Are you the best coach in the world?

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 Glasgow-bound day-tourists singing bigoted songs). The paper is published on Wednesday’s in Britain.

SO what now then? There is the slimmest sliver of a chance that Kidney’s contract will be renewed, and there are two factors at play: the conservatism of the Union, and the two remaining opponents in the Six Nations.

Starting with the two opponents, the key variable in Deccie’s favour is that both will be in our pool at RWC15 in England — France and Italy. If Ireland produce a commanding (and winning) display against the French, and slap Italy down in the manner of, say, 2007, any conservative waverers on whatever amateur committee decides these things will have a stick to grab hold of, and argue that Kidney’s Ireland are, in fact, well-placed to do well in the next World Cup.

And it’s the amateur conservatism that is important here — for we must consider what happens next. If Deccie refuses to resign (and why should he?), he has a contract until the end of the season, meaning that the lamest of lame duck coaches could be taking Ireland on a development tour to North America. The likes of Iain Henderson, Robbie Henshaw and Luke Marshall — who will be on or close to the first team in RWC15 — will essentially have a wasted summer, in development terms.

That Kidney badly wants to stay in the role is not in doubt. Forget his recent — and typical — unwillingness to give a straight answer to the question, and read between the lines of his actions instead.

Kidney’s current approach to selection and the captaincy has all the hallmarks of a man throwing money down in a casino, knowing he has little to lose. Having been wilfully conservative in matters of selection up until as recently as last summer, the 60-0 defeat in New Zealand appears to have flicked a switch in his head.

Now he’s changed the captain, thrown a 10 with place-kicking issues into an away test match for his debut, jettisoned Ronan O’Gara and persisted with media darling Craig Gilroy in spite of superior options being available — Luke Fitzgerald has a superior kicking and defensive game and is a good attacker, and Andrew Trimble is ahead in the Ulster pecking order due to his defence and workrate.

It looks like a slightly over-eager attempt to position himself as a forward-looking coach who has one eye on 2015, and therefore may just be the man to lead the team there. The trouble is none of it has worked so far.

What will happen in parallel? Will one of the Union’s amateur committees, and not the one who will be studying the recommendations of the professional review group (PRG, which has yet to meet) from last year, meet in the interim to decide who will be the manager from next season?

Or will they, like the English RFU, outsource the appointment to some expert group? If they don’t, can you imagine the top coaches, Vern Cotter or Fabien Galthie for example, explaining to a blazer how they plan to move forward with the team. Unlikely.

Appointment by those within means appointment from within, which means handing the reins to Mike Ruddock or Joe Schmidt. Ruddock has an under-20 RWC in June, and Schmidt has indicated next season will be his last in this hemisphere — neither is an easy transition, though the case for Schmidt is so strong as to be undeniable, and the Union should do everything it can to secure him for the role.

The path of least resistance actually seems to be to keep Kidney on, and hope for an upturn in performances — it’s stunning to think that such a lack of decisiveness might exist at the top of Irish professional rugby, but it’s not being run by professionals.

In fact, when we think about the process that is (probably) about to begin, it’s worth taking a step back and recalling the way the coaches of the Irish national side have been appointed since professionalism in 1995:

• Brian Ashton: chance phone call from his agent to Pat Whelan, hawking the “best coach in the world” — the Union took the bait, Murray Kidd was sent packing, and Ashton was given a SIX-YEAR contract. He stayed for one

• Warren Gatland: Gatty had spent time in Galway in the early 1990s, and he was flown over from NZ to coach Connacht after the Union balked at Eddie O’Sullivan’s request for contract stability. When Ashton was hastily disposed of, Gatty (one of only two provincial coaches in situ, a huge issue for Ashton) was promoted to the big gig

• Eddie O’Sullivan: Dagger joined Gatty’s team as attack coach in 2000, and the gradual improvement in performances was credited to the native rather than the Kiwi. After a(nother) November defeat to New Zealand, the Union changed ships — silverware followed

• Declan Kidney: Deccie was Eddie’s number two for a couple of seasons, but that was never going to work — that experience allowed him to press for his own coaching team, which delivered first time up. But Deccie himself only got the nod after a trawl of available Southern Hemisphere coaches revealed nought.

