Luck Running Out

This post is from our regular column in the Irish Post, the highest-selling newspaper for the Irish in Britain (which these days includes businessmen, lawyers and doctors, as well as pint-sized jockeys flanked by airline executives). The paper is published on Wednesday’s in Britain.

When you’re hot you’re hot they say, and when you’re not you’re not. And right now Declan Kidney is not. Indeed the poor fellow can’t catch a break. His Ireland team have become experts at losing winning positions, while the mounting injury toll makes next week’s trip to Rome especially daunting. Italy looked resurgent in Sunday’s game against England and will take confidence from the way they took the game to the White Orcs. It’s their best chance for a two win series in some time. For Ireland, defeat would mean a probable, almost unthinkably awful, wooden spoon.

How has it come to this? It was a campaign that promised much – don’t they all? – but Ireland have stumbled from crisis to crisis and, unfortunately, from injury to injury. The old adage is that it’s better to be a lucky general than a good one, but right now Kidney is neither.

He can’t do much about Ireland’s savage injury toll. With these matters it’s tempting to say that everyone else has the same experience, but this appears to be far from the case. England have the odd injury, but appear to be getting more players available for selection the longer the tournament goes on. Last week they brought long term absentee Tom Croft back into action. The rest of the teams are in relatively good health.

Ireland, by contrast, have been missing no less than four wings at various points over the series, with Fergus McFadden the latest to be ruled out. He joins a long list of casualties, including injured-again Johnny Sexton, Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo and Gordon D’arcy. Meanwhile, several other players will be walking wounded this week, and Donnacha Ryan appears to be playing through the pain barrier.

On this we can have some sympathy with Kidney and his team but those looking to excuse results in light of the injuries need to remember the almost freakish good luck Kidney had in his most celebrated achievements.  In the 2009 grand slam, Ireland could select the XV they wanted in every single match.  Indeed, Kidney had the luxury of rotating his squad to make four changes in the penultimate game of the series, a potentially trick tie in Scotland.  It was canny management, bringing vital squad players like Rory Best, Peter Stringer and Denis Leamy into the thick of things, to make them feel a greater part of the action.  And the changes were only in positions where Kidney knew the selections were marginal in the first place, and that he wasn’t losing much by changing.  It had the desired effect in ensuring minds were focussed on the trip to Murrayfield, and the danger that some players might be thinking ahead to the week after, a Grand slam finale in Cardiff, was averted.  It also succeeded in getting up Jamie Heaslip’s nostrils, and coaxing a huge contribution out of him when he came off the bench in Murrayfield (as an early injury replacement, as it happens).  But what a luxury to be able to do it!  Almost unthinkable that it could happen under today’s circumstances.

The good fortune extended beyond injuries, not least in the final dénouement, where Gavin Henson was passed over for the chance to kick a winning penalty, not so much based on a lack of ability, but seemingly because he was such a pain even his team-mates didn’t want to have to have to endure his preening should he convert the kick.  Instead, the ball was given to Stephen Jones, fatigued after 80 minutes of rugby and never with the biggest boot in the first place.  His kick fell just short and the rest, as they say, was history.

Kidney’s other great achievement, his tactically astute win over Australia in the World Cup was also a case of stars lining up for the coach.  Australia suffered two very late injuries, with Benn Robinson, their only capable scrummager, and David Pocock, their breakdown-dominating openside, ruled out just hours before kick-off.  This was compounded by the rain pouring down on Eden Park.  Cian Healy and Mike Ross had their finest moments for Ireland, laying waste to the Australian scrum, and without Pocock, Australia were clueless in loose play, walking into one choke tackle after another.  But just weeks later, the full scale of how Ireland would struggle to cope against a breakdown-marauding No.7 was baldly exposed, when Sam Warburton dominated that facet of the game in the quarter-final.  Had Pocock played, how differently might things have panned out?

