Kidney's men ready to take on the World
This year's challenges for a range of Irish sports represent a curious mix of consolidation and ambition, of mergers, of resignation and renewal.
Irish rugby finished 2009 on a real high, but how much higher will Declan Kidney set his sights this year? With a Grand Slam and an unbeaten year behind him, how can Kidney deliver anything more in 2010?
He will have his own yardstick, but for those on the outside the real test for this squad of Irish rugby players comes not during the Six Nations campaign but on June 12 in Taranaki, when Ireland face the All Blacks. It is a clash that Ireland have never won, home or away, and it is the ultimate test for any of the northern hemisphere sides.
If Kidney can plot a way to victory and then, two weeks later, take down Australia in Brisbane, we can start to look forward to Ireland's first serious assault on rugby's World Cup in 2011.
Those two games will tell us far more about Ireland's prospects than any amount of victories or defeats in the Six Nations, especially since they will be followed by a return match in the autumn against the All Blacks and another tilt at South Africa.
Last year's Grand Slam has given Kidney the opportunity to make the World Cup his priority -- an obvious ambition, you might think, but not one that has been embraced enthusiastically in the past by the IRFU, which has always seen the annual Six Nations tournament as its priority. That does not mean that Kidney will go all French and use this season's matches as some kind of mad experiment, but it does mean that he can plan for the future without the pressure that turned Eddie O'Sullivan into an ultra-conservative. The 2011 tournament may seem a long way away, but Kidney has no more than 20 international matches to test young players. If his sights are set high enough, he will start blooding them as soon as the Six Nations gets under way against Italy at Croke Park.
Rugby's second major challenge is to get ready for the Olympics in 2016, when seven-a-side rugby makes its appearance.
If Ireland is to challenge for a medal, the preparations have to start this year, and they have to be serious. The IRFU has never bothered much with the short-sided game and seems alarmed by the costs of assembling and training a competitive sevens squad (how long before someone, somewhere in the IRFU mutters that it's a choice between Connacht and international sevens?) But the money has to be found and the commitment has to be made.
Sevens rugby should be seized upon as an opportunity to develop the game still further throughout the country and to build on rugby's remarkable achievements over the past decade. No more excuses: if Portugal, Russia, Argentina and, most impressively of all, Kenya can produce high-class teams, then Ireland has to be able to match them.
Ireland has been left behind and it has to play catch-up: the Olympics will give rugby an audience and a player base that it has never previously enjoyed and it is essential that Irish rugby is part of the new world.
For soccer, the challenges are more complex. At home, the game is in crisis while the international team sits out the World Cup.
It may never happen, but the arguments in favour of a single Irish soccer league are compelling, just as the arguments for a single Irish soccer team gather momentum. Politics will always get in the way -- and those politics are as likely to be of the football kind as the national kind -- but it seems obvious that an all-island league has the potential to be far stronger, both commercially and competitively. An all-island team has even higher hurdles to scale, but it should be on the agenda.
Northern Ireland had a good World Cup campaign and the Republic showed in Paris that it has a team which can play attractive, effective football. There is hope for both teams, but the logic of a merger will not recede.
In the Premier League, the seasonal culling of managers is now in full swing, with Gary Megson of Bolton joining Mark Hughes (pictured) of on the scrapheap. More will surely follow as the League's second-tier clubs scramble to stay up.
It is an annual conundrum: survival is essential, yet the means to survival are so unappealing that fans revolt. Who wants to pay to watch a bus parked in front of a goal? Such limited ambition stems from the simple reality that the smaller clubs cannot compete on level terms with the big clubs.
The answer is a salary cap: it would not be perfect, but it would reward skill over money and level the playing field for the perennial strugglers. Megson, though, would still park that bus, no matter how much money he had at his disposal.
The Irish Sports Council also faces into 2010 with a set of challenges that should test it to the limit. It has had a poor 2009 and cannot afford another year marked by disputes with the sports it is meant to help. Its role is not to control Irish sport, but to help it and the appointment of a new chairman this summer will be an important step towards establishing better relationships.
It has to make real the apparent rapprochement with the Olympic Council of Ireland, particularly since the clock ticks away on the 2012 Olympics, and it has to cope with less money from government.
Martin Cullen, the minister for sport, also needs to commission an independent review of Irish sports policy so that future investment can be more closely matched to sports policy. There is intense pressure from backbench TDs for a return to the old spending frenzy that was the Sports Capital Programme, but there is no point in turning the tap back on until an independent review has been completed.
All those challenges for Irish sport can be met: the rugby squad can be contenders in 2011, the ISC can become a positive force, Cullen can be proactive, the soccer leagues can be merged into one viable, attractive league and even the national teams can become one.
But the only one I'd put money on would be the rugby squad: it has the mental toughness to match preparation with delivery, has a shrewd head coach in Kidney and has the collective desire to be the best in the world. It should be an unstoppable combination, and we will find out how well it is doing on June 12.