Five things Kidney must do to rescue his regime
Published 01/11/2012 | 05:00
IRELAND's team base at Carton House is full of nooks and crannies and at times this week, coach Declan Kidney must be sensing that the walls are closing in.
The Corkman was at his bullish best on Tuesday when remaining upbeat after the twin loss of Brian O'Driscoll and Rory Best, but after the levity and distraction of Michael Bent's arrival on Sunday, the shock injury news brought the tough task at hand firmly back into focus.
The Ireland coach may have tried to defuse the importance of his own contractual position recently, but four years into his reign he has never been under more pressure to deliver a result and then back it up.
Losing two of his most loyal lieutenants is, he admitted, a "big blow".
A year ago, Ireland were basking in the public affection generated by their famous win over Australia. While the players were public about their World Cup disappointment, their fans were more forgiving of their exploits and the brand was in good shape.
Since then, Kidney's men have won two of their eight games, beating only Scotland and Italy.
The warm glow is long gone. Any crumbs of comfort that could be taken from the draw with France in Paris or the narrow, heartbreaking defeats to Wales in the Six Nations and New Zealand in the second Test in June, were swept away by the tsunami of negativity that came from the hammerings by England at Twickenham and New Zealand in Hamilton.
The players and management have met to try and expunge those memories, while there is a renewed attempt to build the squad atmosphere around the camp at Carton House this week.
Given the short run-up to the first Test against South Africa on Saturday week, Kidney can't do everything.
So the Corkman must focus on five key areas to resurrect his regime:
1 CONSIGN HAMILTON TO HISTORY
Nobody likes dragging up the memory of the worst defeat in Ireland's history, but, as players and coaches often tell us, you're only as good as your last game.
Until they take the field against the Springboks, the 60-0 hammering will be the sole reference point for this team, and all the positive talk coming from the camp will be tinged with its memory.
Of the 22 players who took the field in Hamilton, 17 are involved with Ireland this week and all will have to deal with the legacy of the awful display they put in the last time they wore green.
There may have been mitigating factors, but the fact that they were part of a historic low is something the players and management cannot get away from. They have spoken about it and watched the tape, now it is time to channel the emotions of that day into a response.
2 ESTABLISH CONSISTENCY
Ireland's 2009 Grand Slam was built on years of consistency, but since that historic day in Cardiff they have won half of their 36 Tests and have only put together back-to-back wins over top-tier opposition four times.
Consistency was key to Eddie O'Sullivan's regime, and Kidney inherited a team used to winning, but as he has regenerated his side, the players have not matched their predecessors' capacity to win week in, week out.
Beating South Africa would provide a real fillip, but then the attention would turn to backing that up with victories over Fiji and, more importantly, Argentina.
That would give them the confidence to put in an assault on next year's Six Nations, but more mixed results would lead to further question marks.
3 PASS THE TORCH
Kidney has been accused of conservatism, but he has used 65 players in his 40 games in charge, and, of the match-day 22 who took part in O'Sullivan's last game against England in Twickenham, only seven remain.
But while he has not been afraid to give new faces a shot, his leadership corps have remained steady.
Now, that group of O'Driscoll, Best, Ronan O'Gara, David Wallace and Paul O'Connell are either unavailable, out of favour, retired or struggling with fitness, so the coach must turn to new faces and give them their head.
Jamie Heaslip has started more games under this regime than any other player and has a remarkable record when skippering Leinster.
He has been a central part of the European champions' three titles in four years and, while his form dipped last year as he adapted his game to play alongside the destructive Sean O'Brien, he is in a rich vein of form right now.
Jonny Sexton, Tommy Bowe and the injured Rob Kearney all have claims, but the Naas No 8 looks the sensible call to take the mantle and lead Ireland to England in 2015.
4 FIND THE NEW CENTRE OF ATTENTION
The moment is approaching when Ireland will no longer have those two pillars of their midfield, Gordon D'Arcy and O'Driscoll, to call on.
The duo's continued excellence over their 55 internationals together means that other players have not gotten as much of a shot as they would have liked. If D'Arcy and O'Driscoll go at the same time, then Kidney will be faced with major succession problems.
There are three specialist centres and two utility backs who will cover the positions in the squad, while the likes of Connacht's Dave McSharry and Robbie Henshaw are being monitored this weekend.
Bowe and Keith Earls have both covered outside-centre at Test level but have been better elsewhere, while Fergus McFadden has only been afforded limited opportunities in his favoured position at 12, winning 11 of his 14 caps on the wing.
Darren Cave has long been seen as a potential replacement for O'Driscoll but the 25-year-old has won just three caps, while Ulster team-mate Luke Marshall is a talented inside-centre, but cannot force Paddy Wallace out of his way at provincial level yet.
O'Driscoll and D'Arcy have won 69pc of the Ireland games they have started together, so when they are fit their selection remains a no-brainer.
But the former's absence allows space to continue the succession planning, and Kidney needs to pick a man and stick with him, something the problems at full-back may not allow.
5 WIN THE PHYSICAL BATTLE
Anyone who sat through the turgid meetings of South Africa and Argentina in the recent Rugby Championship will know what to expect at Lansdowne Road this month.
Neither side is pretty, but they will both lay down physical markers early on and look to dominate the contact zone.
Without O'Driscoll, Best and O'Brien, and with concerns remaining over the fitness of O'Connell and Stephen Ferris, Kidney will be missing or sweating over many of his most abrasive options.
It is up to the coach and his team to use the remaining training sessions to ensure that the XV who take the field are in the right shape -- and mindset -- to handle the mammoth physical challenge at hand.