Friday 15 December 2017

Still waiting for white smoke

Kidney’s number is clearly up, but his dithering bosses steadfastly refuse to engage on issue of his replacement, writes David Kelly

This week in Rome, there will be more than one bunch of uniformed middle-aged men huddled together in conclave, consumed by thoughts of the latest succession race to engulf their company.

Will the IRFU be tempted to drop into the Vatican to take notes?

The future of Declan Kidney has unsurprisingly and regrettably developed into a particularly prudish form of Irish rugby's unwillingness to engage with itself and its paying public.

Even uninformed members of the canine population have cottoned on to the fact that Kidney is highly unlikely to remain contracted with the IRFU but, a bit like sex in 1950s Ireland, it is a topic upon which nobody must speak.

Hence, when you assume Kidney might be ever so slightly discommoded by imminent unemployment, he remains faithfully loyal to his frustrating code of omerta.

His players, whose fidelity remains strong if last Saturday's limitless feats of bravery confirm, have declined a raft of opportunities to declare undying faith in their coach's future.

The silence of their most inspiring and influential number, Brian O'Driscoll, has been the most pointed.


All the while, the IRFU, Kidney's employers, have recoiled steadfastly from public comment with a fierce devotion that would not seem out of place within the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Instead of black or white smoke, there is just fog.

Is there a succession plan or isn't there?

At the moment, the uncertainty surrounding the coach – and indeed his subsidiary staff – is rather mirroring Ireland's inability to complete 80 minutes in either a positive mental or physical state.

The IRFU know that it is probably pointless to continue Kidney's regime, but they are finding it utterly impossible to end it.

Given how disproportionately their income and expenditure is predicated upon what their head coach does, one hopes that their inertia is merely a rumour, and not reality.

A decision either way needs to be made sooner rather than later. And it needs to be done clinically.

Kidney cares deeply about Ireland, its people and its rugby, devoting as much passion to the development of a 14-year-old winger in Ballyhaunis as he does to his senior internationals.

But winning matches and remaining competitive for sponsors and paying punters is the bottom line, and Kidney is sinking with every passing game.

The irony that his declining winning percentage may benefit the next Irish coach more than it did him is inescapable.

So too the fact that Kidney's immense knowledge and ability may be lost to the professional game here.

In time, his legacy may become clearer but what matters now is how cleverly the IRFU seek to take advantage of it. The IRFU may seem tight-fisted, as some of their most revered internationals have recently discovered via salary cuts, but money, in this instance, is no object.

Kidney is reported to be on around a basic of €350,000 per annum and it probably costs just north of a seven-figure sum to maintain the hands-on assistant figures like Les Kiss, Gert Smal and Mark Tainton alongside the head coach.

Defence coach Anthony Foley's position is intriguing; initially seconded to the coaching ticket when Smal was ill, he has slowly augmented the vacancy bequeathed by former attack coach Alan Gaffney, now filled by Kiss, but the Munster assistant coach apparently doesn't have an international contract.

Hence there will be no need to crawl cap in hand to a multi-millionaire to seek a dig-out. The current coaching staff will require no compensation when they leave as their terms expire this summer anyway. So the new man – or men – will not necessarily require a king's ransom to do the gig.

Promoting from within may seem like the penny-pinching thing to do but when one of those names is Joe Schmidt, unheralded beyond his sport when he first arrived in this country, thrift can have its merits.

Schmidt, like all the provincial coaches, gets his wage from the IRFU's central pot and he seems to be the punters' favourite to succeed Kidney. But his desire to return home with his family, and eventually tilt at the big gig in New Zealand, seem to mitigate against a long-term commitment.

Nevertheless, the IRFU, whose sense of long-term planning is not always strikingly obvious, may try to muddle through to the next World Cup in 2015 with Schmidt and, say, Foley, two single-minded and determined men who could spark off each other in unison.

It is all, for now, merely speculation.

Conor O'Shea's integrity is unimpeachable but his commitment to his own contract at Harlequins is not necessarily unbreakable – all sides know this and, even though some may turn their noses up at filling an English club's pockets with €300,000 for the privilege, the IRFU could count it as an investment.

The financial stuff is easy; the difficulty is in the politics. The likes of Schmidt and O'Shea know what goes on – or what doesn't – inside Lansdowne Road, and who works there.

Ask Michael Cheika or Tony McGahan and they will tell you that no salary could compensate for having to operate within often suffocating constraints of a system whose relevance, and effectiveness, is decreasing year on year.

Every bar stool punter can reel off the usual list of candidates – John Mitchell, Nick Mallett, Jake White – and add some flourishes like Clive Woodward or Graham Henry.

But if Kidney, a man who cares deeply about the game here regardless of his pay check, is exasperated about overseas props and player conditioning and scrum coaches, how will a stranger feel when he is strapped to a chair in Lansdowne Road and handed his T&Cs?

It's not all about the money.

And, if it was, the coach of the current world champions would be the best paid in world rugby.

Five years ago – an amply sufficient life cycle for a coach – the IRFU peered in every corner for a coach to lead them when Kidney was standing right in front of them all along.


The IRFU got the right man in the end, but not necessarily for the right reasons.

Having spent so many time clapping themselves on the back for eventually picking the right man, we shouldn't be so surprised that they are now so slow in patting him on the back on the way out the door.

Perhaps they'll seek some divine intervention as they head for the Holy City later this week.

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