Video Hugh Farrelly: Ireland can rise above loss of coach Smal and finally put World Cup agony to bed
Published 25/02/2012 | 05:00
THE hits just keep on coming.
The demoralising effects of October's quarter-final loss to Wales were always going to be hard to banish but it seems as though the Fates are conspiring against Ireland shaking off their latest World Cup hangover.
First, inspirational captain Brian O'Driscoll was ruled out of the Six Nations with injury, followed by designated replacement Keith Earls missing the opening match against Wales for personal reasons.
Questionable refereeing then contributed to Ireland losing a match they should have closed out, the frustration compounded by a needless citing of flanker Stephen Ferris which disrupted Ireland's preparations for a French assignment that became a pantomime of 'Oh no, they didn't' inefficiency.
That left Ireland forced to negotiate four internationals in as many weeks, incorporating a six-day turnaround after the return to Paris, and now we have the latest disruption -- forwards coach Gert Smal ruled out of the remainder of the tournament as he recovers from an long-standing eye condition (he has partial sight in one eye since his playing days).
The build-up to today's set-to with the Italians at the Aviva Stadium was supposed to be all about regathering and refocusing for a rejuvenated Six Nations assault, but instead Ireland have had to prepare this week without their forwards guru.
Smal has been a notable success since coming on board in 2008, his standing in the game proven by the fact he was top of South Africa's wish-list as replacement for head coach Peter de Villiers. The bond between Paul O'Connell and Smal is well established and it fell to the second-row, head coach Declan Kidney and scrum coach Greg Feek to oversee pack readiness this week for what is always a weighty challenge against the rugged Italians.
That is a wealth of experience to call upon but it is hardly an ideal scenario, particularly when two of the back-row, Stephen Ferris and Sean O'Brien, have to be carefully managed in training to protect respective knee and hip problems.
Anthony Foley will be in the management box this afternoon and will step in for Smal for the remainder of the tournament, continuing his remarkable rise to coaching prominence.
"Why Foley?" Kidney was asked at yesterday's announcement, the implication being that it was still early for the Shannon man to be handed this sort of responsibility. However, break it down and the Munster coach was the outstanding candidate.
Dan McFarland has not been working with any of the Ireland starting pack at Connacht, Johann Muller is combining forwards coaching with captaincy and second-row duties at Ulster and Jono Gibbes, while highly regarded for the work he is doing at Leinster, is a New Zealander with plenty on his plate during a period when his province are without the majority of their starting pack.
Niall O'Donovan, a man Kidney has worked with successfully before, was a possible stop-gap but has been off this scene for four years and, as Kidney pointed out, Foley is already working with the Wolfhounds so, no more than Stuart Lancaster with England, this represents a natural elevation.
Kidney has been associated with Foley since he coached him with Ireland Schools in the early 1990s, and leaned heavily on the No 8's astuteness during their Munster days -- making him captain after Jim Williams as the province claimed their first Heineken Cup title in 2006.
"Anthony has a great understanding of the game, he always managed the game very well," said Kidney. "Rugby is not complicated -- you can complicate it if you want but he knows how to simplify it. He would have had a desire to get into coaching and he has made a very good start, although I wouldn't want to put a hex on him. You never know the opportunities that will come up and we are grateful for Munster's willingness and Anthony's desire to come in and fill the breach left by Gert."
It is undoubtedly a considerable test of Foley's credentials but also a massive opportunity for the man who has been installed as early favourite to replace Tony McGahan as Munster head coach. If he can oversee strong performances by the Irish eight against France, Scotland and England, his stock will shoot through the roof and strengthen his claims on the provincial job.
On the flip side, if the Ireland pack struggle in the remainder of the tournament, it could damage Foley's Munster candidature -- regardless of the logistical issues that go with inheriting another coach's playbook. Either way, it creates an intriguing sub-plot to Ireland's campaign before Smal hopefully recovers to aid Ireland's daunting three-Test summer assignment in New Zealand.
However, that does not dilute the fact that it is another disruption Ireland could have done without.
There are already question marks over Les Kiss' capacity to handle two specialist coaching roles after various shortcomings in attack and defence were exposed against the Welsh, and Ireland could have done without accompanying upheaval up front.
Meanwhile, Italy have been quietly getting ready for business and, despite never defeating them in this competition, Ireland are not a team who the Italians unduly fear. They know they could have won last year's encounter in Rome and, although well beaten in the World Cup pool clash, there has been repeated mention in their camp this week of how the contest was in the mix at half-time.
Despite two defeats, they have also made a decent start under new coach Jacques Brunel, troubling France for extended periods and coughing up a victory to an incredibly average England outfit due to a lack of concentration and nerve at key moments.
They have been furthered heartened by Ireland's slack defending against Wales, as Brunel pointed out this week.
"The Irish defence isn't hugely aggressive but playing through the phases will be key to finding the gaps to put them in trouble," he said.
Nonetheless Italy, for all their professed desire for expansion under Brunel, do not carry anywhere near the same attacking threat as Wales and a defensive coach of Kiss' calibre is unlikely to tolerate the same lack of intensity and line-speed for two matches in succession.
Ireland need to put all the disruptions and distractions to one side, including the sterile atmosphere that goes with a lunchtime kick-off, and rediscover their verve. That requires the front five squaring off against their physical opponents (a task made easier by the absence of Martin Castrogiovanni) and the back-row providing quality ruck ball and powerful carries.
Out wide, Ireland have a pronounced advantage, particularly if Jonathan Sexton produces his full repertoire of skills. As the most experienced member of the backline, Gordon D'Arcy needs to step up to the plate in a big way and help Keith Earls produce the type of impact of which he is eminently capable, while Tommy Bowe could also do with re-emphasising his quality after a few ropey moments against the Welsh.
It may take time, patience and discipline but if Ireland have designs on taking their place in the top tier of international rugby (and they certainly have the talent to do so) then they need to approach this contest with ruthless efficiency.
"It may take us a while but we know what the lads want to do," said Kidney. "We need the wisdom to do the right thing from the start, bring in things that we have been working on and not force it."
Do that and Ireland should win with relative comfort, allowing them to head back to Paris, hopefully with no further disruptions, ready to make a powerful statement.
The hangover cure starts here.