12 steps Kidney must take to ensure Ireland have successful World Cup campaign
The real Irish rugby season kicks into gear at the Galway Sportsgrounds today. With all due respect to Connacht and Ulster, it is probably a week early in the eyes of some, given the 'big one' that is scheduled for the new Lansdowne Road next Saturday.
Leinster and Munster fronting up at the magnificent new Aviva Stadium had been earmarked by most as the start to a massive season embracing 13 tests, in the run-up to the World Cup in New Zealand next year.
Apart from Leinster's slowness out of the blocks, it's been a highly encouraging start for the Irish in the Magners League, with both Ulster (though still playing within themselves) and Connacht laying down the most relevant early markers. Today's top-match billing is well earned and hopefully, fans west of the Shannon will give the home team the level of support it undoubtedly deserves.
The thoughts of Declan Kidney and his background staff are now firmly focused on the Autumn Series, the Six Nations and the warm-up series for the World Cup.
It makes for three distinct phases in the build-up to the global tournament that looms largest on the horizon. The trick is in linking international requirements in tandem with provincial needs for the greater good of Irish rugby. Easier said than done.
When it comes to goal-setting -- practical and psychological -- Kidney is the widely acknowledged master strategist. I suspect he will be thinking along the following lines:
1. NEW BLOOD
It is imperative that the established order is at least challenged. If France '07 taught us one thing and nothing else, it is that having a first-choice XV almost set in stone is tantamount to rugby suicide within a squad system. Without competition for places comes apathy and disillusionment. In specific terms, we need a Jamie Hagan, a Mike Ross, a Fionn Carr, a Darren Cave, a Sean O'Brien, a Ryan Caldwell, a Niall Ronan, and others emerging of similar ilk.
2. INJURY-FREE RUN
Player management needs little elaboration from me. It is a contentious issue between national and provincial set-ups, with the respective directors of rugby/head coaches essentially doing what they are told. The IRFU calls the relevant tune and our four provincial entities dance accordingly. Injuries represent an occupational hazard but in certain cases -- Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell (already a serious and still growing concern), Jamie Heaslip, Tomas O'Leary -- we have individuals who we simply cannot do without and whose physical protection should be paramount.
3. COVER IN EVERY POSITION
Kidney has worked hard at developing his squad. He now has cover in most every position. John Hayes and Ronan O'Gara are two who were left irreplaceable for so long, but no longer. Tony Buckley and Jonathan Sexton have stepped up to the mark, dare one suggest in the best interest of Hayes and O'Gara too. That said, centre, lock, No 8 and scrum-half would still be positions of concern in the event of the long-established incumbents missing out.
4. KICKER CONFIDENCE
Goal kickers ultimately determine results. So, much like Colin Montgomerie and his Ryder Cup hopefuls at Celtic Manor, Kidney will be hoping his tried and trusted steer clear of the kicking yips. Sexton has that little bit extra to his game as of now but, in terms of mental toughness in adversity, O'Gara continues to be the one to turn to in a mid-match crisis.
5. RELATIONSHIP WITH PROVINCIAL COACHES
Eric Elwood, Joe Schmidt, Tony McGahan and Brian McLaughlin may not always like it but they do know the score. More to the point, though they may seldom get their way, they know they have access, at least, to the ear of the main man.
6. USE THE AUTUMN SERIES FOR EXPERIMENTATION
Specifically against Samoa and to some extent against Argentina. Expect the full force to face the All Blacks and Boks with a measured selection against the Pumas and a big Ireland 'A' input to take on the South Sea Islanders.
7. a GOOD SIX NATIONS
Inevitably, the unprecedented high of 2009 was followed by a dip in 2010. Whatever about losing to Grand Slam France in Paris, defeat to the Scots in Dublin (and with it went an 11th Triple Crown) represented a hugely disappointing end to a season in which we relinquished every single piece of silverware taken the season before. With the French and English coming to the Aviva Stadium, the fixtures fall in our favour this time round.
8. NEED TO ADaPT to 'NEW GAME'
Provided the willingness is there, then all four provinces buying into the new-age standard set by the All Blacks will make life so much easier for Kidney, O'Driscoll and Co. The November international may be a little bit too soon but, come World Cup time, there is no reason in the wide world why we shouldn't be up to speed -- literally and metaphorically -- enough to compete systematically with the best of the rest.
9. BALANCE TO SUMMER TRAINING AND AUGUST INTERNATIONALS
On his own admission, Eddie O'Sullivan got it badly wrong in the lead-in to France '07, which included a disastrous game against French club side Bayonne. With warm-up matches scheduled for four successive Saturdays in August, against the Scots and French away, followed by Les Bleus and England at home, the build-up (injuries allowing) is as sharp as it could competitively get.
12. ACCOMMODATION AND LOCATION
Team manager Paul McNaughton has done his reconnaissance. The lessons of France '07 have been learned and, more to the point, acted upon. Contentment off the pitch equals happiness on it and, by extension, ups the level of performance. 'Macker' won't let his maestro down.
11. HIT THE GROUND RUNNING IN
Sunday, September 11 in New Plymouth marks the starting point when, ironically, it will be O'Sullivan, as coach of the USA, looking to do to Kidney's Ireland what Namibia succeeded in doing to his predecessor's side in '07. Below-par performances against Namibia and Georgia in Bordeaux resulted in us playing catch-up for the rest of the tournament and it was a start from which we never recovered.
12. BEAT AUSTRALIA
The key to our World Cup. Beat the Wallabies and Warren Gatland's Wales most likely await in the last eight. Lose and it's defending champions South Africa in Wellington, followed by the now familiar beaten quarter-finalist's long trek home.