Sunday 18 February 2018

Search party out for solution to Ireland's problems

Declan Kidney is faced with crucial decisions over the next year, writes George Hook

The four internationals in November will be the most expensive ever, and consequently for the first time, watched by those who can afford to go rather than those who want to go.

For almost a decade, Ireland has had success; that, and the economic high tide, were both reflected in crowd sizes. Now, despite a 25 per cent drop in capacity, tickets have rarely been as easy to come by.

Eddie O'Sullivan asserted that his conservative selection policy was predicated on the insistence by his masters in the Union that winning was all-important. If true then Declan Kidney will be under no illusions this time around when the organisation has an expensive stadium and there is a real possibility of empty seats at a Six Nations home game. The experience of the FAI will not be far from Tom Grace's mind when he studies gate receipts at the end of the November games.

However, Kidney has a problem. Can he improve on a poor 2010 Six Nations and a disastrous home defeat to Scotland? A year from now, he will enter the World Cup in New Zealand conscious of the fact that his predecessor went to the last celebration in France with a stronger hand and yet succeeded in ending his career.

The pack was at the root of the failures in the spring and nothing since has given an indication that there has been a sea change. The scrum remains a problem and the lineout, the jewel in the crown of O'Sullivan's era, looks frail in the absence of Paul O'Connell and Jerry Flannery.

The pretenders to the throne of John Hayes have lots to prove. If Tony Buckley had brushed aside the tackle of Dylan Armitage one might have imagined him as a ball-carrier of the modern style. If Mike Ross had scrummaged against Racing Metro in tune with his around-the-field heroics then one might have hoped he could finally deliver on his long-awaited potential. He is no young tyro -- he will turn 30 at Christmas, an age when Hayes had close to 50 caps in his locker.

Only in the back row does the Irish coach have a modicum of comfort. Yet the nagging problem of a legitimate openside will not go away. David Wallace, whose recurring back problems are a source of worry, remains the front runner; it is hard to see him staying fit for another 12 months and able to survive the physical pressures of a World Cup campaign.

In a team of non-ball carriers, he remains the only Irishman, as witnessed by his part in Munster's resurgence against London Irish, capable of carrying the ball consistently against massed defences. His talents in this area have been largely unrecognised. Remember it was he who carried the fight to Biarritz in the Heineken Cup final in Cardiff. He is, to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, the very model of a modern rugby forward.

The back line too has its problems. The loss of Tomás O'Leary gives Eoin Reddan a real chance to claim the No 9 shirt. O'Leary is the first choice for Ireland for all the right reasons bar one: he does not do what modern scrumhalves are increasingly doing, which is to hold the first defenders by running before passing.

Reddan, like Wallace, is the nearest thing we have to a player who can take advantage of the new law interpretations and even more crucially develop a relationship with the dynamic Jamie Heaslip at No 8.

To progress in New Zealand a year from now, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney should be in the team. The big question is where? Earls is a flier but a poor passer; Kearney is a brave catcher but is not a striker in the back line; and Fitzgerald is an extraordinary talent who may suffer for his versatility.

If the above observations are credible then the back three should be Fitzgerald at fullback with the other two on the wings. That begs the question, what about Tommy Bowe? The Ulsterman should form the midfield group with Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll. There must be a plan for the eventuality that the greatest centre of his generation may be unavailable. The dozen matches over the next 12 months should be used to create a back division that can test the best defences in the world while on a diet of meagre possession.

It is hard to imagine that Ireland can be successful without a captain. Everybody wishes Paul O'Connell well but with every passing game without the giant lock, the worries about his long term future increase. Even if he returns to the fray one wonders whether he can be the force of old.

Equally worrying is the dependence on O'Driscoll as a leader. The centre has always led by example rather than cerebral touch. Not since Anthony Foley has one felt that Ireland was thinking its way through the game.

Cricket has always picked the captain first. The All Blacks never worried about the playing abilities of their captains. Great players like Brian Lochore and Ian Kirkpatrick were a bonus. But Wilson Whineray never dominated at the scrum nor was Andy Leslie an outstanding back row. The Kiwis knew the value of leadership.

Two players should be in the captaincy frame for RWC 2011: Geordan Murphy and Leo Cullen. The fullback remains an outstanding counter-attacker, immeasurably superior to Kearney. Meanwhile Cullen appears to be the only forward who thinks his way around the lineout.

The price of admission to the Aviva Stadium may be high but it could be worth it to see if Kidney's legendary management skills have not lost their touch.

Sunday Independent

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