Is Kidney the new Trap?
In terms of selection, tactics and substitutions, Ireland's rugby coach is drawing comparisons with his soccer counterpart but that could be about to change spectacularly, writes Hugh Farrelly
Published 09/02/2011 | 05:00
On the surface, there would not appear to be a whole lot of similarities between a 71-year-old fashion-conscious Italian football manager and a 51-year-old rugby man from Cork, happiest with a tracksuit and a whistle.
However, following Ireland's disappointing, and nerve-wracking, victory over Italy last weekend, Declan Kidney has been likened to Giovanni Trapattoni in terms of his approach to the Ireland team.
While there are areas of commonality to be found between the two national coaches -- starting with their 2008 appointments -- it is overly simplistic to say both men operate under the umbrella of inherent conservatism.
Since Trapattoni came on board as Ireland soccer manager in 2008, his most impressive statistic is Ireland not losing a competitive fixture away from home. In Dublin, they have been less assured, but the system favoured by the Italian is ideally suited to picking up results on the road, and he makes no apologies for it.
When the issue of conservatism is raised, Trapattoni regularly refers to the infamous 5-2 mauling in Cyprus under his predecessor Steve Staunton. Ireland went into that match geared for attack and were hit for five by a side that could hardly be described as a world power. The upshot is that Trapattoni is not about to risk something similar happening on his watch.
When Kidney took over from Eddie O'Sullivan, he led Ireland to their first Grand Slam in 61 years, employing a system and tactics based on pragmatism rather than adventure. These revolved around solid set-pieces, claustrophobic defence and a territory game masterminded by out-half Ronan O'Gara. It proved extremely effective, without producing the type of breathtaking rugby that jumps out of the highlights reel.
There were glimpses, notably against France in Croke Park, of Ireland's attacking potential, but their 2009 triumph was far removed from Mick Doyle's 'give it a lash' Triple Crown-winning policy of 1985.
However, trophy secured, Kidney's thoughts turned to the World Cup two years down the line and there was an acceptance that Ireland would have to expand their approach to compete with the southern hemisphere heavyweights at New Zealand 2011.
That prerogative was accentuated by changes to the rules that favoured the attacking team by putting the onus on quick ball from the breakdown. Suddenly, the off-load was back in fashion, and Ireland needed to get with the programme, and fast.
They have struggled to adapt but, the difference with Trapattoni's approach to the soccer team is the willingness to try.
Last summer's tour to the southern hemisphere will be recorded as a winless, injury-ridden expedition but there were definite signs of progress in Ireland's offence. Four well-conceived tries against the All Blacks with players off the pitch was a worthy achievement by any standards and enough to excite the ire of the All Black management.
Against the Maori a week later, there was more evidence of this attacking departure and, while the November series was ultimately a pretty stodgy affair, there were passages of play against New Zealand that showed how effective Kidney's men can be when they find their attacking mojo.
Last weekend, the Ireland backs had attacking shape and willingness and, if they had managed to make their passes and hold onto the ball, it would have been a comfortable win rather than a get-out-of-jail affair.
As Leinster have demonstrated with a clutch of the same players, the skill set is there, and Kidney has given his men, notably the back three, licence to attack. It is now a question of making it click.
Trapattoni picks his players to suit his system. The glaring examples are Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan, players who consider themselves to be creative influences but are asked to fulfil holding roles in midfield.
It has made Andy Reid into the cause celebre of barstool barrackers and Dublin taxi drivers but, in Trapattoni's eyes, Reid does not fit into this tactical straitjacket. End of.
The Italian goes for calculated, gradual introduction and is careful to surround international rookies with experience. Thus, last night's debutants Seamus Coleman and Ciaran Clark were provided with babysitters in the form of John O'Shea and Damien Duff.
Kidney too employs a cautious selection policy as typified by Tomas O'Leary's inclusion last weekend based on his defensive capabilities more than form or speed of delivery.
He also likes proven combinations, such as second-rows Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell, and stuck loyally with the waning powers of tight-head John Hayes in his squads when the overwhelming evidence pointed to the need for change. That came, belatedly, last weekend with Mike Ross called up, at a time when Hayes and Tony Buckley were unavailable due to injury.
However, although a steady stream of injuries have come into the equation, Kidney, unlike Trapattoni, is prepared to give new players a go and the oft-stated policy of deepening the Ireland squad has been successful.
Fergus McFadden Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien, Devin Toner, Damien Varley and Ross are just some of the players to get their chance and the best example of his willingness to give youth its fling was Rhys Ruddock's surprise call-up last summer.
Trapattoni's substitution policy has been a point of criticism since he took over, as has Kidney's.
Against Italy, there was a strong argument for replacing O'Leary with Eoin Reddan a lot earlier than 63 minutes, while Sean Cronin could have brought some zip to Ireland's second-half ball-carrying but was not called upon until the 75th minute. Gordon D'Arcy's struggles with his ball-handling also invited change but he was having a big game in defence and Paddy Wallace did not appear until the same time as Cronin.
However, the introduction of Ronan O'Gara with 14 minutes to go shows Kidney's capacity to make the big calls -- Jonathan Sexton was playing well but it was a decision that paid off handsomely.
There is a case to make changes sooner, particularly when some of the front-liners return from injury because, unlike during O'Sullivan's 'as you were' reign, Kidney has manufactured a situation where he has proven options to choose from.
The fact that Trapattoni is a conservative manager is irrefutable and that is not expected to change any time soon.
However, while there are undeniably elements of conservatism to Kidney's tenure, there are also indications that Ireland are ready to strike upon the expansion they crave, with the personnel to make it happen.
Confidence was an issue in November, and appeared to be again on Saturday, but this Irish squad has the potential to be a serious attacking force and Kidney is prepared to unleash them -- safety first is the last approach you take into a clash with the French.