Tuesday 20 February 2018

The Couch: Nowhere to hide for coach when blame game kicks off

Tommy COnlon

For those who prefer their headhunts uncomplicated by context, and uncoloured by shades of grey, it all goes back to the coach.

The buck stops there; no room for sentiment; heads have to roll – Kidney must go.

The thing is, if it all goes back to the coach, why bother paying the players at all? If it's not their fault when a pass doesn't go to hand, or the wrong option is taken, or kicks at goal are missed, maybe the IRFU should revise downwards the entire remuneration structure for its roster of professional players.

No, the blame for any defeat in any sport has to be divvied up between the team on the field and the coaching staff on the sidelines. The proportions will vary from game to game but in the case of last Sunday's cock-up at Murrayfield, the responsibility lies overwhelmingly with the players. It was they who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with an almost unprecedented squandering of possession and chances.

Every coach has to let go once his players cross the white line. He can try to shape a match through substitutions, tactical adjustments and the half-time talk. But that is the limit of his influence during the ebb and flow of the action.

Declan Kidney was as powerless as any alickadoo in the bar when various players were spoiling the opportunities that would have given Ireland victory. It was Marshall's pass to Gilroy that didn't stick; it was Earls who chose not to pass to O'Driscoll; it was Best whose lineout throws were picked off by Scotland.

It is not just unfair to lay all the blame at Kidney's door, it is a denial of the evidence. The coach, however, has been exposed for two decisions that were made away from the action.

The first was to give Paddy Jackson the number ten jersey. A lot of his critics can validly claim they're not judging him here with the benefit of hindsight: they flagged up the risks well in advance. Jackson basically hadn't even proven himself for Ulster. There were too many doubts about his maturity and authority at provincial level to pitch him in at full international class. He was in danger of being over-promoted. More worrying still, his goalkicking had been erratic all season and he'd been relieved of the job at Ulster for the previous month. Jackson would be making his Test debut without buoyant confidence and momentum; it would be a standing start.

As it turned out, the 21-year-old was solid from open play, albeit not as conspicuous as one might have expected from the abundant possession available. But the most obvious manifestation of Kidney's gamble was in the kicks at goal. Jackson missed the kicks that would've got Ireland over the line. The coach's big call had backfired.

Even still, he is entitled to a mitigating argument. With Sexton injured, Kidney was between a rock and a hard place. Ronan O'Gara had had a shocker against Scarlets in Llanelli on the weekend between the England and Scotland games. The great man is almost 36 now. Given his pure competitive bottle, he'd probably have stepped up in Murrayfield and got the job done. But his game has declined, maybe even steeply, and Kidney was understandably tempted into picking a player from the new generation.

But his decision in January to give the captaincy on a permanent basis to Jamie Heaslip has come back to haunt him. At the time it seemed arbitrary, unnecessary and out of character for such a prudent man-manager.

In the 33rd minute last Sunday, Heaslip was at the heart of a maul that marched Scotland back to their own line. Ireland were awarded a penalty. Take the points or kick to the corner? Conor Murray had the ball in his hands. He looked around for instructions. Brian O'Driscoll came over and had words with him. While he and Murray were conferring, Heaslip walked by. He was right beside them but walked past as if it had nothing to do with him. It was bizarre. Jackson took the ball and kicked to the corner. The team had passed up a shot at goal. And it seemed as if the captain had no hand, act or part in the decision.

In the 77th, with Ireland trailing by four, they were awarded a penalty on Scotland's 22. It was desperation time. O'Driscoll, all urgency, grabbed the ball. Again, take three points and hope to win the restart, or kick to the corner? Once more the captain hung back, nowhere to be seen, when he should have been directing, communicating, taking control.

The team lacked leadership last Sunday in the places it is normally found – the captain and the outhalf. It was the coach who made both appointments.

Managerial situations like this tend to take on a life of their own. Momentum gathers, like a wave, against a coach who no longer has time on his side. Results go against him and he gets the blame even when the players are more culpable. Usually there is bad luck too, in his case an injury crisis that has robbed him of several leaders and international heavyweights. And he starts making some crucial wrong decisions too.

It looks as if the tide is going out on Kidney's regime. If it is, he will curse that absurd result against Scotland forever and a day.

thecouch@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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