Saturday 21 October 2017

Don't extend Kidney deal until after World Cup

Declan Kidney. Photo: Getty Images
Declan Kidney. Photo: Getty Images
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

We are an amazing little nation when it comes to extremes. Win and we are the best in the world; lose and we are the worst, devoid of hope and without any possibility of ever finding our way back.

Both viewpoints are, of course, nonsense, with the truth as ever lying somewhere in between. In 2009 we won a Grand Slam and Championship which we could have lost.

Two years on and we have fallen short in our bid for the same two titles, which we might well have won. The margins between winning and losing at the highest level are that thin. Whatever your take on Declan Kidney, you can't but admire the humility with which he goes about his business.

He seldom loses the run of himself in defeat, although he went mighty close post-Cardiff, and he never appears any way triumphant in success. He knows Kipling's two impostors -- triumph and disaster -- for what they assuredly are.

As the one who makes the calls that matter, his every move is subject to intense scrutiny. He is under the public microscope on a daily basis. We all have our opinions but that is all they are -- opinions. His is the defining word.

Not for a minute would I suggest that he is above reproach -- he is human like the rest of us and makes his mistakes.

Exasperating

This year's Six Nations tournament, which was, by common consent, of a poor standard, has been a difficult competition for everyone concerned -- frustrating for fans, exasperating for players but an integral part of the building process towards the World Cup in September nonetheless.

On the plus side, the Irish squad breaks now for the final two months of the season before reassembling when the countdown to New Zealand 2011 begins in earnest. And crucially, we do so with collective confidence fully restored.

The players return to their provinces and to their clubs for the resumption of Celtic and European involvement with a swagger. Put simply, it is a happy Ireland camp -- and for that, the main man must take credit.

Had we lost last Saturday, Kidney would have been under the cosh, guaranteed. Instead he is hailed for his tactical brilliance yet, far from believing the hype, he is, I'd like to think, a much wiser man.

Kidney's contract runs up to the end of next year's Six Nations and that is as it should be, with the next IRFU four-year deal set to include the 2015 World Cup in England.

Here, the governing body has got it right. The mistakes of 2003 -- when Kidney was the main loser on the back of the extended contract offered to Eddie O'Sullivan just prior to the World Cup in Australia -- and 2007, when O'Sullivan got a new four-year deal ahead of the France World Cup, must not be repeated.

The Welsh have already gone down the road of putting pen to paper with Warren Gatland up to and including 2015 -- a grave error of judgment (and that is no reflection on Gatland) in my view.

Kidney is under no pressure whatsoever from the IRFU and equally the IRFU is under no pressure to put in place any new agreement now.

But let's see how the World Cup goes before making any far-reaching decisions. In broad terms, a four-year span as head coach seems about right, but that is by no means a cast-iron rule.

If it works and all three parties -- players, coach and governing body -- are happy, then a contract extension seems the logical way to go, although a further four-year span still smacks of high risk, no matter how good it seems at a particular point in time.

The O'Sullivan tenure was a case in point from which lessons should have been learnt by all concerned.

But what matters right now is an Ireland team that has risen up the IRB world rankings to fourth and still with so much to prove in the six months that lie ahead.

A disappointing tournament has finished on a high in which the coach has learned a few more things about his players -- and perhaps more tellingly one or two about himself as well.

My colleague Hugh Farrelly posed the question "just who is Ireland's first-choice No 10?" in these pages yesterday. Undoubtedly, the choice of out-half has been the most high-profile issue of the past six weeks.

Is Kidney any the wiser now than he was at the outset of the tournament and the initial selection for Rome? I think so -- and I'll tell you why.

Two into one won't go, and picking both Jonathan Sexton and Ronan O'Gara in the same XV is not an option for the simple reason that Kidney has more effective specialist alternatives in every other backline position.

Rational

The problem for both Sexton and O'Gara is that neither could sense any sort of rational selection process based on current form.

All that players ask for is fair play and consistency in selection -- a system where, while they might not fully accept their omission from the starting line-up, they at least understand the process by which the call was made.

I have first-hand experience here and I know what it feels like when desolation is added to by isolation.

With four friendly games scheduled for August, the opportunity will be there for Kidney to mix and match, and that he assuredly will do. Likewise, in September, the first two games of the World Cup (against the USA and Russia) will provide the opportunity so crucially missed in France '07 (against Namibia and Georgia).

However, when it comes to the crunch and the big call at No 10 will have to be made, then (if the main lesson from this tournament is to be learnt) it will be Sexton to start and O'Gara to close it out when that time comes -- and not the other way around.

It is not set in stone but it is the most logical route to take -- although I reiterate that we are blessed to have two such high-quality options.

Beyond that, there will be the problem of fitting Stephen Ferris back in the back-row once fitness allows.

Let's be realistic: were the Ulsterman available now and there was another match to come, he would at best be on the bench, given the form of the incumbent three.

At tight-head Kidney has acknowledged his error from the autumn and copper-fastened Mike Ross at No 3.

The Leinster man's addition to the scrum, and by extension the team, has been incalculable. But I still don't get the logic of the bench cover for the three-quarter line and full-back.

However, with Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy set to return alongside what we hope will be a revitalised Luke Fitzgerald and the ultra-reliable Fergus McFadden, the bench make-up may well change come time to face the US Eagles in New Plymouth.

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