A Return to Traditional Wigan Values

Munster’s European campaign hit the buffers at the weekend after a feeble defeat to Stade Francais Paris.  In spite of playing against 14 men for the entire second half, it was Stade who glossed the scoreline and ran away with the match.

There were shades of this last season when Munster’s hopes depended on them going to Saracens and winning, but the effort was similarly toothless.  It feels like something of a tipping point among their fanbase with regard to their affection for the coaching ticket headed up by Anthony Foley, with most fans angry and unsympathetic – no much surprise given how they have been blamed by Foley and his chums in the meeja for not coming in enough numbers to see the team.

So what went wrong?  Pretty much everything.  CJ Stander, who was about the only player who performed close to his level, afterwards admitted that although the team talked at half time about what they had to do – play at pace and make the extra man count – they just didn’t do it.  He described them as lacking energy, walking to lineouts.  That speaks to a lack of belief and stomach for the fight, and Alan Quinlan was unsparing in his post-match criticism.

Another who launched a scathing attack on management was none other than Johne Murphy, but for many that sounded like a hatchet job, a chance that Murphy was only dying to take to get one over on a coach who never really took to him.  But if indeed that is indeed the case, it raises a point worth thinking about.  Murphy, as we all know, came in for personal criticism in the infamous player-assessment email that was accidentaly distributed just a few weeks into Foley’s tenure, which is presumably a factor in his bitterness towards Foley.  But he wasn’t the only one, so are there other players around the squad who still harbour resentment towards the coach?  It certainly doesn’t appear as if the team are playing for their lives, or for the coach’s future – Simon Zebo’s performance in Paris smacked of a man with the south of France on his mind, and both Earls and Donnacha Ryan are not fulfilling expectations as two of the go-to veterans of the team.

Quinlan, in his article for the Indo yesterday, came up with the left-field suggestion that the province should dial 021-DECCIE and bring back the auld cute hoor for a renaissance.  After all, Deccie won two Heineken Cups and knows the province inside out.  It seems a bizarre idea, though.  They already have a coach – a whole team of them in fact! – who are hugely passionate about the province, and who know everything there is to know about Munster rugby. But it’s not really what they need – that being an experienced hand with a good technical skillset.

And seemingly the IRFU are ain agreement – the lads need a bit of help, and so they’re sending their latest hire, Andy Farrell, down south to work as a ‘consultant’ for the rest of the season.  It’s a major decision, not least because it’s obviously been foisted upon Foley and his backroom chums and doesn’t reflect all too well on them.  It’s a decent idea in theory – a voice from outside the province is certainly needed – but in practice it’s hard to know how much he’ll be able to add, especially if it’s a source of tension within the camp.  One thing’s for sure, Farrell is a strong character and will try to impose his will on the team.  Be prepared for a return to, erm, traditional Wigan values.

The sense that Munster are reaping what they sowed in appointing this group is inescapable. We blogged back in spring 2014 on Axel’s appointment and his ALL-MUNSTER ticket. While much of the critical commentary went as far as a damp Beatles-at-Shea-Stadium esque fawning over a “return to traditional Munster values”, we had some concerns:

“His main issue- as is the case for seemingly every Munster coach since the year dot – will be recruiting and developing capable centres to provide a threat and most importantly, bring the lethal strike runners Simon Zebo and Keith Earls onto the ball as much as possible.  Casey Laulala is heading for the exit and it looks increasingly like James Downey will be joining him.  Foley will need to recruit, and recruit well.” In fact – Foley has not only recruited badly (Tyler Bleyendaal, journeyman Andrew Smith) but he’s allowed JJ Hanrahan to leave, has converted Denis Hurley into the new Ma’a Nonu Shontayne Hape, and has presided over the catastrophic decline in form of Ian Keatley.

“One must say, it’s a big gamble – every member of the coaching staff will be making a step up to a position they have never been in before. Most coaching tickets you see appointed have a few grizzled veterans or older hands in there to offer continuity. The gamble Munster are taking is that Axel provides the continuity and the chaps with familiar faces and accents will takes to Munster like ducks to water, ensuring a seemless transition.” The gamble has failed pretty comprehensively, no doubt about it, and the appointment of Farrell is more evidence.

And perhaps most cutting from a fans perspective:

“He can expect an easier ride in the media than Penney got, because there will be huge goodwill behind him, and, how shall we put this, most of the key pundits are great pals with him!  But Munster fans will be as demanding as ever, and he’ll be expected to at least hit the marks Rob Penney did over the last two years.” Funny, this one turned out to be on the money

Anyway, it looks like a no-win situation for Foley – no improvement, and he’ll get the blame, they do better, and Farrell gets the credit. And an upturn in results is possible as the fixtures look relatively kind, albeit with the potential for (more) serious humiliation:

  • ERC: Stade Francais (H) – after last week, even a losing bonus point will be seen as a victory of sorts, but a victory is conceivable – Stade have only won one away game all year and have succumbed to the might of .. um .. Brive and Agen
  • ERC: Treviso (A) – surely they won’t lose .. surely!
  • Zebre (A) – see above
  • Ospreys (H)
  • Glasgae (A) – two tough fixtures, but during the Six Nations both will be denuded to an extent Munster clearly won’t, with only one player (Conor Murray) currently a lock in the Irish 23
  • Treviso (A)
  • Dragons (H)
  • Zebre (H) – 3 wins in a row would be your baseline expectation here

So not impossible that by Easter, Munster are back in the top 4 of the league with ERC qualification assured and with some sort of momentum garnered .. for which Farrell gets the credit. Foley’s team are most certainly dead ducks, and it remains to see whether the man himself is as well – both Ulster and Leinster have sacked coaches late in the season and wound up scrambling to get a coaching team in place.

That said, they’ll need to get several of the units on the pitch working far better.  The scrum has been awful all season, and there’s little that can be done at this stage short of winding back BJ Botha’s clock by five years.  The second row has been remarkably poor considering they have three internationals to choose from, and CJ Stander has been virtually a one man band in the backrow.  As for Ian Keatley, his haywire season took another nosedive on Saturday; all the more remarkable as he was man of the match against Ulster the previous week.  Meanwhile Simon Zebo’s mind appears to be halfway to Toulouse.  At least they can console themselves that they won’t lose too many players for the Six Nations.

