Sport Comment & Analysis

Friday 22 September 2017

Tony Ward: Trust cool-head Kidney to steady ship for Twickenham

It's not all been champagne and caviar for Declan Kidney in his coaching career; he's had his stale beer and mouldy cheese moments too. But the one consistent throughout his time at the helm for Ireland and, more particularly, Munster, has been his marked refusal to panic.

Losing the head is not in his nature. He may be burning with anger and fuelled with disappointment deep inside, but he seldom, if ever, shows it.

It is his undoubted strength that the ice-in-the-mind mentality, which he preaches ahead of the action to his players, is what he himself practices at all times. It means that he is the rock of sensibility, when it comes to moving on from one outcome to the next, that players need and trust.

And you can also be certain that, regardless of the public front, behind closed doors he will strip bare and get to the bottom of the error-ridden final hour in France.

We will all concede to being eventually outmuscled and outclassed by a French side on fire at the Stade De France. But had we scored in the opening quarter, when we gave every bit as much as we got, it might have been a very different story.

Ireland did hit the ground running, did put France on the back foot and did have that early Gordon D'Arcy opportunity to make pressure pay.

sensible

The early tactics were right, with Tomas O'Leary, Ronan O'Gara and Brian O'Driscoll playing for territory by way of the boot, thereby applying the most sensible pressure in the most appropriate areas well away from the Irish line.

Unfortunately, as has been well recorded at this stage, we then pressed the self-destruct button courtesy of Cian Healy and Jerry Flannery. These acts of indiscipline, allied to that failure to score, were magnified once William Servat crossed for the first French try.

Once on the front foot in Paris, the French are nigh unstoppable and so it proved, although on this occasion there was an air of total rugby about their play, with the physicality in midfield, allied to some delicate ball-handling up front.

It made for a potent mix and is proof positive that Les Bleus are well on course to challenging the big three for global supremacy in New Zealand in little over 18 months time.

As for Ireland? This loss will surely have caused a substantial dent to collective confidence, but the real test is to come in seven days' time. Whether England, as currently constituted, represent a sleeping giant stirring from its slumber or an over-rated impostor remains to be seen.

What is certain is that Martin Johnson's much-hyped side do have that precious Six Nations commodity: momentum. It was the main ingredient in our Grand Slam success a year ago, but this time round the advantage is in the white corner.

For Johnson and his under-fire England, it is the almost perfect scenario -- Ireland on the back of a French flogging coming to Billy Williams' old cabbage patch to face down an English team chasing three wins on the trot.

But this is where Kidney earns his corn. It is the type of challenge he relishes. Goal-setting is a huge part of what he does and here the goal is to move on from Paris as if it never happened. It is arguably the pivotal game of his coaching career to date.

Two others come to mind, Argentina in the November series of 2008, given its ranking-point relevance to the then approaching draw for the World Cup, and France at Croke Park in the opening game of the 2009 Six Nations Championship. On both counts he and Ireland came up trumps. England 2010 smacks of another such encounter.

Bear in mind that losing is a very rare experience for this squad under this head coach. I sat beside a most enthusiastic young lad from Boyne RFC on the flight home from Paris, and he was perplexed because he had never before experienced that losing feeling. I diplomatically desisted from shattering his innocent illusion any further.

But this mindset does reflect the winning psyche to which we have become accustomed. Obviously, that in itself is no bad thing, but it does pile on the pressure. Dare we be so bold as to suggest that a win in Twickenham and we are back on track, but a second successive defeat and the knives will be out?

It is the price to be paid for success. It is wrong, for sure, but such is the nature of the beast in these professional times.

Before that, of course, there are some big decisions to be made, and not just at full-back and hooker, where Rob Kearney and Jerry Flannery lose out to injury and suspension, respectively.

Despite Geordan Murphy making an encouraging, if gradual, comeback at Leicester, Keith Earls is the only fair selection in the last line for Twickenham, while Rory Best will slot in seamlessly for Flannery at hooker.

Reacting to Flannery's six-week suspension, Kidney and his fellow management have gone on record as saying they will "see what's written down before deciding what to do." Can I respectfully suggest they leave well enough alone.

The rationale for selection must always be with the intention of winning the next match. However, where immediate needs (getting back to winning ways) and longer term aspirations (RWC 2011) overlap, then this must be exploited to the full.

Whether it is Tom Court or John Hayes wearing three; Jonny Sexton and Eoin Reddan/Peter Stringer or Ronan O'Gara and Tomas O'Leary at nine and ten; or Andrew Trimble/Shane Horgan on the wing, the call is Kidney's and I trust his judgement.

Irish Independent

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