Friday 27 April 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Not as good as we thought

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Eamonn Sweeney

Arthur Conan Doyle knew what he was doing when he created Professor Moriarty, "the greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld."

It can be oddly comforting to think that all the ills of the world can be traced to one person, whether that person is Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden or your favourite TV 'celebrity'. And you could see this kind of thinking in action during the past week as the travails of the Irish team were set fairly and squarely at the door of one man.

The pundits were pretty much unanimous. He may seem like an inoffensive baldy ex-teacher from Cork but Professor Kidney is in fact the Napoleon of Rugby Crime, a malignant mastermind who will send Irish rugby over the Reichenbach Falls unless he's foiled by Sherlock Blazer and Doctor Alickadoo. I'm sure Jonny Sexton Blake could help them out as well.

But is there more to the case than meets the eye? The fact that Kidney has managed Ireland to a Grand Slam and Munster to two Heineken Cups would suggest that he's not entirely the incompetent ditherer lambasted so comprehensively after, and indeed before, Ireland's loss to Scotland.

Perhaps Kidney has lost the plot to a certain extent. It can happen to managers. Or perhaps the difference between 2009 and 2013 lies in the players available. Who would you like to have on your fantasy team? Tommy Bowe or Craig Gilroy? Gordon D'Arcy or Luke Marshall? Ronan O'Gara or Paddy Jackson? Jerry Flannery or Rory Best? Marcus Horan or Tom Court? Paul O'Connell or Mike McCarthy? Stephen Ferris or Peter O'Mahony? Or for that matter, 30-year-old Brian O'Driscoll or 34-year-old Brian O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney then or Rob Kearney now, Jamie Heaslip 2009 or Jamie Heaslip 2013?

You could argue that it's up to Kidney to get the most out of the currently underperforming likes of Heaslip or Kearney but there's nothing he could do about the injuries to O'Connell, Ferris, Bowe, D'Arcy and Jonny Sexton or Cian Healy's moment of madness at the Aviva which condemned Ireland to struggle in the scrum against Scotland.

He can, however, only blame himself for the diabolical lack of judgement in selecting Paddy Jackson ahead of Ronan O'Gara at Murrayfield. In the immediate aftermath of the English game the consensus was that O'Gara, notwithstanding a few poor kicks on the day, would replace the injured Sexton. Building for the future could wait. The most important thing was securing a victory, something which would probably require O'Gara's experience and ability to slot over pressure kicks, as he's done all season for Munster.

Jackson's selection was a bombshell not least because, and this isn't hindsight, few people had any confidence in the young Ulsterman's goal-kicking. And going into a rugby international in this day and age without a reliable goal-kicker is a bit like selecting a one-armed goalkeeper for your soccer team. Had O'Gara started at Murrayfield, Ireland would have won and the season would stand or fall on the result against France. Now that game seems like an afterthought, a meaningless meeting of two beaten dockets with all the allure of a slow bicycle race.

So why did Kidney make such a dicey call? It's my, totally unverifiable, guess that he finally let the criticism of the last couple of years get to him and went against his naturally cautious instincts. Picking Jackson was a media-friendly decision. In tandem with the selection of Luke Marshall, it enabled the manager to garner praise for his adventurous spirit. Everyone likes to see young players getting a shot so the media response to the selection was extremely positive.

And what was the risk really? We were almost certainly going to beat Scotland anyway. It must have seemed like a win-win situation to Kidney.

Those who suggest that Kidney should display further 'boldness,' by persisting with Jackson are obviously the kind of people who believe that the best exit strategy from a hole involves renewed use of the shovel. And even if the French game will have no effect at all on the outcome of the championship (and who'd have thought that back in January) it would still be something of a baptism of fire for Ian Keatley or Ian Madigan.

O'Gara is not the player he was but he remains our second best option at outhalf. His cameo against Scotland was a tale of two kicks. The one which will be remembered was the botched chip in his own 22 which led to Scotland's fourth penalty goal. But he had previously put in an almost perfect cross-kick which could have led to great things had Luke Fitzgerald not approached it with all the enthusiasm of a sciatica sufferer using a pooper scooper.

