Real work starts now for Kidney
Ireland's lofty ambitions won't be realised unless basic flaws are ironed out quickly
Unlike official Ireland, sport demands accountability.
Ireland's November Series started and ended with a whimper; there was a bit of a bang in between, but blink and you missed it. Ireland hit the heights only in defeat to the world's best, and slumped to dispiriting lows when more was expected from them.
Yet, imperceptibly, there is progress. Thirty players were used this November; 30 players will be required at the World Cup. With Paul O'Connell and Tomas O'Leary to return, the maths seems pretty simple.
Despite the IRFU heaping needless pressure on his shoulders by failing to amend their lamentably myopic ticketing policy, Kidney persisted with development; but the pressure of Ireland's results, allied to fundamental failings, continue to handicap.
"We lost two, that's the bit that we'll take a good look at," said Kidney, whose refusal to indulge in diversionary spin remains refreshing. "We wouldn't be happy with that.
"Looking back, the first 40 minutes against South Africa put us under a lot of pressure to try and win that one. Had we got a win in that one, we could have relaxed things a little bit more. Because we wanted to get back to winning ways, we could have stuck with the same team, but we wanted to build a squad so much we made 11 changes."
As ever with an international coach, he finishes the month wishing he had more time. "I wish I had another four or five games," he said wistfully. The prevailing mood is optimistic, but only if certain areas show significant improvement.
THE REPORT CARD
Within the confines of their employers' shameful disregard for the rugby community, Kidney and his staff managed to negotiate a difficult month, but a record of two wins and two losses fell short of their target.
The expert brains trust that brought Ireland their Grand Slam in 2009 faltered during this month, with forward coach Gert Smal's ready admission that set-piece problems were due to insufficient time together an indication that Ireland's economy of coaching effort has much room for improvement.
Defence coach Les Kiss will not be happy at the lapses in concentration and, worse, the seeming lack of faith some of his players had in his defensive system when it was put under the most severe duress against New Zealand.
And Alan Gaffney, the team's attacking expert, knows that there is still a mountainous amount of work required to hone his side's lines of running and particularly the instructions on counter-attack.
Verdict -- Track record demands sustained, rather than sporadic, results. Track record also offers faith that they know what they're doing. Grade: C+
This remains a live issue. With a clearly dazed captain insisting on remaining on the pitch last Sunday, only departing when instructed by the referee, Ireland need more from their other group leaders.
Rory Best's form and injury problems have undermined his role, while Jamie Heaslip has appeared slightly tentative taking on that role; against Samoa, he seemed cowed by responsibility as the pack struggled, even though he was their nominal leader.
Paul O'Connell's return is vital in terms of leadership because, as O'Driscoll admitted after the South Africa defeat to a shocked audience, he was unable to influence the manner in which his side played the wet conditions that day.
Verdict -- Decisiveness in heat of battle needs to be refined by the core leaders. Grade: C-
Kidney will feel vindicated in this area: his World Cup squad and preferred starting line-ups are already cast in stone, injuries and dramatic form movements notwithstanding.
Twenty-six starters is a decent return out of the nominal squad of 34 and, while many of the coaching staff's selections were widely queried -- even within selection meetings themselves -- the majority were wholly vindicated.
The troublesome out-half debate seems to have been resolved to the extent that Ireland now have what even the All Blacks do not -- two quality out-halves capable of playing different styles.
Mike Ross appears to be suffering from his mini-exile in England; the IRFU have poured too much moolah into Tony Buckley's expansive frame to turn their back on him now. He needs to pay back the dividend, otherwise the Ross question will remain on the agenda.
The captain's mortality, once more evidenced on Sunday, enshrined the realistic probability that Ireland may need to unearth a replacement during or before the World Cup. Not enough time was invested in this area.
Verdict -- Ireland's World Cup squad will be broader than the last. There will be no passengers on this journey. Grade: B+
Ireland's ambition is not to ape New Zealand or Australia; it is to master the basics of the game to such a point of excellence that they can play their natural game, blending powerful running forwards and skilful backs.
What New Zealand did show Ireland is the yawning gulf between a side being clinical in attack, resourceful in defence and error-free in the set-piece and breakdown, and a side who cannot sustain those elements for 80 minutes.
Kidney admitted that the new rule interpretations mid-2010 Six Nations hastened Ireland's development from the stilted, but successful game plan that helped his side win the 2009 Grand Slam. Playing catch-up of necessity has created a semblance of panic and uncertainty as Ireland seek to become more comfortable with the new world order.
"If we go and try and play the way we did two years ago," explained Kidney, "whereby you set two targets inside your own half and kick it down, you end up defending all day. So I don't think there's a choice really.
"I know there might have been talk about new ideas and stuff like that, but there wasn't any vast change in plan. We're adapting to the change of law emphasis rather than just trying to do it, because we still have to work to our skill levels."
Verdict -- Ireland have the players. Ireland have the skills. Ireland have the set-piece. Putting all that together -- for a sustained 80 minutes in successive matches -- remains elusive. Grade: B-
Smal has admitted his disappointment with the Irish set-pieces this November. To be frank, the consistent delivery in the set-pieces -- scrums, line-outs and restarts -- has been below par. And the breakdown work has been erratic also.
The return of O'Connell must not mask these deficiencies and the former World Cup-winning coach has a fair amount of work to do to arrest the decline; Ireland will struggle in the Six Nations, never mind a World Cup, if this month's inconsistency strikes once more. Still, Kidney's grand plan can be seen in the promotion of a callow front five involving players who featured prominently in Ireland's Churchill Cup win two summers ago.
"Without doubt, Paul is important, but I think others will all be better for this experience," he said. "You can't add up how much that experience will bring, but what it means now is in tight games, if they stay the course we'll win and you can't buy that."
Verdict -- Ireland can't hope to compete at the sharp end of a World Cup handicapped by fundamental flaws. Improvement is an absolute necessity. Grade: D+
Kidney knows he is on the right track in terms of squad selection, the method of play and importantly all coaches and players are onside. "We're okay, but I wouldn't get overly excited about it," conceded Kidney.
2011 will offer a ruthless examination of whether they are capable of reaching the next level they all demand -- definitive progress at the World Cup. Grade: C