Four years on, does Kidney still have faith in his own ability?
Ireland boss right back where he started – in an undignified scrap to hang on to second-tier status
Published 10/11/2012 | 05:00
Four years ago, Declan Kidney assumed control of a national rugby team whose confidence was spread-eagled upon the canvas, still reeling from World Cup failure and embroiled in a desperate scramble with Argentina for the dubious right to be called the eighth best team in the world.
That was then. And now?
Ireland, lurching once more from another World Cup that was freighted with disappointment, embark upon another autumn series with an undignified scrap to remain in the second tier of World Cup seeds again the main aim.
Except this time, the responsibility all rests on Kidney's shoulders.
A remarkable raft of injuries notwithstanding, all other factors, from the failure to propagate decent, indigenous tighthead options to the appalling inconsistency in performance and selection, rest at his feet.
How he emerges from this latest crisis of confidence will be fascinating to behold. To his credit, all the players -- at least those who remain standing -- are making the right noises.
All the while though, he is coursed by the darkness of New Zealand last summer, as well as the selection and tactical inadequacies that haunted both the last World Cup and Six Nations campaigns.
The margin of error between success and failure has become wafer-thin.
Victory against the South Africans this evening may seem improbable but a win against Argentina, a side who have precipitated the death knell for his two immediate predecessors, is a must.
In the absence of any encouragement from his paymasters as time ticks on his contract -- due to expire next summer -- Kidney will appreciate the familiar sense of doubt emanating from voices beyond his control.
It has always been this way in the life of a remarkable coaching phenomenon.
Despite success at schools level, he was chided for being unable to replicate that at a senior club. When he did, the bar was reset.
When winning Ireland's only World Cup -- with the U-19s at the 1998 Junior World Cup -- it was felt he couldn't make the step up to coach adults.
When he led Munster to two Heineken Cups, few felt that the tide of goodwill that ushered him into the senior international gig would prove anything other than an illusory leap of faith.
He has faced down the doubters at every turn.
Now, as Ireland scramble to overturn the worst losing streak in 14 years of international rugby, he must once more answer the assertions of those who charge that winning the Grand Slam in 2009, remarkable, historical achievement that it was, represents the high watermark of his coaching career.
For, since that 2009 success, one engendered by gargantuan self-belief and a loyal adherence to a highly successful, if minimalist, game plan, Ireland's international performances have been blighted by inconsistency and incoherency.
Hence, some believe the IRFU's quite deliberate refusal to even publicly mention the farrago that was this summer's Hamilton humiliation -- maintaining a theme, the harrowing loss came a week after Ireland almost claimed a historic result against the All Blacks -- hints that they are willing to allow the current coaching ticket to quietly expire over the next few months.
Kidney and his players will have other ideas, of course.
Should Ireland perform well against the Springboks, augmented by the innate innovation wrought by the accelerated promotion of younger, fresher blood, and beat Argentina, then the side will head into the Six Nations with renewed confidence, plus the sight of a clutch of world-class players returning to work.
With England and France at home, Kidney and his squad would then probably enjoy a crack at another trophy-winning campaign, clouding further any debate about his future employment being a non-runner.
However, there are a lot of ifs and buts tossed in there. Can Ireland emulate their resuscitation of late 2008?
When Kidney surveyed his squad at close quarters for the first time this time four years ago, he was alarmed at the manner in which the confidence seemed to have been vacuumed from his players.
"It surprised me when I came in because these players had won three Triple Crowns and they seemed to knock that back," he said at the time.
"They should have been fully confident, but they were not. That lack of confidence is one thing, but we just need to get that balance right and be reasonably critical while not being too over-the-top hysterical when we win a match."
That Brian O'Driscoll, the country's greatest ever rugby player, should be so distraught as to seek the counsel of a sports psychologist, indicated starkly the depths of despair into which that Irish squad had plunged.
And yet, emboldened by the belated introspection of the infamous Enfield congregation, Kidney managed to mould his men to source the perfect balance between hubris and humility; they lived every moment, worked for every minute and maximised every opportunity.
That class may be permanently etched upon the public's sporting psyche, but even cliche cannot evade the desperately poor form that has since pointed just one way.
While Ireland's record-breaking 60-0 defeat to the All Blacks in Hamilton in June looms large in the background, there are few crumbs of comfort to be found in recent record books.
With the exception of going down 22-19 to the world champions the week previous to that defeat, Ireland's form has been extremely poor.
They've won just one Test in their last five (v Scotland 32-14), and have conceded 168 points and 18 tries.
Since their thrilling 15-6 win over Australia in the World Cup -- the most recent in a thematic sequence that has seen lengthy mediocrity punctured by isolated brilliance -- Ireland have beaten only Russia, Scotland, and Italy twice.
The 17-17 draw with France in Paris was the highlight of their Six Nations' campaign.
A loss against the Springboks would condemn Ireland to their fifth consecutive defeat -- their worst run since losing seven in a row between 1997 and 1998.
Compounding the obvious sense of decline since 2009, Kidney and his side have, predominantly, failed to find succour with home comforts either.
Ireland have managed a win ratio of just 45pc since returning to the rebuilt Lansdowne Road in 2010. In all, they have lost six of the 11 Test matches played at the venue, a clearly unacceptable rate as the players regularly acknowledge.
A seventh loss today would equal the total number of losses at the famous old stadium between 2000 and 2006.
That seven of Ireland's last 10 losses at home (Croke Park and Lansdowne Road) have been by less than four points could point to at least one inescapable conclusion.
Ireland have simply forgotten how to win those tight games that defined Kidney's annus mirabilis of 2009.
Four years on from the painful pre-planning for their greatest success, Ireland would seem to have turned full circle.
Only now, with their most talismanic figures unavoidably absent -- two Lions captains, successive European players of the year -- the task would seem to be even more arduous than before.
The players, loyally, continue to talk a good game and it remains to be seen whether the subtle criticisms of the coaching ticket that have wrought less subtle changes therein can produce immediate results.
They retain trust in Kidney and he clearly maintains faith in his team.
"I'm not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path.
"I'm not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight."
No, not Kidney. But Barack Obama after US voters gave him a second chance to build on the promise of four years.
Kidney has already delivered on his promise of four years ago.
But has he anything more to offer the Ireland set-up?
This month will be revealing. As much as anything, we will find out the crucial answer to one searingly direct question.
Never mind whether the IRFU, the public or the players have faith in Declan Kidney? Does Declan Kidney still have faith in his own coaching ability?