O'Connell and Kearney left with questions to answer
Published 23/03/2010 | 05:00
Now that the dust has settled and reality kicked in, it's time to reflect on a strange sort of championship -- particularly from an Irish perspective.
Let's start by stating the blindingly obvious. On Saturday's indisputable evidence, we are nowhere near as good as we thought we were, but equally we are nowhere near as bad as I expect will be portrayed in the coming days.
Former Ulster and Irish legend Noel Henderson once said: "The state of British sport is mostly serious but never hopeless. The state of Irish sport is usually hopeless but never serious."
Well, despite Saturday's hugely disappointing Triple Crown defeat in the farewell to Croke Park, the state of Irish rugby is far from hopeless.
On Friday night in Athlone, Ireland's U-20s clinched the Triple Crown and the Six Nations Championship by way of an emphatic 44-15 victory over Scotland.
Much more important than the success was the substance of the performance. Allen Clarke, the former Irish hooker and now the IRFU elite player development manager and Ireland U-20 coach, deserves great praise for his team's display at Dubarry Park.
Here was proof positive of the measured transition from promising schoolboy to fledgling professional. Clarke has significant talent with which to work and has maximised that opportunity. We all appreciate the need for more indigenous coaching talent.
In Clarke, we have one well on the way up the ladder. Almost everything Clarke's team tried on Friday was positive, varied and full of running ambition, despite incessant rainfall in the midlands.
At Croke Park, though, all the most sensible application and appropriate tactical nous was provided by the Scots.
All told, it made for a hugely disappointing end to an otherwise reasonable season, and the campaign finished with more questions than answers.
There are serious set-piece issues. Our front row is the most obvious target, with Cian Healy still a long way short of being the finished loose-head article -- unsurprisingly, given that this is his first full season as an international.
Jerry Flannery will return and, along with Rory Best (despite Saturday's blip) ensure that competition remains hot at hooker.
At tight-head, however, we face the other extreme, with time catching up fast on John Hayes. I feel that Hayes should be left at home on the farm this summer in order to recharge the batteries for one final World Cup hurrah.
I do not share the need for panic following a disappointing line-out return against the Scots. Ross Ford, Jim Hamilton, Alastair Kellock and John Beattie won the battle out of touch, no question, which was central to the overall outcome, but the line-out is not a problem going forward.
The scrum is a different matter. Kidney should, and I expect will, load up with props for the end-of-season tour.
Marcus Horan, Mike Ross, Tom Court, Tony Buckley as well as Healy should all be included.
Another issue confronting Kidney is the need for a bench he can trust -- as was the case with Eddie O'Sullivan.
On Saturday despite the clear problems, he was slow to initiate change, particularly in the final quarter. The obvious if unstated reason was that he felt those struggling were better equipped to dig us out of a hole than any of those remaining in reserve.
As Kidney admitted himself, "it's not an exact science", but the subtext clearly is a lack of belief that his replacements are sufficiently equipped to do the job. To that end it is imperative that a rotational system operates in the games against the Barbarians, New Zealand, the Maori and Australia.
Given the quality of opposition on successive weekends, the option of leaving others (apart from Hayes) at home is simply not there. Imagine, too, the outrage in the Antipodes if Brian O'Driscoll, say, or Paul O'Connell were to be rested.
While O'Connell did spark against the English and Welsh, his impact this campaign has not been to the consistently high standard he has set himself.
The same could be said of Stephen Ferris. Even allowing for injury (forcing him to miss the opening game), only at Twickenham did he touch on his pre-Lions form. Hayes and David Wallace also disappointed overall.
Indeed, of the first-choice pack, only Jamie Heaslip -- though like the rest, he was largely anonymous against the superior Scottish force -- performed to the level we have come to take for granted.
Healy is still serving his apprenticeship but, along with Jonny Sexton, Keith Earls and the outstanding Tommy Bowe -- probably our only credible candidate for Team of the Tournament -- was part of a quartet on the up.
Sexton does have some goal-kicking demons in his head, one of whom is called O'Gara, I have no doubt. When Ollie Campbell and I were lining out together for Ireland, we would both admit to reneging on mental responsibility to some degree, each (mistakenly) secure in the knowledge that if one didn't do it, the other would.
In this key area, for sure, O'Gara is proving the stronger mentally. The out-half substitution could have been much more sympathetically choreographed, but the tactical replacement and timing of it was the right call by Kidney at the time.
O'Driscoll and Tomas O'Leary were steady, with the scrum-half upping the ante against the English and Welsh in particular.
But the biggest disappointment of all has been the dip in form of Rob Kearney. It all began with the block-down of a lazy clearing kick against the Italians which, followed by injury in Paris, culminated in Geordan Murphy deservedly taking control of the No 15 jersey.
The bottom line sees us finish in second place, but in truth with not a lot of conviction.
The French are up there with the southern hemisphere Big Three and we are now in a group with the rest. Were a team being picked today to play again on Saturday, I suspect there would be a change at out-half.
It makes for a confused end to a Six Nations campaign that promised so much.