Clock ticking as Ireland’s key men bid to shake off injury concerns, end losing streak and launch World Cup challenge
Published 01/11/2010 | 05:00
Today officially marks the first day of winter. The recurring mild temperatures that continue to tip into the teens are refusing to send a bitter chill down Declan Kidney's spine.
It is only a year since we all gathered around the still-glowing, rose-cheeked Corkman after the previous season's weighty deliverance of expectation in the form of a belated Grand Slam triumph.
Success was not his alone, of course, but was undeniably shaped in his image and forged through his good nature and the ability to confer responsibility and authority with a most delicate confection of delegation and deference, through the prism of players and coaches alike.
Twelve months on, the world still turns but his world is, it seems, in a state of flux not seen since he first met with this group of Irish players and found himself scooping their depressed confidence from the floor in the late autumn of 2008.
And yet, as he surveyed a scene last week without Paul O'Connell, with Brian O'Driscoll covered in tape and John Hayes casting a shadow, he would have remained true to his faith and declared a simple, yet utterly profound message of hope.
"This team," he will surely have said, in that understated yet forceful, masterly manner of his, "can achieve anything that it wants to achieve in the next 12 months."
If Kidney was afforded any modicum of relief from the surfeit of medical bulletins being shoved under his hotel room door, one guesses that he wasn't tuning in to what the other northern hemisphere coaches have been jabbering about in the build-up to the November international series.
Take Warren Gatland. "We all understand if you lose a few games and the performance isn't there, you get the sack," he said. "You just don't hide behind that fact."
Gatland won the Grand Slam two years ago, a season before Ireland bridged several generations of their forebears by emulating that feat. If he can be sacked ...
Martin Johnson? "Beating Australia in the summer was great but we have to forget about that. Now it's all about consistency."
England, much-derided and scoffed-at England, beat Australia last summer. Ireland did not.
Kidney's Ireland are, statistically, wearing rags. Five defeats in succession is the screaming headline. Critical defeats when the heat was on -- a Grand Slam do-or-die against France, a Triple Crown do-or-die against Scotland, the pair of shuddering southern hemisphere defeats -- represented downward curves.
Mercifully, no positive spin was necessary from those in charge.
Injury concerns that continue to mutate around marquee, talismanic figures -- O'Connell, O'Driscoll -- are hardly leavened by the alarming acceleration of travails afflicting many others in the squad.
All the while, there's a whole heap of other stuff, over which Kidney and his team have no control, which is weighing them down.
Eamon Ryan's madcap solo runs. The IRFU money men prodding a red hot poker up everyone's a**e. Exorbitant ticket prices repulsing a public that had learned to love their national team.
The pervading fear that the next injury to a player could be his final one (if such a scenario hasn't already occurred in this land).
And still Kidney must keep his head, deflecting all the ticking timebombs and retaining the affectation that he can only effect matters under his control.
But his is a results business and if they continue to head south, there will be fewer bums on seats when Samoa's bone-crunchers shape up to an under-strength Irish in the Aviva without their indispensable stars, such as Heaslip and O'Driscoll, never mind the biennial gore/bore fest presented by the Argies.
It is against such odds and in defiance of so many runes that Kidney has prospered in the past, whether with schoolchildren or youths or adults and it may be that he must do so again.
South Africa have represented a surmountable obstacle when world champions or conquerors of Lions, so even the "wounded Springboks", as all Irish squad members must swear by oath to label them this week, are eminently beatable.
But Ireland's wounds will cut deeper without O'Connell and, perhaps, without O'Driscoll, against whom there should always be the caveat that, in successive Irish regimes, the breezier the prognosis, the more worried the Irish supporters should have felt, in fact.
Never one to shirk an opportunity, Kidney could yet unleash a back line that boasts such speed and grace and dexterity -- Kearney, Earls, Fitzgerald, Wallace, Bowe, Sexton -- to banish all of those supporters' collective anguish. And he may shuffle his pack with surprising results.
While the rest of us wallow, Kidney must always survey a bigger picture.
He is always looking ahead but his inscrutability, his loyalty and fidelity to his colleagues, will never allow him to admit to this.
"The pressure is the same," he said last week. "Like any time you are representing Ireland you feel the same.
"If you like, you can feel the word 'pressure' because you will want to do as well as you can. That is all that you can ever do, so it is the same for every match."
Last year, Kidney deflected, creditably, any of the bouquets tossed at his feet. His name is still on the door but he has never sought to shine a spotlight on it.
Any harsh criticism that accrues, whether constructively or if wildly exaggerated, will be absorbed as unconsciously as the sometimes excessive and gushing praise from the obsequious corner of debate.
It must be so. Otherwise, his entire modus operandi will be as nothing, his unshakeable belief will be undermined.
He cannot depart from his methods now. Not when they are needed most.
That is why he continues to deal with the present. To remain in the moment is paramount. History's hand can smother, the future can suffocate. Only in the present can one breathe easier and see clearer.
Yet to those of us looking in, who know not of how he guides and cajoles, spurs and prompts, can only see the external factors that Kidney must be trying so hard to ignore as he plots a path, ever so delicately and tortuously, towards the 2011 RWC.
All we can see is the red pens of the accountants. The mysterious divination of O'Connell's increasingly worrying injury. The growing injury toll. The encroaching free-to-air debate. The rapid-fire parroting of ads desperately seeking punters to watch Ireland play in their expensive new home.
Clubs with the a**e falling out of their trousers thanks to the IRFU's ransoming of tickets. TG4 drawing more viewers for a sappy mongrel sport than Munster v Leinster in the Aviva.
It is Kidney who must try to see beyond all that, to see the bigger picture. "One of the biggest things," he said gnomically last week, "is that whatever life throws at you, you should never panic."
He has painted that big picture in his mind. He can only control circumstances by his response to them.
This team can achieve anything that it wants to achieve in the next 12 months.
By the end of this month, perhaps, a comforting thought to get us all through the winter.