t the only player I’d put in that bracket of not quite being international class. To be specific what I mean is someone who is 3rd,4th, or 5th in the pecking order. Take your pick from Trimble, Gilroy, Bowe, Zebo*, Earls*, Fitzgerald, McFadden*

        *Utility -irrespective of whether they seem to be trusted at more than one position. I know Bowe has played centre once or twice but he hasn’t done a stint there or played their regularly throughout a season. Zebo has been pushed into the FB position. I can’t remember if Trimble has played much anywhere else? Possibly a cameo as a centre?

        Given there’s only room in the match day squad for 2(3 if you count ROG on for Darcy – but your not Kidney are you?) specialist backs. 1 is RK and the other is Gilroy.

        @ Bowe Gathers
        Most wingers are effective when you use them properly or play to their strengths. I’d rather Gilroy on the wing with Sexton at OH than Trimble. I don’t accept that he doesn’t know how how/when to come in off his wing as the lads mentioned in the Ireland Team Announcement. He did 2 or 3 times IIRC on his “debut” against the Argies – once for his try and the second in the lead up to the second try. That said I’d prefer Luke Fitz for his experience in this regard

      • Yossarian

         /  January 31, 2013

        Trimble is way too error prone, you can get away with a certain number of errors even as high as H Cup level but not in international games. His rush defence might help him pick up the occasional intercept try but we saw against Saxons he just got caught in no mans land and it opened us up.

      • Pete

         /  January 31, 2013

        Paddy – I’m not asking for loyalty for loyalty’s sake, I’m asking for loyalty to good form. But we’ll have to disagree if you don’t think he showed form in the 2012 Six Nations. I thought he showed more than enough to avoid getting dropped, particularly for Zebo, then a complete international novice who still showed a lot of rawness in the club game, and McFadden, never a top class player either. Fair enough if they’d gone and got the result but they didn’t. The team got humped. Trimble comes back in, team gets as close to New Zealand as they’d been in some while… so he’s dropped again. Again, fair play if McFadden and Earls had done the business third test. Didn’t. The decision to replace him with Gilroy was the only one out of three that Kidney’s decision to drop Trimble paid off. You seriously see nothing wrong in dropping a player in fair form for complete novices, recalling him when they go wrong, and dropping him after a close result again? No poor treatment, no poor decisions? Ireland shipped 102 points in two tests with Trimble, Ireland’s best defensive winger still standing at that time, sitting mostly on the sideline with his confidence ebbing. That strikes me as a poor decision.

        Fair enough Trimble’s got his limitations but so have most of the Irish wingers. Not counting Zebo and Gilroy, who need more games before judging them properly at international level, I’d have Trimble equal with the rest of the pack chasing the shirt accompanying a fit Bowe. Trimble may not have the change of direction or boot some of those possess, but none of them have the strength and power to deal consistently with lumps the size that Wales produce except maybe Fitzgerald – but then, he has a strike rate to make Trimble look like Shane Williams. You want to chop players who aren’t excellent after a certain amount of caps – fair enough, I don’t agree, I’d pick players as long as they have something to offer. Which Trimble does, and will hopefully show again under a manager prepared to give him the time of day.

  3. Joe

     /  January 30, 2013

    Yeah, Saturday is make or break. Win and you fancy us to carry mometum to a win the following week. Lose and the atmosphere could be toxic against England and I’m not sure we’ll have it in us in those circumstances.

    The delusional fan in me thinks we’ll squeak it. Then beat England, Italy & the Scots but be beaten by the French.

    4 wins out of 5 and DK keeps the reins most likely.

  4. Ninja

     /  January 30, 2013

    I listened to Deccie’s interview on Off the ball last night. He mentioned something about only having 5 sessions together before the 6nations, ppffffff if he needs more sessions , he should demand it from the irfu and not make excuses pre tournament. I mean he’s not new to the job at this stage.

