Friday 24 November 2017

Kidney's cause suffers greatly from absence of O'Driscoll

The sum of Ireland's parts is not adding up, says Jim Glennon

Despite last week's farcical hiatus (from which, perversely, there appears to have been only one winner, and it's not Ireland), we find ourselves where we were always going to be this weekend -- in a stock-taking exercise on a 'free' weekend, albeit with only half of the data we should have available to us.

The general perception arising from that available data -- the Welsh game -- appears to be that the sum of our individual parts is well short of what it should be and the perception is then exacerbated by a parallel thesis that the Welsh are somehow managing to do precisely the opposite, and at our expense too.

Is this fundamental perception a fair one? In all fairness to everyone involved, the immediate evidence is flimsy to say the least. The 80 minutes of evidence provided by the Welsh game, crucial as it is to our current mindset, can't be taken as conclusive, on either side of the argument. Nor should we allow our minds be swayed by the result or the controversy surrounding the game's defining moment -- it's the quality of our performance which we're addressing.

Cast your mind back to the World Cup campaign of last autumn -- USA, Australia, Italy, Russia and Wales. One performance of real quality against a slightly questionable opposition, three more displays which could be best described as 'sufficient unto the day', and a fifth which fell well short of the required standard. Importantly too, expectation among most judges prior to the competition was that while a semi-final was a real possibility, the outcome ultimately achieved -- defeated quarter-finalists -- was always the most likely one, particularly on the back of a disappointing warm-up series in August.

Go back further now to Six Nations 2011. The once-off performance against England in the final game, enjoyable as it was, served only to put a false gloss on what was a disappointing campaign, with defeats to France and Wales providing reality checks. All in all, therefore, it leaves us with an annual return pre-Six Nations 2012 against the established nations of played 12, won five (Italy twice, Scotland, England and Australia) and lost seven (France three times, Wales twice, Scotland and England). In other words, France and Wales are clearly ahead of us, with Italy clearly behind us.

A disappointing return undoubtedly, and especially so in the context of our recent decade-long period of unprecedented success at international level. However, it's when context is provided by the performances of the four provinces over the same period that the real questions arise. All have performed with distinction this season, delivering three European quarter-final spots with Leinster clear leaders at the top of the RaboDirect Pro12 League; and this on top of last year's successes of Leinster in the Heineken Cup, of Munster in the Magners League and of Ulster in returning to Europe's last eight after a decade-long absence. Add in to the mix the significant under-achievement of their Welsh regional counterparts in the same arenas and the mystery deepens considerably.

Specific issues have been raised about recent individual performances -- decision-making in certain circumstances etc -- with an implicit suggestion that players perform differently for their provinces, but there is one overriding issue in any assessment of the current state of the national squad -- the elephant that's absent from the dressing-room, Brian O'Driscoll.

It's often said, in every aspect of life, that the only way to accurately measure the importance of the key component of any organisation is to have that key component removed for a sustained period; O'Driscoll's current absence is a case in point. It has been said of him so often that he 'fulfilled the role of two men' that the phrase has lost its impact; indeed there's a validity in the proposition that the team has managed without an out-and-out openside flanker over the past decade simply because of his capacity to perform so many of the duties involved in that role, on top of his own particular job spec. The level of re-organisation required within the team as a result of his absence shouldn't be underestimated.

It's difficult for a player himself to say whether he would have taken a different option in any given circumstance, given a different coloured jersey on his back. Rarely if ever is a particular

option taken in total isolation; weather, referee, time remaining, performance level of self and colleagues, injuries, and a game's general momentum are only some factors that go into the decision-making mix -- not to mention the opposition. The team's general mindset however is a common element to all of these factors, and this is where the influence of the management/coaching team comes into play.

At first glance, everything points to a great achievement on the part of the Welsh coaching team of Warren Gatland, Rob Howley, Shaun Edwards and Robyn McBride in extracting performances from their charges, individual and collective, of a quality comfortably superior to what they regularly deliver for their clubs. Caution must be exercised however with such an assumption in that it takes no account of the quality, or otherwise, of the coaching set-ups within the clubs.

We on the other hand like to think that our provinces have always enjoyed coaching of the highest quality and the current provincial quartet of Joe Schmidt, Tony McGahan, Brian McLaughlin and Eric Elwood have provided us with ample material to support this thesis.

So where does all this leave us? Is there a massive gulf between the respective national coaching teams with Declan Kidney and his colleagues suffering badly in comparison, or does the reverse apply in favour of our provincial personnel? Probably, as ever, the answer lies somewhere in between; the four-week period commencing next weekend will provide more conclusive evidence on which we can base our judgements.

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