David Wallace: "Don't get rid of Kidney – let him finish the job"
THIS weekend would appear to be the last days of Rome for Declan Kidney, who takes charge of Ireland for the 52nd and possibly last time at the Stadio Olimpico.
David Wallace wore the No 7 jersey on 25 of those occasions and was a key part of the Corkman's leadership corps until his enforced retirement last year. Kidney sent him into battle more times than he cares to remember, and the 2009 Lion firmly believes that he can still turn Ireland's fortunes around.
For most, the coach's impending departure is a foregone conclusion, but his former lieutenant disagrees with the consensus.
It is not a case of blind loyalty. Anybody who has listened to Wallace speak knows that he chooses his words thoughtfully and is not one for rash judgments. For so long the picture of calm resilience on the pitch, he is reasoned off it.
If the IRFU are to dispense with Kidney's services, Wallace wonders aloud, who is out there to replace him?
It is a legitimate question to ask, with Conor O'Shea counting himself out and Joe Schmidt likely to return to New Zealand at the end of next season.
England and New Zealand both stuck with their coaches through crises before going on to win the last two World Cups and the Limerick man believes that, having blooded so much fresh talent in the past 12 months, his former coach deserves time to finish the job.
This is based on his experience of working under Kidney, who he says got the best out of him throughout his career.
"I think his position is probably less technical in relation to the other coaches and he is more of a facilitator in getting the game plans right and allowing the coaches to do what they do as he oversees the entire operation," he explained.
"His role is getting the team in the right frame of mind for games and, certainly, in my career he was the best I've ever come across in creating a good environment for letting a team take control and blossom.
"I've had other very technical coaches and they have not been good at creating the environment of a happy team and a unified team.
"He is very good in that regard and it seems to work for him, because he has been a successful coach, regardless of what people think.
"The other thing is, where do you go to after that? It would be crazy, given the circumstances of this Six Nations, to get rid of him."
Wallace is of the opinion that Ireland can come out the other side of this crisis with a new group of players and will be stronger for it as they head towards the World Cup in 2015.
And he believes that having a home-grown coach is key to Irish success.
"It has been building in this regard, in that we are giving these young guys experience. It is one criticism levelled at Declan, that he is too conservative, but he is giving these guys a lot of experience as we work towards the World Cup," he argued.
"When the injured players come back, there will be more competition for places and this certainly helps.
"Having an Irish coach is very important. Having somebody who understands what it means to be Irish and what it takes to play for your country is really crucial.
"Declan didn't play, but he is the first person to say how much he would have loved to have worn the green jersey.
"It is an important value to have as well."
Earlier this week, Ireland manager Michael Kearney described the team's injury list as "gross, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented" and Wallace thinks that this cannot be discounted when the season is reviewed.
"It is a credit to Declan and Jamie (Heaslip) that they haven't played the injury card at all as an excuse, they've kept the faith in the young guys coming in," he said.
"I feel sorry for Declan, because he can't play the card as he doesn't want to take anything away from the guys who have come in, to say these guys aren't up to it. It has been a big upheaval. It's a results-based game, but if you do factor that in – maybe it's an excuse, I don't know – I think we have held our heads quite well."
In stripping Brian O'Driscoll of the captaincy and cutting Ronan O'Gara after overlooking him for the Scotland defeat in Murrayfield, Kidney has set traps for himself this spring.
His former flanker does not agree with all of the decisions he has made, but is happy that Kidney is best placed to make them.
"You could argue that they maybe had to happen, but maybe not when they happened," he said.
"If I was to fault him on anything, I would say I might disagree with a couple of the decisions. Would they have made a massive difference? Maybe Ronan starting against Scotland might have had, but Declan is there, watching Paddy in training every day. He sees things we don't get to see and he has faith in him."
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"That's why Ireland need David Wallace so much, that ability to carry. Look, he's taken Tuilagi, he's taken Fourie, that's what gives Ireland quick, front-foot ball."
Seconds before Manu Tuilagi fatefully launched himself at Wallace during the World Cup warm-up game in 2011, Stuart Barnes uttered the above line in his role as a Sky Sports co-commentator.
Wallace was the generator of Ireland's momentum for much of the last decade and his absence has been felt keenly.
He had spoken about continuing on for another four years, such was his confidence in his own body, but that crunching hit ended his World Cup ambitions and ultimately his career.
But rupturing all of his knee ligaments while playing against England on that sunny, August day at Lansdowne Road has changed his perceptions on the game he made a living from for more than a decade. Now he watches his former team-mates being carried off and fears for their safety.
As Ireland's injuries mount, he wonders whether the game is getting too physical.
"It is a bit worrying, I might have disagreed with you a couple of years ago, but, having been injured and having had to retire, I've changed my thoughts on that, rightly or wrongly," he admitted.
"It seems that players have become bigger and more powerful. The size of players is even increasing dramatically.
"We've gone away from the quicker-paced game that was around a couple of years ago to a slower one that allows bigger guys to get involved and you have guys falling, hitting you and bigger collisions.
"We're not a big breed of players in Ireland, especially not in the backs, compared with the likes of Wales and England.
"We seem to be picking up a lot more injuries this year and I wonder is that part and parcel of having smaller players.
"We're generally quicker and try to be more agile, but it seems the way that things are going with international teams is about picking men who can get over the gainline no matter what."
There have, Wallace believes, been circumstances that have made for a more abrasive Six Nations this season.
"The weather hasn't helped this year," he said. "We played against England and France on bad days and you can't run around those guys in that weather. You have to go up the jumper.
"But I think it has slowed down this year because referees are focusing on the attacking team at the breakdown and it seems to be the attacking team who are penalised for the way they're securing the ball.
"That can slow the game down and take the impetus away from the team who want to play fast, attacking rugby and score tries.
"It hands the initiative to teams who just want to play phases and use their big packs and stop you on the gainline. It is hard to counteract that."
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Having been denied the opportunity to go out on his own terms, Wallace can sympathise with his former captain O'Driscoll, who is currently mulling over his future and facing almost daily queries on his retirement date.
"There are many different factors in deciding that you're retiring," the 37-year-old explained.
"There's your body – and Lord knows he's put his body under severe pressure over the years – there's your family, your home life and wanting to spend more time with them and I've found out first-hand how important that is.
"There's also your love for the game, your appetite for it and whether you have done all you want to do.
"It would be a great way to go out, after a Lions tour and a Test series win over Australia – hopefully.
"Then there's the thoughts of what do you do after that for a job – the financial stuff. There are so many different aspects to it."
Wallace opted to turn away from rugby on his own retirement, opening a sweet shop as one of his commercial ventures.
Having considered the above, one of the things he wanted was to get back to being a fan and enjoying watching rugby.
Like any Ireland supporter, he has found that the past few weeks have been difficult.
But what makes him different is that he has been in that dressing-room and he believes that his old coach deserves another shot.
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