Return of star men leaves Kidney no excuses
Ireland boss under mounting pressure to deliver Six Nations success as fit-again big guns provide selection headache
On Wednesday night, Keith Wood – perhaps unwittingly – offered a signpost to the quandary looming for Declan Kidney.
Brian O'Driscoll, he said, had been "quiet" in his comeback game against Edinburgh. "Good, but quiet," he quickly added, seemingly fearful of his analysis tipping over into pessimism. Then 'Woody' elaborated, "he just gives a sense of calm over the players around him."
If O'Driscoll stays upright for Leinster over the next two weekends, it is inconceivable that Kidney would omit him from Ireland's starting line-up to face Wales in the Six Nations opener on February 2.
In isolation, the decision won't be a taxing one. O'Driscoll has, as yet, no credible successor to the green No 13 shirt. Men like Darren Cave, Keith Earls, Eoin O'Malley, Luke Fitzgerald and even Tommy Bowe all come in for long-term mention. But, right now, the battle to be Ireland's outside-centre is – in the short-term – a one-liner.
For Kidney, there may even be a certain comfort in this as the final two rounds of the Heineken Cup pool stages threaten – if anything – to muddy the waters of international selection.
Next week, he must name the squad to assemble at Carton House to prepare for a tournament many expect will conclude his term as Ireland coach. Quite what his philosophy will be in this Six Nations is open to conjecture.
Kidney's position looked so perilous prior to the remarkable, seven-try sun-dance against Argentina in November, his trusted lieutenant Les Kiss even fell into the trap of articulating an interest in succeeding Eric Elwood at Connacht.
Ireland, at the time, were on a run of five successive Test defeats, including the humiliating 60-point whitewash in Hamilton, and looking in real danger of a ruinous slide into third-tier ranking for the upcoming World Cup draw.
But, on November 24, they produced something previously unimaginable in their sour, adversarial history with the Pumas. That is a performance of such easy, coherent authority that the illusion of contest had burnt away in 20 minutes.
The 46-24 victory suddenly subdued talk of unease in a camp that, reportedly, teetered on the verge of crisis just two weeks earlier after 60pc possession against a lethargic Springbok outfit proved insufficient to stave off defeat.
Circumstance had forced Kidney's hand in the autumn series with O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell, Rob Kearney, Sean O'Brien, Rory Best and Stephen Ferris all absent through injury.
And that circumstance ultimately now sat like a goading asterisk under the filleting of a Puma team, playing its 12th Test match in six months. Kidney gave men like Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy, Richardt Strauss and Chris Henry starts against Argentina, all playing beautifully. But the lure of the gamble has never, historically, shaped his team selection.
He'd gone to the poker table only because he had to. And now? The Argentina win ensured that – irrespective of how many provinces might reach the European quarter-finals – the Irish will go into the Six Nations optimistic.
For the IRFU, this was essential. The prevalent soundtrack after the Springbok defeat was one of groans and grumbles as a promising mid-point position for Ireland failed to decant a single second-half score. With a pack weighing, on average, five kilos a man more than their hosts', South Africa just bullied their way to victory. In the absence of innovation or savvy, Ireland were undone by size.
And maybe it didn't help that, in praising Ireland's first-half display, the Boks' head coach Heyneke Meyer chose to decry the performance of his own team as "unworthy of the Springbok jersey."
So Kidney needed to pull something from the hat against Argentina. Only time will reveal if what he came up with was a dove or a trick of the light.
With a wedge of 10-year tickets to sell, his employers need the momentum of a bright Championship now. Under Eddie O'Sullivan, Ireland averaged a remarkable 70pc win rate in the Six Nations – they won 19 of 25 matches between '03 and '07.
But, since securing the '09 Grand Slam, Kidney's return has regressed to a modest eight wins from 15 played.
For him to secure a third term and take the team into the next World Cup, that arithmetic has to get better. The consensus normally holds that any season bringing both France and England to Dublin is one ripe with opportunity. But Ireland's and Kidney's fate may well be shaped by what happens in the Millennium Stadium in three weeks.