It's half-hearted efforts like this which have bedevilled the Irish team over the past couple of seasons and which make a nonsense of the idea that Kidney bears sole responsibility for the team's decline, something acknowledged by Donnacha Ryan's comment that, "Obviously Declan doesn't throw any passes. At the end of the day it's all down to us to try and get the result out there."

There was a time, after all, when Luke Fitzgerald looked like the heir apparent to Brian O'Driscoll, yet injuries and a loss of confidence have put paid to that for the moment. Again it's something Kidney probably wouldn't have expected when he took the job. He could hardly have anticipated the fitful displays of the last two European Players of the Year, Rob Kearney and Seán O'Brien, neither of whom have reproduced their best Leinster form for Ireland this season.

Neither has Jamie Heaslip. The burden of the captaincy may have something to do with this but then again it's a while since the number eight played as well in the Six Nations as he does in the Heineken Cup.

Keith Earls, who seemed so infinitely promising when selected for that Tour, now seems the very definition of the phrase, 'Jack of all trades and master of none.'

All these players have the time, and more importantly, the talent to bounce back. But while Kidney would have anticipated age catching up on the likes of John Hayes, Donncha O'Callaghan, O'Driscoll and D'Arcy, it's the failure of the purported next Golden Generation to thrive which has probably done for him.

Even Cian Healy, who has shone consistently at international level, did the coach no favours with his gratuitous show of indiscipline against England, something else even the most thorough manager couldn't be expected to factor into his calculations.

In the end the Scotland game came down to Ireland camped on the home line with a few minutes to get a match-winning try. They were even given the bonus of some extra time when Scotland were penalised at the scrum. In situations like this calculation and planning largely goes out the window and a team is depending on a moment of individual brilliance, a taking on of responsibility by a great player. Back when Ireland were at least on the verge of world class, those moments were forthcoming more often than not. Not any more.

Declan Kidney is for the high road sooner rather than later. But anyone who thinks a new manager is going to lead us to the promised land is sadly deluded. In a prescient article in these pages last week, Eddie Butler criticised the arrogance of Irish pundits who'd written off the challenge of Scotland in insulting terms and suggested we might pay for it. He was right.

You know the big task for the next Irish manager? Making us realise precisely how good we are. Which right now is not very good at all.

Size is irrelevant

The calls for a Balkan-style dismemberment of Dublin GAA on the grounds of the county's overwhelming superiority at underage level are the daftest thing I've heard in years.

What exactly is the nature of this superiority? The Dubs won the All-Ireland minor football title last year but it was their first triumph in the competition since 1984. Tyrone have won it three times in the last nine years. OK, their victory in last year's All-Ireland under 21 football final made it three wins in a decade for the Dubs. But Cork, Tyrone and Galway have won a couple of titles each.

And in hurling? Dublin reached the All-Ireland under 21 final in 2007 and again in 2011 and Galway beat them twice by a combined total of 24 points. They've also made the last two minor hurling finals and lost by nine points to Galway and ten points to Tipperary in a replay.

Imagine the caterwauling if Dublin won All-Ireland under 21 and minor hurling finals and the under 21 football final in the same year. Well, that's exactly what Galway did in 2011 and I don't recall anyone seeking the partition of that county.

Instead of cribbing about the size of Dublin, people should look at the counties that are defying the odds: the Roscommon minor footballers who won the All-Ireland in 2007, the Tipperary team which did the same in 2011 and the Clare under 21 hurlers who've won two of the last four All-Ireland finals and defeated Kilkenny in both deciders.

Kilkenny also happens to be the second name of Ciarán, who's had a lot to do with Dublin's underage renaissance. Maybe the GAA should bring in a rule barring a player who's named after one Size is irrelevant

The calls for a Balkan-style dismemberment of Dublin GAA on the grounds of the county's overwhelming superiority at underage level are the daftest thing I've heard in years.

What exactly is the nature of this superiority? The Dubs won the All-Ireland minor football title last year but it was their first triumph in the competition since 1984. Tyrone have won it three times in the last nine years. OK, their victory in last year's All-Ireland under 21 football final made it three wins in a decade for the Dubs. But Cork, Tyrone and Galway have won a couple of titles each.

