Monday 19 February 2018

Finishing on low note in campaign combining carnage and controversy

Kidney's successor must overcome habit of hitting wall in second half, says Brendan Fanning

Back in the day a now retired rugby journalist used to love answering questions on our colleague Neil Francis, whom he didn't like very much. "Franno?" he would ask with disdain, puffing on his pipe. "He faded very badly in the second half."

It was a line trotted out regardless of how the same Franno was motoring. The second-row would admit that there were a few days when the tank wasn't big enough to get to the end of the journey, just as there were others when he arrived in good order, having bumped a few into the ditch along the way.

That need to last the pace presented itself again this weekend when reflecting on Ireland's 2013 Six Nations. We talk about the tournament being so compressed that it's more a shuttle run that a marathon but, en route to the Eternal City, Ireland had developed an unfortunate knack of hitting the wall in the second half.

In the first four games, their struggle after the break was like pushing a rock uphill. Against Wales, the final score – Jonny Sexton's conversion of Brian O'Driscoll try – was in the 43rd minute; Ronan O'Gara's second penalty against England was on 57 minutes, and that was that; against the Scots, Craig Gilroy's try in the 43rd minute was the sign-off; and in the second half against France there was nothing at all to register after the break.

Yesterday in brilliant sunshine and in front of a full house at Stadio Olimpico, Ireland pushed it out to 64 minutes before folding the scorecard. Finishing clearly isn't their strong suit.

The statistics: an eight-point win over Wales; a six-point defeat by England; a four-point defeat against Scotland; a draw with France; and, on the last day, a seven-point defeat by Italy. At the outset of the campaign even Declan Kidney's most devout supporters reckoned he needed a winning return to rock on to the World Cup in two years' time, and one win and a draw doesn't quite satisfy that criterion.

Along the way we have had a unique combination of carnage and controversy. An incredible 15 players who would have been in the mix have been either injured or suspended for part or all of the campaign. When Stephen Archer made his debut off the bench yesterday he became the 32nd player to be used on this journey.

You'd be deluded to think that that didn't tear the backside of Kidney's plans. We don't have the deepest pool to begin with, but fishing that number out before you dip your toe in the water is cruel.

It's the stuff that happened aside from that statistic that has hobbled the coach, however. It started with the captaincy and then spread to selection. By the end, the justification of dropping Donncha O'Callaghan from the bench was that Devin Toner's lineout ability was a better tool to be bringing to the job.

If so, then it was a better tool last weekend when O'Callaghan was selected ahead of him; or else, it was feared Donnacha Ryan wasn't fit enough to go the distance yesterday, in which case he shouldn't have been there in the first place.

Before that, we had the bombshell that was the omission of O'Gara after he had been running at 10 in the last session before the team was announced. It almost doesn't matter whether you think O'Gara should have been jettisoned or not, the issue is that it had all the hallmarks of a last-minute action.

The resulting pressure on Paddy Jackson was immense. Ireland being a small and parochial place, typically provinces push their own players whether they are best suited to the task or not. Nobody in Ulster was shoving their boy out front. They believe he will be a quality Test player, and so do we, but that's some distance away yet.

His shooting stats of five from six yesterday were very good, especially the one he nailed from distance with the last kick of the first half with the crowd on his case.

In this parish we pushed the claims of Ian Madigan, whose game is further down the track than the Ulster player, and we saw that again yesterday. Where Jackson played deep, Madigan was flat and aggressive. His belated selection in the squad against France looked like Kidney finally accepting that he had got it wrong on this issue.

It would have been much earlier in the drama that he realised that shifting the captaincy from O'Driscoll to Jamie Heaslip was a mistake. Maybe we should have seen this coming after O'Driscoll was pointedly critical of the coaching set-up in an interview he gave before the November series. At the time the journalist concerned had to do a double take when the comments were made. So did O'Driscoll when Kidney broke the news to him.

The aggregate is that the coach will be moving on soon. He is contracted until after the summer tour, to the USA and Canada, and if you remember the palaver that attended his exit as assistant to Eddie O'Sullivan in 2004, he made much of seeing out the deal.

More will be written about him between now and then, but already we've had to wade through some awful stuff either for or against retaining him.

In the former category it was suggested that genetics were to blame for Ireland's failure in this season's campaign – we're a nation of skinny short-asses so just accept our lot – and in the latter Kidney and the IRFU are both getting it in the neck for not coming clean on what happens next with the coaching of the side.

What happens next is that the union will accept the inevitable – that they need a new coach – and start the search. The combination of Joe Schmidt and Vern Cotter is an attractive option, but Les Kiss will have his hand up as well. Whoever gets it will start with turning Ireland into a team that can finish what they start.

Irish Independent

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