Thursday 14 December 2017

David Kelly: Kidney puts faith in old warhorse to save his skin

The vast experience of Ronan O’Gara is likely to earn him the nod from Declan Kidney against Scotland
The vast experience of Ronan O’Gara is likely to earn him the nod from Declan Kidney against Scotland

WHEN your back is against the wall, where else can a person go but forward?

A grim fascination has gripped Irish rugby supporters this week. Like watching Clint Eastwood in 'Unforgiven', Ireland is preparing to send out its ageing gunslinger to shoot down the Scots.

The trouble is, some of the country reckon he's shot to pieces; others reckon without him, Ireland might as well be bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Some things in Irish rugby never change. Thirty-four years since Tony Ward was controversially dropped on the side of a training field in Australia, debates about Ireland's No 10 rage on.

It is as if the nation is holding its collective breath in anticipation as O'Gara prepares to start in an Ireland jersey for the first time since the country's World Cup exit in Wellington in 2011.

Last week, we counted five different websites countenancing against O'Gara being anywhere near the Irish side being named this week.

The words of Arsene Wenger are relevant. "We live in a democracy of experts and opinions, but we have to live with that and show we have the mental strength to deal with any opinion," he said yesterday.

"There are a lot of experts who are not necessarily always right. What is important is not what people say. It is what happens on the pitch."

This is the context within which Declan Kidney is making the latest in what seems to be a production line of decisions that could end/prolong – delete as appropriate – his international coaching career.

It all comes down to what happens on the pitch, and how much he can control what happens on the pitch.

For now, Ian Madigan's extraordinarily gifted set of skills just will not do for someone in Kidney's position.

His belated call-up to the squad smacks of the coach bending to public will; it is anything but, yet it serves to queer the pitch still further and intensify the focus on Kidney as he sits down to pore over his matchday 23.

Forget conservatism, this is survival. And the first acts of a survivor are driven by natural instinct.

Hence, Paddy Jackson is deemed superior as the alternative choice at out-half this week; in essence, for all his perceived cowed nature beneath the shadow of Ruan Pienaar, the Ulsterman offers Kidney a greater element of security.

There is a school of thought that suggests Kidney could start with Jackson, and it's not an entirely cack-handed theory.

To all intents and purposes, Kidney sees a lot of the younger O'Gara in Jackson. In Madigan and, to a lesser extent, Ian Keatley, he sees too much he cannot trust.

And, with his team beginning to loosen their bonds of trust in the coach, as witnessed by the witless, meandering mish-mash of a tactical display against England, Kidney needs as much trust on his side as possible.

Madigan's kicking coach at Leinster, Richie Murphy, touched upon the delicacy of the issue yesterday.

"All three guys are all particularly good players," said Murphy, referring to the triptych of youthful endeavour tilting at the seemingly immovable veteran.

"Until they get the opportunity to start one of those big games, they'll all be where they are now. It takes a leap of faith from the coaches to put one of them in. But, then again, I'm not picking the Irish team and I'm glad I'm not."

The minute Murphy mentioned "leap of faith" was the moment he himself hopped from the fence; not surprisingly, he soon returned.

For this week, regardless of the host of opinions, only one man's will count. The past will influence the decision more than the future.

O'Gara was 14 when he first came into contact with Kidney at Presentation Brothers College in Cork, and the master was eager to devote as much time – including lunch and dinner breaks – to his pupil's gestation as a player .

Kidney would sketch a pitch on an A4 sheet, scratch an imaginary oval shape and bombard the youngster with a machine-gun rattle of questions as to strategy and game-plans from different scenarios.

It is as if O'Gara – and, to some extent, Kidney – have been framed by this interaction ever since. Except O'Gara threw away his A4 sheet a long, long time ago.

When the out-half came out to virtually retire himself in the immediate aftermath of the momentous World Cup victory over Australia, Kidney began planning for a future without his past.


Trouble is, the future hasn't become the present quickly enough. Jonny Sexton has become so superior to all his rivals in much the same way O'Gara so effectively outshone all opponents in the 2000s.

Asked directly to speak on behalf of his Leinster colleague yesterday, Murphy was unable to commit to answering just what flaws might be holding his charge back.

"That's a personal thing between coaches and players," he dead-batted.

For better or worse, Kidney has backed himself into a corner on this one.

And, for the first time in two years, he seems certain to select O'Gara for a frontline Test match. It could represent a remarkable last fling, or a defining blow, to the Kidney regime.

To save himself, Kidney is relying on what he knows O'Gara can do, rather than what he can't.

Sunday will reveal whether one of the biggest coaching calls in Kidney's Ireland career can bear fruit.

Irish Independent Sport Star Awards

Pick our magic sports moment of the year and win a trip for two to London. To view the shortlist and cast your vote click here.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport