Published 23/03/2010 | 05:00
EXACTLY a year ago today, 48 hours after the Grand Slam triumph in Cardiff, we asked: "How does Declan Kidney follow this?"
The question is just as valid in the wake of a three-from-five Six Nations championship which included a mauling in Paris and defeat by a Scottish side full of passion and shrewdness but of limited footballing ability.
Back in March 2009, we answered the question thus: "A last-four place in the World Cup would appear to be a good target and he needs to bring through back-up in time for an assault on New Zealand 2011 -- particularly at prop and out-half -- but Kidney's record in this area is impeccable and he has time to play with. He will also seek to expand Ireland's attacking ambitions to the levels required to take on the southern hemisphere nations."
If there was a clear path to follow and boxes to tick 12 months ago, the answer is a lot less certain this time around. The run-in to the World Cup and achievement at that tournament constitute the toughest challenge of Kidney's coaching career.
Last year's Grand Slam was very much in keeping with a CV decorated by achievement against the odds. Sides coached by Kidney, whether at schools, club or provincial level did not do heavy defeat or lose big matches they were supposed to win at home. The phrase 'Midas touch' has been regularly applied but that deserted him in Paris and against Scotland and now it is reassessment time.
With the Grand Slam in the trophy cabinet, we thought this would be the Six Nations to have a look at some developing players. Jonathan Sexton, Cian Healy and Keith Earls (following the injury to Luke Fitzgerald) will all benefit from the significant exposure they received but, aside from those three, selections adhered closely to an 'as you were' Grand Slam policy.
So, in reference to the answer 12 months ago, while Sexton's progression has provided depth at out-half alongside Ronan O'Gara (who proved he is not ready to give up his jersey easily) the tight-head prop conundrum is far from resolved.
There are two scenarios here. One, the intention is to bring John Hayes to the World Cup next year as the perfect stage for his last hurrah, necessitating careful exposure-management over the next 16 months. Two, there is a realisation that Hayes' wonderful service to Irish rugby has reached its natural conclusion and the World Cup will be a bridge too far.
In either case, it means a different tight-head needs to start on the summer tour. Tony Buckley and Tom Court are next in line and, though there have been encouraging signs with both players, we still do not know conclusively if they have what it takes to bed down at international level in place of Hayes.
Mike Ross must also come in for consideration. The former Harlequins man is having an unhappy time of it at Leinster, where he is rated behind CJ van der Linde and Stan Wright -- quality props of no use to Ireland.
There are issues with Ross' contribution around the park, but the security that comes with the knowledge that the scrum is unlikely to travel backwards on his watch is a powerful argument in his favour.
Hayes, for all his admirable qualities, struggled throughout the championship and was targeted by each of Ireland's five opponents. Both Buckley and Court have superior games in the loose, while Ross is the best scrummager of the lot -- somebody needs to step up in the summer.
Victory over New Zealand or Australia would be massively significant for this team. The All Blacks and Wallabies do not take Ireland seriously as World Cup contenders because they have complete surety that they can see off the Irish when it comes to the big games.
Ireland have not beaten the Wallabies in Australia since 1979 and have never beaten New Zealand -- anywhere.
This summer is the last pre-World Cup opportunity to make a meaningful statement in relation to Ireland's capacity to mix it with the top four at New Zealand 2011. Winning in Paris was a chance to be taken seriously in this regard and Ireland's humiliation at the hands of France will have had the opposite effect. However, if the All Blacks or Australia can be defeated on their own ground this summer it will mean when these teams are faced in the World Cup there will be extra confidence in the Irish and increased doubt in their opponents.
All of which suggests that Kidney will start his strongest and most experienced team in the summer Tests and leave the two non-international games for looking at squad players.
However, this is not as straightforward as it sounds, given that the Barbarians game is a week before the Test against New Zealand and will need to be used to reacclimatise after more than two months away from the international set-up.
Then there is the Maoris in the week between the New Zealand and Australia Tests. The Maoris represent one of the most physical tests in world rugby and relish the opportunity to claim the scalp of overseas nations -- hard heads are needed.
It all adds up to a delicate balancing act for Kidney. Lose the two Tests and the Maoris game and suddenly 2010 becomes as grim as 2009 was glorious.
There have been suggestions Ireland should rest their big guns for the summer and give the Churchill Cup mob a chance to impress but that is nonsense. After a disappointing end to the Six Nations, Ireland need to make a statement Down Under and need their big guns firing to achieve that.
A measure of controlled rotation -- as we argued should have taken place after the win in Twickenham -- could be productive without majorly weakening the Irish challenge.
Spirits are down after the Scottish dunking, not least among Ireland's management team, but there are reasons for optimism.
Jerry Flannery, Luke Fitzgerald, Denis Leamy and Sean O'Brien should come back into the equation -- a powerful quartet to bring south. The attacking expansion mentioned a year ago is a work-in-progress but valuable lessons will have been learned over the past two months.
Furthermore, there is encouraging precedent. In 2008, Ireland were in-between coaches and coming off the back of a poor Six Nations. Michael Bradley and Niall O'Donovan took a measured approach to their temporary coaching assignment and almost steered the Irish to victory in both Tests.
This time Ireland will travel with a more powerful squad, desperate to reclaim the Grand Slam-winning mentality that served them so well in 2009. The Six Nations was a big anti-climax, but the summer tour has more significance for New Zealand 2011.
How does Declan Kidney follow this? A win in the southern hemisphere would be a good start.