Sympathy is further eroded by how Kidney has deployed his able-bodied men.  It’s one thing having to withdraw players due to injury, but the removal of Conor Murray from the fray with 20 minutes to go on Saturday’s game against France looks like the last nail in the coffin of Kidney’s coaching tenure.  Murray was controlling the game, with his accurate box-kicking consistently resulting in territorial gains for Ireland, but he was pulled ashore and replaced by Eoin Reddan.  It was all the more baffling, because Kidney has never shown any inclination to favour Reddan in the past.  There have been plenty of games that looked made for Reddan’s skillset, but he has invariably been overlooked.  Then he is called into action on a rainy day when the gameplan was entirely at odds with the strengths Reddan brings to proceedings.

When your luck runs dry, it seems, the temptation is to make wild, miscalculated gambles.  It’s been that sort of series, and unfortunately for Ireland, none of them have come off.

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11 Comments

  1. offiah

     /  March 15, 2013

    Was Murray not pulled off cos of his quick tap peno. He should of passed instead of going himself. I’d imagine that Deccie wasn’t happy with the quick tap never mind not passing. Sheppards hook!
    I also heard Super is getting pain killing injections before ever game!

    Times up. Need a whole new coaching team lead by a DoR. CO’S and Hump look like good candidantes. Let them pick their coaching staff.

    • If scrumhalves got pulled ashore every time they took an over-enthusiastic tap penalty Peter Stringer would have 5 caps. 🙂

  2. ORiordan

     /  March 15, 2013

    I thought it was a tapped free kick, not a penalty.

    • Yes, I thought this too, on the second viewing also, but I’ve seen so may people say it was a tapped penalty that I presumed I must be wrong. I know the ref marched them forward ten metres for lip, but I wasn’t aware the decision got upgraded to a penalty.

      Can anyone out there offer confirmation?

  3. Ollie

     /  March 15, 2013

    I think its too often downplayed how big a part luck plays in things, we didnt win the GS in 09 because Kidney is a better coach than EOS, at crucial times we got lucky, Jones penalty falling short, when Wales went ahead with minutes left Jones kicking out on the full after the restart to give O’Gara the chance of the drop goal. Contast this with 2007 where after Ireland extended our lead against France with minutes left POC failed to take the restart and then 5 defenders contrived to leave enough space for Clerc to waltz through. These moments were the difference between EOS and Kidney being a Grand slam winning coach, none of them down to the ability of the coach themselves. All we can ask of a coach is that the players go out and play well and to a discernible gameplan that suits their strengths, what happens then is down to luck, i.e. injuries, strength/injuries of opponents, etc. We’ve fooled ourselves by being slaves to a man who “delivered” a Grand Slam despite a lot of the fundamentals (individual performance levels, selections, gameplan, squad development) being off.

  4. Yeah but…the question remains: who to take the helm? Why not put the contract out to tender and give Kidney a chance to show why and where it went wrong? The AB’s lost to France in the WC ’07 quarter finals – a ridiculous result by their expectations – yet Graham Henry was allowed to put his case forward for the next WC cycle. We (i.e. the IRFU) should do everything to find options (Schmitdt, Cotter, etc.), but we should be careful not to oust Kidney for the sake of it, leaving us with nothing but an interim coach for the crucial 2-year World Cup build-up.

  5. red razors

     /  March 16, 2013

    I feel we are really no worse off with an interim coach than with kidney – the man has nothing further to offer irish rugby. This 6 nations campaign has been a fiasco, characterised by poorly-executed impulse decisions both on the pitch and off, a growing injury list, and the kind of morale that wouldn’t be out of place in a prison. We’re now in the position of having to force a win against a dangerous Italy… what could possibly go wrong?!
    We have played several decent first halves only to hand the advantage right back in the second. I’m sick of hearing Kidney and Heaslip tell us we could have won that game (and the one before it, and the one before that…). If we could have won it, then why didn’t we? Poor discipline and poor decision-making are prevalent. We need something to change, and it has to be Kidney. A well-supported caretaker coach is no worse a prospect than another 2 years with Deccie at the wheel.

  6. Mike

     /  March 16, 2013

    PoM to the wing.. Gona make a right mess of your stats. Or will it? He spends most of his time out there anyway…

  7. Dave W

     /  March 16, 2013

    At least the headline is completely accurate. The spate of injuries today is atrociously unlucky.

  8. Jlo

     /  March 17, 2013

    Ireland have been robbed – they couldn’t even win the wooden spoon
    I did say they’d be lucky to win one match – if Wales had known the kick-off time

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