LAST week was a bad week for politics but, even if not having the same seismic effect on the population, rugby has seen a shift in power at least as dramatic as the so-far failed attempt by Micheál Martin to seize the reins at Fianna Fáil. Munster's demotion from contender to also-rans did not have the surprise component of Brian Cowen's implosion, as the southern province has been ailing all season and the failings, evident for months, had gone uncorrected.
Last week, Declan Kidney announced an Irish squad for first Six Nations match which reflected the decline in power south of Portlaoise but more importantly demonstrated that the innate conservatism that has marked the coach's reign is alive and well. Eddie O'Sullivan was pilloried for an unwillingness to look to the future and now Kidney appears to be following the same well-trodden route. There is no sense that this was a group picked on recent form; nor is there an apparent willingness to give youth a chance.
The squad is almost certain to be revised because there are selections based on the hope that some players will recover from injury in time for the Championship. One wonders how Jerry Flannery can be considered fit for action when his absence from the game parallels that of Paul O'Connell and Flannery, unlike the lock, has yet to play a game. Doubts too exist about Gavin Duffy, the only full-back in the squad.
It is the back division that raised eyebrows. How Kidney can justify the selection of Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble ahead of Fergus McFadden is a mystery. The coach has picked five wings, three centres and one injured full-back, clearly in the belief that Fitzgerald and Earls can also play at full-back or centre. Neither player, partly perhaps because of injury, has demonstrated anything like their early promise, nor is there evidence this season that either can play anywhere other than on the wing. Trimble remains a big, strong, fast young man of adequate defensive abilities and undelivered promise. Meanwhile, McFadden, not to mention Eoin O'Malley, is bang in form.
The forwards too give cause for concern. Finally, Tony Buckley has been exposed and John Hayes, at an age when he should have his feet up in front of a fire, is asked to perform a job that he can no longer accomplish, which seems to indicate that Mike Ross is now the frontrunner for the number three shirt. Ross is no wunderkind at the scrum. He is a journeyman in his 30s who failed to convince Kidney at Munster and Dean Richards at Harlequins.
The evidence of Friday's game in Paris indicates that he is adequate and no more. A Six Nations starting in Rome will be a big step up in class. Ross is one of four prop forwards in the squad, none of whom can perform their primary task at the highest level.
There will be a coaching shake-up post the World Cup but that may be too late to fix the major issues for the 2015 celebration. Paul McCarthy, the scrum coach at Munster, has led a charmed life. He is responsible for just one area of the game, which takes place about ten times a match and could be fixed by a competent engineer, as it is about the application and receipt of the force of approximately 800kg, ie eight players weighing 100kg. The inability of Ireland to find a scrum is a scandal dating back over 100 games when John Hayes was picked against Scotland. There was a problem then and it was ignored with all the laissez faire of Bertie Ahern and the banking system. At least the IRFU has not blamed Lehman Brothers for the crisis.
There is a template for fixing the problem. When the Lions scrum, powered by Irishman Sean Lynch, destroyed New Zealand in 1971, the Kiwis immediately established a task force to travel the length and breadth of the country to revitalise the skills at the set-piece. The results were almost immediate and it is no accident that the best tight head in the world, Carl Heyman, is an All Black. New Zealand has a tradition and pride in the scrum that was once a cornerstone of Irish rugby. It has been lost by the same false optimism and inattention to detail that cost Ireland an economy.
The group selected by Kidney has three hookers and only one of whom would appear to be at full fitness. The one fit hooker, Sean Cronin, like his prop forwards, cannot perform his primary duty: throwing the ball accurately at the lineout. The modern number two no longer has to display any dexterity at the scrum as the scrumhalf puts the ball in to the second row and the hooker simply steps over it.
Astonishingly, the much derided amateur era had more innovation than the professionals of today. In the game against New Zealand in 1954, Ireland used three props in the front row to counter the powerful Kiwi scrum; this at a time when the hooker struck for the ball at all put-ins. The French did similarly for years and used the scrumhalf to throw at the lineout. Millions spent on experts from below the equator has failed to create one innovative plan to solve Ireland's problems.
Finally, and importantly, there is a head of steam building up for an Irish back row of Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien. That selection would fly in the face of rugby logic and the evidence of all the great teams that would never enter a contest without an openside flanker. Ireland has struggled since the retirement of Keith Gleeson but David Wallace has made a decent fist of being played out of position. O'Brien is an explosive ball carrier, not a groundhog. An unbalanced back row would be as big a disaster as trying to remove an appendix with three surgeons and no anaesthetist. O'Brien should be selected ahead of Ferris and Shane Jennings should be at openside. The all-Leinster selection would have the advantage of familiarity and players in their best positions.
This squad, full of imponderables about fitness, form and position, gives less confidence of a successful year than any in the last decade. Rarely, even at its lowest periods in its long and distinguished history, has Irish rugby faced into the championship with no full-back, no props and no clear policy. Is it possible that history could repeat itself and the Irish coach find that World Cup year is as Arnhem was for Montgomery, a bridge too far?
Sunday Indo Sport