The price of failure
Kidney’s time up as injury crisis and selection failures lead to humbling defeats and cast doubts over Lions hopes of underperforming Irish stars
Published 26/02/2013 | 04:00
THE inevitable response to defeat in competition for Ireland is an over-reaction – out with the old, in with the new.
No one who has any love for sport should take any great pleasure in the following statement: Declan Kidney's position is probably untenable at this juncture. Ireland's losses to two ordinary sides in England and Scotland have quickened the sands in the hour-glass of his time as Ireland head coach.
There are extenuating circumstances for certain, not least the almost unbelievable injury crisis he and the team have been working under.
But those who simply want change for the sake of change have, predictably, refused to even acknowledge that fact. It is hypocritical in the extreme to dismiss Ireland's win over Australia in the World Cup because they were missing David Pocock and then ignore the seven starters Ireland were without on Sunday.
Declan Kidney has never been the most popular of Ireland coaches, with an underlying ambivalence from some sections of the Irish rugby public towards him, which is – to an extent – rooted in the unfavourable publicity he receives in sections of the media.
The Ireland coach has never been fully accepted with the same warmth Eddie O'Sullivan was in certain circles. This has much to do with Kidney's refusal to curry favour in the media game and his reluctance to court the spotlight.
The cries for regime change back in November before Ireland's seven-try rout of Argentina were wholly premature and propagated by a narcissism that should have no place in the debate because it colours dialogue and makes it impossible for discussions about the current state of Irish rugby to be held in a rational way.
Allowing for the agendas that have simmered beneath for quite some time, there is no denying that the tide has turned, especially as the past couple of weeks have unveiled a worrying trend – Ireland have not scored in the last 35 minutes of the games against England and Scotland.
To thrive in any international match Ireland must work to exhaustion and no one should question the dedication of the players on Sunday.
They certainly tried things that didn't come off and made mistakes. Sean O'Brien, for example, would gladly turn back the clock and not concede the penalty that afforded Scotland a relieving kick when Ireland were in a good position entering the final quarter of the game and only a point separated the sides.
And while the idea was, in theory, a good one, Ronan O'Gara will absolutely regret the attempted cross-field kick on 73 minutes that caused consternation inside Ireland's '22'.
Had it come off it would have been acknowledged as a stroke of genius. That it didn't highlights that it was badly executed and probably neither the time nor place to try something so audacious.
With their endeavour beyond question, why then have Ireland been so impotent in the final half hour of matches? Answers must be sought to the questions being posed and everyone associated must take responsibility.
Scotland won and Ireland, collectively, lost – players, management, supporters and all stakeholders. But, as with all sports, the coaching staff are invariably right in the line of fire by virtue of the fact that they, and not the players, are seen as being more expendable. It isn't hugely fair because they should not be held accountable for players making mistakes.
In this particular instance, however, they can, and must, accept culpability for an initially flawed selection, especially their dubious decision to rely on a place-kicker who, at his very best, barely registers a 75pc return from the kicking tee.
This is especially pertinent when remembering that it is in the first 20 minutes of a match that a statement of intent can be made, and is it crucial that in that period all opportunities are maximised.
It is also much more likely that opportunities from the tee will present themselves more readily in the opening quarter than try-scoring ones.
Was it courage or foolishness that prompted the selection at out-half of a callow 21-year-old, who imploded in his only other experience of pressure rugby in last season's Heineken Cup final against Leinster?
Perhaps Jackson will mature into an international standard out-half. He has time on his side. Declan Kidney, on the other hand, didn't. It is not the Ulsterman's fault he was put in a position that was beyond him. That fault lies with those (he) who selected him.
But there is plenty of blame to go around. Every aspect of professional rugby has a price, nothing is cheap and the final cost of Ireland's failings in their last two games has the potential to bankrupt those with most to lose.
How many of Ireland's team played themselves out of Lions selection?
With three games played in the championship, Jamie Heaslip is looking unlikely to make the touring party. But even if he does, there isn't the remotest possibility of his captaining the side.
He has exerted no control over Ireland's play in the three games and it has become increasingly noticeable that Brian O'Driscoll is still calling the shots, armband or not.
There are plenty of options at full-back, with Wales' Leigh Halfpenny looking favourite to be the Test selection.
Rob Kearney is still in the picture as a tourist, but the chances of his retaining the Test shirt he wore with such distinction are evaporating with Ireland's continuing malaise.
Rory Best's efforts out of touch are now a big problem for Ireland. That this has traditionally been one of the strongest facets of his game is disconcerting and, as a consequence, Donnacha Ryan's Lions chances are also faltering because the line-out will be a major platform for Warren Gatland's side during the summer.
If Ireland do not re-discover how to score – prior to the game against England they had scored 25 tries in 12 Tests – the fallout could be huge, especially for their attacking players.
Craig Gilroy, Simon Zebo, Sean O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony have all been referenced by Gatland since November as potential tourists, but if Ireland continue their descent into mediocrity the country's representation during the summer could be severely limited.
The players who excelled in November against Argentina and in the first half against Wales have not become bad players.
Mistakes have been made and the players must accept – which they surely will – responsibility for their shortcomings.
Kidney and his assistants will already have discussed what happened in Murrayfield and will spend valuable time over the next few days examining the video of the game. When that is done they will address the troops in Carton House on Thursday.
They will highlight the mistakes made, the poor decisions taken and the opportunities rejected. They are not immune from criticism, though. The coaches are a collective and collaborate heavily before Declan Kidney decides on the ultimate course of action.
The final decisions rest with the head coach, however. It is he who decided that Heaslip should be appointed captain.
The issue was not in taking the captaincy off O'Driscoll. The reasons for doing that are actually sound; he won't be there in 2015 and is unlikely to be playing international rugby beyond this season. But the choice of his successor was/is flawed.
Heaslip has modified his behaviour and now carries himself like a captain in his public duties off the field. But in the dressing-room and on the field he has failed to ignite those who look to him, as their leader, for inspiration and direction.
One former international coach actually made the point that after the Wales match an argument could be made for dropping Heaslip. If he were not the captain would he have been selected to play against Scotland and would he play against France?
The coaching staff must also answer for the decision to send their team into battle without the necessary weaponry. These mistakes and errors in judgment are likely to prove to be fatal in their endeavours to extend their contracts, even with two games left to play in the championship.
The season promised so much. And now it's even beyond damage limitation. Ireland's ambitions are in ruins and, with nothing left to play for beyond avoiding the Wooden Spoon, the atmosphere in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday week threatens to be depressing.
Ireland's supporters desperately wanted something to latch onto. It wasn't so long ago Ireland were tripping over Triple Crowns and we were revelling in the successes of the 'Golden Generation'.
The enthusiasm that greeted the magnificent win over Argentina and the exciting victory over Wales has been replaced by an almost unbearable weight of disillusionment.
It is incumbent on the players to redress that balance against France or they risk another dull Aviva experience.
The IRFU are an organisation for whom the bottom line remains all-powerful. If the support turns against this Ireland team and the numbers visiting the Aviva Stadium fall, then the coaches will be sacrificed.
No one should derive any joy from that.