10 key questions facing Kidney
FOR a small sporting country, we're not slow to get the knives out.
Saturday's 33-10 defeat has provoked an intense, knee-jerk reaction but while it's far from push-the-panic-button time, there are suddenly issue to address and new territory for Declan Kidney to traverse.
It is not the defeat per se -- the unbeaten run could not go on forever -- it was the manner of it. Ireland were lined up and summarily executed, something that Kidney has not encountered in his professional career.
While Kidney's men made a strong start and had scoring opportunities which could have altered the trend of the game, there were passages of play where France appeared to be operating in a different sphere.
Les Bleus looked exactly what they purport to be -- a top-four side, ready to compete with the Tri-Nations elite and make a genuine challenge for the World Cup next year.
And Ireland? Last year, they raised the bar by landing the Grand Slam, overcame rustiness to secure an excellent draw with a fast-improving Wallabies outfit and crowned the year with a superb win over the world champion Springboks. You could add the summer Test and Churchill Cup victories to the list, both overseen by Kidney and his management.
There is no doubt things fell Ireland's way to a certain extent -- having France and England at home, Stephen Jones' kick dropping short, South Africa arriving in Dublin at the fag-end of a long season -- but it was still a remarkable 2009 and in keeping with Kidney's coaching career which has always benefited from his Midas Touch.
That deserted him on Saturday, particularly when the ball bounced the wrong way for Gordon D'Arcy and denied Ireland the first psychologically settling try.
But, while things did not go Ireland's way, the plethora of handling errors and clinical manner in which they were dismantled has put our World Cup plans in perspective. The next match against England in Twickenham on Saturday week is now a must-win to get a train (that had been chugging along merrily towards New Zealand 2011 before Saturday's sudden de-railing) back on track.
One defeat does not make a crisis but two would push the squad in that direction and, before we get to Twickenham, there are various important issues to be debated.
1 -- France look like genuine World Cup contenders, where does this leave Ireland for 2011?
People may question how matches nearly two years out are relevant but the fact our professional elite have been operating under a "World Cup 2011 management scheme" since the start of the season emphasises the extent to which that tournament has become the over-riding imperative post-Grand Slam 2009.
Truthfully, Ireland were never genuine candidates to win the next tournament (particularly after New Zealand, desperate to end their 23-year hiatus, engineered their hosting of the tournament). However, having consistently under-performed at the World Cup (with the possible exception of 1991), there were genuine reasons for believing the Irish were headed towards their most meaningful achievement since first competing in 1987 -- a place in the last four. That looks far less certain after Saturday.
Victory over Australia at the pool stages is necessary to avoid the All Blacks in the quarters and this year's jousts in Paris, Brisbane and New Zealand were ear-marked as the challenges to provide the mental surety that would stand to the squad down the line. They failed the first test spectacularly and now the summer tour assumes even greater significance.
2 -- Can Ireland compete physically with the top four?
It didn't look that way last Saturday. This was unexpected as Ireland had matched, and bested, a South African side characterised by their brute force in November.
However, there were times at the Stade de France when the French looked like they belonged in a different weight division, with Keith Earls and Paddy Wallace looked particularly exposed in this regard.
Andrew Trimble and Shane Horgan both trade on their physicality and may come into the equation for Twickenham. England may have their limitations but their size is not one of them and Saturday week will be another test of Ireland's muscle capacity.
3 -- Will John Hayes win his 100th cap in Twickenham?
Probably, but whether it is from the start or off the bench is less clear. Hayes has been a remarkable workhorse, and a cornerstone of his country's achievements, over the past 10 years.
Though he will be pushing 38 when the World Cup comes around, there was no evidence to suggest definitively that the Cappamore man would not be still packing down in 2011.
After Saturday, that is less certain. The bang Hayes took to his head did not help matters but he looked weary and the vastly-improved Tom Court made a difference in the scrum and is better in the loose.
The importance of the scrum has been firmly re-established after the ELVs nonsense and Mike Ross needs to get some game time for Leinster.
4 -- Should there be changes at half-back?
Half-backs struggle when their pack is up against it and neither Ronan O'Gara nor Tomas O'Leary had their finest day in green as the Irish eight was dominated by France, and Francois Trinh-Duc ran hard and well at the out-half channel.
Jonathan Sexton's international development would benefit from starting in the intensity of Twickenham, and there will be calls to partner him with Leinster scrum-half Eoin Reddan, who quickened the tempo when he came on against France.
However, while Sexton could well start, O'Leary has been hugely influential over the last 12 months and has not suddenly become a liability; his physical presence would be a boon for the expected defensive slug-fest against England.
5 -- Do Ireland have a discipline problem?
They did on Saturday. In high-intensity environments, players react instinctively to plays in front of them but these reactions are proving costly.
Perhaps Cian Healy's tug on Morgan Parra prevented a certain try -- we will never know -- but it handed France the initiative and they had amassed 10 points before he returned from the bin.
Jerry Flannery avoided any card-based punishment for his swing at Alexis Palisson but it was an unnecessary bonus for the opposition. Discipline is not necessarily a long-term problem but it will feature strongly in the build-up to Twickenham.
6 -- Has Ireland's defensive system been worked out?
Les Kiss' appointment as defence coach proved an inspired decision as Ireland withstood against the best the opposition could throw at them last year.
And, though France broke through on numerous occasions and scored three tries, it was France in Paris and they had to wait until the Irish were reduced to 14 before they had any joy. Then, once the game broke up as Ireland chased, the gaps appeared. Ireland's defence is not suddenly brittle but will be under intense scrutiny against England.
7 -- Will Paul O'Connell rule the roost in Twickenham?
We have become so accustomed to O'Connell being described as one of the best second-rows in the world that it is strange to see him struggle as he did on Saturday.
His line-out work, in tandem with Leo Cullen, was impeccable, but he struggled to make an impact around the park in the manner of Lionel Nallet and Pascal Pape, while his handling failed him at key moments.
The pressures of captaining last summer's Lions tour were intense but O'Connell showed in Perpignan and against South Africa that he was not suffering from a hangover.
However, the Munster captain, and Ireland, could use one of his Superman specials against Simon Shaw and Steve Borthwick.
8 -- Is Rob Kearney still the best option at full-back?
Since that tour-de-force against South Africa capped a wonder year, the full-back has come in for concerted criticism after a dip in form for Leinster was carried into the opening Six Nations win over Italy.
His knock-on from the kick-off last Saturday was ominous but Kearney was growing into the game (notably a superb up-and-under retrieve) before getting injured.
Being sidelined is never desirable but the chance to refocus could do the Louth man the world of good because his class is not in doubt and he remains important to the Ireland squad looking down the road.
9 -- Are there tactical issues to address?
Kidney was pleased that Ireland kept their attacking approach even when the game was gone against France.
The failure to kick for territory early on has been criticised but Ireland's attacking policy saw them dominate for the first 20 minutes. The problem was not tactics, it was the unforced errors and failure to apply the clinical finish after good approach play.
10 -- Should Kidney give youth its fling?
Donnacha Ryan, Sean Cronin and Sean O'Brien are young, talented players who would benefit from starting in Twickenham and there will be knee-jerk calls for wholesale change.
But, Ireland have Wales and Scotland to come in Croke Park and the policy of bringing talent through is more likely to be addressed then. After Paris, the rules have changed, now there is one simple mission to get back on track -- beat England.