STUART BARNES believes Declan Kidney has the toughest job in international rugby in trying to turn provincial success into Ireland triumph.
That the national team cannot replicate the results and displays of Leinster, Ulster and Munster has been a major talking point since Ireland lost to Wales at the World Cup, and that criticism was amplified by a poor showing during the Six Nations.
Barnes, a former England out-half turned Sky Sports pundit, is of the opinion that trying to combine the very different styles of play used at Leinster, Ulster and Munster is a nigh-on impossible job.
"I see a lot of criticism of Declan Kidney, saying he is too conservative, but I think -- right now -- if you asked me what is the hardest job as a national manager, I would say Ireland, because there are so many options. That doesn't make it easier, it makes it harder," Barnes said.
"There is a correlation between regional strength and international weakness. It is easier to come from a weak base if you have talented players in a country that doesn't have too much depth.
"Wales have useful teams but not at the level of Leinster. They don't seem as professional as the international team, so when the players go from the region to the national squad it is a step up. Psychologically, that makes a difference."
And Barnes reckons that trying to blend the provinces into one is the trickiest task of all.
"Culturally, there has always been a chasm between how Leinster and Munster approach the game in terms of style and thought, while Ulster have their own style," he explained.
"There has been a lot of criticism of Declan, but the players are arriving with such a clear identity, and that is much harder to meld into a whole than it would be for Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley.
"I don't think there is a happy convergence in Ireland and it is a mark of the strength of the regions. It makes it extremely difficult for Kidney or whoever takes over from him when that time comes."
Barnes was more positive when discussing Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll, who has recovered from shoulder surgery to play a huge part in Leinster's drive to the Heineken Cup final. And despite O'Driscoll's age, Barnes reckons the three-time Lion can be a part of Gatland's squad to tour Australia at the end of next season.
"Who can deny Brian O'Driscoll if he wants it?" he asked. "His knowledge of the game... he's very intelligent, his awareness just seems to grow and his competitiveness doesn't diminish, he's just an incredible bloke.
"He has improved and I think Joe Schmidt's going to take a lot of credit for that. He's come back and his passing game is making up for the fact that he's not as quick as he once was.
"He's come back better than I expected and added a string to his bow with his passing. We're talking about the greatest European professional in the history of the game so it's no surprise."
As for Saturday's Heineken Cup final, Barnes reckons Leinster should win but suggested Schmidt must pick Eoin Reddan ahead of Isaac Boss, and thinks Paddy Jackson could be exposed if the Ireland U-20 captain gets the nod at out-half for Ulster.
"Jonny Sexton is a far better player when he has the speed of service and sharp wits of Eoin Reddan," he said. "Ireland and Leinster are far better when he plays at nine.
"If I was an Ulster fan I would be worried. I think Leinster will fancy Paddy Jackson and that is not negating what this kid might have, it is just experience. I think it is a big worry for Ulster.
"Leinster are clear favourites, they deserve to be clear favourites and should win this game."