Sunday 30 April 2017

Sticking with same hand is a major gamble

Hugh Farrelly

IN 1986, Declan Kidney was coaching the PBC Cork Junior team and caused a major surprise when he picked a prop ('Eggy' O'Leary) on the wing -- 'Pres' went onto win the Cup.

In 1996, Kidney was coaching Dolphin in the AIL and got rid of the core of senior forwards, switched the regular, kicking out-half to full-back and transformed a mauling, 10-man rugby outfit into a quick-rucking team that won promotion to Division 1 for the first time.

In 2008, Kidney selected Tomas O'Leary and Denis Hurley ahead of experienced regulars Peter Stringer and Shaun Payne for Munster's quarter-final against Gloucester in Kingsholm -- Munster went onto to claim their second title in Cardiff, with O'Leary and Hurley starting all the knockout games.

In 2011, Kidney made a late decision to bring rookie Conor Murray to the World Cup ahead of Grand Slam-winning scrum-half O'Leary -- Murray excelled and was promoted to the Ireland starting side as the tournament progressed.

In short, while Kidney has acquired a reputation for caution over the years, this is not a coach averse to taking gambles -- which is why this week's Six Nations squad was more than a little deflating.

By sticking with 24 players from what was, ultimately, a failed World Cup campaign, there was no acknowledgement of the need to kick on from what came up short in New Zealand.

This is dangerous territory. In 2007, Eddie O'Sullivan went to the World Cup in France with what he thought was a winning formula and, bar a couple of minor tweaks, stuck to it doggedly as Ireland disappeared up the swanee.

Under pressure going into the 2008 Six Nations, there were no sweeping changes (such as the ones that revitalised Irish rugby after the Lens debacle in 1999) and O'Sullivan was gone after the last game against England.

Although Ireland's 2011 showing was far superior to 2007, the World Cup remains a major regret and opportunity lost. If you could turn back the clock and change the build-up to that quarter-final, you might move the Ireland squad away from the fawning adulation they were subjected to in the centre of Wellington.

However, even if Ireland had been able to recreate the levels of intensity that surrounded the camp before the Australia game (when they were billeted on the outskirts of Auckland) there is still no guarantee it would have prevented a very good Welsh side from doing what they did.

Sticking closely to the World Cup personnel for the Six Nations was always likely, as well as logical, and the team to face Wales is pretty predictable: Rob Kearney at full-back, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble on the wings with Keith Earls or Fergus McFadden partnering Gordon D'Arcy in midfield; Ronan O'Gara or Jonathan Sexton at 10 outside either Conor Murray or Eoin Reddan and -- bar the possible inclusion of Donnacha Ryan -- the same pack that faced Australia.

However, while there was never a need for an England-style overhaul, there was scope for acknowledging recent form in the Heineken Cup. Luke Fitzgerald, Dan Tuohy and one of either Chris Henry or Peter O'Mahony had earned inclusion in the Six Nations squad and their omission means this was not a form selection.

Fitzgerald, assuming his neck injury clears up, could still be introduced but naming him in the senior 24 would have rewarded his stunning return to form, while not precluding his involvement with a Wolfhounds squad -- where the omission of Paul Marshall and O'Mahony was simply baffling (the size argument doesn't cut it based on their performances this season).

While the majority of the selections on Wednesday were incontestable, Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin was not wrong when he labelled the squads "conservative" and, even allowing for the over-riding need for victories in World Cup seeding year, there needed to be a more bold outlook.

Wales proved in Wellington how a bold approach can pay off and they will be the first ones to test Ireland's 'same again' policy.

Kidney's coaching credentials are impeccable going back nearly 30 years and, bar one bad day at the office, Ireland got a lot right at the World Cup. It means he is under nowhere near the same pressure as O'Sullivan ahead of the Six Nations four years ago but, with Wales and France to be faced in the space of six days, that could quickly change. A couple of fresh, in-form faces would have created a degree of wriggle room and Kidney's conservative gamble could be his biggest yet.

Irish Independent

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