Friday 15 December 2017

Monsignor must pray for a miracle in Paris

Kidney's conservative nature will suffice for Welsh test, but not against the French, writes Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

As a graduate from the Declan Kidney School of Delightful Vagueness, majoring in idiosyncratic blancmange, 'I'd like to say, well ye know, that the Six Nations is a very difficult competition to win and if Ireland tackle when they don't have the ball and run hard when they do well, they have as good a chance as anyone. Anything can happen in the 80 and probably will'.

That's right, I haven't a rashers either who will win the Six Nations this year. From a macro perspective, I'd be more concerned that the quality of games improve radically or it might become a competition not worth winning, a gap-filler between the Heineken Cup intervals.

Asking Declan Kidney questions isn't likely to divine any affirmative sentiment. Press conferences hosted by Kidney meander into irreducible nonsense -- oscillation between the dream and the waking state; after a while you don't know which one you are in. Kidney, though, had better wake up this season.

The charge of being asleep at the wheel can be levelled at the Irish coach. When you write about sporting disappointment one of the chapters which went unpublished last year was Ireland's eclipse by Wales at the quarter-final stage in New Zealand. Being outwitted and out-manoeuvred by Warren Gatland, well that's 10 Hail Marys and a public Act of Contrition.

Kidney has had three months of contemplative thought to source a way to try and stop Wales from stopping us play. If he hasn't hatched something, we are in trouble.

Ireland's championship could be over in seven days and you should compartmentalise the fixture into the Welsh and the French games and then the rest. Ireland will beat Italy, Scotland and England. The question is can they avoid being as profligate as they have been? The loss to France (22-25) in February last year, a match they could have and should have won, cost them another Grand Slam. The loss to Scotland (20-23) back in March 2010 cost them a Triple Crown, one which had to be taken humbly back out of the bag. There is still a scab over those wounds and the simple matter of straight-up tackles missed. Gordon D'Arcy on Aurelien Rougerie and half the team (including Paul O'Connell and Geordan Murphy) on Johnnie Beattie. The damage done by a momentary lapse of concentration was not inconsequential.

The Monsignor cannot afford any unnecessary or avoidable errors. It's a simple prerequisite. I think this year's championship will more than ever be decided by coaches. In this regard, Kidney is on the back foot in the sense that three new coaches come in to the championship and they will have impetus and the force of change on their side. Ask any player, no matter how good or bad you are as a coach, the team gets a shot of adrenalin and a lift from their introduction. We all know about Wazza, we know his limitations and his abilities (in that order) and we trust that this time Ireland have the wit and application to beat Wales.

What is a little bit more difficult to ascertain is what Philipe Saint-Andre will come up with. I suppose you could credit the FFR for selecting a coach who did not attend the Randle McMurphy School of crazy coaches. Saint-Andre was the preferred candidate yet he is not the best man for the job. The charismatic and talismanic Fabien Galthie produced a good deal more silverware during his club coaching career than Saint-Andre ever did. Maybe he was too pretty for the job. Maybe too clever. Maybe the FFR might one day say 'ah feck eet, let's just pick the best man for the job'. Guy Noves had it if he wanted it, but got scared off. If Noves got the job, we could pack our bags because he would turn France into the side they should be.

What can Saint-Andre do? Well, his prime credentials are that he won the Premiership back in 2006 with Sale. They also won the ERC Challenge Cup a season before that . . . that's it.

Saint-Andre coached Gloucester without success for several seasons and will be held responsible for foisting the miracle match on the world when they conspired to let Munster garner a mathematical improbability in Thomond.

Both English sides played disciplined and pragmatic rugby. Flair was never something that happened by design. His English employers didn't demand it -- Saint-Andre is conservative by nature. What he will do is engage in consistent selection; he will pick his best team every time and he won't blame his players for shoddy performances.

France certainly look formidable and have Ireland and England at home and are backboned by the Toulouse-Clermont axis. We came to see the real France in the RWC 2011 cup final because Marc Lievremont was dispatched to the sidelines for the week leading up to the final. Saint-Andre, a very personable fella, will have the goodwill of the team and the weighty expectation of the French nation to juggle with.

I don't think the coaching team of Saint-Andre, Patrice Lagisquet and Yannick Bru -- two wingers and a hooker -- will spend much time trying to figure out what Ireland will do. The French will play their own game and so Kidney must figure out how they can get an unlikely win in Paris. The problem I see is that Kidney might not be in a position to take Ireland up a notch. Remember the bar is still set at that awful performance in Wellington. Kidney is likely to entrust O'Gara to run the show with Paul O'Connell, like they do for Munster, but I'm not sure whether that will give the dynamic to the team.

Kidney's selection in the key 13, 11 and 10 slots will, no matter what he does, be the wrong ones because he will compromise. He will get away with it against Wales but not against France.

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