Ireland: Season in Review aka The Kidney Clock

At this stage, after 11 months and 17 tests, only three of which produced memorable performances, our over-riding emotion is relief… that it’s over. Ireland’s season started dismally with four desperately scratchy pre-World Cup warm-ups. It ended horribly with a 60-0 drubbing at the hands of New Zealand. In between it huffed and puffed, briefly sparking into life intermittently only to collapse in a heap again. Ireland produced one good backs-to-the-wall performance in each series, offering themselves a shot at redeeming the season (or genuine glory in the case of the World Cup) but couldn’t see the deal through to the end.

The year will be characterised by three pallid performances: against Wales in the World Cup, England in the Six Nations and the final Hamilton Massacre, and epotimised by three passive defensive moments from our centres – formerly the bulwark of our defence: Keith Earls ushering Ooooooooooooh Manu Tuilagi in in the Aviva, Ferg being bumped badly by George North, and Sunny Bull’s ruthless treatment of Paddy Wallace in Hamilton.

The Coaching Ticket

Kidney and his team finish the season under serious pressure. Not before time, a hugely supportive media are finally asking questions of the performances, game plan and selection. This was Ireland’s third poor Six Nations in a row, and the win-draw-loss record for the year stands at 6-1-10 with four of those wins coming against Italy (twice), the USA and Russia. So we’re not winning. And yet blooding new talent is a can that gets kicked down the road at every series – for fear we might lose.

We need to get the team right for the World Cup. The Six Nations is our annual target, we can’t change now. You don’t experiment in New Zealand.

Next year’s Autumn internationals have already taken on an air of must-win to ensure second seeding for the World Cup. Then it’s the Six Nations again – so what’s the solution?

To be fair, new players have been introduced to the system, but more by accident than design. Injury continues to be the single biggest driving force to get new faces into the team. It was responsible for Sean O’Brien and Mike Ross’ belated entrances to test level (after being overlooked for the entire November before  immediately becoming un-droppable), and McFadden, Tuohy, Fitzpatrick, Donnacha Ryan and Kevin McLoughlin would probably still be awaiting test debuts if it wasn’t for injury to others.

Ryan has been a starter for all of five tests, yet is a key man already … at the age of 28. Ireland survive week-to-week, with little in the way of forward planning. Does Kidney have a long-term plan, you wonder, for Iain Henderson, the outstanding Ulster lock who has shone in the U20 World Cup and has already impressed at Pro12 level?

Dan Tuohy, for example, was in terrific form during the Six Nations but was overlooked for a way-below-par Donncha O’Callaghan and Mike McCarthy. For the summer tour, he was eventually elevated to first choice. It would have benefitted him to have tasted test rugby during the Six Nations before being plunged in against the World champions. Ireland had home games against Scotland and Italy that they were never in danger of losing, but Deccie stuck to the usual suspects. McCarthy himself was surplus to requirements in NZ despite being capable of the type of impact that Donncha only makes when windmilling on the touchline these days.

When Kidney is forced to delve deeper into the well (again, through injuries), he tends to look southwards. Simon Zebo and Peter O’Mahony managed to elbow their way into the squad by generating column inches becoming regular starters at Munster  – a source of huge frustration in Ravenhill where better and more consistent seasons from Craig Gilroy and Chris Henry went virtually unrecognised – Ireland doesn’t need more inter-provincial carping, but Kidney doesn’t do himself, or the fans, any favours in this regard.

It’s hard to see how things will improve. Deccie now faces into the last 12 months of his contract. Unless his paymasters in the IRFU have lost their minds, they won’t be offering Kidney a new contract before the Autumn games or even the Six Nations. (In truth, they will probably be looking for a new coach to start in Autumn 2013). Already an embattled leader, Deccie will have to face questions about his winding-down contract and whether he’s effectively living on borrowed time. It’s not the best point from which to move forward.

Playing Personnel

The good news is that Ireland have plenty of good players. Not all opponents will be as good as New Zealand, so we don’t have to worry ourselves overly about how, say, Rob Kearney stacks up against Israel Dagg. It’s more how Rob Kearney stacks up against Ben Foden (ah, that’s better). Several individuals performed well for Ireland this season: Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Cian Healy, Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien were the pick of the bunch. Donnacha Ryan, Keith Earls and Johnny Sexton have all shown increased authority and fierce commitment. Paul O’Connell was routinely magnificent when off the treatment table – add in our solid tighthead prop and Ireland have the guts of a quality team right there.

Others have found the going tough. Conor Murray had a poor season with province and country, seemingly caught between his duties as scrum half and being an auxiliary flanker. He has the talent to recover, and the hope will be that never seeing Dutchy Holland again Rob Penney’s coaching can help him improve. Fergus McFadden is a game fellow, but not an international wing. Peter O’Mahony’s lack of beef was cruelly exposed by New Zealand – he needs to bulk up and sharpen his tackling technique on his left shoulder, and while the man he stepped in for in Hamilton, Jamie Heaslip, couldn’t be faulted for effort, he never hit top gear.

It’s time to say goodbye to a few great servants. Nobody will forget Ronan O’Gara’s contribution to Irish rugby, but at 35 and with his tactical kicking game looking more than a touch dated, this is a good place to part ways. Ian Madigan waits in the wings. Donncha O’Callaghan is another unforgettable servant of Irish rugby, but has come to epitomise Kidney’s loyalty to a select few and has been our bête noir all season; the sight of him entering the fray only to give away a needless lineout penalty and then disappear from view ought to be his last contribution of a busy, if over-extended, test career. Better players are already in place and Devin Toner can be added to the list next year.