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Kasparov, Deep Blue, 1996

Two Six Nations ago, in their second Six Nations under Jacques Brunel, Italy beat Ireland and France, admittedly both at home. The draw for RWC15 had already been made, and these three, with all due respect to Canada Eh and Romania, would be in a round-robin playoff for qualification. If results were repeated, Italy would have topped the pool, and Ireland would have been one bonus point behind France in the scrap for second. Brunel had worked on expanding Italy’s game after succeeding <insert name of Southern Hemisphere rent-a-coach here>, and it was paying dividends – Italy looked like they might be a genuine threat for the rest of the cycle.

Wind the clock forward two years, and Brunel’s experiment has ended – in November, Italy responded to a terrible run of results by picking a Kiwi journeyman at outhalf and sticking it up the jumper. This was never a gameplan that was likely to unstick Ireland under Joe ‘Deep Blue’ Schmidt – and so it proved. Ireland dusted down the well-worn script for beating the Italians when they were under <Southern Hemisphere rent-a-coach> – disrupt the lineout, slowly overpower them up front, and make hay when they began to tire in the last quarter. The Italians even threw in the traditional yellow card. Eddie and Deccie negotiated such obstacles with ease, and so did Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.

The game was a snoozefest, and Ireland’s seemingly fervent desire not to show any of their hand led to the likes of Jared Payne and Henshaw being used to bosh it up the middle. Like the November formula, keeping it narrow was the watchword. O’Connell admitted Ireland allowed themselves to ease into the game slowly.  One would expect we will need to show a bit more against France, who will lap that kind of stuff up. In the pack, Jamie Heaslip is virtually certain to return, we will need to await a prognosis on the unfortunate Sean O’Brien, and DJ Church is less likely to make it. O’Brien’s injury puts the selectors in a bit of a pickle, because the game being against Italy was the perfect opportunity to give him a bit of a hit out before the France match.  But without that hit-out, do they now throw him in from the start against the French?  Or will he even be avilable?  If O’Brien doesn’t make it, its a choice between Tommy O’Donnell, who did very well deputising at the last moment, Jordi Murphy, first reserve 12 months ago, or something creative (and unlikely) like shoe-horning Iain Henderson into blindside while moving Peter O’Mahony across. Henderson’s ballast and skill off the bench gave Ireland real momentum in Rome, and one wonders if it’s merely a matter of time before he makes the starting team.

Right now, though, O’Donnell looks the natural choice.  Full credit to him, but the ease with which Ireland can replace a player of the calibre of Sean O’Brien without batting an eyelid shows (again) how systems and processes drive modern rugby, and in particular this Ireland set-up. It’s tough to imagine, say, Deccie’s Grand Slam Ireland being able to seemlessly replace, say, Wally and Fez with Shane Jennings and Denis Leamy without a noticable decline in production.  They were almost the opposite; dependant on signature players for big plays at key times in the heat of battle.

In the absence of Jonny Sexton, Conor Murray controlled the game nicely – what a player he is – but Keatley had a bit of a curate’s egg on his Six Nations debut. He took his goals well, and kicked better as time went on, but there were a couple of ugly errors in the first half, and Sexton’s general-ship was missed. We’ll need the cranky one back to be at our best. Ian Madigan came off the bench for a tasty cameo against tiring legs, and is probably inked into the number 22 shirt for the tournament – Keatley did fine, and he’ll start if Sexton goes down again, but Madigan’s unstructured threat is better off the bench.

To continue the RWC15 theme, the Italians look so far off being a threat to Ireland that it isn’t funny. The French, of course, are another kettle of fish. Right now, all the elements seem to be there, but it just doesn’t seem to be coming together for them – they didn’t show much against Scotland that would have us tossing and turning .. or maybe Scotland are better under Vern Cotter than they have been. Like Ireland, presumably PSA doesn’t want to show his full hand, given the team is, y’know (with some exceptions), Gallic and, y’know, mercurial and, y’know, French, the whole Scotland episode probably gives few pointers as to how next week will go.

The tournament has started with wins which would have been fully expected, without learning much, but the real direction of the tournament for Ireland and France will be decided on Saturday.

Sayonara Anscombe

Well, that was a surprise wasn’t it? Deep in the midst of the Northern Hemisphere rugger silly season, where we had been trying to feign interest in Ooooooooooooooohh James Downey’s move to Glasgae, Ulster only went and sacked Anscombe! Yesterday was Anscombe’s first day back at the office, supervising training for the non-touring Ulstermen – basically Neil McComb and Mike McComish, who we assume were practicing thirty-metre passes – when he got the curly finger and was dispatched summarily. He had known nothing in advance.

Coming hot on the heels of Humph’s departure to Glaws, it seems obvious the events are related. But how?

  • Ulster’s bicameral coaching structure, whereby the DoR, Humph, was responsible for only off-pitch matters with the head coach, Anscombe, taking training and picking the team, was effectively built around Humphreys and his departure meant what felt like a strong and suitable management structure now became pointless. Better to bite the bullet now than have a lame duck for a year
  • A willing pawn no longer had his protector and was chopped at the first available opportunity. Humph’s Machiavellian control structures were no longer needed and have been swept away.

Ulster have moved to combine the roles and recruit a big beast accordingly – Les Kiss comes in on an interim basis with his funky specs and choke tackles and will “assist” Neil Doak and Jonny Bell in coaching and picking the side. Kissy has been Ireland’s defence coach since Deccie came in, building a strong system, and has lots of respect in the game. He also had a rather underwhelming spell as shunting-the-ball-from-side-to-side attack coach for a while – but the less said about that the better. He hasn’t had a head coaching role before and it’s clearly a temporary, if interesting, solution imposed from D4. One wonders if this bears the fingerprints of Nucifora.

Unlike Humph (and McLaughlin), Anscombe will be unlamented by Ulster fans. The view was Humph had replaced one not-great coach with another, and that Anscombe was a yes-man who was out of his depth and who struggled with bench usage in key games, repeatedly falling short. While Ulster progressed in his time, they never added enough to their game to win a trophy, and their strike rate in opposition 22 has become increasingly woeful.  They just kept falling short in the same manner in a number of big games.