When we consider that the man (Whelan) who piloted the first appointment of the professional era, that of Ashton, is likely to be involved in the next one, we aren’t filled with confidence.

What should happen is the roles in-scope of a national coach should be defined, as should the targets and reporting structure (which should be to the director of rugby sanctioned by the PRG) — then a suitable candidate sought.

The entire process is fundamentally flawed — no one knows what Deccie’s job targets are, no one can say what the new coaches should be doing, and the edifice that has taken Irish rugby through the first generation of professional players is crumbling.
Right now, all work is still being conducted by amateurs — as well-meaning as they might be, it ain’t gonna work in this day and age.

Less than Fourteen, More than Two

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 recalitrant MPs under the illusion they matter). The paper is published on Wednesday’s in Britain.

When it’s a Lions year, you’ll always have the people who see every game as a Lions audition – doesn’t matter who wins, they say, it’s who put their hand up. Everything is seen through the prism of Gatty’s beady eyes – it’s like that scene in Moneyball, where Brad Pitt has a massive magnetic board with players names on it – you can envisage Lions Man moving the magnetic strip with ‘Stuart Hogg’ on it from the ‘Possibles’ column into ‘Probables’ – James O’Connor couldn’t cope with his pace, he’ll murmur.

Lions Man isn’t prone to rational thinking either – it’s only the last performance that matters, forget everything that went before. Jamie Heaslip’s Lions experience is irrelevant, sure he couldn’t prevent Ireland losing in Murrayfield, he’ll say, as he throws Heaslip’s magnetic strip on to the floor, where it languishes with ‘Ronan O’Gara’ and ‘Lesley Vainikolo’.

So how will Lions Man be feeling about the Irish prospects right now? Typically, the Irish slay each other with an orgy of inter-provincial bickering, but put up an impregnable, united front against the Brits (of all hues) when it comes to Lions selections. You’ll have Blackrock College’s finest simultaneously derisively referring to Conor Murray as the poor man’s Isaac Boss when referencing his selection for Ireland, while extolling his similarities to Fourie du Preez when he’s up against Ben Youngs for a seat in Qantas business class.

The last Lions tour was an odd experience for us Irish, for when Geech picked every able-limbed Irishman (and a few others as well) to tour the highveldt, we had nothing to moan about. All we could do was sagely agree with leaving Tom Croft at home while laughing at the depth of Stephen Jones’ indignation that one of his favoured few was staying at home (initially anyway).

But this time it’s going to be different – Ireland are heading to a wooden spoon playoff in the Six Nations, the provinces are struggling to maintain the high standards they have set for themselves in Europe this season, and likely tourists are getting crocked at very inconvenient times. We should steel ourselves for righteous anger – it will be nothing like the 14 tourists of 2009, in fact a number as low as three is a possibility.

As there are only a handful of relevant games left for Irish players to make an impression (two more rounds of the Six Nations, plus the HEC knock-out stages), who is set fair for to star in montages featuring a slim Jeremy Guscott dropping goals, and who can safely book that trip to Vegas?

On the Plane:

Sean O’Brien: Ireland’s best player in their first three games, O’Brien has come back from injury as good as he ever was – he’s Ireland’s best carrier, their most prolific tackler and their only reliable weapon. The farm will be on its own for June.

Johnny Sexton: unless Sexton doesn’t recover from injury, he has enough credit banked. Owen Farrell is his only serious rival for the Test shirt.

Brian O’Driscoll: the only question around the former Lions captain is whether he will be current Lions captain. Once he came back looking so lean and driven, his slot was assured.

One Last Push:

DJ Church: Cian Healy’s suspension could not have been more badly timed – he has been the standout loose-head this season, but Joe Marler, Gethin Jenkins and Ryan Grant are having useful series, and Paul James and Maku Vunipola might come into the reckoning – three are likely to go, but it’s a scrap Healy wasn’t expecting.