    • Yes, that sort of excuse-making (in advance!) is tiresome. He has a bit of form, whether it’s blaming the provinces for not giving game time to props or deciding that we have a genetic disadvantage during the summer tour.

  5. Leinsterlion

     /  January 30, 2013

    The IRFU have put themselves and any potential replacement for Deccie in a catch 22 situation. They will essentially have one six nation to prep for the tournament and one for minimal development(by 2014 you’d want to see combos bedding in across the park). Deccie through the vagaries of the IRFU magic hat contracting system has been contracted until midway through a WC cycle, seemingly with a focus on winning the next match, rather then any particular tournament or goal in mind.
    If they hire a new guy (eg.Schmidt) would they be prepared to write off 2015( a lá Robbie Deans with Australia in 11, Germany in the past football WC) with a brighter future in mind? It would be terribly unfair to contract a new coach, hand him the wheel of the listing SS.Concordia that is the Ireland job, and demand he achieve results with someone else’s squad.
    I say, contract a mercenary from down south up until the WC(Graham Henry etc) with the goal of a good WC nothing else. Have Schmidt lined up to take the reigns on a deal up until 2019, with the end goal a WC final and ample time & remit to develop the squad to achieve that.
    Or leave Deccie to pilot the ship onto the rocks and damn everyone else..

  6. @Completebore

     /  January 30, 2013

    Tiny point, but does anybody know of a meaningful reason why DK announced the team so far out? I know the vast majority of selections would be predictable, but it seems odd to give even a slight advantage in what should be a tight game.

  7. As always you have covered most of the ground here and i’m inclined to think the same 3 out of 5 scenario is probable too. Where I differ though is I think that 3 from 5 will be sufficient for the Union and DK will keep the gig until RWC2015.

    Now there is no logic for accepting that level of mediocrity but provided we are not walloped by France I believe that is exactly what they will do and will rubber-stamp the extension based on it.

    And so we will bumble along with mediocrity as the norm, showing the occasional flash of what we are capable of, until the World Cup is done when even Deccie will have had enough.

    De-Pressing ………………..

  8. Joe

     /  January 30, 2013

    I am not down with the thought that a coach needs 4 years to prepare for a tournament, nor do I think we should plan that way for Ireland.

    If someone offered me a 6N GS or a WC SF, it would be the former everytime.

    Now if someone offered me a win over the All Blacks or a 6N Championship…

    • I think that’s an entirely legitimate argument. It’s a question of balance. Coaching lifespans generally last four years. Very few can maintain the interest of their player pool beyond that. That being the case, it generally makes sense to dovetail the four-year cycle with the World Cup cycle. We’d see the World Cup as something to gradually build towards and have in the back of a coach’s head, rather than a be all and end all. Obviously you compete in the Six Nations to win it, and you wouldn’t throw the likes of, say, Brian O’Driscoll or Mike Ross in the bin because they’re liable not to be there in 2015. Obviously, France gave themselves four years to prepare for the World Cup last time, but the way it turned out you could argue that they might as well have had a week. Even though they almost won it in the end. Odd.

  9. coreilly

     /  January 30, 2013

    A crucial factor could be the money offered. Deccie might be the most economical option, which will be a huge factor.

  10. Good article but, as it happens, Wales haven’t picked Tipuric, so they won’t have 2 opensides. I’m still cross Henry wasn’t picked. Wales’ pack looks very creaky, though, so if we can boss them up front, we should win. Just not sure, with Poite refereeing, we’ll be allowed do that – he will allow crooked throws into the lineout, for instance, all day.

  11. Jlo

     /  February 1, 2013

    There seems to be quite a lot who think we will who think we’ll win four matches but we could just as easily loose four matches. Wales for me is too close to call it always is. England at home will not be easy, they have a big ignorant pack. Everybody assumes we are going to beat Scotland but at Murrayfield it is always tough especially if they manage not to shoot themselves in the foot. Then there ‘s France and who knows which France will turn up. I hope we’re not going to Italy fighting for the wooden spoon. It probably depends how we start against Wales, will it be the Ireland which made a one off appearance against Argentina or ???