And in hurling? Dublin reached the All-Ireland under 21 final in 2007 and again in 2011 and Galway beat them twice by a combined total of 24 points. They've also made the last two minor hurling finals and lost by nine points to Galway and ten points to Tipperary in a replay.

Imagine the caterwauling if Dublin won All-Ireland under 21 and minor hurling finals and the under 21 football final in the same year. Well, that's exactly what Galway did in 2011 and I don't recall anyone seeking the partition of that county.

Instead of cribbing about the size of Dublin, people should look at the counties that are defying the odds: the Roscommon minor footballers who won the All-Ireland in 2007, the Tipperary team which did the same in 2011 and the Clare under 21 hurlers who've won two of the last four All-Ireland finals and defeated Kilkenny in both deciders.

Kilkenny also happens to be the second name of Ciarán, who's had a lot to do with Dublin's underage renaissance. Maybe the GAA should bring in a rule barring a player who's named after one county playing for another.

That might keep the Dub bashers happy. For a while anyway.

Time to rid our games of sledging

Some years back I was having a few pints with an inter-county player when he told me about an on-field encounter with another well-known footballer.

The guy I knew spent a fair bit of time working away from home and when he trotted in beside the other lad at the start of the game was immediately greeted with the words, "Did you know that when you're not home your wife is riding all around her? She's a tramp. Everyone knows it."

"Were you not tempted to lash out at him," I asked. "I was cross alright," said your man, "but I was more surprised about what an ignorant prick he was than anything else." A few weeks later, the two men ended up marking each other again and the guy I'd been talking to absolutely roasted his tormentor. At one stage he even went back and beat him a second time before sticking the ball over the bar as the boyo collapsed in a heap. I like to think it was his own little bit of retribution.

There's something extraordinarily ugly about mouthing off to an opponent in this personal manner. The majority of players would only have contempt for someone who acts like this, yet there's always been a minority who've gone down this road. Davy Fitzgerald has spoken about being subjected to insulting remarks about his marriage while Seán óg ó hAilpín had to overcome racist comments from opponents. I can recall too Mickey Linden telling me ten years ago about being absolutely appalled by the verbal abuse one player got when making his championship debut.

It may have always been with us but lately this kind of thing has been dignified with a couple of names, 'Sledging,' 'Trash Talking,' , and perhaps even an implicit suggestion that in some sense it's a legitimate weapon for teams to use against opponents.

That's why it was good to see GAA director-general Páraic Duffy coming out against this nonsense last week when he commented, "It would be convenient to convince oneself that 'sledging' is the norm and to accept that the aspiration of keeping our games free of such behaviour is idealistic and unachievable. Such responses will ill serve the images and values of the GAA."

Duffy's comments came in a week when we heard that the motion from Sarsfields, the home club of Wexford dual star Lee Chin, asking that racist comments be punished by a red card won't be heard at Congress. The GAA have ruled it out of order on the grounds that this would constitute a change to playing rules, which can't be changed again till 2015, a pretty ludicrous situation in itself. This may well be technically correct but it's a pity new president Liam O'Neill couldn't find some way round this the way Seán Kelly did when all the motions asking for the opening of Croke Park to other sports were initially ruled out of order in 2005.

You don't have to agree with the dimwits who suggest that racially abusing someone is the same as calling someone a red-haired bollocks to see that the racism issue is connected with the culture of sledging. Because if players are encouraged to think they can gain an advantage by insulting an opponent, they'll reach for the most hurtful insult they can get. Racism is unacceptable but so is sledging which, when you think about it, is basically an eejit's idea of psychological warfare.

This kind of behaviour is usually defended on the grounds that football is a man's game. But it's news to me that name-calling is a sign of manliness. Then again maybe I missed the Western where John Wayne moseys on down Main Street, faces down another gunslinger and shouts, "Hey pilgrim I heard you beat your wife. Did you feed the pigs because I can see the welly marks on the back of your legs you orange nordie bastard. Come here till I pull your hair for you."

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