Rory Best: the lineout has mis-fired disastrously. Best’s work at the breakdown is feverish – he’s Ireland’s best groundhog – and his scrummaging could be useful against an average Wallaby front row, but he’s only on the plane by default right now – step up required

Depends on Gatty’s Mood:

Jamie Heaslip: tends towards less visibility in a green shirt than a blue one due to the differing requirements of his role. Has a lot on his plate at the moment with captaincy, and hasn’t been concentrating on himself. Might pay when it comes to Lions selection.

Donnacha Ryan: has grown into one of Ireland’s leaders despite being first choice for less than a year. Needs more visibility and physicality, and a prominent performance in the Stoop in April will help, but Gatty has a plethora of options here – if he likes Ryan, he’s in; if he likes the others, he’s out.

Mike Ross: Ireland’s scrum feels solid right now, and that’s down to Ross. Not as destructive as some, but he’s a technician and the Wallaby props aren’t. Again, this one will come down to Gatty’s personal preference.

Conor Murray: Murray is an excellent young player, and is improving all the time. His box-kicking is still average, but his threat around the flanks give his fly-half time to play. Both English scrummies are likely tourists, and Murray might be playing off against Mike Phillips for a ticket.

Struggling For Air:

Rob Kearney: we never thought we’d say this, but Kearney is in Lions contention on reputation only. He’s been rather fallible on his return, and on form is behind Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg, Alex Goode, and even full back-cum-wing Mike Brown. Kearney needs to turn it around fast.

Tommy Bowe: Bowe looked the complete wing before he crocked himself, but he might not play a high-profile game before the tour, having already ruled himself out of Ulster’s HEC quarter final. If he does go, it’s on experience only.

Potential Bolters:

Iain Henderson: NWJMB is one injury away from starting for Ireland. He’s exciting, versatile and has bags of potential. Gatty isn’t shy about throwing youngsters in – if Hendy gets himself noticed, don’t rule it out.

Craig Gilroy: Gilroy is in the dubious position of being written into the Lions squad by none other than Stephen Jones. Jones might be an idiot, but he’s an influential one, so if Gilroy has another stellar performance, he’s a possible.

See You in Vegas:

Stephen Ferris: on his day, Fez is unplayable – an absolute monster with no natural peers in this Hemisphere. Problem is, that destructiveness works both ways. With no return date yet, another Lions tour is unlikely.

Paul O’Connell: captain last time around, O’Connell won’t be touring if he isn’t playing. And he isn’t playing. Second row is a crowded space, and there is no need for Gatty to return to an increasingly injury-prone player, no matter how good he was at his peak.

Six Nations Weekend Diary

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 braying bankrupt builders in Cheltenham). The paper is published on Wednesday’s in Britain.

Friday:

Mid-morning, and the England team is out, and it’s greeted with underhand smiles by the Irish – Manu is on the bench and they have an odd-looking backrow – nice! We can take these lot is the bullish feeling around Dublin – someone mentions the army of blindsides we brought to RWC07, and how the English backrow reminds them of it – shudders all round, and the conversation moves on. Billy Twelvetrees will be targeted, they say. Brad Barritt is a useless bosh merchant, they say.  We’re confident, they (quietly) say.

Deccie’s response at lunchtime is predictable – as we expected, no changes to the XV or the bench. Self-doubt is beginning to creep in, particularly when looking at the respective benches. Still, a quick vox pop of some wild-eyed, unkempt, white plastic bag-carrying punters outside the early house told us while there was occasional dissention, fans were largely in agreement with the selection:

Rev. Mervyn McBible (Ballymena): The absence of Andrew Trimble is a clear signal Declan Kidney has invited the apocalypse upon himself

Carroll O’Kelly-Ross (Blackrock): Simon Zebo is muck roysh – all backs should be Leinster anyway, loike?

George O’Connor (Cork Con): Where is Stephen Archer? Where is Danny Barnes? Where is ROG??

Saturday:

We awaken to more cautious optimism – the selections have sunk in, and pundits (in Ireland) seem unanimous – it’s going to be tough, but we can squeak through. The consensus is that Ireland have a better backrow, and are a bit smarter – watch out for Sean O’Brien, the key man.

