Thursday 14 December 2017

Hugh Farrelly: Ireland’s problems at international level go far deeper than the coaching ticket

THEY say a coach's shelf life is about three years before things start going stale.

Guy Noves at Toulouse has been an exception to the rule but, generally, three years in is when there tends to be talk of freshening things up.

Declan Kidney and his back-room team of forwards coach Gert Smal and backs coach Les Kiss are coming up on four years at the helm at Ireland and it has been a long drop from a Grand Slam in their first campaign to a record 60-0 defeat to New Zealand at the end of their latest.

Circumstances have not helped, not least an injury onslaught that ripped the experienced core out of the team on the tour to New Zealand and has consistently challenged the coaches over the past couple of seasons.

There has been a substantial overhaul in personnel also; only two of the team that started against the All Blacks in Hamilton -- Rob Kearney and Brian O'Driscoll -- began the Grand Slam-claiming showdown with Wales a little over three years. That is some turnaround.

However, that accepted, there is understandable anger directed towards Kidney and his staff after Saturday's humiliation. Ireland still started 11 Heineken Cup finalists on Saturday and shipping 60 points while failing to register a single score in reply is, as Kidney stated, unacceptable for a top-tier nation.

How could Ireland be so limp in Hamilton when they had bristled with menace and intent in Christchurch the week before? New Zealand were a better team, certainly, but there is clearly a psychological issue behind Ireland's no-shows at Eden Park and Waikato Stadium and how they were able to unearth an almighty performance in Christchurch.

This adheres to 'backs to the wall' inconsistency that has plagued Kidney's Ireland over the past couple of years -- whereas throughout their unbeaten 2009 the Irish had focus and momentum, backing up their performances from match to match, over the last couple of years they have been unable to put two big games together against the better nations.

As the overseers, Kidney and his coaches are in the firing line and as Ireland have clearly stagnated, they have a case to answer.

Compromised

However, while the calls for a change of regime have been raining down since Saturday, it has to be noted the extent to which the Ireland head coach is compromised in this position.

There is a mistaken belief in Ireland that rugby is divided between the country's four provinces and Ireland/IRFU. In fact, the IRFU and the Ireland national set-up are frequently at odds with each other and the system isn't geared towards maximising the success of the national side.

Money is at the root of the problem. Ideally, Kidney would have access to a national training centre rather than have his players togging out by marquees on a pitch attached to a golf hotel (Carton House). Ideally, he would have an Ireland Wolfhounds team in the Churchill Cup and another side on the Sevens circuit to help in the process of bringing players through.

Ideally, he would have been able to bring someone like Ian Madigan on tour to work with the national coaches and draw from the experience, rather than be compromised financially when it came to bringing another player.

And ideally, he would have a properly funded fourth province in Connacht that could attract the Dominic Ryans and Ian Nagles of Irish rugby and provide them with the game time they need to progress.

In New Zealand, the All Blacks are the brand that everything else revolves around. The whole system is geared around channelling maximum resources towards the national team. The Super Rugby franchises play to a national agenda, in style and in terms of providing game time the All Blacks coaches and selectors want to focus on.

In Ireland, the national side is becoming a sideshow to the Heineken Cup. A lot of the newer rugby supporters that have emerged in the last 10 years were lured in by the colour and drama of the Heineken Cup and it is a competition that has energised Irish rugby.

Six Irish titles tells its own story but then you look at the Welsh who have never won a European title but are flourishing at international level with a young team that could do serious damage at the next World Cup in 2015.

In New Zealand, every playground you pass, chances are there will be kids throwing a rugby ball around. That is not the case in Ireland. Kidney has a very shallow pool of players and limited opportunity to look at them, while trying to satisfy the IRFU's demand for results and revenue.

There was a lot of mockery thrown Ireland's way after Saturday's result and Kiwis took particular delight in rubbishing the Heineken Cup we value so highly.

The consensus is that they only send All Blacks like Brad Thorn, Doug Howlett and Jerry Collins over to Europe when they are "past it" and would never contemplate European players compromising the development of their own.

Yet Irish rugby fawns over overseas players whose quality certainly may rub off on the Irish players they work with but who challenge the progress of the national team by hoovering up valuable game time.

Declan Fitzpatrick has shown positive signs in the last few weeks. He needs to start big Heineken Cup games for Ulster to progress but will be on the bench behind All Black John Afoa.

New Zealand are laughing at us.

Kidney looked a beaten man on Saturday night in Hamilton. Whatever he said in public, in his darker private moments he must have been cursing whoever agreed to a three-Test tour to New Zealand at the end of a World Cup year (while Scotland enjoyed mugging Australia and a handy, bonding trip around the Pacific islands).

It will need something special for Kidney, Kiss and Smal to recover from this and there are plenty who think their time is up.

However, this goes deeper than the man, or men, charged with coaching the Ireland team.

For the IRFU, the provinces and the national side, it is a case of pulling together or being pulled apart.

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