  12. Ge

     /  February 1, 2013

    I’m a little perplexed by this article, through the course of it you spell out some (not all) of the shortcomings of Kidney’s tenure – mediocre finishes in recent tournaments (in fact ever since 2009), lack of discernible gameplan, some of the consistent poor selections – but then suggest that if Ireland beat Wales with a ‘definable style’ then Kidney is ‘perhaps…the man to [take] us through to RWC15’.

    So if I understand you, a win over a deeply average Wales side (win ratio 45% during Kidney’s tenure, i.e. even lower than Ireland) will suggest to you that all of Ireland’s floundering and mediocrity under Kidney since the end of calendar year 2009 should be whitewashed away? So the evidence of 80 minutes against the side that suffered back to back home losses to Argentina and Samoa will offset three full baleful years in which team Ireland has at best stagnated?

    This showcases 2 linked Irish failings IMO – expectations that are too low, and an overly forgiving, deferntial attitude to people in authority, who are unsuccessful. Kidney should have been long gone by now, and starting to soft-pedal and suggest that 4 wins in a 6 Nations campaign should mark his redemption simply opens the door to the likelihood of more wasted years of the kind of insider groupthink that informs Kidney’s selections, and lack of development. Ireland needs a new brush, and fresh blood in the coaching ticket, and as a matter of urgency – even if Ireland win a Grand Slam.

    • Thanks Ge. I think its fair to say that if Ireland improve markedly in the tournament, and (finally) produce a decent style of play / gameplan, then Deccie might be the man. Given that we have moved leadership generation, a notable improvement may give us a platform to build on.

      Our expectations for this squad would be 4 wins and challenging for the championship – I don’t think that is low.

      We agree with you on Kidney not being the best option, but just calling for his head on a plate isn’t productive – we need to say why. To get all philsophical, an overly-deferential attitude to authority figures is the biggest failing of this country – I’d hate to think we were guilty of it!

  13. Jlo

     /  February 1, 2013

    Good post Ge

  14. becarefulwhatyouwishfor

     /  February 1, 2013

    Mr. Whiff of Cordite (or fresh air) – you’re the reason I no longer read the IT and II!

    Have to agree with you GE.

    Its safe to say the IRFU’s (IMHO an ultra-conservative organisation full of cronies with as much forward thinking as a crab) key objective is to focus on winning the 6 nations.

    DK’s hands have been tied to a large degree by this focus. If this is the mandate he has failed miserably apart from the lucky break in ’09.

    I can’t see DK taking this team forward, however he’s only a symptom of a bigger problem with rugby in Ireland. The suits in the IRFU are still in the amateur era – their dealings with Sexton’s contract reflects this.

    Why don’t they prepare for the world cup – simple. They don’t believe Ireland can win it.

    Its this lack of belief and weak mentality that filters down to the squad. Its been the determining factor Ireland has had so many near misses and achieved below their potential over the last 10 years.

    Jamie Heaslip said on the BBC website we’re the underdogs (not good enough) and we’re comfortable with that tag.

    Hardly words of a winning mindset.

    Would those words pass the lips of an All Black, Aussie or Bok?

    I doubt it, because that’s a mentality and language they don’t understand.

    A clean out needs to start at the top- not just DK. Replace the IRFU cronies with forward thinking and savvy professionals that instil belief and a winning mentality.

    Its already been achieved at a provincial level. We have the ship, just need a Nelson to steer it.

    Then maybe, just maybe, we can dare to dream of the Web Ellis been raised above the green and shamrock.

    We could win it, could’nt we?

    • Why thank you Sir! To be clear, we are Messrs Whiff of Cordite. Great comment by the way – Deccie might not be the greatest coach ever, but his bosses are rank amateurs, which hardly helps him

  15. Jlo

     /  February 1, 2013

    Do you not mean Messers

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