Monday 18 December 2017

Tony Ward: Kidney must cast off shackles and make the most of backline talent

Ireland head coach Declan Kidney during squad training ahead of his side' s RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship game against Wales on Sunday
Ireland head coach Declan Kidney during squad training ahead of his side' s RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship game against Wales on Sunday


WITH the hype surrounding selection under control, it's time for the chosen few to deliver. We all have our take on who Declan Kidney should have picked, but there’s a general acceptance that the side named is close to the best available.

Kidney has selected a team to do a job, with Fergus McFadden stepping in at outside-centre for Keith Earls, who has been forced out because of personal reasons. Earls had been due to fill in at No 13 for the irreplaceable Brian O’Driscoll.

As ever much will depend on the quality of go-forward ball – and counteracting Wales openside Sam Warburton is a battle of coaching wits in itself. What the Welsh think-tank did in negating the Irish back-row in the World Cup quarter-final was simple in design, but exceptional in its execution.

Now the onus is on Kidney, Gert Smal, Les Kiss and Mark Tainton to come up with a plan to reverse that if victory is to be attained tomorrow. What Wales did in cutting down Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip low and at source wasn't rocket science, but what really rankled was that the outstanding Warburton still had the energy and wherewithal to make himself the free-roaming nuisance all opposing backs hate.


Tying Warburton down will have been central to Ireland's planning. Unless the Welsh skipper can be actively engaged in primary contact, he will pose a huge threat to Ireland.

I am also hoping for real change and definitive signs of a new era in Ireland’s back play.

Save for the crossfield kick to Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble, allied to a myriad of O'Driscoll tries, plus the occasional Jonny Sexton wrap-around, the imagination in our attacking game has regressed in recent times.

When it comes to precision in execution and innovation under pressure, we are struggling to keep up with with the top sides. So, it will be interesting to see what the attack-focused brains trust of rejigged defence coach Kiss, kicking coach Tainton and Kidney can come up with.

Every coach, whatever his specialist area, has a limited shelflife. Alan Gaffney had been around a lot of the same players for a long time, in his various roles with Leinster (as assistant to Matt Williams), Munster (as main man) and Ireland (as backs coach).

Coaches, much like players, need change to recharge the batteries and perhaps reinvest themselves, to combat ever-tightening defences. I still feel that a French attacking coach could be a godsend to Irish rugby.

But Joe Schmidt has been a revelation in bringing flair and creativity to Leinster. Again, an emphasis on the basics – accurate and sympathetic passing at pace with soft hands – has taken his province’s attacking threat to another level.

Dare one suggest that Leinster are now almost Gallic in the quality of offloading and varied lines of high-tempo support running? While Gaffney was good for Irish rugby, he knew he had reached the end of his time.

But the changing of the guard is also fraught with danger, given that there are now effectively three coaches calling the backline shots. Whereas Gaffney (in liaison with Kidney) was the lone attacking voice up to the World Cup, that responsibility is now shared. The last thing we need is a committee deciding who does what and where behind the scrum.

That said, I do like the soundings coming from Tainton when he says: “We're not going into our shell thinking we need to hammer this game out and just playing point-topoint rugby. “We're trying to be more expansive than that in opening up opportunities in every position.” Easier said than done of course, but it’s the right type of language.

Factor in the injury-enforced absence of O'Driscoll and it adds up to far greater responsibility resting on the shoulders of Sexton at outhalf. But at this stage in his career, that is no bad thing.

At No 13, filling the maestro's boots is a big ask and it’s a pity that Earls has had to pull out, as he has that precious ability to create space and thereby time and opportunities for others. But McFadden is an assured replacement who can deliver under pressure.

I would also like to see full-back Rob Kearney hit the line with the assurance and regularity he has for Leinster of late.

Putting defensive systems in place is a doddle when measured against prising them open – hence the battering-ram approach so many sides adopt, rather than a key to pick the midfield lock. We are so much better than a side built around stopping the opposition playing, kicking for position followed by a mighty pressure squeeze to eke out penalties for our points.

Not for a minute am I suggesting a laissez-faire approach to tomorrow's momentum-setting must-win showdown. But I fervently hope that the new attacking back-room triumvirate gives the players carte blanche for heads-up rugby.

If we don’t have any attacking aspirations, we are boxing ourselves into a fear-ridden corner.

Yes, of necessity, we will play the opposition and the conditions, but we must make the most of our ability.

Of late, and despite a relatively successful World Cup, we have lost sight of our attacking potential. Winning tomorrow is paramount, and while I do not crave style as an end in itself, I am seeking a return to ambition.

As Schmidt has shown at Leinster, the talent is there, if coaches have the will to use it. Players make systems and not viceversa. Win tomorrow and we're on our way in this Six Nations. Win with ambition and we head for Paris with a real swagger. Lancaster’s dose of reality THE early signs have been good since Stuart Lancaster took temporary control of England. He has been saying and doing the right things.

Switching training from the Algarve to Leeds, and bringing in stars from other sports to reemphasise the bulldog spirit have been good ideas. By and large, he has given overly pampered, over-rated England players a cold dose of reality.

The early omens were positive – but then he goes and gives the green light to Chris Ashton's infamous swallow dive in the act of scoring. Need I say more...

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