To hell with talk of doomed tour
WHEN Declan Kidney was cutting his coaching teeth with the U-15s at PBC Cork in the mid-1980s, he would begin each campaign with a squad meeting and a blackboard.
On it were set out the goals for the season. Number two on the list was always "win the Munster Schools Junior Cup", which one would have assumed deserved top billing, but never got it -- for that was always taken up by the simple instruction to "enjoy yourselves".
Between 1983 and 1988, Pres won five out of six Junior Cups, at which point Kidney took his blackboard up to the U-18s and, after two semi-final defeats in 1989 and 1990, Kidney won the next three Senior Schools titles in a row.
It is a simple philosophy and one that Kidney has adhered to throughout his highly successful career -- enjoyment and victory go hand-in-hand -- and one he will employ on Ireland's summer tour to New Zealand and Australia over the next month.
There is an enthusiasm among the Ireland management team for this expedition that is born out of the opportunity to get stuck in again following a frustrating hiatus since the Six Nations.
It is an anticipation not widely shared after a season of disappointing results and worrying long-term portents, with the result that an expedition which, after last season's Grand Slam, looked perfectly set up as the next psychological step on the journey to World Cup fulfilment, now has the potential to copper-fasten long-established insecurities relating to downing southern hemisphere nations on their own turf.
New Zealand have never been beaten by Ireland, home or away, and the Wallabies have not been bested in Australia since the Ward-Campbell tour of 1979 -- which, incidentally, featured team manager Paul McNaughton in the Irish midfield for both Test victories.
The extensive injury list and mixed form of the provinces has created the possibility of a 'tour from hell' situation, particularly given that Ireland's New Zealand bases of New Plymouth and Rotorua (where they will also be based for next year's World Cup) have Bordeaux potential should things come off the rails. Bordeaux was the scene of the majority of Ireland's World Cup angst in 2007 when the squad, stuck in the hell of their industrial-park hotel, found little opportunity to raise flagging morale.
Likened by one previous visitor to the Kiwi equivalents of Mullingar and Rathkeale (with no disrespect to the Westmeath or Limerick towns), New Plymouth and Rotorua appear to be recreational wastelands and portable DVD players seem obligatory travel accessories to cater for players' vital down time.
Although, in terms of games played, the season has not been as long as has been made out, it has been mentally draining, particularly for those immersed in the intensity of last summer's Lions trip to South Africa.
The nightmare scenario sees Ireland suffering a heavy defeat to the All Blacks on Saturday week before staggering on to the non-Test ambush that is the New Zealand Maoris (who make a habit of claiming overseas scalp) before being run ragged by an ever-improving Wallabies side in Brisbane.
The new law interpretations do not help Ireland's prospects and there is also the potential for further injury -- particularly against the Maoris -- and the combined effects of all of the above on Ireland's World Cup aspirations would be calamitous.
So much for the negativity. There is also a best-case scenario -- which does not necessarily need to incorporate three victories -- that is worth assessing, if only to propel everyone on to the plane next Saturday with some sort of spring in their step.
Reasons for optimism
The Kidney Factor
After the glories of 2009, the gloss has come off the Ireland management team somewhat following a disappointing Six Nations campaign.
However, this is just the sort of challenge Kidney relishes. He has targets to aim at -- a first win over the All Blacks, a first win in the southern hemisphere in 31 years -- and the touring environment brings the best out of the Cork man's man-management skills.
In 1992, Kidney's unheralded Ireland Schools side had a fantastic trip to New Zealand, very nearly crowned with a Test victory over a side that included the likes of Jonah Lomu and Jeff Wilson. In 1998, he was in charge when the Ireland U-19s won the World Cup in France and, last summer, oversaw unbeaten North American campaigns with the seniors against the USA and Canada, and the 'A' side in the Churchill Cup.
With Gert Smal, Les Kiss, Alan Gaffney and McNaughton present to lend their knowledge and experience, the coaching ticket is, at least, at full strength, and while Ireland may well lose over the next three weeks, with Kidney's touring record, it is hard to see them not putting up good performances.
If Ireland are missing a clutch of front-liners, there is consolation in the fact that there are also notable absentees in the All Blacks squad.
Some of the names slated to wear the silver fern in New Plymouth on June 12 do not exactly inspire fear. Israel Dagg, Victor Vito, Benson Stanley and Aaron Cruden are rookies, while even more-established individuals such as Adam Thomson, Anthony Boric and Cory Jane are not players to intimidate the Irish unduly.
Yes, coach Graham Henry can call on twin totems Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, while the quality of others such as Joe Rokocoko, Mils Muliaina (who has had injury problems) and Tony Woodcock is well established. However, Henry has lost a seam of excellence to injury -- notably Ali Williams, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Ma'a Nonu -- and this cannot be bad for the visitors.
While injuries have reduced the caps-total, Kidney can still field a Test side with a 'been there, done that' quality to it, while Henry has an element of experimentation to indulge in as he gears up for the Tri-Nations and Robbie Deans is still developing his Australian outfit.
Up front, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Donncha O'Callaghan and Jamie Heaslip are unlikely to be fazed by anything they encounter on this trip, while the backline has a savvy look to it also, particularly if Ronan O'Gara starts at 10. The enduring excellence of Brian O'Driscoll is another reason to see the Irish tumbler as half-full.
Eyes wide shut
They will say nice things in the lead-up to the Tests, but the All Blacks and the Wallabies do not truly envisage losing to Ireland. They are warm-up Tests, a chance to look at systems and fringe players and if the Paddies give them a good run-out, so much the better. And that is before you get to the supporters and media who, particularly in New Zealand, expect nothing less than a thrashing handed out every time their team takes the field.
It allows the Irish party to develop a siege mentality that Kidney teams have traded on successfully in the past and will help develop a bond that can lift performance. Nor will there be too much pressure from back home. The injury situation has already seen this expedition largely dismissed as a lost cause, while June rugby will be relegated down the media coverage as the focus zones in on the soccer World Cup and GAA Championships.
With the bar set at a reduced height, the opportunity for clearing it naturally increases -- a phenomenon once remarked upon by 'Baywatch' babe Pamela Anderson at the height of her fame. "It is great to be a blonde," she said. "With low expectations, it's very easy to surprise people."
The woman had her knockers, but she got that one about right.