Ulster have felt well-run in recent years but the nature of recent changes has been rather slapdash (like indeed the infamous Humph-McLaughlin presser when Humph toe-curlingly insisted he wasn’t firing his coach) – the Ulster players in Argentina heard about Humph’s departure by text from Fez, and Rory Best has described the situation as “concerning”. Peter O’Reilly summed it up better, calling it a “shambles”.

So where to from here? The press have dusted off their over-optimistic requests from days of yore and have pinpointed Dingo Deans and Wayne Smith as Ulster’s preferred men – anyone who has been tracking recent provincial spend, or remembers the underwhelming feeling when Penney and Anscombe were appointed will perhaps expect something more left-field.

The key men in the appointment will not be Logan and Humph like last time, but Nucifora and Schmidt – the process followed and team appointed will be part of a broader Irish rugby-based vision than the narrow provincial focus of before, and late fifties Southern Hemisphere rent-a-coaches might not fit that template. Jeremy Davidson might, or Birch, or Mark McCall, or even Conor O’Shea or Geordan Murphy if they could be tempted home. Despite the promptings from Munsterfans.com, Michael Bradley and Eddie are unlikely to be in the mix.

Ulster’s appointment will be the first in the new ERCC world where Irish provinces will need to compete based on strong sustainable coaching structures and domestic talent – how it proceeds and who drives the bus will be very interesting.

Sure Isn’t It Great We Have All Of Them

So here we are – we are entering squeaky bum time in the Six Nations, and Ireland are on top of the table. Sweet, we’d have taken that, even if the England game was ultimately a disappointment. Sure, we probably aren’t favourites – the fine yeomen of Stuart Lancaster’s rosy-cheeked people’s commune probably deserve that honour given their tougher game is in the Cabbage Patch. We have to go to the Stade de France and face those olive-skinned, chisel-jawed, suave and nonchalant bleus  – where with the merest insouciant lean on the goalpost, Gauloise in hand, the Frenchman generally makes the Irish rugger man weak at the knees and porous in defence. Still, we have it in our hands – if we deal with Italy the way we should and win any way in Paree, its unlikely to matter what the rest get up to. Additionally, unlike in 2007, the timing of the fixtures is assuredly in our favour, with our game last on the final day.

So, home to Italy (Six Nations record for this fixture: P7 W7 points difference +143) and away to France (Six Nations record for this fixture: P7 W1 D1 L5 points difference -97) – looks like the second game will be tougher. We’d want to be making sure our players are in tip-top condition for the hair-raising bus ride through the banlieues of Saint-Denis, right? You’d think so. And Ireland haven’t had many ‘on-the-run injuries so far, which has allowed Schmidt to keep personnel changes to a minimum so far.  Much like in 2009, it would appear to be prime time for rotating a few players.

Back then, Deccie gave a rest day to Jirry, Jamie Heaslip, Tomas O’Leary and Paddy Wallace in favour of Besty, Denis Leamy, Strings and Dorce – and the only other semi-convincing rotation option would have been Geordy Murphy for Bob, to which he apparently gave strong consideration but ultimately decided might risk over-rotating. It was a shrewd managerial move; it concentrated minds on Scotland when the temptation for excited minds was to fast-forward to the decider in Cardiff and fostered competition for places and a feeling of involvement for those on the fringes of the team.  Crucially, he did it only where he knew there was little between those coming in and those going out, though on reflection perhaps he got lucky that Denis Leamy got injured, harsh as that may sound.  Heaslip had been Ireland’s best player and it looked borderline foolhardy to leave him out, and in the event he came on early for Leamy, had a stormer and scored the winning try.

Right now, the Milky Bar Kid could conceivably change 10 of team – we’re blessed with many more options, even without Fez, Sean O’Brien and all our wingers. Of course, he’s unlikely to do that, because such a massive scalpel to the team is fraught with risk – just look at this time 12 months ago.  England rotated a couple of names in and out of the team in the exact corresponding fixture last year; home to Italy in round four.  They were looking to win the Championship too – in fact they were looking for a Grand Slam – but the move backfired.  One of those coming in to the team was Danny Care, who had been sensational off the bench in the previous game against France, but starting the match seemed to derail him.  The iconic image of him kicking the ball backwards in his own 22 lingers in the memory.  England found themselves hanging on for a fortuitous victory and they carried the anti-momentum through to the final match where they were thrashed by a rampant Wales.  So, the message is clear: rotate sensibly and respect Italy!

So what can we expect? All three of the front row backups will be hopeful of playing, but we can’t see such wholesale change – Marty Moore looks the only one odds-on to start, and might even be auditioning for the shirt in France. With Besty such a key man on the ground and in the maul, it’s likely Joe will leave him in and let Sean Cronin be content with 30 minutes provided the game is won by then. Jack McGrath for DJ Church is a possible – Schmidt has shown trust in McGrath before and often rotated Healy at Leinster.  But in O’Brien’s absence Healy is our best ball carrier and while McGrath is also strong in this facet of play, it looks like too much of a risk.

In the row, Devin Toner has been one of the success stories of the championship, but it mightn’t be a bad idea to give him a rest here, with either NWJMB or Donnacha Ryan to come in. Ryan/POC is a more established partnership, but Henderson is in better form and has more time in camp – we think he could get the nod, and if he grabs this opportunity the next coach to drop him for Ireland might be Ronan O’Gara for RWC27.  Against all that, Henderson is almost the prototype impact substitute for the modern game, and Schmidt may stick with his first-choice partnership in order to unleash NWJMB against tiring legs.

With Peter O’Mahony an injury doubt, it’s essential someone is practising the anthems angrily in front of a mirror – it’s hard to know where Ireland would be without his unique brand of tuneless pre-game anger. If O’Mahony is in any way doubtful, it would seem foolish indeed to risk him ahead of the Paris match.  He’s become a cornerstone of the team, even if England dealt with his threat impressively, and will be badly needed for the final game in the series. If he’s fit he’ll play, but if not Rhys Ruddock would be a solid deputy.  With Chris Henry possibly Ireland’s player of the series to date (certainly he is the most consistent) and Jamie Heaslip peerless at eight (and Tommy O’Donnell injured in any case), we can’t envisage any more than one backrow change.

