Hugh Farrelly: Kidney must show he has heart of a lion
Published 13/01/2012 | 05:00
'BOLD as a lion' is a phrase that has its origin in the bible (Proverbs 28:1), but also one that has significance for Ireland coach Declan Kidney heading into the Six Nations.
The decision on who will lead the Lions to Australia next year is due to be made at the end of the tournament in March, with Wales coach Warren Gatland the clear favourite, followed by Scotland's Andy Robinson and Kidney a distant third.
That pecking order could have been different had Ireland not been flipped over by the Welsh in the World Cup quarter-finals last October, but, either way, the Six Nations will play a major role in deciding who gets the gig.
It is a job made for Kidney -- the ultimate man manager and delegator -- who flourishes in a tour environment (as was proven at the World Cup up until Wales did their thing).
Kidney would surround himself with expertise in every area and take an exhaustive approach to ensuring his players were in the best condition to secure a first series victory in 16 years.
More obtuse than the straight-talking Gatland and Robinson, there is the issue of new players adjusting to 'Kidney-speak' and his unique mind-set, but it is an issue that has never prevented success in the past.
However, all of that is irrelevant if Kidney does not produce in the Six Nations and, after the 'opportunity lost' of the World Cup, it is essential that Ireland go into the competition with a progressive attitude.
Next Wednesday, Kidney announces his Six Nations and Wolfhounds squads and, while naming such a large group of players provides unavoidable scope for expansion (accentuated by injury to 'old guard' players such as Brian O'Driscoll, David Wallace, Denis Leamy and Jerry Flannery), there is still the opportunity to make a bold statement.
Nowhere more than centre. O'Driscoll's absence makes midfield the most intriguing area of selection, in both squads, and there are a clutch of promising candidates ready to step up.
There is also Paddy Wallace, a seasoned campaigner and long-standing favourite of Kidney's -- dating back to the successful 1998 U-19 World Cup campaign.
Wallace recently signed a one-year contract extension and has made a timely return from injury to gain selection in Ulster's side to take on Leicester tonight.
Wallace has been a good servant to the Irish game, never a locked-down starter, but a talented, committed player who has fulfilled a valuable role over the course of 29 caps.
However, given that he is now 32 and unlikely to be around for the next World Cup, selecting him next week would be ultra-conservative with so many candidates coming through.
Wallace's ability to play out-half or first centre has always strengthened his case for involvement, but the progress of Ian Madigan this season gives Kidney a viable, exciting option as back-up to his established 10s Ronan O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton.
Fergus McFadden is a front-runner for O'Driscoll's 13 jersey next to Gordon D'Arcy, but here again there is an opportunity for a bold break with the past. McFadden has shown he can do a decent job in the outside slot, but he looks an exceptional international prospect at 12, ticking all the boxes of distribution, strength in contact, quick feet and kicking ability.
That could open the way for Keith Earls or Luke Fitzgerald at 13, or indeed D'Arcy (it is not hard to recall his breakthrough impact there when O'Driscoll was unavailable in 2004), while Darren Cave, Eoin Griffin, Eoin O'Malley and David McSharry add to the midfield mix.
Wallace could have a stormer this evening for Ulster, but there is a need to look to the future and this extends to the attacking style, where expanding the briefs of Mark Tainton and Les Kiss, rather than bringing in a specialist attack coach, provides an easy outlet for criticism should Ireland's backs fail to click.
However, the fact that back play was largely stilted under former coach Alan Gaffney works in favour of the new overseers and increases the likelihood of extra invention.
Back-row and second-row are the other areas where Kidney can look to the future, but do not expect a massive England-style departure from the World Cup when the squad is announced next week -- Ireland do not have the same resources or dire need to wipe the slate clean.
Nonetheless, let us hope for a bold approach to the start of the next World Cup cycle. The Lions job is up for grabs and conservatism will not cut it.