Friday 23 February 2018

Comment: Much has changed in Irish rugby since Declan Kidney was vilified for his left-field selection decision

Read Brent Pope every week in The Herald.

Tadhg Furlong (left), and Michael Bent with Declan Kidney (right).
Tadhg Furlong (left), and Michael Bent with Declan Kidney (right).

Brent Pope

A few years ago, then Irish rugby coach Declan Kidney was vilified for going to New Zealand in search of a prop that could solve a growing crisis in Irish rugby.

Michael Bent was a provincial player from Taranaki, but had a valuable commodity - an Irish ancestry. Bent duly arrived in Dublin, and with hardly a game in this country under his belt, was dropped into Irish colours.

Some former Irish players were disgusted that the Irish jersey had been offered up so cheaply, but Kidney’s justification was correct at the time.

There were simply no home-grown players ready or available to play at that level.

Much has changed in Irish rugby, and heading into this Six Nations Championship, Irish coach Joe Schmidt will have had sleepless nights just deciding on his strongest side.

The front-row has now become an area of considerable strength in depth, to such an extent that the loss of Seán Cronin is no longer so readily felt. Schmidt can now go into the championship with a cupboard full of world-class front-row options, able to replace like with like during the game.

The same applies in the backrow, where arguments have been raging up and down the country as to what is the best loose forward combination for the opening matches.

Schmidt, as he has always done, will have looked at the opposition strengths and weaknesses and it’s a ‘horses for courses’ selection.

Scotland are a more mobile team than most, relying on speed to the breakdown rather than brute force, so it’s a slight surprise that Leinster openside Josh van de Flier has been left on the bench, with Seán O’Brien back at No 7.

Word emanating from the Irish training camp is that Schmidt is meticulous in his preparation. All the Irish players, selected or not, will know exactly what he wants from them.

“Fail to prepare, prepare to fail”. That has been one of the coach’s greatest mantras, where all squad players know their roles, and can slide seamlessly into his Irish team.

There is also a pattern of play emerging in the Irish provinces, and Schmidt’s stamp is being brought back to the provincial game.

At last Ireland has a discernible style of play. But will it be good enough against the Scots tomorrow? This game will be tough. Scotland are in better shape than in other years, and have always proved a potential ‘banana skin’ for Ireland.

At home and at full strength they are a very good side. Just look at the last World Cup, when they had eventual finalists Australia on their knees.

They don’t have the greatest team on paper, with perhaps only Stuart Hogg and lock Jonny Gray as probable starters in a Lions jumper, but the their whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

They play well together, with an attacking, open style of rugby as initiated by Glasgow’s first ever appearance at Europe’s top table in the Champions Cup knockout stage.

Few people really noticed Glasgow’s recent 43-0 thumping of Leicester Tigers but it was hugely significant. Scottish rugby is on an upward trajectory and Schmidt’s old boss, Vern Cotter, is every bit as streetwise as the Ireland coach.

Cotter knows he needs a big scalp and as the championship goes on he has less chance of getting it.

Like Conor O'Shea’s Italians, the longer the championship goes on, the more their limited resources are stretched to the max.

This is Scotland’s best shot of making a serious statement, so they are going to throw everything at Ireland. But Scotland can be shut down fairly easily.

They are not the type of team that can really create a lot themselves or steal ball, rather they are a team that can make good use of whatever ball they get and live off opposition errors. The secret for Ireland is to dominate the set-plays, although Ireland’s lineout misfired a bit last year.

Ireland must retain ball early on and deny Scotland the chance to open the game up. It may be a tighter approach than the public want but Ireland will take a one-point win at this stage, and they won’t be thinking about bonus points.

You play to your strengths and that means attention to detail in the way you protect the ball. In that regard, Schmidt insists his players react the right way at the breakdowns, the clean-out and the ball-carry. Scotland do have a decent backline, buoyed on with the added confidence that the absence of Johnny Sexton will bring.

Sexton’s replacement Paddy Jackson has improved a lot over the last 12 months and proved in South Africa that he can be a good game-manager.

Jackson will need to find his confidence and rhythm early, and keep the ball away from the dangerous Scottish back-three. I believe Ireland will still dominate up front, and deny Scotland the quick ball they need. As the game goes on the Scots may chase a free-flowing style that will just play into Ireland’s hands.

Schmidt knows that a win will build momentum, with France and England at home. Confidence and momentum are always key to success.

Ireland have set a performance target after the recent autumn series, and Schmidt will remind them that consistency of performance is now the key. Ireland to shade it.

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