For the half-back pairing, the game has probably come too soon for Eoin Reddan, and, at any rate, we think he might make a change at fly-half and better to keep Murray in there for some continuity. Is Johnny Sexton out for up to six weeks, as claimed by Racing Metro? Unlikely. Is he fully fit and 100% ready for an international game? Equally unlikely, given he didn’t play this weekend. O’Reilly in the ST pointed out that Sexton had played 38 games in the last nine months, and he should be managed. Can Ireland beat Italy at home with Wee PJ manning the ship? Of course they can. We’ll need Sexton for France, so let’s be sensible.  We can have him on the bench in case it all goes to pot.

The centres will be the same.  Brian O’Driscoll no longer looks infallible, but he showed against England that he still has the class, but he needs a bit of help from those around him.  This looked a prime opportunity to get Luke Marshall into the team, and Ireland could really do with his strong running and pace, but his old concussion issues have resurfaced with particularly awful timing.  We can’t imagine how frustrating it is for him, and Schmidt.

Out wide, the call for change is most compelling.  For all the honest endeavour of Andrew Trimble and Little Bob, we could do with some pace and penetration, and obviously the internet needs little opportunity to discuss Simon Zebo. Have either of the starters done anything specific to deserve being dropped? No, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make a change to strengthen the team. Tommy Bowe looked in regal form on his return on Friday night, and although he played just 40 minutes, we thought he’d go straight back in; but he hasn’t made the squad.  Maybe it’s just too early for him, but it must have been really tempting to just go for it.  Luke Fitzgerald’s wretched luck continues, so it means a timely recall for Simon Zebo.  Everyone wants to see the happy-go-lucky flyer in green, and not just because we are all exhausted discussing whether his possible defensive, workrate and celebratory deficiencies are what are keeping him out of the squad.  Internet, you can have a rest now!  A full-scale return to the First XV is probably still unlikely, but he could knock McFadden off the bench.

So we reckon in will come Moore, Henderson, Ruddock and Jackson, with returns to the bench for Ryan, Reddan and Zebo. That should shake it up a little. It worked for Deccie in 2009, no reason to think it isn’t the best approach five long years later.  Ireland should beat Italy, and hopefully at least one or two of those selected can at least make their case for the crucial trip to Paris.

Tackling AND carrying? Nah, no-one can do that.

One test down and the Lions have gone one-nil up, yet the odds on them taking the series (starting from generous prices, in our opinion) have barely moved. The Lions may have won, but they erred badly in a number of fields: selection (unbalanced backrow), tactics (Mike Philips booting the ball in the air or running into Ben Mowen), playing the referee (peep! off your feet .. peep! off your feet … peep! off your feet) and bench usage (the sight of the reserve Australian front row marching the Lions scrum backwards was an absolute embarrassment).  Australia made plenty of boo-boos of their own, especially with selection at 10 where the continued reluctance to forgive Quade Cooper is increasingly looking like the rock on which Dingo Deans will perish.  In the end the Lions squeaked home for a fortuitous victory.

Four years ago, the Lions got selection wrong too, but they looked coherent and had a gameplan to trouble the opposition. They were then playing the world champions, a team at the peak of their powers, about to win the Tri-Nations with a number of all-time greats in situ (John Smit, Bakkies & Victor, Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana) – here they were playing a decent and underrated Australian team, but still an average enough one, and struggled, fading badly in the last 20. They could/should (delete as appropriate) have lost by 15 points. And this in spite of the Wallabies having four backs carried off, and losing their goalkicker and key attacking weapon Christian Leali’ifano after 42 seconds.

Even with a different selection and tactics, with no Dr Roberts and with Philips owned by Will Genia and Mowen, the Lions are up against it in this test. They got away with the first win, and the Aussies are more likely to improve as the series goes on, and surely can’t experience another perfect storm of head injuries.

If it comes to a decider, the Lions are goosed.  Why?  Well, injuries for a start.  Sure, both sides are just as liable to get them – heck, the Aussies had three players leave the field in neck braces – but if they do lose players ahead of the third test, they have a whole nation of players to choose from (well, NSW and Queensland, but you get the point).  If the Lions get badly hurt, the time for flying out emergency rations is over.  They must make do and mend with what they’ve got.  Or bring in players who are holidaying nearby.  Hello, Tom Court! Don’t suppose Lesley Vainikolo is visiting relatives in Oz?

There’s also the momentum swing-o-meter.  Should the Aussies level the series at 1-1, they’re the ones with the momentum whlie the Lions will be edgy, and they’ll expect to carry that through to the final test, just as they did in 2001.

It all makes this match something of a boom-or-bust for Gatland.  He got away with a flawed selection for the opener, and will have to make some changes in personnel and alter his gameplan a fair deal to win again.  Fate as not been kind to him, and two of his certain starters – Paul O’Connell and Alex Corbisiero – have been ruled out.  While O’Connell is the better player, at least there’s a like-for-like replacement in Geoff Parling (at least in playing terms – leadership qualities aside). At loose-head prop, it’s a choice between Vunipola, who got mashed into the turf in Brisbane; Ryan Grant, who is a better scrummager but is “limited” in the loose; or holidaymaker Tom Court. No easy solution. 

We were a little taken aback by just how poor Vunipola was in the set piece. We knew he was no technician, but we expected the Lions would at least be able to get the ball out on their own put-in, even if it was the sort of unusable rubbish that requires the scrum half to jump into the breakdown.  Alas, even that lowly ambition proved impossible.  He’ll be held back as impact reserve again, and Grant will presumably start.  Don’t expect to see Vunipola before the 60th minute this time, as Gatland will be more circumspect about changing up his front row after the way it backfired.

The backrow remains the most competitive and contentious area, and one where Gatland probably got it wrong in the first test, despite choosing from an embarrassment of riches.  After the way Will Genia ran wild and free, we’ve a really strong feeling that Dan Lydiate will come in to the equation.  While this is outright speculation, we’ve a feeling Gatty bowed to some pressure, whether from Rowntree or the English media, to pick Tom Croft for the first test, but doesn’t 100% trust him.  Now’s his opportunity to pick Lydiate with a view to shackling the Aussie scrum-half, around whom everything happens for Australia.  Stop Genia and you stop Australia.

With Lydiate and Warburton in the team, and with Vunipola unselectable because of his scrummaging, the Lions’ pack’s biggest issue is a lack of tackle-breaking ball carriers.  So there’s a chance we could see Toby Faletau selected for a bit of explosive ball-carrying. It would be harsh on Heaslip, who played well in the first test in getting through a mountain of dog work.  Faletau played for 80 minutes yesterday, which makes it odds against, but don’t rule it out.  Tackle-breaking ball-carriers who can also mount huge tackle counts, you say? What a pity they didn’t bring a multi-functional backrow forward, who is in form. Hang on, they did, didn’t they? Sean O’Brien. The Carlow chap. Likes cows and that sort of thing.  O’Brien seems to be falling between the gazelle-like Croft rock and the iron tackling Lydiate hard place, and at this stage is almost becoming something of a cause celebre. Sure, he isn’t a lineout option, but then again, with Tom Youngs throwing to the front to avoid Mowen every time, who cares? He is bang in form and the Wallabies don’t want to see him – he should play at blindside, but surely – surely! – he’ll at least feature off the bench this time.

The line-out was a bit of a puzzler.  Palla Ovale remarked at the time that he couldn’t understand why the only time the Lions went to the tail they tried to maul off it, and tried to go quickly into midfield off all the front-of-lineout ball they won.  Surely tail of the lineout ball is the only opportunity to get the ball to the backline with a bit of space in front of them?  Happily, far greater minds than our own thought exactly the same thing, proving us right in our own heads and enabling us to feel very happy with ourselves.

The Lions have to make a choice at half-back.  Not in terms of personnel, but in terms of gameplan.  Phillips had one of his worst test games in memory on Saturday and looked decidedly rough around the edges.  He’s a class player, however, and neither Conor Murray nor Ben Youngs have made a compelling case to oust him, so he’ll start again.  Sexton, of course, will also start.  Both Sexton and Phillips are alpha-halves who want to dominate and control the game.  The Lions spent much of the first test trying to use Philips’ running game to make ground, but got nowhere.  Once they started using Sexton, his varied kicking game and slick passing game caused Australia all sorts of trouble.  Gatland must sacrifice some of Phillips’ natural game and instruct him to be more of a servant to Sexton, who has the ability to bring the superb three-quarter line outside him into the game in lethal fashion.  What a pity Danny Care decided to play absolutely rubbish in the lead up to squad selection, in top form he would be a potentially superb alternative and perfect foil for Sexton, if his pack could protect him.  He’s basically a better Eoin Reddan.

At inside centre, the indications are Roberts won’t be back until Sydney, and it’s a choice between keeping Johnny Davies there or taking a chance on Manu. Davies is the probable safer option, particularly if Faletau comes in. We would have concerns about his defensive positioning facing Lilo (he occasionally drifted into the 12.5 channel and left Sexton defending a huge piece of real estate, but Pat McCabe and Michael Hooper never exploited it) but he has been playing well.  Manu has shown signs of dovetailing with BOD and there’s a compelling case to be made for his rough-hewn but often thrillingly destructive talents, espcially given the already discussed shortage of tackle breakers in the single-digit numbered shirts.

Tommy Tommy Bowe will come into the 23, but we don’t know if Cuthbert will make way on the right wing – he took his try well and didn’t do a whole lot wrong, apart from one horribly spilled ball. The progressive selector would pick Bowe (and Tuilagi incidentally) but we just can’t decide how Gatty will swing.  He appears to be saying a lot of lovely things about Bowe, but Cuthbert’s try might be enough to swing it for him.  Who knows?

We were confident last week that Gatland had made a mess of his bench, and so it transpired.  It was straight out of the Declan Kidney school of Substitutions.  He made changes too early where none were required, and then appeared to get spooked and made no more until very late on.  Vunipola looked like being the very definition of an impact reserve, but in the end he had the wrong kind of impact.  Ben Youngs should have been an upgrade on Mike Phillips – how could he not be? – but he wasn’t really much better.  In the backrow Dan Lydiate made only a cursory appearance, after all the broohaha over his selection.  This time around we’re hoping to see names like Richie Gray, Sean O’Brien and Tommy Bowe, so hopefully there’ll be a bit more oomph stepping off the pine.

Even with the selection we’d like, we think the Wallabies will win – they have lost Barnes, McCabe and Ioane, but the Honey Badger will probably come in (cue joy all around), Folau will move to full back (where he has played most of his rugger i.e. 12 starts from 14) and Beale will start – probably at 10 with Bieber on the wing. Their pack played well and the team should shake off the rust and play more confidently. It’s a big ask for the Lions without O’Connell and any of their three best scrummaging looseheads, but picking the right team from those available would be a start.

Je Ne Regrette Rien… Except Maybe These

The IRFU pulled the plug on the Declan Kidney era yesterday, announcing that he would not be offered a new contract.  It draws a line under another managerial tenure that has been a distinctly mixed bag.  Kidney’s career as head coach can neatly be split into two bundles, one succesful, one not; the unbeaten claendar year in 2009, and everything since then.  We’ll always have the memories of Ireland’s long overdue Grand Slam, but beyond that, it was a long, slow and often painful slide towards the fiasco that was this year’s Six Nations.  Everyone knew the end was coming, except Deccie himself it seems, and the only surprise was that he didn’t resign and instead made the IRFU effectively sack him.

Sports coaches on the brink, movie stars in decline, those in power falling from grace: they all have a habit of telling you they wouldn’t change a thing in spite of the grisly endgame. We don’t know, but Kidney will probably never publicly admit to having made grievous errors in his tenure as Ireland head coach, but here are five mistakes that, privately at least, he’ll probably rue.

Paris, 2010. Paddy Wallace’s selection on the bench to cover the outside backs

Following Ireland’s stellar 2009 calendar year, the notoriously hard trip to Paris was the biggest obstacle in their bid to repeat the trick with another Grand Slam. The team was largely unchanged, but the bench had an odd look to it with the rapidly emerging Johnny Sexton now in the 22 as reserve fly-half, but Paddy Wallace retained as cover for the back division.

