Neil Francis: Alone he stands in this long goodbye
Declan Kidney's time is almost up after one of the worst defeats of his coaching career
Published 17/02/2013 | 04:00
The Monsignor! We are not too far away from moving him on. Where does he go? Pope Declan the Munificent. Wait till the Vatican get a load of him. The post-Mass conference, "I thought the altar boys were fantastic, if this venue doesn't get you excited nothing will . . ."
Last Sunday's loss to England has, in my opinion, left Declan Kidney's ship holed below the water line. Ireland can win their last three games, but the England match was one that this team just had to prevail in. National despondency masks the fact that Ireland were so far removed from the level required. The team in green were truly dreadful. It is amazing that Ireland were only six points behind England at the end.
If Ireland had even been average they would have won. England skip out of the Aviva thinking that they are world champions. Ireland have to pause to reflect on a FUBAR performance. Kidney must now front up to his own failings. Over the last few months we have seen Kidney flex his muscles and mark his territory. You might not think that it is in his nature but two acts of subjugation have shown Kidney's character in a new light.
Kidney's predecessor Eddie O'Sullivan was a very successful coach in his time with Ireland. The two are remarkably close in style yet both would recoil in horror if you mentioned it to either of them: very conservative in style, selection and strategy. Kidney could be branded as Eddie Lite but without the Napoleonic uncertainty. Kidney though is no closer to the players than Eddie was even though he is seen as a better man-manager and motivator.
If you look at the stats for Ireland's professional coaches, Wazza's win ratio overall is 49 per cent. Fast Eddie came in at a very respectable 64 per cent. The Monsignor has now slipped to a less-than-spectacular 56 per cent. It is a results-driven game folks. Eddie's plight has garnered a lot of media comment in the last few months or so. Pat Lam was a disaster in Auckland and will be a disaster in Connacht. There is no question that Eddie was the best
coach who wanted the job. As we all know, he wasn't even given an interview. I am sure there were many reasons why he did not get an interview for the Connacht job, and indeed the Munster job.
At any rate, and whatever those reasons were, it probably staved off a clash best avoided because the provincial coaches have to connect with a myriad of people, including the national coach, who is someone you would have to have regular contact with. If you are looking for a biblical analogy, the relationship between Kidney and O'Sullivan would be as close as that of Our Lord and Lucifer.
That matter had no bearing on Ireland's performance in the last two weeks though. The subjugation of Brian O'Driscoll certainly did.
On the Tuesday before the team was announced for the Welsh game, Kidney had a private meeting with Ireland's greatest ever player and Ireland's greatest and most successful captain. There were one or two Machiavellian sub plots – but the bottom line was that O'Driscoll was being dropped from the captaincy. It was not open for discussion, the decision had been made.
O'Driscoll had captained Ireland 83 times in Ireland's most successful period since the IRFU's inception. Surely then an open discussion, a chance to express views? Did Kidney know that O'Driscoll would definitely be retiring at the end of the season? A gentle hint for O'Driscoll at maybe which way the coach was thinking. It was a pretty ruthless removal and whatever the icon did or did not say regarding his removal he was mightily upset about it.
Heaslip is a superior player and I respect his consistent excellence. There are very few outstanding captaincy candidates in the squad who are guaranteed their place and who have time on their side. I'm not sure how deeply Kidney thought it through but Heaslip's persona as a captain might not have been universally accepted or endorsed by the squad. Whatever about succession planning, if you plan to drop the best captain Ireland has ever had make sure you replace him with somebody better, if you have somebody better. Why did Kidney remove O'Driscoll? It does not make sense.
After the Welsh game it seemed to be a masterstroke. The team performed well for 42 minutes. Heaslip played well but was usurped as leader by O'Driscoll, whose critical impetus got Ireland away to a famous win.
Last Sunday morning at 6.0am, Kidney's grand plan was undone. O'Driscoll attended the birth of his first child, his emotions like every first-time father would have run wild. The experience would have drained him and while he did some things well against England, he drowned in a sea of mediocrity. The icon did not lead by thought or example and it was left to Heaslip. The No 8 had a shocker and the team was rudderless. Chris Robshaw, who very much turned up to play (17 tackles), must have been shocked to see Heaslip turn up for the captain's coin toss wearing his headphones.
The loss was cataclysmic. If O'Driscoll had been in charge, you would have been confident of a fightback. He would have led the resistance. With Heaslip in charge, Ireland struggled. He knocked the ball on twice, so did McCarthy. Murray, O'Brien, D'Arcy, Kearney and O'Driscoll were guilty of knock-ons too.
A mucky, wet day but Parling and Haskell were the only Englishmen to do the same. The knock-ons were a symptom of a deeper malaise – nine knock-ons to two tells you that psychologically Ireland were nowhere near the levels of preparedness for a match of this magnitude.
Ireland defended well so that the defence coach is off the hook. Ireland's forwards did well in the tight so the forwards coach and the scrum coach are absolved. Ireland were minced at the breakdown so they couldn't generate quick ball. That doesn't get Les Kiss out of the dock. Ireland, however, should not have been trying to run the ball in the first place. Ireland's game management was poor. They used their possession badly and they were beaten to the punch in contact.
Irrespective of whether you could say they were over-trained or under-done in the lead-up, Kidney takes the rap for the team's non-performance. A match of this type would have been meat and drink to Kidney. He managed to make it work in the same sort of conditions in Auckland against Australia in the World Cup in 2011, why not now? This was one of his worst defeats.
It is interesting to note that while Ireland suffered some catastrophic injuries, England walked out of the Aviva with a hop, skip and a jump. Not one injury of significance. Is that just a coincidence?
If you take a look at Cian Healy's performance it gives you a snapshot of what place his team were in mentally. You can never confuse petulance for aggression. Healy led with an elbow charge on Robshaw – if the citing commissioner had taken that into account he would have got far more than the three weeks he actually did get for his transgression on Cole.
Healy's excellence over the season was commuted by two moments of madness. Why would a player who had calmed his prior propensity for giving away stupid penalties for acts of contrary aggression suddenly revert to character at the moment of the biggest match of the season? It's hard to reconcile.
It was more than just 'one of those games where nothing goes right'. How come England got six points with a man in the bin? How come Ronan O'Gara could on occasion kick the ball less than 15 metres to touch? How come the Irish kick chase was so poor? How come Ireland were playing on the back foot from the off?
The team was badly prepared and without intelligent leadership on and off the park. It is not merely a case of 'one more performance like that and Kidney has to go' because the Scotland game is not of such critical significance anymore because we lost the most important game of the season. A match that was winnable with a degree of intellectual application. The loss is down to Kidney alone and 2009 is too far away to save him now.
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