Brendan Fanning: Bold steps required to get us back on our feet
If the IRFU wants a world-class set-up, then it has to start with itself
Tuesday, February 18 dawned dry and still in Carton House, and Ronan O'Gara looked forward to a training spin where he would be able to get up to speed without battling the elements. It was the last run before the team would be announced to the players that night, and he expected to be in the No 10 slot.
When he checked the team list, all was well. He went out and trained, and came in again thinking that nothing dramatic was about to unfold. The coaching staff met at 2.0pm. Drama was about to unfold.
At 5.30pm, he got a knock on the door of his room, and would have been a bit surprised to see Declan Kidney. Their conversations are mostly short these days. More of the same you suspect. Half an hour later the team was announced, and Paddy Jackson was at outhalf.
It may not be unique to change course this late in the day but it is certainly unusual. We understand that at the start of the season Declan Kidney was clear on this issue: the team that lines out for training is as it sounds, a training exercise, and inferring too much might be dangerous. But there is a country mile between making a statement like that and following through on it. None of the players we spoke to suspected the gap was about to be bridged.
Perhaps, given the coach's fondness for Blue Peter decisions – ones he prepared earlier – it was all part of the plan. Maybe he had seen enough of O'Gara the previous week to steer him towards Jackson the next, albeit via an unapproved road. The crash the following Sunday made all the news bulletins.
Only Declan Kidney can explain why he made the most reckless gamble of his career at the point of its most acute pressure. The heat had increased steadily since the 2011 World Cup, which had promised so much and delivered so little. It eased in November with the win over Argentina, but then escalated again with the shifting of the captaincy from Brian O'Driscoll to Jamie Heaslip.
On the field it's hard to know what Heaslip is contributing to the leadership. Off it he succeeds only in making people uneasy about his suitability for the job. The aggregate of elements – a maddening inconsistency since the Grand Slam in 2009, the captaincy call, the outhalf selection – will cost the coach his job.
It's likely that the IRFU have done no research on a replacement. On the face of it there is no great urgency: there is no need to turf Kidney a couple of months ahead of his contract expiry, and the low-level tour to North America in June is a trip that can be run by a stand-in. Mike Ruddock is not only the obvious candidate, but his international experience makes him a shoo-in. True, this would discommode the under 20s whose Junior World Championship clashes with the senior tour, but Ruddock's assistant there, Greg Oliver, could take over the show without it falling asunder.
There is a far more pressing issue for the union however than running the tour to USA and Canada, and that's their own readiness for a world-class coach to match their aspirations. This goes a bit deeper than having a squad and a stadium, a salary and a nice car. It drills down to the current set-up of the IRFU, which should scare off any top-class coach prepared to lift the bonnet.
Four months ago, Leinster's Collie McEntee was appointed as the union's new high-performance manager. Well respected for his work in setting up and running the Leinster Academy, this was a good fit. He hadn't got his coat off but he was handed the job of bringing Ireland out of the dark ages in scrummaging. We didn't need to be shunted around Twickenham last March to know that having a coherent policy in this area would be a good idea. With unfortunate timing, the union's ad for a national scrum coach ran two days after that nightmare against England.
There was nothing unfortunate about the fact that they had waited so long to run it in the first place. McEntee is on the case with the provincial scrum coaches, and will be rolling out a programme across the country soon, but the delay highlights what happens when amateurs are running the show. The position of national scrum coach incidentally is still unfilled.
If it made sense long ago to address this issue then equally in a collision sport like rugby you'd think it important to have a man running the show on strength and conditioning. Remarkably, however, the IRFU played out a saga that would stretch from before the 2011 World Cup until May last year before they got that sorted out. It beggared belief that in a centralised system, the idea of which is that the process is controlled, there was no one at the heart of it.
Consider that the blue riband of this system is the player management programme. Introduced in the wake of the 2003 World Cup, this policy of resting international players at various points in the season was the envy of England until their own union managed to agree a paler version with their clubs. At its core of course is a scientific basis on what's best for the player. The amount of science applied to this in Ireland is still open to debate, but imagine discussing its merits while there was no one in the IRFU able to answer any questions? While that head of fitness gap was waiting to be filled, the IRFU came out with their piece de resistance: the national player succession strategy. This was a well-intentioned and fundamentally sound idea – namely that we were critically short-staffed on the Ireland team because of the number of non-Ireland qualified players earning their corn on the provincial sides, and it needed fixing.
In order to address the issue, however, the union rammed through at committee level a document that should never have got past the 'white paper' stage. Then they slipped it into the public domain in Christmas week. The irony of course was that if the professional game was adequately managed in the first place there would be no need to make rules that soon enough would have to be broken.
Central to the succession strategy was and remains the need to develop prop forwards. Ah, back to the scrum again. That strategy is now floating, face down. The last bit of life left its body when Munster were allowed to retain the services of South African BJ Botha while Ulster's All Black John Afoa is still on the island.
If you are a coach currently looking at the situations about to become vacant, these are all the things that would bother you.
How will you be able to do your job with Ireland when before Test matches you still have to meet with blazers from another era and humour them with your plans for bringing home the bacon? How will you replace your injured props when there aren't enough of them in the first place, and in the second the plan to provide more of them has yet to be rolled out, let alone bear fruit?
How will you develop close relationships with the provincial coaches – who have a material effect on your ability to do the job – if they distrust the system itself?
This brings us to Plan Ireland. We outlined recently in these pages that this document, which has been months in the making and involved wide consultation, can be distilled to two points: a performance director who would be responsible for running the pro game, and its coaches; supported by a professional game board, comprising people with the aptitude and experience for the job. Great.
The penultimate stage in the process came last week with the final feedback from the provinces. Barring a spanner in the works from one of them, it's up to the IRFU committee to sign off on it – seemingly it will not require constitutional change – and crack on with the business of filling the positions.
First they will search for the performance director, and then take his opinion into account when settling on the professional game board. If this is how they are going to progress then it would need to be a frank discussion. And if you were the prospective new man, you'd
want to train your sights on the suspects who want to jockey from an old committee to a new one. And be prepared to shoot, for this has the potential to scupper the whole thing.
Perhaps all this will be in place in time before the summer tour, so the new coach can be hunted in confidence. The union don't have to look too far.
The dream ticket would be Conor O'Shea as performance director, and Joe Schmidt as head coach. O'Shea's comments last week, expressing interest only in his current role in Harlequins, were exactly what you would expect. Three things complicate the issue for him: he wants to see out his contract until the end of next season, not least because it's not good business to sign players and then tell them you're off yourself; he likes coaching – all aspects of it; and he has the sort of control in Quins he wouldn't have in the IRFU unless they prove themselves serious about reform. Each criterion muddies the water for the performance director's job, and the first and third militate against the head coach's job here.
As for Schmidt, saying that he has no international track record seems about as relevant as noting his lack of head coaching experience when he landed in Donnybrook three years ago.
Meantime, he has built up a case full of notes on dealing with the Irish system. His experiences with head office have frequently been fraught. For a man who is unique in the amount of positive press he has generated it is almost a relief to find some in the union who consider him a pain in the ass. Schmidt might like to look on this as a feather in his cap.
The presumption is that he will head back to New Zealand next summer when his Leinster deal ends. Events might overtake him however. Ronan O'Gara for example skipped out the door to training not too long ago thinking that his 128th cap would be earned as a starter rather than an emergency aide. His world changed a few hours later. If the IRFU want to turn the tide on their sea of trouble then they could do worse than learn from their current coach, and be bold. It doesn't even involve risk.