Ireland started brightly, causing the French worries with Gordon D’arcy looking threatening; indeed he was very unlucky not to score following a clean break, when his chip over the full back bounced oddly and out of harm’s way.  But things took a turn for the worse when Rob Kearney went off injured.  With Paddy Wallace the only available cover in reserve, a lot of shuffling around was required.  Earls moved to full-back, Wallace came on at 12 and D’arcy was shifted to the wing, where he was notably less effective.  Ireland’s attack was blunted and the French moved through the gears, eventually running out impressive 33-10 winners.

Symptomatic of wider malaise?  Yes.  In truth, Kidney never really developed the art of using his bench.  As coach of Munster he generally kept changes to a minimum; in the 2008 Heineken Cup final he brought on only two replacements.  As test rugby became increasingly a 22-man (and then 23-man) sport, Kidney struggled to adapt.  The bizarre (non) use of Sean Cronin as reserve hooker exemplified this.

November 2010. Failure to select Mike Ross and Sean O’Brien

Following a ho-hum Six Nations in 2010, and with the World Cup on the radar, the November test series looked like a chance for Kidney to refresh his team, which was now showing signs of rust. The tour of Australia and New Zealand in June was notable for the number of players selected – but most did well, and the team were far more competitive than expected given the injury carnage – four second-half tries while a man down against BNZ, then pushing Australia to the last bell meant the tour seemed like it would be something that could be built upon.

South Africa were Ireland’s first opponents in November, but Kidney elected to remain more or less true to his Grand Slammers of 2009, albeit with Sexton and Reddan selected at half-back.  Over the course of the four matches, Kidney stuck rigidly to his template.  It meant that Sean O’Brien – explosive with ball-in-hand for Leinster in the weeks leading up to the series – was limited to one start, in the Samoa game, and couldn’t even get ahead of an out-of-form Denis Leamy to win a place on the bench for the real matches.

There was also an urgent need to promote new tightheads, given that John Hayes was now in steep decline.  Kidney pinned his hopes on Tony Buckley – occasionally destructive in the loose, but a poor scrummager and with a tendency towards laziness – and when Buckley got injured looked to Tom Court and John Hayes to back him up.  It looked a strange decision not to even consider Leinster’s Mike Ross, now a mainstay of the province’s first team and a technician in the set piece, and so it proved.  Ross saw not one minute of action, but as the season unfolded and Buckley’s lack of technique proved hugely expensive for Munster, Ross found himself first-and-only-choice for the following Six Nations, while O’Brien was also belatedly promoted to the team.  The two players went from outside the match-day squad to lynchpins, more by accident than design.  It showed a lack of foresight, canny management and joined-up thinking.

Symptomatic of a wider malaise?  Too often Kidney seemed unwilling to promote talented players ahead of ‘his boys’, even when it looked obvious to outsiders that the incumbent was woefully inferior.  The debacle repeated itself with O’Callaghan / Ryan in 2012 and ROG / Jackson / Madigan in 2013.

RWC 2011; selection of ROG vs. Wales

In the 2011 World Cup, Ireland stood on the cusp of greatness.  They had memorably seen off Australia and dismantled a poor Italy side with little fuss.  The tournament had opened up for them, with Northern hemisphere teams lying in wait in the quarter- and semi finals.  There was just one slight problem.  Their premier fly-half, Johnny Sexton, had a dose of the wobbles with placed ball.  It led Kidney to dial 021-4-RADGE for the Italy game, and the Munster fly-half performed consummately.

The question was whether to stick with ROG for the quarter-final, against an eye-catchingly in-form Wales.  The Welsh team’s blitz defence and unwavering determination to bully O’Gara had made things difficult for ROG in the recent past.  Many expected Kidney to revert to the team which had beaten Australia, with Reddan and Sexton dictating attack from 9 and 10.  But he stuck with O’Gara and Murray.  Wales read Ireland perfectly, ankle-chopping their marauding flankers and isolating ROG, cutting him off from his backline with a super-fast blitz defence.  The chance of a lifetime was lost, and if Kidney could wind back the clock to have one game again, we suspect it would be this one.

Symptomatic of a wider malaise?  Yes, an inability to pick correct houres for courses.  In all of Deccie’s tenure, we never got the impression he picked teams with specific opposition traits in mind.  His first XV was his first XV no matter what.  ROG was the man to keep a mediocre Italy at arm’s reach, but his selection was exactly what the Welsh team would have wanted to see.  Kidney had to pick Johnny Sexton and hope his kicking woes were behind him (he slotted a touchline conversion at the end of the Italy match, so they may well have been).

Post RWC: failure to replace Gaffney as attack coach

If Ireland’s world cup was anti-climactic, at least it wasn’t an abject failure, and Ireland had done much right, not least in tactically outmanoeuvring the Aussies and their choke-tackle-led defence.  But in the aftermath of the loss against Wales, it was largely agreed upon that Ireland were lacking dynamism when it came to ball-in-hand attack, where Plans A, B and C consisted of getting Ferris and O’Brien to truck the ball up.  Their attack coach, Alan Gaffney, whose sum contribution appeared to be the Randwick Loop, was finishing up in any case and it looked like the perfect opportunity to bring in a new voice, with new ideas and given a remit to get Ireland’s attacking game up to speed.

Instead, management went down the bizarre route of placing a committee in charge of attack, with Kiss, Deccie himself and Mark Tainton, the kicking coach, taking over the role.  If it looked a bit like a patched up non-solution, then that’s exactly what it was.  The result was as you might expect – Ireland continued to look laboured with ball in hand.  The 2012 Six Nations was another failure, finishing off with the Twickenham Debacle.  Brian O’Driscoll was suitably concerned to air his grievances in public, saying the players didn’t really know who was in charge of Ireland’s attack, in what was a rare shot across the bows from the captain.

Symptomatic of a wider malaise? perhaps Kidney’s greatest failing was his failure to deliver a recognisable attacking gameplan for Ireland.  His grand slam was won by strangling the life out of opponents and an aggressive kick and chasing game, but once the breakdown rules (sorry, interpretations) were changed to encourage a more ball-in-hand style of play, he never successfully adapted.  Ireland’s style seemed to vary wildly from match to match, at times making them look uncoached.  Every so often they would appear to click into shape, only to revert to mush in the following match.  Ultimately, Kidney’s Ireland lacked identity, a way of playing the game that they owned.

