Sport Comment & Analysis

Friday 22 September 2017

Unlucky general ready for last stand

Sexton blow the latest in dreadful run of setbacks, but Kidney is desperate to end difficult Six Nations campaign on a high

David Kelly

David Kelly

If it wasn't for bad luck, Declan Kidney would have no luck at all.

Just as the beleaguered head coach was beginning to stand on solid ground for once in this splintered, spluttering campaign, he finds himself holed below the water line once more, sinking beneath the detritus of another pre-match plan utterly ripped to shreds.

At the precise moment that Kidney was attempting to deflect attention from the latest injury to affect his ravaged squad – and particularly his unlucky first-choice out-half Jonny Sexton – by illustrating where the player had shipped a knock, a scan undertaken nearby confirmed all his worst fears.

OUT-HALF WOE

"Raring to go? That's an understatement," said captain Jamie Heaslip when asked about his out-half's attitude ahead of the final Six Nations encounter, before calamity struck once more.

"We just have Ian Madigan on stand-by, but we'd be hopeful we wouldn't need him," said Kidney with an unwitting sense of what would be later a forlorn realisation of a newer, familiarly grim reality.

Two years ago in Rome, as the coach remarked quite pointedly in a nod to Italy's renewed competitiveness in this championship, Ireland needed a late drop-goal from an out-half – the now surplus-to-requirements figure of Ronan O'Gara – to secure a nervy victory.

"Jonny has put himself in the position of being a talisman for the team," added Kidney. "We've had him for just over 100 minutes so far this season, two and a half games when we haven't had him."

Make that three and a half. Now, once more, Kidney has to dig deep into his reserves and unleash an out-half who has yet to taste success in an Ireland jersey, although Paddy Jackson's notably improved confidence against France may buttress his efforts tomorrow.

80-MINUTE CONUNDRUM

Ireland have flopped miserably in every single one of their second-half performances this season, from stemming a late fightback against Wales in the opening match to slipping to defeat from positions of immense promise in all three subsequent games.

Italy, in stark contrast, have demonstrated an ability to play to the 80th minute, not uncoincidentally deploying a strong bench, most recently in their encouraging performance against England last weekend.

They have selected five forwards on the bench for a game that they have long since focused on as an opportunity to eke out another victory in this campaign, in what would be a first in championship football against the Irish.

"It's a huge factor," said Kidney. "It's a real 80 minutes. And we've been speaking about it the whole time. We haven't made excuses, but the injuries are bound to have an effect at some part of the game.

"I'd have an awful lot of time for their coach Jacques Brunel, who I've come up against before with Perpignan. His sides will play to the 80th minute. He's given them a calmness and assuredness."

PATIENCE IN DEFENCE

Despite recording just one win so far, Italy have enjoyed more possession (on average) than any other team in the tournament. They have also averaged more carries per game (127) than any other side in the tournament so far.

Although the theme of this championship means that possession has not always been king, against such a physically imposing side as Italy, and one now seemingly more comfortable than ever in deploying a multi-phase, off-loading game that regularly shifts the point of attack, Ireland will need to be patient.

"The way they keep possession through eight, nine, 10 phases, they don't panic now," said Kidney. "Before, if you kept them going through three or four phases you could rush them into throwing the ball away.

"With the size of the players that they have as well, the physicality that they can bring to it, a lot of their backs aren't too far off the size of their forwards. And they're using that to good effect.

"They're attacking good areas that allow them to hold on to the ball. They're going down the short side a fair bit and if they did that, it's hard given the way the laws are now to get the ball back. So we have to have patience and a lot of physicality as well."

THE END FOR O'CALLAGHAN

Four seasons after Malcom O'Kelly saw his international career ruthlessly cut short – apparently for lax time-keeping – Donncha O'Callaghan may also have seen his career in green ended.

Certainly, his glum visage in the car park as he packed his gear and pointed his car south betrayed a forlorn figure, albeit this summer's tour may offer the 98-times capped player an opportunity to reach his century.

Declan Kidney, who many felt also jettisoned Leo Cullen before his sell-by date, insisted that the selection of Devin Toner ahead of the Cork man on the bench does not mark the end of the veteran's time in green.

"It's tough on Donncha, it's always tough on anyone whether it's their first cap or 100th," said Kidney.

"I would say Donncha is a long way from his last cap. That's just the selection for this match.

"There's many more to come. He'll be playing away next year as well and there's nothing to say he won't be in for the next match.

"Devin Toner is a purely selection issue. The Italian lineout is very strong so it's just prudent to have a balance on that side of things this time. He has been going well for us in training so it's recognition of both."

REDEMPTION AWAITS

Kidney's coaching career may be at the mercy of others, but achieving a positive valedictory result with this battered and bruised side, despite all the injuries, remains in this team's control.

"A dry track would obviously be great, given some of the conditions we've been playing in," said Kidney.

"But Italy are playing really strong too. So if we can go out, represent Ireland to the best of our ability and come out with a win, that would be some achievement given everything that has been thrown at the lads."

Achievement despite adversity is Heaslip's rallying cry.

"If you go back three or four years ago I remember Declan saying we needed to develop a squad for a situation like this and that's what we have had to do," he said.

"There have been seven or eight new caps this season alone, but it has been a great opportunity for guys, they've stepped up to the plate.

"It has been a big challenge for the squad when you think that the teams playing have been relatively inexperienced at international level and I think they have done really well."

Irish Independent

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