Lose to Wales and it is hard to envisage going to Rome on March 16 with a Championship still to play for.
And that's the quandary. You see, the infirmary beds have been emptying of late with Leinster welcoming back O'Driscoll, Kearney, O'Brien and even Luke Fitzgerald. In other words, the circumstance that prevailed in November no longer applies.
Ferris is forecast to make a late surge for Ulster inclusion before the Heineken slips into hibernation, so – O'Connell apart – the coach has a lot of 'safe hands' returning to his disposal.
A mediocre Six Nations might be forgiven or, at least, tolerated if the team used can be deemed transitional. But struggle with the remnants of the 'golden generation' and Kidney will undoubtedly fall instantly on his sword.
In this, the bookies don't much fancy his chances of survival, placing only Scotland and Italy behind the Irish in any Championship betting.
But Wales struggled hopelessly in November without Warren Gatland's hand on the tiller and Scotland finally parted company with Andy Robinson after a stinging Murrayfield loss to Samoa. Then, of course, Ireland's run of victories over Italy now stretches to 17.
All three away fixtures are clearly negotiable by the right team.
That said, Ireland have won just one of their last 13 contests with France and, if the record against England is an impressive seven wins from the last 10, the manner in which Stuart Lancaster's team devoured New Zealand at the breakdown in November suggests he might have introduced his players to the concept of humility.
They devoured a hopelessly wounded Irish scrum last year too and, if we could comfort ourselves then that Mike Ross's departure had been the catalyst for collapse at Twickenham, the ease with which Clermont recently targeted the Leinster tighthead suggests potentially difficult days ahead.
So, assuming O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney, fitness-permitting, will start in Cardiff and that Best will step in for Strauss at hooker, the landscape of Kidney's 'revolution' begins to change.
Bowe's injury has cleared the path to a starting birth for Gilroy with Ulster and, given the thrilling efficacy of his display against Argentina, it seems certain he too will be retained as a selected wing in Cardiff. But who will play at 14?
Gordon D'Arcy's excellent form suggests he is a shoo-in at inside-centre, where only the late Nevin Spence and the injured Luke Marshall seemed to be making any meaningful charge, so Kidney must probably choose between Earls, Zebo, Fergus McFadden or Andrew Trimble for his second wing berth.
And, if Conor Murray engaged the Puma back-row brilliantly last November, is his delivery considered slick enough to make him the right half-back partner for Jonny Sexton in Cardiff?
Given that front-row and second-row look nailed on as Healy-Best-Ross-Ryan-McCarthy, what about the back-row? Without Ferris and O'Brien, Ireland reputedly lost the ability to punch holes and set up quick ruck ball. That is until Peter O'Mahony, Chris Henry and Jamie Heaslip devoured their Argentinian counterparts without salt.
Psychologically, the fate of the provinces over these next two weekends won't amount to a hill of beans when the Irish squad reassembles.
Those who have fared well will, automatically, arrive with a positive headset. Those who haven't will be simply thankful of fresh surroundings. But Irish rugby is in a tricky spot just now and Kidney knows he is at the epicentre.
His strength has never been as a technical coach. It is in man-management, in clever delegation, in the creation of an environment in which positivity flows.
But that positivity had, palpably, drained away last year, with even O'Driscoll alluding to communication issues in an environment deprived of a scrum coach and with Kiss, the hitherto defence coach, essentially double-jobbing as backs guru in place of the departed Alan Gaffney.
"I think we just need to get clarity on who the point of reference is for our attacking game," he told this writer prior to the November Series. "In New Zealand I think we could just have gotten our detail a little bit better.
"We've got to look at making sure that everyone is getting the same message."
After that tour, Kidney insisted that he knew how to fix the problems in his squad, and beating Argentina certainly sedated the orchestra of critics. But injuries forced his hand in November. This time, a sixth sense must kick in.
Stick or twist for Cardiff? The IRFU will be inviting CVs if he gets it wrong.