Sport Comment & Analysis

Saturday 30 August 2014

Sacking coach the easy part – dithering suits must deal with wider malaise

David Kelly

Published 26/02/2013 | 04:00

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In 2008, when Ireland last lost successive games in the Six Nations – which still disproportionately drives the finances of the sport in this country, dwarfing all other income streams – it wasn't long before then coach Eddie O'Sullivan was chased out of town.

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Yet you wouldn't have thought it from the IRFU response to O'Sullivan's final game, at Twickenham, where his team downed tools in limp defeat. The response issued a day later was almost as meek as the side's loss.

Now, as Ireland reflect on this year's two defeats, the silence from those in authority is deafening.

Instead, a coach who blushes when asked his name in public is being forced to defend himself as he fends off what seems to be an inevitable drift until his contract expires following this summer's tour.

Players who are struggling for form are manfully defending their coach and imparting blame upon themselves when even hounds in the street know that there is a deeper malaise within this Irish side.

And within Irish rugby itself.

With Kidney now certain to depart, one presumes that Mike Ruddock and Anthony Foley are being politely asked to defer their summer holidays and take charge of Ireland's North American tour.

But still the IRFU won't be dusting down the 'Smart Boy Wanted' posters just yet; however, you reckon some of the anonymous suits who their paying public never sees and hears will be thumbing through the Rolodex and wondering whether that nice man Graham Henry has his name filed under G or H.

Is it time to be just a little afraid for the future of Irish rugby?

As the international game prepares to cast aside an Irish coach of true integrity with the best interests of the domestic game at his very core – sadly, with utter justification, as his results don't stack up and the trend is downward – what happens next?

If the best the IRFU can do is whistling past the graveyard in the expectation that Joe Schmidt or Conor O'Shea (right) are sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring, then they are heading for a serious fall.

Should we be surprised? Last time out, the IRFU were lifting the floorboards and rifling through cupboards when the outstanding candidate, Kidney, was standing in the middle of the room.

If Ireland seemed to take every rugby decision by committee in Murrayfield, it appears they haven't licked it off the streets, as the people who pay their wages are a similarly dithering lot.

Remember, this is the crowd who spent more than a year without filling the role of head of fitness. Who have yet to appoint a national scrum co-ordinator, having shown one guy – ironically the man who helped the Scots last weekend – a schedule that was allegedly beyond ridicule.

A crowd who have developed such a cack-handed approach on non-Irish-qualified players in the provincial system that now it seems the provinces and the IRFU will continue, as they always have, to make it up as they go along.

A crowd who overcharged for tickets and have struggled to get onside with an increasingly disenfranchised support base since, all the while as the big ticket 10-year deals continue to be snubbed by the hard-up, fallen erstwhile Celtic Tiger types.

Do you really think O'Shea will pitch up in a HQ where the director of rugby is somebody who even the most fervent rugby fan in the country couldn't pick out of a line-up?

Where balancing the books in an increasingly tight market is more important than having professional specialists atop the rugby pyramid or, heaven forbid, ensuring there was a pathway for Irish coaches instead of having overseas men leading all four provincial teams?

Before Kidney's arrival, Irish rugby, it seemed, stood upon the precipice of a steep, vertiginous decline, with its best players slowly drifting into old age and little sign of Leinster or Ulster being able to mount meaningful challenges to Munster in Europe.

To the sport's credit, and to the eternal gratitude of some of the finest players Ireland has ever produced, and a coach whose devotion to imbuing a real sense of identity and humility into his teams, Irish rugby did not slide into freefall after '08.

It got stronger.

A decline that had been threatened since the 2007 implosion was anything but; 2009 was indeed Irish rugby's annus mirabilis, that summer's record haul of an astonishing 14 call-ups for the Lions tour, a Grand Slam, Heineken Cup and Celtic League clean sweep an indication of the country's strength.

That summer was to be the high water-mark for the sport in this country.

The threat of incipient decline now accelerating is not beyond the realms of the impossible. In fact, it is happening before our very eyes.

Leinster are in transition, with realistic concerns about player succession in key areas. Munster have never recaptured the heights of success since bequeathing their European status as standard-bearers.

Ireland's greatest players are on the verge of retiring or exiting because of chronic injury – Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara, Stephen Ferris and Gordon D'Arcy. The next generation can never hope to scale the heights scaled by the golden generation.

The central contracts system has been exposed as being not as relevant as in its revolutionary impact more than a decade ago – a mounting injury profile, Jonny Sexton's departure and the decision of some (like Sean O'Brien) to spurn central deals indicates that even the famed 'system' is nearing its sell-by date.

Unworkable

For a head coach not being able, or not being willing, to order a provincial employee to ensure that a prospective Ireland out-half take kicks at goal for his club indicates that the system has become too unworkable in too many ways.

The game against France may or may not sell out on Saturday week; that there is even conjecture that this is so indicates the perilousness of the state of the game in this country.

It has been all too easy to take convenient potshots at Kidney or launch virulent viral assaults on his character and that of his players and simply proclaim that O'Shea, Schmidt, Madigan or Keatley will automatically proffer a solution to all Irish ills.

It is easier still to sit on your hands and do nothing, squirming (un)comfortably as of the business of hiring and firing international coaches is merely an annoying inconvenience which interrupts the daily graft of hoarding pennies in a cookie jar.

The players and coaches have been, and will continue to be, introspective as they continue with the business of a championship, retaining academic value for onlookers, only pride for its participants.

What about the IRFU?

Are they willing to confront the harsh realities of a game poised on the edge of a tipping point? Are they prepared to make the changes required to ensure that Kidney's successor has the best available opportunity to succeed at a global level?

It is going to be no easy task to identify solutions to the many searching problems facing the future of Irish rugby.

You just wonder whether anybody in a position of authority is asking the questions in the first place. Eighteen years after amateurism was laid to rest in a Paris graveyard, too many remnants remain within the Irish game.

Irish Independent

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