Sunday 21 January 2018

Injury list should force Kidney to revise his strategies

The November Tests have opened the door to a change in our mindset

Ireland coach Declan Kidney. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland coach Declan Kidney. Photo: Sportsfile

Jim Glennon

If it's true that life is a process of continuing education, then November's annual Autumn Series is the equivalent of the Leaving Cert mocks.

So what have we learned?

From a European perspective, the consolidation of France's position as clear favourites for the Six Nations is due every bit as much to the failings of their rivals as to the quality of their own performances.

New coach Philippe Saint-Andre will, however, have maximised the benefits accruing from a sustained period in camp and his bold selection of Freddie Michalak at outhalf may well be a portent of dramatic and entertaining times ahead.

What of Ireland? What did we learn that we didn't know already? Little, if anything, I'd suggest.

We all know we're more than capable of producing a big performance, that our coach has a deep-rooted aversion to change and that, for some time now, we've been seriously challenged in the art of penetrating top-class defences, particularly in the absence of Brian O'Driscoll.

So what's new? Craig Gilroy, for starters. Having made hay with his hat-trick against the inept Fijians, he set the tone from the outset against Argentina with an opening try reminiscent of Simon Geoghegan at his best, proving to his colleagues that boldness can sometimes have its rewards. An interesting selection conundrum now ensues for Ulster, with Gilroy, Tommy Bowe and the deposed Andrew Trimble contesting the wing positions. Mark Anscombe's decisions will have crucial implications for Declan Kidney.

Not far behind Gilroy in terms of impact on the overall effort were the performances of Donnacha Ryan and Mike McCarthy in the engine room. It's rare enough for a second-row to win a man-of-the-match gong so for both to do so in successive games is remarkable.

All the more so too in the context of the continuing and worrying absence of Paul O'Connell. Taking the two games together, the quality of their joint input set new standards for Irish second-row partnerships.

A noteworthy element of last week's victory over Argentina was the completeness of the performance of Jonny Sexton at outhalf. He has for some time been open to the criticism that his international performances haven't quite carried the authority he regularly brings to bear on Leinster games.

The Argentinian game was different however. He ran the show from the start with an authority that was total and displaying a repertoire of outhalf skills reminiscent of Ollie Campbell.

Nor should it take from his performance that he enjoyed a relatively hassle-free time playing behind a forward unit that was clearly having the better of exchanges, which brings me to something that struck me yet again: the crucial importance of physicality. Across all the games I saw in the last month, physical dominance was the basis of success.

New Zealand and South Africa have always based their strategies on winning the collisions, backs and forwards alike; in recent decades the French, and latterly the Argentinians too, have been willing converts to the doctrine of the big bang. Indeed their confrontation a couple of weeks ago, won by France, was generally agreed to have been the equivalent of 15 super-heavyweight boxers slugging it out with their opponents for 80 minutes. These days it's a case of manufacturing space by dint of finding a human target (or, preferably, a succession of them), and hitting them as hard and as often as possible.

One of the by-products of this type of game is the attrition rate, particularly on the more high-impact players. Declan Kidney's recent injury list was probably unprecedented, in both quality and quantity, and is worth revisiting – Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Brian O'Driscoll, Rory Best, Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris and Seán O'Brien.

It will indeed be fascinating to watch their progress over the next couple of months and to assess the extent of the challenge they mount as they strive to regain their green jerseys.

A mantra of the coach since his ascent to the national job has been his preference for selection of form players; it's logical to assume therefore that all those returning will have to prove their form to win back their places.

That we have England and France at home is always an advantage come springtime; that we visit our recent nemesis, Wales, in our opener is not so positive, regardless of their current form.

The folly of forecasts based on autumn form has been proven time and again as the quality of the visiting challenge has always tended towards inconsistency, and this year was no different. There are, however, lessons that can be learned, foremost among them that change can actually be a good thing.

Is it too much to expect that, in the final months of his contract, the changes forced upon him by circumstances of autumn will lead to a dilution of Kidney's innate conservatism in spring?

The mocks are over, we're now on the run-in to the exams. This time, the teacher's results will be scrutinised more closely than those of his charges, his immediate future career dependent, like theirs, on the results. Don't hold your breath.

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