Tuesday 23 January 2018

Kidney's journey veers off course

David Kelly

David Kelly

When Ireland entered this RBS Six Nations, most knew that a repeat Grand Slam was virtually unattainable.

A championship and at least a Triple Crown were viable alternatives, but the stated philosophies within the Irish camp spoke of RWC 2011.

A 'Player Management Scheme' had been devised with just such a purpose in mind and, arguably, a 3-2 record may have been acceptable were there sufficient developments in terms of competitive squad strength in depth and increments in set-piece and tactical play, particularly in attack.

Sadly, the 3-2 record cannot be sustained following this championship. "We're here to get results and we didn't get one," said Declan Kidney. "We got it wrong," he added. "I'll take my responsibility." In truth, he looked shell-shocked and with sound reason. His direction was as poor as that of his players. Their historical resilience and their forthright honesty may yet stand to them.

"When things are going grand, you know you take all the plaudits," said Rory Best. "Now you have to take all the criticism too."

This team judge themselves by high standards and their intimate reviews behind closed doors will be gruesomely honest. That they will focus on so many different areas is the most worrying aspect as this summer's foreboding tour looms. Based on what happened on the field last Saturday, Ireland would not stand a prayer of winning any of this summer's three tests against the New Zealand Maori, All Blacks and Australia.

The buck stops here

Declan Kidney will now come under scrutiny like never before. He would have targeted a moderately successful defence of the Grand Slam before trying to eke out an away win down south this summer.

That prospect looks bleak from this morning's vista. "It gets easier, doesn't it?" he forced with a smile. Kidney must sit on the pain of this defeat, and some of his erratic decisions that accompanied it, for the next two months. From the questionable decision to start an unfit Gordon D'Arcy to the reluctance to deploy a bench in whom he professed to have huge faith, Kidney's quirky choices could threaten to damage morale.

He admitted that the choreography surrounding the Ronan O'Gara introduction "didn't look nice." Yet he was in charge and the responsibility lies with him. A player of lesser temperament than Jonny Sexton could be emotionally shattered by such a public humiliation.

Given how Ireland started, the management clearly conceived such an overly ambitious game plan without devising a base for such a tactic, though the hosts did strike for an early try.

As the error count mounted and the set-pieces collapsed, the folly of deploying such a game plan, as in Paris, was exposed. In mitigation, Kidney's intervention at half-time forced a tactical retreat, before Ireland released their grip once more in the final quarter.

Kidney could be pitching up in the spanking new Lansdowne Road stadium with a record of two wins from seven matches; a far cry from the unbeaten high that was 2009.

The only way he can alter that prospect is by taking some of the toughest decisions -- keeping John Hayes at home this summer, for a start -- of a coaching career which needs to reach a level he has never experienced before.

Tactical indecision

Tactically, Ireland threw away a Triple Crown. For some reason, Ireland still don't have a Sevens team on the world circuit, but on Saturday Ireland's XV offered a decent impression early on.

Sadly, their wonderful early strike was an illusory reward, as hubris had been the majority influence in some extraordinarily loose play.

Perhaps Ireland were so fearful of the Scots on the floor they felt mandated to keep the ball alive in the tackle, but the side deviated from some attempted miracle off-loads (some of which came off) to aimless shovelling of the ball from side to side.

Ireland were too ambitious; their first kick didn't arrive until Tomas O'Leary's effort at the start of the second quarter. Ireland's first maul arrived in the 51st minute, when at last they attempted to engage with the Scottish pack.

However, despite 10 minutes of quickening tempo, marked by Tommy Bowe's try, Ireland resorted to more helter skelter stuff which suited the spoiling, physical Scots all day long. The more they attacked without structure, the more errors they made. It was a vicious circle.

It was a tactical miasma and the worrying thing is that a really good team -- like Australia or New Zealand -- would have made mincemeat of Ireland. Kidney was guilty of tactical naivety in the extreme.

The breakdown of the breakdown

The new tackle law has shifted the balance away from sides who can successfully blend a strong defensive hand with an ability to strike on the back of good set-pieces and world-class finishing.

Bad news for Ireland in the short-term. Now they must adapt. On Saturday, Ireland finally had the majority of possession and territory, a reversal of previous trends -- was it then entirely coincidental that they lost?

"There's a change of emphasis at the breakdown," explains Kidney. "And you saw Scotland today when they got the ball, they held on to it for long phases. So, if we don't play and just kick it to them, they're going to hold on to it all day."

Ireland had expressed their ambition to play a more expansive game prior to the new rule interpretations, now they are going to have to accelerate that process.

They are sea changes which must permeate quickly through the team; from the captain altering the way he tackles to Rob Kearney learning how to counter-attack and look for support.

Dealing with all this on the hoof in the southern hemisphere is the last thing they would have wanted and the IRB must shoulder a portion of the blame. Ireland's intelligence and skill-set will be tested to its limits.

Don't believe the hype

It's interesting that players don't read newspapers when things are going badly, but do read them when they're going well.

"You can't help but lift up the paper and have a read in the morning and maybe sometimes you need to distance yourself from that a small bit," said Stephen Ferris.

"For me, the way this week's gone there's been so much hype about the game, you know, the last ever game at Croke Park, you're kinda running out there trying to perform and sometimes trying too hard isn't the best thing to do."

Mentally, Ireland were miles off the pace; hence the missed tackles, the scrum inconsistencies, the systems collapse in the line-out, the appalling lapses in handling skills.

The scattered opening betrayed a team who were daring to believe their own hype. How else to explain the disdainful respect shown to the Scots in that bizarre opening quarter, typified by the cheap turnover leading to the Scottish try.

It has been acknowledged that Ireland are capable of dealing superbly with adversity, but handling complacency proved to be a rather more difficult stumbling block on Saturday and brought this side crashing to earth with a shuddering jolt.

Kearney typifies this problem in a microcosm. Where did the best full-back in the world go?

Strength in depth

Despite public pronouncements, four of the bench were deemed unsuitable for the fray on Saturday.

This does not reflect the growing squad of which Kidney speaks.

The line-out and scrum population remained the same, despite the growing crisis -- quite simply a dereliction of duty.

Big calls must be made. Paul O'Connell is no longer indispensable. If he is not performing -- and he didn't on Saturday -- he should be replaced. Praising the strength in depth is meaningless if it is not trusted.

It is debatable whether Ireland can challenge the big guns without knowing who their best out-half is; the dual option worked in the early 2000s, but few experts suspect dovetailing can work in the modern game.

Also, how close is Kidney to finding trustworthy stand-ins for John Hayes, Brian O'Driscoll, the second-rows and David Wallace?

Systems meltdown

It wasn't all the fault of Rory Best and the props. O'Connell repeatedly emitted poor line-out calls in a performance which fell shockingly below the standards of a Lions captain.

Gert Smal's set-piece had been exemplary and we must hope Saturday was an aberration, not the beginning of a trend sparked by the beanpole Scots. Ireland now have scrummaging experts. Hopefully, it will not be too late.

"All these things are journeys," said Kidney. As it stands, Ireland are off course. Regaining control of the steering wheel will be this team's -- and the coach's -- biggest challenge to date.

Irish Independent

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