Tony Ward: It's time to give Kidney some credit
Published 27/11/2012 | 05:00
Sometimes you really do despair: lose to South Africa and we're the worst of the worst; hammer Fiji and Argentina and the South Sea Islanders aren't "up to it", and the Pumas are "suffering fatigue at the end of a long, hard season".
It seems not to matter that New Zealand, South Africa and Australia (the Wallabies in Paris apart) are beating all before them. Should the fatigue factor not count with them as well?
Let's give credit where credit is due, to Declan Kidney and Les Kiss, who were charged with responsibility for turning a blunt, ineffective backline against the Springboks into a potent, purposeful attacking force for the Fijians and Pumas.
And while of course we're not comparing like with like with regard to the Fiji game, try telling the South African players that the escape they had in Mendoza in the Rugby Championship (where they salvaged a draw against the Pumas at the very death) was against some sort of inferior force.
Rather flippantly, I suggested in the build-up that if there were a few mesmerising runs from Craig Gilroy leading to an Ireland win, all would be good with the world. Well, the most exciting wing talent to hit Irish rugby since Simon Geoghegan did just that.
We are still a long way from the finished article but we are now in a much better place, physically and psychologically, for what lies ahead in the Six Nations than at any time since that embarrassing demolition in Hamilton back in June.
That defeat ripped the core confidence out of this group. For anyone to argue otherwise reflects little comprehension of the difficulty, in any sporting code, of undoing catastrophic damage to collective confidence and morale.
That was the biggest challenge facing Kidney, Kiss, Gert Smal, Anthony Foley and Co ahead of the November campaign.
Despite being squeezed disappointingly by the Boks in the second half at Lansdowne Road, Irish rugby is in a much better place now than it was three to four weeks ago, but with plenty still to be done if we are to become the consistent force we sporadically threaten to be.
Therein lies the real challenge for Kidney, because were he stepping aside now his legacy would be a Grand Slam (an enormous achievement) but with the label of inconsistency over his coaching tenure writ large.
I believe in the head coach because, despite the impression portrayed, he is prepared to learn as he goes, even at this advanced stage of his career.
Specifically, he has learnt that giving youth its fling, and with it freshening up the squad, can pay huge dividends.
It is easy for us on the outside to suggest that every emerging talent should find a place, but for the main man his bread and butter depends on getting that introductory timing right.
The real test will come in two months' time when the injured big names are rehabilitated and ready to slug it out for places with young guns like Gilroy, Simon Zebo (a revelation at full-back), Luke Marshall and Paddy Jackson.
So too in the pack, where not one from Richardt Strauss, Mike McCarthy, Peter O'Mahony or Chris Henry deserves to be left out for the Cardiff mission next up.
The onus is on Rory Best, Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris and Sean O'Brien to prove between now and then – specifically in the December and January rounds of the Heineken Cup – that they have a right to reselection based on form alone.
The same criterion applies to Rob Kearney, although for a host of reasons I would draw the line at Brian O'Driscoll who, fitness allowing, presents a different case entirely. O'Driscoll is a one-off, and anyone failing to recognise that fact will be in for a rude awakening when he is eventually gone for good.
All of which means that this Irish management and this newly extended squad is in a much better position now. Perhaps a mid-season report might read 'much work still to be done but much progress made'.
Gilroy has been the undoubted star of this November series. He more than anybody has reminded his seasoned coach of the timeless adage that if you're good enough, you're old enough.
Strauss has also been magnificent, making his head-to-head with Best perhaps the most difficult decision of all for Kidney going forward.
This time last season, for some unknown reason, Donnacha Ryan, though a regular starter for Munster ahead of Donncha O'Callaghan, couldn't get the nod for Ireland. Now the Tipperary man is virtually irreplaceable.
Not only does he possess a relentless work ethic and no-nonsense focus, he is also a natural leader well capable of taking the captain's armband should that need arise.
Kidney's work and experimentation over the past month looks set to ask serious questions of Munster coach Rob Penney and his Ulster counterpart Mark Anscombe.
Will it be Zebo, Denis Hurley or Felix Jones at full-back for Munster to face Saracens? I know who I would have.
And will it be the exciting Marshall or Paddy Wallace at inside-centre for Ulster, and Andrew Trimble or Gilroy on the left wing to face the might of Northampton?
Certainly, there are some intriguing selection decisions to be made. Kidney probably summed the hype surrounding the national team and his deliberations best by way of the "manic rollercoaster" analogy.
Despite losing our way against South Africa, we are back on track in that the last two performances have restored confidence to a squad short on experience and short on morale post-New Zealand.
More than anything it's been a happy camp with a happy group of players leaving Carton House – and given where we were at, that's real progress.