Saturday 25 January 2020

A season lies in the balance

Declan Kidney's crux, says Brendan Fanning, is whether he picks a team for now or a team for the future

I t's just over five years ago now that New Zealand began in earnest their preparation for the 2007 World Cup.

That it was a tour of Europe was nothing unusual, for they are up at this end of the world in some shape or another every year, but the 2005 expedition was different because, instead of one large group fighting it out for places against Wales, Ireland, England and Scotland, there were two distinct match squads within the party.

They had done something similar in South Africa in 1996 in achieving their first series win in that country, but that was exclusively short term. There was a different agenda to their campaign on the European front: they wanted to build a squad with enough experience to cope with whatever the World Cup would bring; and they wanted to frighten the rest of us by showing that their seam of talent ran so deep.

After they had demolished Wales and Ireland with entirely different starting line-ups from one week to the next, the public relations exercise was already deemed a success. At least the foreign leg of it. The rest of the world was busy trying to figure out which was the A and which was the B team, but agreed that both were equally fearsome. Back home, however, the rugby folk of New Zealand were already questioning the scattergun exercise that was the dissemination of caps.

That unease became outrage when, in 2007, coach Graham Henry pulled his front-line All Blacks out of much of that season's Super 14 to keep them fresh for their battles in France the following autumn. Such was the scale of the preparation that it rendered the four-year gap between World Cups as a series of staging posts.

Of course it backfired with the force of a cannon once New Zealand cracked again under World Cup pressure, but that wasn't what had made the policy a bad one. Henry's mistake was in thinking that Test rugby was something you could fiddle with in the hope of getting the mix right when it mattered most. It always matters. That's the point.

Declan Kidney has alluded to the 2011 World Cup, coincidentally in New Zealand, more than a few times since he took over in 2008. And before he even got to the final whistle in Paris last Saturday it would have popped into his head again. Since then the issue has been stuck between his ears: does he add another criterion to his selection box now that the retention of the Grand Slam is off the table; and the Championship is unlikely? Or rather, does he change to bold capitals that criterion which is already there -- World Cup 2011?

The issue in building for the future while covering your tail in the present is about balancing current form with promise. So do you persist with the old dog who may not be around for the next hard road, or do you throw in the pup who will? This is where Henry went wrong: giving out caps as an investment in the future rather than a reward of current form. The good news for the Ireland coach, however, is that the gap between these two positions is not as great as it once was.

Kidney is on record as saying he doesn't clutter his head with decisions that don't need making, but the absence of Rob Kearney and Jerry Flannery requires attention. Neither raises World Cup issues. His decision on who fills the wing berths in Twickenham on Saturday -- Shane Horgan versus Andrew Trimble -- is about who will do the best job now. Trimble for Earls with the Munster man moving to full back is less disruptive; Horgan's introduction means an unwanted shift of wings for Tommy Bowe and you end up with all three back positions changed. But Horgan's form is good and his range of skill is better than Trimble's.

Equally the process of separating Tomás O'Leary from Eoin Reddan is about the here and now for both will be around next year. Reddan generated a bit of heat in post-match talk with the energy and speed he brought to the game in Paris when he came on with 12 minutes of actual time left. In the history of rugby, however, it is unheard of for a scrum-half to come on, for a losing team, that late in the day, and for there not to be an increase in pace. That's what scrum-halves do: they try and make up for lost time by passing fast and running faster. And it's a whole lot harder to do in the first 60 minutes. Had the roles been reversed, it's likely O'Leary would have looked a world-beater.

Clearly in his time on the field he was far from that. A week earlier we were commenting on what a remarkable rehab job he had done on his passing which was accurate and brave in that he is not afraid to pass into the gap ahead of the target rather than at it. And then he throws a lot of balls that don't register at the time as being far off target, but subsequently reveal themselves to be far enough as to make a difference. We are constantly reminded that it's perfection in the little things, executed under pressure, that earns Test players their salaries.

On that wavelength alone, Ireland were so far off the dial as to occasionally be untraceable. Small things? Take two of the four lineout steals (the preparation work on France's lineout was first class), and one of Ireland's 11 wins on their own throw, being delivered so badly as to be almost unusable.

And not so small things. You may recall the look of fury on Gordon D'Arcy's face when he got up after tackling Yannick Jauzion for France's second try. He ended up minding two men because Ronan O'Gara, having made a tackle in the previous phase, had taken up a position directly behind the previous ruck. Worryingly, Keith Earls took up exactly the same position in the build-up to Clement Poitrenaud's try on 61 minutes. Earls has probably never run so fast in his life when he realised his presence was required on the far side of the field. Maybe Mathieu Bastareaud's offload wouldn't have been so devastating had Ireland been more flush with numbers to defend the line.

