Welsh revenge, O'Driscoll void and Lions job give coach food for thought
DECLAN KIDNEY bounds into Limerick's Strand Hotel restaurant with a familiarly jaunty step.
He has been widely seen but rarely heard since Ireland's deeply disappointing World Cup quarter-final exit to Wales.
Now, 107 days later, he has pitched up with his Irish squad in Limerick to plan a furiously compacted build-up to the Six Nations and, of course, facing Wales once more.
One training session down, five to go before vengeance day and a match that will dictate the course of this championship.
Should Ireland win, they will skip gaily to visit a France team under new management and with instability in their playing ranks. Lose and the guillotine sharpens.
Everyone who turned up for training in Limerick yesterday contributed fully.
But those who weren't there produced more conjecture: Brian O'Driscoll, who has an injury everybody knows about; Leo Cullen, who this week undergoes an operation that until recently nobody knew anything about; and Luke Fitzgerald, who has an injury it seems everybody is desperately trying to find out about.
These and other questions occupied Kidney as he started plotting his fourth Six Nations campaign with Ireland, clearly hoping that it can become as successful a venture as his first.
Kidney can only smile when asked this question -- for his captain's loss is simply incalculable.
"You don't lose one of the best players in the world and it not have an effect on and off pitch," says the coach.
"But Brian has always said, when he's played with Irish teams before that have lost players -- one man's loss is another's gain."
Keith Earls is in pole position for the No 13 jersey, but canny Kidney will keep his selection cards locked in his bedside locker until next Wednesday.
"I'd have combinations in my head because a fair few players have been playing there -- Keith, Tommy Bowe has played there, Andrew Trimble in the past too. (Fergus McFadden, mistakenly unmentioned, is also an option).
"There are a number of other combinations we could do, shape other fellas around Gordon (D'Arcy) and Paddy (Wallace)... depending how you want to play the game."
After losing backs coach Alan Gaffney and team manager Paul McNaughton already, Ireland couldn't afford a third back-room casualty post-World Cup.
The South African Rugby Union have been persistent in their quest to acquire their World Cup-winning forwards coach from 2003, Gert Smal, as their new supremo.
Last Friday, Smal told the SARU that he would be refusing their offer, and the soap opera is likely to end in the unveiling of Heyneke Meyer this Friday.
Smal's children are settled in school here, and the popular coach also feels that there is unfinished business with this Irish team -- and Kidney reiterated his commitment to the Irish cause.
"He's that type of man," says Kidney. "You'd be speaking to him from the very start, and we have. He'll be with us. His contract goes to June 12 months. He'll be with us."
LION KING IN WAITING
The opening Six Nations game against Wales in Lansdowne Road on Sunday week is already being showcased as a sideshow to see who can emerge as the favourite to become the Lions head coach.
Warren Gatland and Kidney are neck and neck in the race to lead the Lions to Australia in June 2013 -- unless the committee once more plump for the anachronism that is Ian McGeechan, to whom so many dull people defer so obsequiously.
Kidney revealed yesterday that he has already received a check call from the Lions and he didn't seem all too delighted at being forced to reveal this.
"I got a call about it," he says. "I just said 'yeah', anyone would be interested in that. But I'm only thinking about beating Wales. I was asked a question about it... that's it.
"I'm more interested in just doing this. You don't say no to that, but at the same time I'm not chasing it."
LEINSTER, LUKE, LEO AND HIS ACHILLES HEEL (WELL, TENDON ACTUALLY)
According to Kidney, Cullen and himself had face-to-face talks before Christmas as it became increasingly apparent that the veteran second-row would have to undergo an Achilles operation at some stage.
Perhaps that would explain why the player lined out for Leinster over the holiday while his international colleagues congregated in Carton House.
Still, it makes Cullen and Leinster's anger at last week's exposure of the imminent operation a tad over-dramatic.
On the face of it, Kidney feels no remorse that Cullen chose to play through the pain barrier with club, rather than country -- as Cullen would have been unlikely to have been involved against Wales anyway.
"It's a big call, but we'd hope to have him back training next week," says Kidney.
"There's no right time to get this done. We've a tour in June so it's better he's ready for that rather than have it snap."
On Fitzgerald's mysterious injury, Kidney had nothing clear-cut to add to the ongoing confusion.
"I don't know the exact medical term," he said, adding that he hoped that the player would train next week.
NEW FOREIGN POLICY
To even the most vaguely interested onlooker, it seems that the national coach's fingerprints are -- and indeed quite rightly should be -- all over the IRFU's clumsily delivered policy on the restriction of foreign players.
Kidney, however, affected his most innocent of visages when asked his opinions on the subject, following Ireland's most successful ever Heineken Cup qualification phase.
"I've been on both sides and it's a balancing act between policy makers, rules and regulations. Provinces will always want two or three players for each position. How you get there is a matter of policy. I've lost hair over the years -- you just deal with it.
"I sit on one committee. Then lots I read through yourselves. I'm not going to go into things I'm asked about or not asked about. I've empathy in dealing with it."
"The results have been fantastic. From Connacht's first win in a very important Heineken Cup game to the others qualifying for the knockout stages -- there's plenty there for Irish rugby," says Kidney.
"It's a fantastic achievement. We must be getting few things right."
With so many young players now joining the tried and trusted who ultimately disappointed at the World Cup, one suspects expectations will be heightened for Ireland's difficult opening fortnight.
Kidney demurs. "Not really, I think it's brilliant. We've had years where lads come in after we just had one team qualified -- you can always spot the team who qualified and who didn't," he says.
"Now we've three. They're probably emotionally drained this morning. It's brilliant to have them coming in like this. There's always pressure."
That remains the case whether it is World Cup or Six Nations. And, having brushed aside all concerns yesterday, there are also no excuses for Ireland.
"Being at home first puts a certain onus on you to hit the ground running," Kidney admits. "We have to do that."