Saturday 18 November 2017

Kidney is stuck in a straitjacket

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The announcement of pre-Six Nations or 'A' team squads rarely does much for me. That feeling was reinforced on Wednesday when Declan Kidney declared what could best be described as a conservative hand.

Did we expect anything different? In truth, no. Is it an opportunity lost? Absolutely yes.

But with respect to those Kidney-knockers out there, it is not the head coach's calls I have a problem with here.

My issue is with the system whereby coaches' contracts begin and end between World Cups. As things stand, Kidney's contract will expire roughly at the midpoint on the road to England 2015.

That means his main concern is in the here and now. It is a results-driven business and he needs short-term results. He will be targeting Six Nations success, and then at least one victory in the three-Test tour of New Zealand in June -- a first ever win over the All Blacks would be quite a feather in Kidney's cap.

In the meantime, it's the tried and trusted to whom he has turned. Why, given the parameters, should there be any surprise with that?

By contrast, Wales counterpart Warren Gatland has carte blanche to build towards RWC 2015. Sure, he'll ship flack if the Welsh come second best to Ireland in the opener at Lansdowne Road on February 5, but with his four-year build-up secure, he has the leeway to continue the process of change that is already under way.

Sadly, though, Ireland are caught in a time warp ... still in a straitjacket whereby we must -- as in the amateur days of old -- pick for the here and now.

Where once I supported that stance, the game and our global status has moved on. We should be bigger, bolder and braver than that. And it's not as if the players aren't there. Professionalism has already taken us to a stage where we have at least two solid alternatives in almost every position.

There is the odd exception, with tighthead and, perhaps, full-back the most obvious areas of concern.

But on the evidence of this season, particularly in the Heineken Cup, there are new players good enough to make the step up.

I feel that Kidney is a hostage to the system. We are slow as a nation to instigate change -- not quite the 'harder to get off than get on the Irish team' days of yore, but still that almost institutionalised reluctance to give youth its fling.

Would Australian prodigy James O'Connor or hugely promising Welsh wing George North be playing at the highest level were they Irish? I have my doubts.

Gatland has just called up 18-year-old Harry Robinson from the Cardiff Blues to his Six Nations squad. Would Robinson be in an Irish squad? I'll let you form your own view.

I find it strange that Leo Cullen was named in the 24-man senior squad, given his impending operation. Even at this distance, I suspect a line-up to face the Welsh as follows -- Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Fergus McFadden, Gordon D'Arcy, Andrew Trimble; Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross; Donnacha Ryan, Paul O'Connell (capt); Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip.

With the exception of midfield and one lock position, it is a XV that virtually picks itself.

But I would have Luke Fitzgerald in the full squad just as I would have had him in New Zealand for the World Cup.

So too Peter O'Mahony (who is at least in the extra six players needed for a guinea pig opposition in training), Chris Henry and especially Paul Marshall.

Fitzgerald's absence from the senior party, and the omissions of Ulster duo Marshall and Craig Gilroy from the Wolfhounds squad, are the most disappointing aspects.

Scrum-half Marshall and wing Gilroy have been the two stand-out Irish players, excluding the old guard, this season. Both have been in scintillating form, and Wolfhounds selection was the very least either deserved.

Gilroy is a natural finisher who sniffs out tries and manufactures space, while Marshall is the type of busy bee No 9 whose pure presence dominates the position.

I am also disappointed to see Fionn Carr overlooked again, but limited game time since his transfer to Leinster has done our most unorthodox attacking three-quarter few favours.

I do not share the view that we are 11/2 outsiders for the championship, behind France, Wales and England. Even with difficult trips to Paris and London, we are as good a bet as any for the title.

There is, too, for Kidney (along with Gatland and Andy Robinson) the added incentive of the 2013 Lions coaching job.

On the plus side, I am glad to see Mike McCarthy, Gavin Duffy and John Muldoon back in the Wolfhounds mix. It is the reward for ultra-consistency, despite Connacht's long losing run.

Tiernan O'Halloran, too, will benefit from training with the senior squad.

But it is the absence of Marshall and Gilroy -- based on form as much as potential -- that leaves me most perplexed. It's an opportunity lost.

PS Overheard at Colm Tucker's hugely attended funeral in St John's Cathedral on Saturday last, a comment Colm would have appreciated for sure: "Why is it being held in a cathedral?" "Cause we couldn't get a Basilica" ... only in Limerick.

Irish Independent

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