Lateral thinking from coach can drive Ireland forward
A lack of imagination is at the heart of Ireland's selection troubles, writes George Hook
Declan Kidney and Fianna Fáil have a lot in common. Both started on a high note and then failed to deliver on the lofty expectations.
The Irish coach, against all the odds, oversaw a Grand Slam in the immediate aftermath of the awful final days of the Eddie O'Sullivan regime. Kidney gave sensible man-management to an outstanding group of players whose morale had taken a pounding during the World Cup in France and the dreadful season that followed.
Argentina did for Warren Gatland in Lens and Eddie O'Sullivan in Paris. While Kidney is not in the precarious place occupied by his predecessors, questions will be asked if his record in November has Samoa as the lone success.
The team selected for today's game gives rise to the same nagging doubts that surfaced towards the end of the previous regimes. In the psycho-babble beloved of analysts, Kidney, O'Sullivan and Gatland are 'loyalists'; placing their faith in the hands of people they trust and are unwilling to step outside their comfort zone. There is no other way to describe the continuing faith in Mick O'Driscoll and Tony Buckley or the extraordinary unwillingness to give Mike Ross a chance.
I remain unconvinced about the scrummaging power of Ross, but given the appalling vista at tighthead, it seems strange the former Munster prop has not been given a chance. Perhaps Munster is at the root of the problem, as the Leinster prop got similar treatment there from Kidney and after just one appearance left for Harlequins to seek fame and fortune.
To be fair the Irish coach is at the end of a very long conveyor belt. He is ultimately dependent on the work done by other coaches in schools, at the academies and in the provinces. The national team has not necessarily been well served by those responsible for the development of players. There is a distinct lack of imagination and unwillingness to experiment.
Last week I was pilloried for my suggestion that Brian O'Driscoll might consider moving to openside flanker in his declining years. Interestingly, no eyebrows were raised when New Zealand had players move positions in the opposite direction. Jonah Lomu and Sonny Bill Williams were average back rows before a move to the backs made them internationals. The roles of the centre and flanker are interchangeable in open field and only at the scrum is there a technical adjustment. It is inconceivable that O'Driscoll could not survive at less than 10 setpieces per match.
David Quinlan won two caps for Ireland in the centre. David who, you may well ask? The 6ft 3ins centre had all the qualities to be a classic flanker. He was strong, quick, a great tackler and had good hands. Yet nobody at Blackrock College, Ireland schools or Ireland development teams considered a move to another position. The result was that his career was a footnote in Irish rugby history instead of the possibility of 30 caps. Leo Cullen was a schoolmate of Quinlan's. He too initially rejected advice that he move from the middle of the back row to the second row. Happily for him, sane heads prevailed and his career profited.
The best hooker in Ireland is Sean Cronin, but he ranks at best fourth in the throwing stakes. It is incomprehensible that he has not been coached in the art of delivering a ball to a target. The programme for today's match lists a management and coaching staff of 18 people, or almost one per player in the squad. Given the vital importance of the lineout in the modern game the absence of a throwing coach is glaring.
Help for Cronin is at hand if he has the wit and willingness to ask for it. Step one is fairly easy. Anton Oliver, the former All Black hooker, lives and works in London. For most of his 59 caps for New Zealand he was a sub-standard thrower at the lineout. In his final two years he sought help and became proficient. The Irish hooker should go to London for a few days.
Step two is a little more difficult but I am certain Cronin would receive a positive response. He should call the American Ambassador for assistance. Dan Rooney is the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and could arrange practice with the "long snapper" in his NFL squad. The long snap is where the ball is delivered to the kicker in football. It is the same, but opposite, skill to the hooker, but requires the same qualities of pace, direction and accuracy. The Ambassador could do much for Irish/American relations by flying his expert in to Ireland to hold clinics for hookers.
Finally, there is the vexed question of counter-attack. Kidney's back three have been incapable of a cohesive attacking policy from kicks. Rob Kearney's injury has given Geordan Murphy yet another opportunity to display his talents at full-back.
Kearney's success was based on his ability to catch and return high kicks. Those are skills of another era, best represented by full-backs like Tom Kiernan and Hugo McNeill. Murphy is perfect for the modern game but needs two wings who understand what is afoot and how to capitalise on misdirected kicking. The first instinct of the catcher on the Ireland team is to run or kick. The first instinct in the southern hemisphere is to pass and change the focus of attack.
Today Argentina will subject us to a stern examination up front that we may be unable to pass. To win will require the courage and organisation shown against the All Blacks but a different kind of attacking system. The Pumas will slow the game to a crawl but Felipe Contepomi will kick the ball more than Dan Carter. The opportunities to counter will be there and the back three must deliver.
Ireland is a team more comfortable with attacking off the setpiece without having a setpiece to use. Necessity is the mother of invention. I hope we see some today; otherwise Kidney could rue the sight of blue and white shirts like O'Sullivan and Gatland.