Sunday 30 April 2017

Reading between the Lions

Ireland manager Declan
Kidney has a track
record of developing
winning performances
while on tour
Ireland manager Declan Kidney has a track record of developing winning performances while on tour

When he used to indulge in the familiar Irish pastime of adopting the role of the underdog, former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan was often inclined to muse that he'd "never seen a bookie on a bike."

For a bookmaker to get his odds wrong is an extremely rare occurrence.

If he was of a mind to have a chinwag with his successor Declan Kidney this week -- a potentially rarer occurrence -- the pair would doubtless be chuffed at how the bookies have chalked up miserable odds on Ireland's chances in the Six Nations championship.

Ireland were priced at anything from 4/1 to 11/2 in markets late last week; in essence, they are fourth favourites for a championship they swept through undefeated just three years ago, such has been the decline in the country's fortunes, heightened by what was generally perceived to be a failure at the World Cup. The players acknowledge that much, particularly as Wales, Ireland's conquerors at the quarter-final stage, classed their own campaign as such.

That Ireland are rated closer to wooden spoon contenders Scotland and Italy in terms of market position is indicative of how much their stock has plunged since the 2009 Grand Slam, amid fears of life without Brian O'Driscoll in a championship for the first time this century.

A conservative squad selection underlines the lack of trust punters have in the challenge emanating from the Irish stable; elsewhere, new faces abound and revolution is in the air.

In a championship that by its very nature -- swift and decisive -- relies upon momentum, this weekend's clash at Lansdowne Road against Wales will define the 2012 spring for both countries.

Win and Ireland head to Paris with a buoyant step; lose and the French, under new management and presumably buzzing from opening-day revenge against Italy, will smell blood.

Sunday is that important.

And there is the rub. Despite their friendlessness in the markets, Ireland are handsomely odds-on to reverse the Wellington World Cup defeat -- 4/9, with Wales 7/4.

So, even though Wales purportedly have a better chance of finishing ahead of Ireland in the table, few give them much chance of finishing ahead of Ireland on the scoreboard next Sunday.

All the while, even though World Cup revenge and championship priorities dominate this week's build-up, Sunday's contest can also be viewed through another prism -- that of the race to become Lions coach.

"There are really only four or five people we are seriously considering," said Lions CEO John Feehan before the championship kicks off.

"The likelihood is that the coach will come from the Six Nations. You don't have to be a genius to work out who the candidates are, so keep an eye on them and see how well they do."

Thus, effectively, the Six Nations is a trial run, with Warren Gatland (evens) leading the chase ahead of Declan Kidney (13/8) and Scotland coach Andy Robinson (10/3).

"We won't rule a coach out if he hasn't got Lions experience, but clearly the more experience, the better," Feehan added. "The big problem with Lions tours is that you have to get it right from day one.

"There are no second chances, so if a guy understands that and understands the ethos that needs to be built up with the players and the management, it helps. It is a definite bonus to them, but a coach is more than just experience."

Gatland's and Robinson's previous experience as assistant coaches is clearly a boon to their respective candidacies and it has been reported that both men have already held informal face-to-face talks with Lions chairman Andy Irvine, one of the committee who will select the head coach for the 2013 Australian tour next April.

Kidney, it seems, only received an informal phone call -- which may suit him. For if Hector O hEochagain were making a documentary about Kidney's candidacy, it wouldn't be called "Chasing The Lions," rather "Avoiding any mention of the subject."

When asked last week about it, Kidney would clearly have undergone a delicate dentistry procedure rather than enthusiastically declare any overt interest in the post.

"I got a call about it," he said. "I just said: 'Yeah, anyone would be interested in that.' But I'm only thinking about beating Wales. I was asked a question about it... that's it. I got a call and it's obviously gone public now.

"I'm more interested in just doing this. You don't say no to that, but at the same time I'm not chasing it."

In fairness, this is par for the course for the relatively undemonstrative Kidney, a man who is more at ease deflecting attention from himself rather than seeking the spotlight.

Self-promotion, in stark contrast, has never been a problem for Kidney's predecessor-but-one as Irish coach as he has already gleefully declared his intention to follow in another former Welsh coach Graham Henry's footsteps and acquire the prestigious gig.

"I would love to be involved with the Lions again if the opportunity came up," according to Gatland. "South Africa in 2009 was a wonderful rugby experience like no other. We went back to basics with an old-fashioned philosophy in a professional manner. But there is still a lot of rugby to be played before any of these decisions are made."

Gatland and Kidney have both won Grand Slams with their sides, but the fact that Wales trumped Ireland at the World Cup gives him the upper hand as the Six Nations looms.

Robinson's failure to emerge from the pool stages, his side's perennial struggles in the Six Nations and his renowned combustibility means he deserves his ranking as outsider of the three, despite the fact he held coaching roles on the last two tours.

Kidney has no Lions experience, but, after a glittering provincial career and a World Cup success at underage level, his ability to delegate since assuming the international reins would be viewed as a positive, despite his gauche media appearance.

"There are one or two candidates who haven't been on a tour before," notes Feehan, "and I have no doubt that they can bring their own insights and own intuition into the situation."

And Gatland has seemingly expressed a willingness to serve under another head coach, as he did with Ian McGeechan in South Africa last time.

"If I was involved in the same role as I did in South Africa under Ian McGeechan, there would not be a problem because someone else is head coach and in charge," he admits.

Only a Wales slump could cause the Lions committee a change of heart as they clearly have their minds alighted upon Gatland; recent history, though, commands the attention of those who reckon this is a done deal.

Once second-in-command to Clive Woodward on the ill-fated 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand, the lack of empathy among playing and coaching staff towards Eddie O'Sullivan that summer was compounded by his role in Ireland's subsequent implosion at the next World Cup.

After that 2007 World Cup, Brian Ashton (England), Bernard Laporte (France), O'Sullivan (Ireland), Pierre Berbizier (Italy), and Gareth Jenkins (Wales) all lost their jobs, while Frank Hadden (Scotland) was to follow soon after.

Within a matter of months, all pre-conceived notions were utterly cast aside. O'Sullivan, once odds-on favourite for the gig, still harbours regrets.

"I interviewed for the last tour (2005) when Clive Woodward got it," he said since. "I almost got on the tour in 2001 with Graham Henry -- it didn't happen. And I almost got on this (2009) tour and it didn't happen. Sometime in the future maybe my ship might come in. It is very hard to look beyond coaching your country. It's the greatest honour to coach your national team. But the Lions are very special also."

So, while the bookies may have the current Lions market spot on, results, starting this weekend, will dictate hugely.

"There's still a lot of rugby to be played," notes Gatland cautiously.

He is well aware that Kidney has already demonstrated that he can lead an international side to victory against Australia in the southern hemisphere.

Following the last tour, McGeechan intimated that previous experience of the Lions was a prerequisite.

"They already know exactly what it takes to make a Lions tour," he said.

In what is a play within a play, it will be fascinating to witness whether Kidney's arch-conservative approach can outwit Gatland's bolder selection policy during this championship.

Even better, the contest could have already taken its most decisive twist by tea-time next Sunday.

But what if both men fail to deliver?

At least there's always the predictable comfort blanket of the geriatric Geech, whose appalling team selection arguably cost the Lions any chance of winning that series in South Africa.

Which should be as good a reason as any for dearly hoping that either Kidney or Gatland can pass the audition.

Until that time, however, all bets are off.

Irish Independent

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