Monday 18 December 2017

Tony Ward: Coach proves integrity with selfless decision to look past easy option

Declan Kidney's decision to pick Paddy Jackson as his playmaker at Murrayfield has caught me, and I'm sure almost everybody else, by surprise.

For the sake of the head coach, for the sake of the team but most of all for the sake of the player himself, I sincerely hope it works.

I had assumed Kidney would go with 'the devil he knows' and therefore Ronan O'Gara would be the lone runner in the starting frame.

I was wrong – but not overly disappointed to be wrong.

While O'Gara's great career is clearly in decline, I was convinced, given the bind Ireland are in, that the coach would turn to the player who has served him so well, so often, for school, province and country.

It is no secret that the relationship between Kidney and O'Gara, which stretches back to their days as teacher and pupil at Presentation Brothers Cork (PBC), has changed – and not necessarily for the better.

But whatever criticism might be levelled at Kidney, he is a man of integrity and humility.


When he speaks to the media, what he says is always in the best interest of the team. Unlike the vast majority of people operating at this level, there is no ego at work.

With his back to the wall, the temptation – and easier option – would have been to turn to O'Gara, the man with proven nerves of steel.

Of the four candidates to fill the massive void left by Jonny Sexton's absence, O'Gara was clearly the one best equipped – even at this late stage in an extraordinary career – to cope with the pressure of Murrayfield.

He has clear advantages over Jackson and the Ians, Keatley and Madigan, in temperament and experience.

My only reservation surrounding Jackson is his role in the Ulster team, where he is primarily a link.

At Ulster, with Ruan Pienaar on his inside plus any combination of Paddy Wallace, Luke Marshall and Darren Cave outside, decision-making is shared.

For Cave switch Brian O'Driscoll and for Pienaar, substitute Conor Murray – with Marshall (a former outside-half) and Jackson coming as a package at No 12 and No 10.

Although it was Craig Gilroy capturing the headlines for the Ireland XV against Fiji back in November, the Jackson/ Marshall combination gave a glimpse of promising things to come.

It is that premise Kidney is working off now. The easier option in search of self-preservation was to go with O'Gara, but in plumping for Jackson he is displaying the type of selflessness he will be demanding from his team on Sunday.

Everyone seems to have an opinion, but no one is better positioned than Kidney to assess form and attitude in training, as well as the chemistry and different dynamics evolving through changing combinations.

I want this experiment, which represents a changing of the guard, to work because like everybody who cares about Irish rugby, I want this team to perform to the maximum of its ability.

What we have is a high-risk selection based on gut instinct allied to what Kidney is witnessing at training in Carton House. Jackson is serving his apprenticeship but in the rarefied atmosphere of top-class professional rugby with an Ulster side setting the pace.

Kidney has not made this decision to court popular opinion – his integrity stretches way beyond that.

He has made the decision because he believes it the right thing to do.

There are still too many snipers waiting in the long grass for Jackson and Ireland to fail in Murrayfield.

How sad is that?

This newly assembled Ireland team – and by extension its head coach – deserves the full and unequivocal backing of the entire island.

Anything less and we deserve any further disappointments that might come our way.

In the meantime, let us acknowledge this selection for the honourable and forward-thinking decision it is.

Irish Independent

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