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David Kelly: Striking the balance between provincial success and curing a national side in intensive care key for IRFU

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Donnacha Ryan
impressed in this
season's Six
Nations campaign

Donnacha Ryan impressed in this season's Six Nations campaign

Donnacha Ryan impressed in this season's Six Nations campaign

Yesterday morning, the IRFU posted an advertisement on their website which breathlessly announced their search for a "High Performance scrum coach".

In other news, authorities are beginning tentative steps to ascertain the circumstances by which Humpty Dumpty came a cropper -- albeit the absence of a tight-head replacement is not believed to have been a factor.

Next, an Irish government minister -- say, Brendan Howlin -- will probably demand a full inquiry into the banking collapse.

All around us, one can hear the sound of stable doors being slammed shut, long after horses and the over-worked Bull Hayes have bolted.

After last Saturday's embarrassing collapse at Twickenham, even supporters who are calling for Declan Kidney's head on a platter do so with a resigned air of indifference.

Yet there are many who have spent thousands of euro following the Irish team in the past 12 months who firmly believe that a new coaching team is required to wrought a belated transformation on a stale, moribund national set-up.

Viewed through a national prism, Irish rugby is in intensive care.

Jostle

However, if you're a supporter of provincial rugby, things couldn't be better -- three Heineken Cup quarter-finalists jostle for position in a fortnight's time and the Pro12 is similarly green-tinged.

Yet Philip Browne, the IRFU CEO who many moons ago committed to a production line of indigenous coaches -- how's that working out, then? -- has now committed himself to redressing the balance between provincial and national rugby.

All this after a Six Nations campaign that, aside from the emergency installation of three players -- two of them already seasoned professionals -- was an utter waste in terms of developing a game plan or a squad.

REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL

1 The Cup that fizzes

At international level, Ireland are slumming it just above Tonga and Samoa in terms of world rankings.

Scotland have become our most fierce rivals in the international scene; Ireland's relationship with our even feebler Celtic cousins sees the last four games shared 2-2. Murrayfield, presumably, is already sold out for the deciding fifth Test next spring.

Meanwhile, three Irish teams are in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup and, more likely than not, one team from this country will make the final. Recent history suggests an Irish winner too.

2 The return of BOD

Even at 33, the return of Brian O'Driscoll infects Irish rugby fans with a belief that things can get better ahead of this summer's daunting three-match trip to New Zealand.

Leinster fans should be the happiest; a fit O'Driscoll is vital for Leinster's tilt at an unprecedented third Heineken Cup title in four years, a run of success achieved with a steady diet of Irish internationals and an enlightened coach. Funny that.

3 More lieutenants becoming captains

Leadership wasn't an issue during the Six Nations -- the absence of a definitive coaching and selection policy presented far weightier concerns.

Rory Best stepped into the breach when two Lions captains were marked absent; players like Stephen Ferris, Jonny Sexton and Rob Kearney led forcefully by example when others decided they would prefer not to assume the responsibility.

4 Tightening the scrum

Ireland's literal collapse in Twickenham last weekend shamed all of Irish rugby -- few in Leinster can carp about Mike Ross as their coach, Michael Cheika, initially refused to pick him long before Kidney displayed his indifference to the Cork man.

The belated acknowledgement that a scrum guru needs to be employed is an admission of failure -- from a country that treated the great Roly Meates so dismissively, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.

5 The youth is out there

The IRFU's reliance on central contracts underpinned the Irish national team for so long; it has now long outlasted its relevance -- the vast investment in Tony Buckley is but one example.

The cosy contracts buffet too many players against omission from national/provincial teams and consequently reduce the exposure of younger players to high-performing teams.

There are many young players eagerly awaiting the opportunity to develop -- the past two months was another wasted chance to let them do just that.

REASONS TO BE FEARFUL

1 End of an era

There was a definite sense of 'fins de siècle' last weekend at Twickenham, just as there was in 2000 and 2008. Twelve years ago, Warren Gatland shifted deadwood and a revival against Scotland helped launch a golden ear of Irish rugby.

In 2008, Kidney overhauled a "stale" -- Brian O'Driscoll's words -- set-up and eked a Grand Slam from an ageing, declining squad determined to deliver one final kick.

The squad has continued to age and decline since and the signs of reversing that decline aren't promising.

2 Conservatism

Ireland's conservative approach -- in selection and awarding of central contracts -- pre-dates Kidney's current coaching panel but one might have hoped that a Grand Slam may have injected a sense of dynamism amongst the group.

If anything, a wearying sense of complacency has presided over affairs. Kidney's bosses don't help; insisting upon a blinkered, short-term approach allows the coach little wriggle-room.

Results are all that matter but when the results stink, the fallacy of such a myopic view is utterly exposed.

3 Killing the golden goose

The Heineken Cup is king for Irish supporters -- the provinces may have asphyxiated club rugby but then the IRFU weren't shy about spraying the chloroform around either.

International rugby is event-driven and it may be too late for the IRFU to mend the growing disconnect between the international game and the ordinary supporter at the turnstile.

A shambolic pricing policy and the tawdry excuse for match-day "entertainment" on big international days demonstrates that they are losing this particular battle. Miserable results don't help.

Trying to weaken the provincial game to help the international arena may seem like joined-up thinking -- believe it when you see it. You can have both together -- it is folly to think that one is only possible at the expense of the other.

4 Losing time

Donnacha Ryan's emergence was viewed as one of the pluses of the campaign. That may be so. But as this newspaper pointed out last week, he has taken 10 years to become an overnight success.

Irish blazers and tracksuits constantly patronise those of us who dare to suggest that a modicum of rotation can be introduced to allow players to gain experience when it really matters.

Oh we of little faith.

Ireland's slavish adherence to the same group of players has, then, been officially sanctioned as worthy of commendation.

No away wins? Check. No wins against a top-10 country? Check. A mediocre mid-table finish befitting an international status as an also-ran? Check.

Definitely better not to be allowing inexperienced players to suffer such indignity!

5 Can the coach still inspire?

For all the hysteria about the scrum collapse last Saturday, it was forgotten that Declan Kidney was the only man responsible for placing a loose-head with no commensurate experience for the task required on the bench.

And he was responsible for ensuring that a scrum-half dumped spectacularly by both provincial and national coaches within the last year was somehow the only alternative replacement to Eoin Reddan.

Or that the only adequate replacement deemed sufficient unto the sad departure of Gordon D'Arcy was a player who never plays inside-centre for his club.

He had also been responsible for ignoring Mike Ross until injury forced his hand; a feature of too many of the selections during a campaign where mediocrity was allowed to flourish.

Ireland's dismal campaign was also marked for the amount of times the team utterly flopped in the second-half, in stark contrast to '09, when Ireland were at their most formidable.

Proving he can alter this dutifully predictable script will be Kidney's biggest challenge -- Ireland must look and play differently by the end of November's internationals.

Irish Independent