Backroom team should not be immune from criticism
It's important to put Ireland's recent failings in context, says Jim Glennon
It's been difficult, this past week, to reflect objectively on the current status of the Irish team management with so many different commentators joining in the knee-jerk reaction to clamber aboard the bandwagon calling for the removal of Declan Kidney – one even doing so within minutes of Sunday's final whistle, and calling on the coach to step down immediately.
The coach is under pressure, of that there's little doubt; equally undoubted is that much of the pressure is justified and understandable. The team which represents our country in international competition, and for which he has ultimate responsibility, played three games during the month of February, losing two (one of which was at home) and winning one. Digging more deeply, it is not unreasonable to say that both losses were in games which were eminently winnable, before and during the 80-minute periods. In addition, the sole win was significant for the team's non-performance in the second half, particularly relative to the quality of their play in the opening half. It's essential too that both games played in the autumn, a loss to South Africa and a win over Argentina, be included in any assessment.
Context, however, is vital to both sides of the discussion. First and foremost is the remarkably long list of players unavailable through injury, a factor over which management have no control – or have they? Cynicism may be getting the better of me, but I just don't accept the coincidence of such an extensive casualty-list over such a sustained period – remember we had similar difficulties, if not as extensive, for the autumn series. Questions must be asked around the much-vaunted Player Management Scheme and the physical conditioning regime in general – we can ill afford any unnecessary depletion of our playing resources which are already thin enough compared to our competitors.
The second factor for consideration is the quality of the opposition encountered. The general understanding is that none of them are world-beaters and it's one from which I won't differ.
Third, for me anyway, is the general level of expectation we, the Irish rugby public, have of our national team. It's quite unrealistic, to my mind, and perennially so. The golden era of the noughties gave us a legacy of many wonderful memories; a by-product, however, is our flawed sense of where we stand, not just globally but, of much greater relevance, in Europe. Statistics don't lie, and of our last 100 games in the championship, we've won 52, lost 46 and drawn 2. In that same period, we've won the championship once (2009). In addition, we've yet to progress beyond the quarter-final stage of the World Cup.
So where to from here? I'm firmly of the view that the current management team has run out of road with this group of players, and I use the term 'management team' deliberately too. To isolate the coach and saddle him with all the blame is almost akin to blaming Paddy Jackson for the team's poor performance against Scotland.
Declan Kidney is the head coach and must carry the bulk of the responsibility for the current situation, but he has around him a team of coaches of whom legitimate questions must also be asked, particularly Les Kiss (attack) and Gert Smal (line-out) and while Kidney's contract expires at the end of this season, the circumstances relating to his colleagues are not so clear. A clean-out could be an extensive, and expensive, process.
If it's accepted that Kidney and his colleagues have indeed run out of road, the next question to be asked is not, in my view, around the identity of their successors but rather around the destination to which we should be travelling. Is the annual Six Nations not a more realistic and viable objective for Ireland than the four-year cycle of World Cups?
I've long been of the view that our attentions would be better directed at the annual tournament; winning is the very essence of professional sport and it's self-evident that our chances of success in the regional tournament are infinitely greater than in the global. We simply don't have the pool of talent required to win a rugby World Cup, and the only way of developing such reserves is by a sustained period of success in the Six Nations. Success doesn't necessarily mean winning it every year either – that's equally unrealistic. Six Nations success for me would be a win-loss ratio of 75/25 for the next 100 games – a considerable advance on the current statistic.
The final challenge is that of identifying the new coach and his management team – no easy task structurally, even before the personnel issues are addressed. The process isn't comparable to that of Premier League soccer in England in that the pool of suitably qualified alternatives is minuscule by comparison and, in soccer, most managers tend to bring at least one, if not several, assistants with them.
That has yet to become the norm in rugby, but it certainly seems to be heading in that direction. Conor O'Shea, having deftly avoided the issue when questioned on television in the immediate aftermath of last week's game, ruled himself out as a contender for any possible vacancy during the week.
The Harlequins' coach has many admirers, and an outstanding CV to boot, but he also has a contract with his current employers which he intends honouring. Other apparently outstanding candidates are Welsh Grand Slam-winning coach Mike Ruddock, formerly of Leinster and currently with Lansdowne FC and the Ireland under 20s, and also Leinster's current coach Joe Schmidt, both of whom are currently on the IRFU payroll. There's no doubt either that there are many others around the globe watching developments with keen interest.
At the moment, however, there's no vacancy. Kidney is still in the job, and rightly so. There are games to be played and pride to be salvaged, and he himself should be allowed to finish his tenure with dignity.