independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Kidney's biggest gamble

"It just felt right. That doesn't mean it was right. But it felt right." – Declan Kidney on his gamble to drop four players for the penultimate game of Ireland's 2009 Grand Slam campaign

THE more the one-time school teacher Declan Kidney learns about himself, the less he becomes afraid.

Especially when he is running out of time. And a man running out of time can't afford to be running out of ideas.

Kidney's contract with the IRFU expires this summer. Already, he is making Irish plans for well beyond that time, except he hasn't said whether he would like to be here to see them through.

In sporting terms, the ticking clock can be measured in minutes; 400 of them to be exact – each one potentially loaded with intrigue and impact for his life-cycle as an international coach.

In reality, the first 80 of those, at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium in just six days' time, could arguably play a disproportionate role in deciding Kidney's future as Ireland coach.

Whoever loses will already be chasing their season.

Wales, as well as being hosts, owe their favourites' tag to history; namely, last season's Grand Slam and a hat-trick of wins against the opposition.

The injury list and form guide, that could both share the appellation of chronic, begs us to differ with those seldom incorrect bookies.

drama

The court of public opinion indicates that Kidney's Ireland must defeat Wales or else this Six Nations championship could peter out as so many of Ireland's recent tournament tilts have done.

Behind the scenes, an even weightier drama is being played out as Kidney's employers struggle to shift long-term tickets to see an inconsistently performing product.

Just this week, the clothes have been ripped from their backs after Puma's decision to quit rugby while Jonny Sexton, destined to become the country's most admired performer whenever Brian O'Driscoll announces his retirement, has become the first Irish player to flee the IRFU's hitherto successful self-sufficiency model.

These are a lot of outside pressures to bring to bear when the certainties of winning an 80-minute rugby match have, as the recent flow of evidence confirms, been predominantly beyond the grasp of this Irish side.

Fear has a way of remapping one's coaching philosophy a bit quicker in straitened, fraught circumstances such as these and hence Kidney has flirted with the gambling, intuitive side of his coaching persona. It's not exactly all or nothing for Ireland. It's just that Kidney knows very well that come summertime, it may well be nothing for him.

If this hints at an element of the self-serving, such an accusation would be unfair although many will queue up to argue this point.

Nevertheless, Kidney's only chances of achieving success for himself as a coach is by achieving it as a team with his players. He needs the players, now more than at any time before, to buy into his methods of teaching.

In 2009, the players fed off each other, gorging on an atmosphere of self-expression off the field that had been hitherto largely repressed by the self-confessed less emotionally intelligent Eddie O'Sullivan.

Kidney bequeathed that class of 2009 the tools – he was the enabler.

Four years on from that singular, premature high point of his reign, another country altogether where attitudes were much different, Kidney must now become more of an enforcer.

"Maybe it is a wake-up call and a realisation that we can't go plodding on as we have before," said O'Driscoll last November in the light of another low point for Irish rugby in Hamilton.

Unwittingly, O'Driscoll was uttering one of his last major pronouncements as the Ireland captain. O'Driscoll, who far too often as the official mouthpiece of the Irish rugby team has spoken with the confident voice of someone who doesn't necessarily believe what they're saying, discovered a different side to Kidney's personality a fortnight ago.

The coach's decision to remove O'Driscoll as captain indicates the extent to which Kidney's hand has been forced.

Heaslip's candidacy has ushered in a freshness that was badly needed within the squad – but only because a staleness had set in under Kidney.

The captaincy decision may have reflected Kidney's apparently renewed strength, but it also highlighted his recurring weakness.

That Heaslip's new voice worked up such a refreshing storm during the November series was only because Kidney's voice was slowly beginning to lose its lustre and other accents, particularly his captain's, were itching to change direction.

Heaslip knows that the party line suits his needs as much as the coach's. Kidney has much to lose, whereas O'Driscoll had little left to lose in an Ireland jersey, apart from his captaincy.

And so Kidney removed that threat.

But he cannot afford to hide behind the new captain for much longer.

Coaching cycles in rugby, even successful ones, begin to see their effectiveness dwindle after four years. Kidney has definitely been experiencing such a personality slump in what is his fifth year in charge. Now he is attempting to arrest the slide in his personal ratings and, with it, the team's seemingly inerasable slip into a familiar state of annual mediocrity punctuated only by raucously celebrated one-off wins.

And it has led Kidney to make some remarkable leaps of faith.

Few who know him would countenance Kidney standing over a situation where an Irish international was sped through customs and immigration before being handed a green jersey.

But that is just what happened last November under his watch. Michael Bent's future progress may lurch towards the filing cabinet of Greg Feek, should the Kiwi-born player continue to underwhelm.

But the buck stopped with Kidney, just as it did last March in Twickenham when his inability to develop coherent options led to the public humiliation of Tom Court in another uninspiring red-letter day for this Ireland team.

Bent was not alone in being alarmed by his swift progression. A slew of injuries in November forced Kidney's hand and prompted the exciting promotion of bristling talents like Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy and Chris Henry.

Kidney has previous here, of course, the oft-quoted example of the 2008 Heineken Cup campaign when he ditched his experienced full-back and scrum-half en route to a second European title.

pretenders

Ronan O'Gara, it is believed, will feel the heat this campaign as he fights for both an extended playing contract and attempts to fend off the growing number of pretenders to his bench berth.

Kidney, who has never claimed to be a technically gifted rugby coach a la Eddie O'Sullivan, deferred to rugby expertise in 2009, but would he then have extended the privilege to someone like Enda McNulty, the former Armagh All-Ireland winner brought into the camp full-time as a performance coach?

This used to be Kidney's job. That he is determined to accede to delegation even in this sphere measures the extent to how the coach is willing to gamble so much on altering his own coaching philosophy.

Kidney wants to remain in charge until the 2015 World Cup, but, ultimately, only results in this Six Nations championship can determine whether the IRFU believe that he is the right man to do so.

That means Ireland need to change. The passive, defensive weakness that undid them in this Wales fixture last season will not suffice this time around.

Ireland must go on the offensive – the emergence of Kidney the risk-taker will backbone this challenge.

Four years ago, a Grand Slam campaign ended in Cardiff with Kidney politely deflecting any praise to all and sundry and Irish rugby supporters re-establishing an affectionate bond with the international team.

This Grand Slam campaign threatens to be all about the coach. Captaincy, selection, coaching, tactics, front- row issues – all matters will end up at his door.

Kidney has had to change direction this season because Ireland – and the coach – were heading only one way. His ability to surprise others never actually left him. It just became less and less effective.

Now, this Six Nations campaign represents his biggest gamble yet. Kidney must risk more than ever before to win. Because only losers play it safely. And he cannot afford to lose.

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