Sport Rugby

Thursday 12 December 2019

Last hurrah for Kidney's core principle

Hugh Farrelly

THE younger among you may not be aware, but before Sky Plus, Netflix and Blu-ray there used to be machines called video recorders (VCRs). Once all the rage, these Jurassic contraptions now lie disregarded in the corners of dusty attics or spare rooms, dreaming of the glory years and yearning to be hooked up again like an ageing lothario who still thinks he's 'got it'.

The discovery of a forgotten VHS cassette (jerkier version of dvds) the other day gave our old VCR its first rattle since the smoking ban. 'Up Close And Personal' was the video diary of the 2001 Lions tour to Australia, and though it could never hope to hit the standards of originality set by 1997's 'Living With The Lions' (not least because the 2001 series was lost), it still made for fascinating viewing.

Several of that squad -- Matt Dawson, Will Greenwood, Scott Quinnell and Keith Wood -- have gone on to forge successful careers in the media, while others such as Rob Howley, Robin McBryde, Tom Smith, Dai Young and Mike Catt moved into coaching.

Four others were still playing club rugby this season -- Iain Balshaw, Scott Murray, Jonny Wilkinson and Martyn Williams -- but only two of the group featured on that scratchy tape from 11 years ago are still at the cutting edge of the international game -- and they are both Irish.

Brian O'Driscoll (117 caps) and Ronan O'Gara (121) are heading to New Zealand for one last crack at the All Blacks, a remarkable testament to their sustained ability and work done to prolong their careers.

There were arguments made that O'Gara shouldn't travel and that Leinster's Ian Madigan should go in his place as a means of preparing for a future when the 35-year-old Munster out-half would not be around. Certainly, Madigan should be travelling, but as back-up to O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton, drawing on the guidance of the top two in an international touring environment.

Paddy Jackson provided evidence of the dangers of throwing youngsters in before they are ready in the Heineken Cup final and, while the evidence points to Madigan having the self-belief to step up immediately, with O'Gara still on top of his game, 'experimenting' against the All Blacks would be folly, as well as tacit acknowledgement that you have no realistic expectations of victory.

The Australians would argue differently -- pitch the talented kids in, regardless of opposition, and see how they cope. But, while it would be great to see how the likes of, say, Andrew Conway, Nevin Spence and Dominic Ryan would fare, their candidature is compromised by lack of game time, just as Madigan's is by the need for O'Gara.

As well as Madigan, Dave Kearney is the unluckiest player to miss out and, for all the approbation for the contributions of Isa Nacewa and deriding of the foreign player moves, ultimately it was the Aucklander's excellence in the Leinster back three which cost Kearney his spot.

There was a strong case for Craig Gilroy to tour also but Simon Zebo edged the 'exciting young winger' category and the formidable nature of the three-Test assignment against the world champions has resulted in Ireland coach Declan Kidney generally sticking to his tried-and-trusted approach.

As Kidney would justifiably argue, if you go with 'the kids' do you leave out players of the experience and calibre of O'Driscoll, O'Gara and Gordon D'Arcy in the interests of development? Against the All Blacks on their home turf? Hardly.


Kidney can also point to bringing through Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien, Conor Murray and Peter O'Mahony at early stages in their careers, so, while the Ireland coach continues to be tagged as 'conservative', there are caveats and an underlying pragmatism behind his selections.

That said, there is a definite sense that this tour will draw a line under the Kidney approach. His consistent achievements over a long coaching career demand respect but, three years on from the Grand Slam, no one could dispute the fact that the national side has regressed results-wise.

That this coincides with an unprecedented period of provincial dominance in Europe makes it all the more frustrating. Thus, while it would have been good to see Madigan and Kearney brought as well, going with the experienced core yet again for Ireland's greatest touring challenge is the logical approach -- as long as it is backed up in Auckland, Christchurch and Hamilton.

Talk about winning this series veers into flying-pig territory but Ireland do need to perform and failure to do so would mean there is no longer justification for continuing with what can then be categorically defined as a flawed policy.

But, for now, it is that enduring quality, typified by those 2001 Lions, which provides the foundations for hope.

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