On that occasion Brian O'Driscoll was made to look ordinary, which is unusual for him. Perhaps he felt pressurised by the shortage of manpower. "Bad reads" was his description of Ireland's defence that day, an admission that O'Driscoll sometimes got horribly wrong something he is renowned for getting right: defending in the 13 channel, which is one of rugby's trickiest assignments.

There seemed to be no aspect of the afternoon that the captain enjoyed, and it is a long time since we have seen him in that mode. When it comes to patent frustration however, his demeanour pales beside that of his outhalf.

We first came across Ronan O'Gara when he was a bantamweight playing 10 for UCC in an All-Ireland U20 semi-final in 1996. He ran the show. Over the years you'd have hung your hat on a few fellas to make it big, only to see it blown away on the wind. Not O'Gara. His physique was such that he was in danger of being carried off by a gust himself, but in his head he knew he would be around for a long time: hail, rain and snow.

Three years on from that day with UCC, O'Gara was pushing unsuccessfully for one of the last places in the 1999 World Cup squad. When the next tournament was concluded four years later, he had pretty much seen off David Humphreys to become Ireland's first choice. Since then he had been unassailable. Until Jonny Sexton emerged last season.

The longest entry on his cv is under the heading of achievements. From record points scorer for Ireland, and in the Heineken Cup for Munster, to winning huge games for both, either with nerveless goal kicking or calmly executed last-second drop goals, O'Gara has been invaluable.

In all of that however, there has been a conundrum. Despite his ability to pass a ball beautifully, his capacity to read which way a game needs to go -- and then send it there -- he has been hamstrung by physical limitations. O'Gara's body doesn't match his brain. He has never had the gas to get through a gap his mind can see before it opens. Half breaks yes; clean breaks no -- and this has negative implications for his ability to occupy defenders. And he has never had the power to stop people coming hard in the other direction.

This has been interpreted as an unwillingness to go in where it hurts, which is plain unfair. O'Gara is physically a whole lot bigger than he was when he started but the improvement hasn't been enough to cope with the deficit because rugby's physicality has exploded. And the achievement is in how he has been able to survive this trend and retain his value.

The key issue defensively is not that he doesn't stop prop forwards or flankers who run at him, rather he struggles sometimes with his opposite number. It has made for a few excruciating moments along the way. When you watch the rerun of the game in Paris, focus on the expression on O'Gara's face as he back-tracks having been bounced by Francois Trinh-Duc in the second half. It was the look of a man who was raging with himself, and that rage manifested itself in a lot of complaining subsequently to referee Wayne Barnes about decisions that were going against Ireland. Maybe he was trying to strip the ball off his opposite number, and that's where it went wrong, but wouldn't it have been safer to concentrate simply on stopping him?

Perhaps that missed tackle was what capped it for him, for by then it had been established -- despite the impressive lineout stats -- that the Ireland pack wouldn't be providing much go-forward ball. With Flannery out of the equation, these stats will hardly improve. It's hard to make the killer pass from outhalf when the delivery of ball in the first place is slow enough to get you near-killed anyway. In circumstances like that, Jonny Sexton has more physical tools to cope. He should have seen action sooner and he should start in Twickenham.

That makes sense both in the short and long term, for both outhalves will be at the World Cup next year and it would be a mistake to ignore opportunities to increase Sexton's flying hours. We think Declan Kidney will stick with O'Gara, as well as John Hayes who he wants to bring to the World Cup. That's a much more ambitious aspiration. Of his five Tests this season, which started with Hayes desperately short of game time, only the Fiji experience was one where Ireland's longest-serving prop, and perhaps best-liked player, didn't look shattered. In fairness, he never springs about the place, but currently everything seems like a huge effort. What will it be like in 2011?

Kidney's capacity to act here is determined by what happens in the provinces, so given the number of non-Ireland qualified front-rowers in Leinster, Munster and Ulster, he's dealing from half a deck. Hard to get a winning hand from that but he has to make the most of what he has. Literally. And the more games Hayes's replacement gets -- currently Tom Court -- the better he will get.

It's unlikely the England front row will inflict as much pain as the French. Overall their morale must be at odds with their position in the table given the grief they're getting for plodding along. Somewhere up ahead, however, they have the chance of turning up the heat with their young players coming through. Of their likely front-row complement in Twickenham on Saturday, four of them -- Dan Cole, Matt Mullan, David Wilson and Dylan Hartley -- are 24 or under. A year out from the World Cup they are getting invaluable game time, not as part of Martin Johnson's plan, but because his older dogs are unavailable.

Kidney isn't in the same position, and has fewer positions to tweak in order to balance the here and now with the future. He doesn't have to do a Graham Henry on it, but he has to move fast.

Sunday Independent

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