The Entire 2013 Six Nations

2013’s was the last Six Nations of Deccie’s contract, and in effect he was playing for a new deal.  The superb performance in beating Argentina had set Ireland up nicely, but from first to last the campaign was a shambles in a way that nobody could predict.  Sure, injuries didn’t help, but Kidney and his team had a horrendous championship.  The trouble began with the appointment of a new captain, Jamie Heaslip.  It looked a positive step, designed to cash in on the momentum generated in November, but was dreadfully handled, not least when it emerged how upset BOD was at having been demoted.

Despite a morale-boosting and impressive win against Wales, things quickly unravelled, sparked by injury to Johnny Sexton.  So abysmal was ROG’s performance as reserve that Kidney elected to throw Paddy Jackson into the starting team for the next game, against Scotland.  Trouble is, Jackson hadn’t place-kicked in four weeks and management had made a blunder in not ensuring he got some practice the week before against Zebre.  In the event, Jackson missed three kicks and Ireland lost.

It got to the stage where every press release issued by management led to backtracking the following day.  When ROG was omitted from the squad (justifiably) for the following game, the next 48 hours were spent assuring the nation that he wasn’t being retired, when clearly he was. Sexton was named against Italy, only to be ruled out for a month shortly after the presser had concluded. The entire camp seemed to be imploding.

The final blow came in Rome, where Italy won 22-15 against an Ireland team that looked rudderless and without any sort of gameplan – had Italy been any less nervous, they could have won by 30.  The only player to try and make things happen was Ian Madigan, whom management had studiously ignored for the previous 12 months.  It just about said it all.

Symptomatic of: failure to plan for future when ROG was visibly fading.  Anyone with eyes in their head could see that ROG had been in decline since the 2011 World Cup, but management persisted in putting off the day they break Jackson or Madigan into the squad.  It resulted in Ireland having two fly halves with a single cap between them in the squad for the game against France. Had the re-build been conducted in the 2012 Six Nations, summer tour or November series, Ireland might have developed to the point where they could easily have managed the injuries sustained – postponing it meant blooding debutants left, right and centre.

Why Hasn’t Kidney Resigned?

In the wake of Ireland’s loss against Italy, we tweeted that Declan Kidney should have the good grace to resign later in the week. It wasn’t just hot headedness in the aftermath of a painful defeat, and we stand over it. But it hasn’t happened. Kidney’s initial reaction made it seem like it was going to – he said he’d have to think about whether he even wanted a contract, but since then he’s been defiant.  He followed that up by saying he knows what he can bring to the role, and has dug teams out of holes before.  We won’t go into the myriad daft reasons being invented by his media champions in an attempt to cobble together an argument for Kidney to be kept on, but let’s just say that anyone who thinks ‘corporate knowledge’ of a group of players is enough of a reason to give out a new contract is teetering on delusional.

Kidney appears to be angling for a new contract and is not going to go down without a fight.  It’s not exactly the most dignified end to his Irish managerial career, and by all accounts it will be the end.  By sticking around and looking for a new deal, he’s putting out a message that this year’s Six Nations campaign (fifth place, one win, one draw, three losses) is an acceptable performance, when it quite obviously is not.  While one can have sympathy with Kidney over the mounting injury toll on his squad, taking a step back and looking at how the series unfolded, it is clear that it was run in a most shambolic manner.  Almost every press release issued from camp seemed to result in 48 subsequent hours of backtracking, while the oversight in failing to ensure Jackson took placed kicks in the week before his test debut against Scotland amounts to a seroius blunder and with every passing week, the non-selection of Ian Madigan appears to look more and more ridiculous.  Even without such obvious catastrophes, there appears to be a malaise within the squad, and some fresh ideas and a new voice are needed.

There’s something terribly Irish and parochial about hanging around in your post long after your usefulness has expired.  How often have we seen our TD’s and councillors clinging to power when they should have resigned?  Ireland’s previous coach, Eddie O’Sullivan, is generally derided as an aloof, egotistical character, but he did at least recognise when his number was up.  He resigned within no more than four days of his last Six Nations match, a hammering in Twickenham against a Cipriani-inspired England.  He had three years remaining on his contract, but he knew he’d made a mess of things at the end, and it was time for a change, and he fell on his sword.  Kidney is not even in that position – he’s looking for a new contract as some sort of endorsement of recent performances.

O’Sullivan had injury troubles in his final campaign, and some bad luck too, but there was no media clamour looking to line up the excuses for him.  He lost Gordon D’arcy in his first match, and in the final game in Twickenham he had a patched-up backline on the field, with Shane Horgan and Andrew Trimble playing the majority of the match in the centre, and a very green Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney, along with a newly recalled Tommy Bowe in the back three.  Against Wales, when Ireland lost narrowly, Shane Horgan was inches from scoring a try but couldn’t quite stretch out his arm far enough to score.  Ireland finished the series with two wins, one more than Kidney achieved this time around.  The game was up and the coach quit.  Kidney should do the same.

Second Half Syndrome

An odd and recurring feature of Ireland’s play in recent times is the late-game collapse whereby the team just runs out of puff around the hour mark and cannot be revived. Sure, no joined-up 23-man gameplan has something to do with it, but it’s still intriguing, and worth looking at.

The first question to ask is, are Ireland’s players simply unfit, in what would be a throwback to the old days when beer-soaked Irishmen could not sustain a test match beyond the 60th minute.  But it doesn’t hold up.

Examining the provinces, Munster have virtually trademarked late-game revivals, and the tear-soaked endgames where Northampton, Castres, London Irish, Embra (to name but a few in recent years) have succumbed to the will of the men in red in the red zone are classic examples. Leinster in recent seasons have at times slowed up in second halves, but usually as a result of being out of sight by half time (Bath, Cardiff last season), and when the going is tough, are usually adroit at seeing out the final quarter. Ulster have less of a record, but the defensive shift in Thomond Park stands out, and they will (assuredly) have more as time goes on.