Inside centre is becoming a problem position for Ireland. Paddy Wallace has had a mixed international career to say the least – three World Cups (!) and the silkiest pass of an Irish 12 in many a year, yet it’s the bloodied face of 2009 and the battered defence of 2012 that people will remember. He deserved better than he got on Saturday, but again, he has the look of yesterday’s man. Gordon D’arcy is a curious case – hopeless in the Six Nations, but robust since then with BOD back outside him, he is the man you don’t miss until he’s gone. The feeling persists that we need more attacking threat than he offers at 12, but until such a player presents himself, it’s hard to see who can be put in there.

JJ Hanrahan and Luke Marshall look like future test players, but both are probably at least 2 or 3 years away yet. McFadden is a more immediate option, and he would improve his case if he can depose Dorce from the Leinster team first – it’s a bit silly to criticise Kidney for favouring Dorce there when Joe Schmidt does the same. Nevin Spence was the heir apparent to BOD at 13 last year but has slipped behind Darren Cave in his favoured position – to be honest, 12 looks more natural fit, but a Spence/Cave partnership looks a bit bosh-tastic – i’ts a big year for him, but if he does manage to get starts in Ulster, he could fit in for Ireland.

Of course, BOD might have to move inside, a la the first test in NZ, to shore up Ireland’s problem position. This would continue the succession at 13, where, amazingly, and in contrast to inside centre, we seem to have plenty of options. Keith Earls has grown immeasurably in the role this season, and wants to play there full time. Darren Cave arguably outplayed him this season at provincial level (and kept him on the wing through their underage careers), and is better than his 7-minute lose-lose cameo illustrated. Eoins Griffin and O’Malley are also in the picture.

Next Season

Here’s five things Ireland have to do next season to get the show back on the road.

1. Hire an attack coach

Attack with ball-in-hand has long been the weakest part of Ireland’s game, and failing to appoint a dedicated specialist to the role has been Kidney’s biggest error this year. The players are crying out for a new voice and new ideas. Worse still, Ireland’s defence has slipped off since Les Kiss has been asked to double-up. Kidney and the IRFU have the summer to make the appointment. We can probably forget about Schmidt stepping into this role, for the immediate future – for a start, it would be Gatty/Eddie 2000 all over again, and Schmidt would be mad to go anyway.

2. Cap Madigan and Gilroy

Both deserved to go on the summer tour to New Zealand – of the 3 players nominated for IRUPA young POTY, only O’Mahony made it on the plane. This autumn both should get their chance – Gilroy is a natural succesor to Denis Hickie on the left wing, and Ian Madigan is the best young fly-half in the country. The suspicion remains that Kidney would run a mile from his style of play, but he would offer thrilling impact from the bench for Ireland and would be an unknown quantity outside of Ireland. Both should start against Fiji, at the very least.

3. Beat South Africa

Ireland need a good autumn series. They should have the measure of Argentina in Dublin, but that’s a game its hard to look good in – the Pumas tend to come over here with chips prominently positioned on shoulders and seem oddly content to lose but make Ireland look rubbish. That seems to mean we need to beat South Africa to declare the series a success. Lose that game, even with a good performance, and the vultures will start to circle. No pressure then!

4. Win back the fans

Kidney has lost the backing of Leinster and Ulster supporters in what has become a provincially-drawn rugby public. Munster-centric selections, poor results and dull, grinding rugby have seen to that. Even loyalists from Munster are teetering, tiring of the gnomic utterances and failure to move on. Supporting Ireland is no craic at all these days. If we are to avoid another Six Nations of tedious griping and in-fighting, Kidney needs to give the paying fans a bit of excitement and get them back on his side. Positive, form-based selections and some attractive rugby would be a start.

5. Embrace the Provinces

A worrying theme from the latter portion of the season has been Kidney seemingly turning the provinces into an enemy rather than providers of players to the national team. Rather than tapping into what has won Leinster back-to-back H-Cups, he appears threatened by it, continually droning on about test rugby being much harder than provincial rugby and seemingly unwilling to pair the Leinster half-backs or get Sexton to play flat on the gainline. His dig at Ulster not giving Fitzpatrick experience was embarrassing and unnecessary. Kidney must embrace what is going on at provincial level, or risk irrelevance.

At least four of the above look like long shots. Ireland have regressed badly in the last twelve months. Wales are now far ahead of us, and somehow we have allowed an England side high on endeavour but low on talent to pass us out. Even with the changes above, we suspect Kidney is no longer capable of rousing this Ireland team to any sort of consistency. In all likelihood we’re staring down the barrel of two wins at best in the Six Nations and two from three in the autumn series.

In the interests of some balance, Kidney is badly served by his paymasters in Lansdowne Road – it seems only the Six Nations (which fills the coffers) has priority – and the immediate results-based incentives exacerbate Deccie’s conservative nature. We bet Robbie Deans, Steve Hansen and Heineke Meyer have to tell their bosses who they envisage coming through from youth level in this RWC cycle – we doubt the IRFU even bring it up.

There is a history of messy successions in professional Irish rugby (Brian Ashton, Gatty, Eddie, Deccie at Leinster, Eddie at Connacht, Brian McLaughlin, Gary Ella) and we don’t expect this one to be any different – expect himming, hawing and no little politicking, but the reality is this – the Kidney Clock ticks onwards, and Ireland will have a new coach in situ in fifteen months time.