Sunday 8 December 2019

Bigger challenges looming

The World Cup will now become the top priority for Declan Kidney, writes Brendan Fanning

Jonathan Sexton is good enough for this level, and in time the goal-kicking trough he has fallen into will be behind him
Jonathan Sexton is good enough for this level, and in time the goal-kicking trough he has fallen into will be behind him

Six years ago in the decaying surrounds of Lansdowne Road a Scotland side with the newly installed Matt Williams at the controls came in search of trouble.

They have always been giving us grief, so it was hardly a unique setting. Through the '90s we couldn't buy a win off them, and then in 2001, a year after we had, at last, swept to an era-changing victory over them, they stitched us up from foot to mouth just when we were getting ideas about ourselves.

So there were a few frayed nerves in the 2004 fixture when the away team shaped up like they had a running game to unseat Ireland's pursuit of a first Triple Crown in 19 years. Early in the second half when Chris Paterson converted an Ally Hogg try the score was back to 16-15 and you could see it all going south. In the end it was handy enough.

Since then we have gone our separate ways: Ireland have been busy gathering silverware; the Scots have been occupied trying to stay ahead of Italy. And when this morning the respective coaches start their review of this season's Championship, Declan Kidney will be the one with the empty feeling. What should have been a fifth Triple Crown in seven seasons instead turned into a wake.

Before the opener against Italy this season Kidney had busied himself setting up a buffer zone against failure. Given that Ireland were now Grand Slammers he reasoned, every win would be harder earned and therefore more valuable than last season. He was conditioning the crowd to the prospect of a downturn. In truth they were ready for slimmer pickings for even the casual fan appreciated the role played by good fortune in that campaign. But what could so easily have been a 4/5 campaign turned into 3/5 because Ireland looked to put the Scots to the sword when maybe they should have clubbed them around the head for a while first.

This is deeply worrying for the coach because the shift in emphasis at the breakdown is really hurting his side. This is something they can overcome for the quality of their coaching team is first class, but it needs to be seen over the summer. In fact it needs to be seen first by Leinster and Munster in Europe.

The wider issue is that already we are in World Cup mode and this setback sobers us up. Not only do we have to figure out how to be competitive again at the breakdown but the set-piece looked awful yesterday.

There are 17 Tests (including the game against the New Zealand Maori) between now and our kick-off in New Plymouth in September 2011, and not only will that fly past but it wouldn't be a major investment in the experience bank for someone who is only opening his account.

There will be many additions to that category. Declan Kidney used 31 players during this campaign. Add in Luke Fitzgerald who will be back in good time to make his case for this summer's tour, and already you have the bulk of the squad sewn up. Clearly the coach knows who he wants on board and he spread the starting places around only 20 players.

In that lot there were only three big calls, all for the England game: dropping Ronan O'Gara and Leo Cullen for Jonny Sexton and Donncha O'Callaghan respectively, and leaving Tom Court off the bench in favour of Tony Buckley.

That shuffle on the bench came under most people's radar but it was significant because now that he has got Sexton into the side, replacing John Hayes is the single biggest issue facing the coach. Sexton is good enough for this level, and in time the goal-kicking trough he has fallen into will be behind him. Kidney is good at managing this kind of thing. He can toggle between his outhalves as needs be, as he did yesterday, but in choosing Buckley for Twickenham he was making a statement.

Now he has to follow it up. There are probably a few things that keep the coach awake at night, and surely one of them is the thought of having Hayes break down at or near to the World Cup. Whereupon he will be replaced by somebody with only a pittance in his experience account.

The rationale for not starting Buckley yesterday was straightforward: Six Nations gig with a Triple Crown on the line so you play our best team. Clearly Kidney reckons there is still a lot of daylight between a clearly tiring Hayes and an inconsistent Buckley or the change would have been made for yesterday.

So if he plans on bringing Hayes to the World Cup then he needs to consider leaving him at home this summer to rest, and running with either Buckley and Tom Court as the tight heads - Court may not be a tight head by trade but already he has had to feature there - or Mike Ross whose move to Leinster has done nothing for his international claims, stranded as he is behind CJ van der Linde and Stan Wright.

When Ross made the move back to Ireland from Harlequins last summer he would have had an eye on this Six Nations as the time to get a foot in the door. Instead the only Leinster men to move forward have been Kevin McLaughlin and Sexton, even if this morning the outhalf doesn't feel that way.

Indeed the only man who will feel any relief is O'Gara who proved himself under pressure yet again, nailing critical kicks to keep Ireland in the game. Certainly Kidney won't be hopping out of bed with a smile on his face.

His contract expires after next year's World Cup and it would have been dandy to wrap the first two seasons with silverware. Of course the IRFU reckon they still have their man but he starred the day yesterday thinking big and it will take a while to get over this.

He needs to do it quickly, and not to lose sight of the bigger picture. More worrying than losing to Scotland is to arrive at the World Cup warm-up games in August 2010 only to discover that the rump of his ageing squad are running out of gas. And by then it will be too late to do anything about it.

So he will have to fix the technical stuff in their game and then micro manage them over the next 18 months.

He will try and get the balance right between winning enough in the short term to stay positive, and keeping enough in reserve to win when it matters most: New Zealand 2011. This Championship has had a depressing end to it for all concerned. Now the coach has to make every second count in spreading some experience around the squad, and keeping their heads above water.

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