Amazingly, there were other rugger games on this weekend, and, after last weekend’s rugby-a-rama, it was back to somewhat more average fare, particularly in Paris. Scotland cruised past an inept Italy, and looked like they had remembered how Jim Telfer taught rucking; and then France put in an truly desperate performance in front of some seriously unimpressed Parisians, George North’s try and Freddy Michalak’s disinterested hands and feet do the damage, and France are nought from two.

Any lessons to be learned? Well, we beat Wales, who beat France – good news, performance affirmation for Ireland. England beat Scotland easily, who beat Italy easily, who beat France – bad news, performance affirmation for England. Both teams might just be as good as they looked.

Sunday:

First things first, and a quick look outside tells us it’s not a nice day – grey, dank and rainy, precisely the kind of weather the English pack will have wanted. Our skill advantage in the backrow won’t be as marked with wet grubby ball and a looming set-piece contest.

The rain wouldn’t help the atmosphere either – the object is merely to get to the stadium before pneumonia sets in, rather than stop in three or four of Dublin 4’s finest watering holes along the way.  It’s a rather ominous feel – unlike the cliché of Irish teams who thrive at dirty in-your-face, muck-and-muller rugby, this more skilful and considered generation has always preferred dry tracks, where its catalogue of backline moves can be unleashed. News began filtering through to trudging wet fans that Brian O’Driscoll’s glamorous better half was now a Yummy Mummy – plus the new Daddy was still going to play – high fives all round!

The smiles, however, were short-lived. Ireland produced a catty and error-strewn performance – a first half of unforced errors and indiscipline gave way to a second half of aimless kicking as Ronan O’Gara struggled to replicate days of yore. By half-time, Ireland had accumulated nine unforced errors and one probable citing – Jamie Heaslip, Mike McCarthy and Gordon D’Arcy major culprits in spilling forward in most uncharacteristic fashion, and DJ Church taking a likely trip to the naughty step for the next game(s).

More crucial, though, was the injury to Johnny Sexton – a pulled hamstring on a seriously poor pitch (who schedules soccer matches four days before a rugby match in a country where it rains every other day?). On came the once-great O’Gara, who just doesn’t have the game for this level any more – his kicking from hand, formerly peerless, barely managed 15 metres from penalties, and was easily hovered up by the flawless English back three from open play. He was a turnover machine too – it’s not his fault he keeps getting picked, but any chance of an Irish win was lost when Sexton pulled up.

Simon Zebo was another who didn’t see half-time, and in fact he barely got his ankle-hugging socks dirty – limping off with a broken metatarsal that will keep him out for ten weeks i.e. the season. The final injury toll included Sean O’Brien, Donnacha Ryan, Bob Kearney and Brian O’Driscoll – not all pitch-induced, and, to be frank, the attritional fare against Wales was probably as much to blame as this game.

The English defensive line was expertly marshalled all day, with speed and hard tackling to the fore –  Ireland had barely a sniff of a break, and none close to the English 22. The scrum and maul got on top in the third quarter, and we were briefly level on the scoreboard, but the English bench, as we expected, made a big difference. We said in the build-up that Ireland needed to be more than seven points in front on the hour mark to win the game due to the strength of the English bench; they weren’t and without the ability to build on the platform the forwards were offering, they were squeezed to death.

Captain, and speaker of Classic English Rugby Voice, Chris Robshaw, was man of the match for his tackle count, but kicker and defensive rock Owen Farrell or either of the team’s full-backs, Alex Goode and Mike Brown, could have got it too. On the Irish side, O’Brien had a decent game, Peter O’Mahony was visible until he wilted, but that was it.

The crowd were as cranky as the team – Farrell was quite unsportingly heckled while kicking, and any attempt to start Swing Low was boo-ed out as if it was Dylan Hartley himself at the mike. With a poor performance, key players injured, nothing going right and a shot at a Grand Slam gone, it was not a good day for Irish rugby.