So the constituent players frequently grow in stature in the fourth quarter, yet the national collective wilt – what does that tell you? The most obvious conclusion is that the provincial coaches are more productive with their use of their bench – frequently selecting players for their off the bench impact and using them intelligently.

Leinster have specialist high-impact reserves in Heinke van der Merwe, Sean Cronin and Isaac Boss, and they form a crucial part of the gameplan, and the likes of Paul Marshall has frequently given Ulster pep off the bench.  Ireland have struggled with this aspect of the game under both Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney, and substitution strategy (such as it is) seems perfunctory and forced rather than planned.  The idea of an entire front row playing 80 full minutes in the modern era would be guffawed out of town by France, England or South Africa, but Ireland are still at it.

We crunched the numbers from the beginning of 2011 against in full Tests (i.e. not USA, Russia or the A game vs Fiji), and it’s stark:

  • In 15 Six Nations games, Ireland’s first half record is W11 L4 (losses: Italy in Rome 2011 & 2013 and England in Twickers 2012 and Fortress Aviva 2013), while their second half record is W4 D1 L10 (wins: Italy and England 2011, Italy and Scotland 2012. draw: England 2013)
  • Essentially, we have been ahead of France and Wales at half-time in every Six Nations game since 2011
  • In the 12 other games (3 RWC11, 4 RWC warm-ups, 3 games in NZ, 2 November internationals), Ireland’s first-half record is W5 D1 L6 (wins vs Scotland in RWC warm-up, Italy in RWC, NZ in Christchurch, SA & Argentina last November and draw vs Australia in RWC) and the second half record is a very similar W5 L7 (wins vs France in 2 RWC warm-ups, Australia and Italy in RWC, and Argentina in November)

The difference between Six Nations and non-Six Nations games is notable, but perhaps one driver is that over for all games, the difference get worse over time, so the inclusion of this years Six Nations skews the stats a little. Here are the games broken down by year:

  • In 2011, Ireland were W6 D1 L5 at half time, and W6 L6 after half-time
  • In 2012, Ireland were W5 L3 at half time, and W2 L6 after half-time
  • In 2013 to date, Ireland were W3 L2 at half time, and D1 L4 after half-time

An obvious and heartening corollary is this – the next Ireland coach has one really really easy win – get the team (and by team we mean the 23) playing for 80 minutes and results will (assuredly) improve – Ireland would have challenged for the Six Nations championships for the last three years if games ended at half-time, and would have a win in New Zealand under their belts.

This is something of the frustration of following Ireland – we show the ability to live with the best, but they show the ability to let us blow out and then slap us down. What is the difference? Do Ireland lack that extra 2% that the best teams have? If they do, a fresh and better-defined coaching staff might help us get there – the tired mish-mash at present is (assuredly) not working.

Upon Sober Reflection

We said before the tournament that four wins would constitute a good year, with three the minimum requirement. In the event, Ireland finished well below that watermark, with one win and one draw. That the win was against the eventual champions was scant consolation, and we can be thankful we didn’t meet the confident incisive Welsh of Week Five, instead the cowed losers of Week One.

The final indignity was the tactical ineptitude of Rome where Plan A – box-kicking until the cows come home – was dealt with with ease by the Azzurri, then Plan B – errrrr, kicking them? – didn’t work either, and their forwards pummeled us to win with ease. A fair reflection of the dominance of the Italian pack would have been a 20 point margin. In the event, the inability of the Italians to press home their advantage, and their inability to stop throwing the ball forward spared us the shame of finishing last, but no-one will be boasting about that.

For sure, unavailability of certain players played a part – the lineout was shambolic in Paul O’Connell’s absence, and the tendency of our forwards to powder-puffery would surely have been dealt with by Fez. Likewise, having Johnny Sexton in Murrayfield might have made the difference. It’s hard to think of any Irish player who will feel he can be satisfied with his overall contribution. Some of the players playing their first tournament, particularly Luke Marshall and Iain Henderson, will be proud of themselves as well.

The indisciplined and brainless rabble who finished the championship are far from where they should be given the on-field and off-field resources available to this side – the team in Rome looked essentially uncoached, and it’s quite clear a new broom is sorely needed. The prospect of promoting Les Kiss or Anthony Foley from within looks wildly misjudged.  Surely a new set of voices, untainted by the recent spirit-crushing shambles, with fresh ideas and a different mindset are required?  The line being peddled by Kidney’s apologists, that the current management have ‘valuable corporate knowledge’ that shouldn’t be thrown out is laughable.  What value is corporate knowledge when you keep losing?  Indeed, the very lack of preconceptions for a new coach coming in sounds much more appealing.

The player management system would appear to have reached the end of its current life cycle as well – Johnny Sexton bemoaned the lack of rugby he could play earlier in the year due to its strictures, and the spate of injuries surely speaks to some level of sub-optimal conditioning. While some degree of control over player game-time is desirable, the strings need to be loosened significantly.  At the very least a review of this is required, with a view to understanding whether the players gain anything a t all from playing so little.

Likewise, the central contracting system is just unclear and divisive – criteria are muddled, and a broader view is needed in this, the 18th season of professional rugby. We know as little as everybody else as to how these contracts are given out.  The system was perfect to entice English-based players home in the late 1990s, and protect what was then a handful of international class players, but something more malleable is needed now.  The situation where the IRFU are negotiating with an injured player – recently the case with Ferris, Fitzgerald and some time ago with Denis Leamy – is only going to become more commonplace, and a more flexible system is needed to accomodate this.  It cannot be that players recovering from serious injury are just cut loose from the system, although some levity is required here too, and the IRFU has a responsibility to manage its finances correctly.

Speaking of English-based players in the late 1990s, the last defeat to Italy, as we outlined here, was something of a watershed in Irish rugby, and contributed the IRFU to be pro-active about professionalism – here’s hoping this one can turn out to be a turning point as well, and be the catalyst to moving Irish rugby’s governance and structures in line with best professional practice. We could do a lot worse than copying the system in New Zealand – we may not have the history and strength in depth they have, but their structures produce success at all levels (underage, Super Rugby, international) and they want to be the best they can at all times. We should as well.

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.