Saturday 19 August 2017

Kidney has learned from past mistakes

We may be accused of many things in Irish rugby, but given our scarce resources, the place of the game in the country's list of sporting priorities and our modest record over the years, getting ahead of ourselves has rarely been part of the Irish rugby psyche.

Yet, that's exactly what we did four years ago. Almost all of us were guilty of losing sight of reality ahead of France '07.

Remember the confident talk of which we were all guilty, despite the fact that we all knew we were positioned in the Pool of Death alongside the host nation and a Puma squad at the peak of its considerable powers.

Qualifying for the knockouts wasn't an issue. The question was, when we got to the business end, how were we going to compete with the best of the rest?

Here we felt was an Irish squad in the best physical and mental shape ever. Talk from players, punters and scribes alike was not of going further than any Irish side had gone before (i.e. to a first ever semi-final) but of winning the whole thing outright.

Well as history now records, Bordeaux in particular was to represent our World Cup from hell. That's some statement when you factor in Lens '99 and all the embarrassing 'Plan B' 13-man line-out that awful night entailed -- that defeat to the then-emerging Pumas represented a line in the sand as the IRFU grabbed the bull by the horns and true rugby professionalism finally took root.

In defence of all we arrived at France '07 on the back of three Triple Crowns in four years and with worthwhile victories over every major rugby playing nation bar New Zealand. We were as much a part of the Celtic Tiger madness as any. We hitched up in the French south-west overhyped and undercooked.

We were bad against Namibia, worse against Georgia and, then with selection restricted to the chosen few, an unintentional divide was created in the camp.

The problem, in retrospect, was too much training allied to too little game time. Physical conditioning and match sharpness remain light years apart.

The lessons of '07 have been learned. My abiding memory of the build-up then is of an extremely agitated Eddie O'Sullivan on match-day at Ravenhill (prior to playing Italy), attempting to inject the fuel he knew was missing. It does not matter how or why this happened -- collectively, we got it wrong.

So, four years on, where are we at?

Declan Kidney has taken that experience on board. Indeed, if anything, you wonder if five August games (including Connacht) represents one, maybe a couple, too far.

Only time will tell, with so much depending on how he manages his selections. Few, if any, will play in three games and those who do will -- injuries allowing -- be most in need of contact time.

balance

I am thinking specifically of the likes of Jerry Flannery, Stephen Ferris, Geordan Murphy, Tomas O'Leary and Rob Kearney.

Kidney and Alan Gaffney have both emphasised the August friendly objective as "winning primarily, but at the same time getting the balance right in pursuit of making sure we have 30 guys match fit by the time the World Cup comes around."

Winning is, of course, the objective in any game you play, but in this instance, given the context, it is of paramount importance to get as many players as possible up to match speed in order to hit the ground running against O'Sullivan and the US Eagles in New Plymouth in five weeks' time.

Winning at Murrayfield, Bordeaux or in the Aviva would certainly help morale and increase momentum ahead of our World Cup departure but it still comes second to match fitness, the key area in which the southern hemisphere nations will be at a huge pre-tournament advantage.

The occupational hazard is injury, but that comes with every game (and, indeed, training session) you play.

Rest assured some unfortunate player, physically fit and raring to go, will lose his place on the flight. It is the nature of the business.

So what of today? At the outset, I think the lack of talk coming from the Ireland camp is encouraging. No boast of winning pool matches, never mind World Cups!

Here, too, hard and painful lessons have been learned. We lost this corresponding fixture (31-21) four years ago, with the performance every bit as disappointing as the result.

The Scots went on to make the last eight -- we disappeared out of sight. So, it does have a bearing and performance-driven relevance. Of the match-day 22 today, all but five or six are playing for a place on that August 30 departing flight.

World Cup selection is where every head coach truly earns his corn.

It is a more difficult selection than any other, particularly so for those in the northern hemisphere, given that it comes immediately on the back of the summer recess.

To factor in the most recent form, the main man must turn back the clock to the final weeks of last season -- two full months ago.

The most up-to-date information will come by way of training and how individuals have been going in camp. But Kidney has been around long enough to appreciate the difference between match conditions and the training environment.

Training feeds into selection, but it is how you deliver under match-day pressure that ultimately determines a player's place in the pecking order.

Whether the eventual split will be 17/13 or 16/14, we don't yet know (we suspect the former), but versatility could ultimately determine the final call in various sectors.

Apart from Sean Cronin, Jonny Sexton, Leo Cullen and Niall Ronan of the starting 15 at Murrayfield, every other player (including Tomas O'Leary, who can slot in on the wing) has the ability to change role.

Paddy Wallace, for example, may not be the fourth-best centre behind the Leinster trio of Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and Fergus McFadden, but he is in situ because of the option he presents as emergency cover to Sexton and Ronan O'Gara at out-half.

Hooker and both half-backs must, of necessity, have a third alternative available at all times.

Realistically, on the basis of Andy Robinson's selection, the Scots should prove much too strong for what is essentially a shadow Ireland line-up today.

However, Ireland are a team with a cause. The incentive could hardly be any greater. The road to World Cup redemption begins now. For some, it could be their one and only chance.

Irish Independent

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