Sunday 25 February 2018

Tony Ward: Time to give armband back to O'Driscoll

The solution to a hugely frustrating weekend for Irish rugby looks obvious to the knocking brigade – sack the coach, sack the captain, bring on the new revolution and all will be dandy.

Of course it doesn't work like that, but still they'll blog and they'll tweet the most abusive comments under the cloak of anonymity against people who genuinely care about the future of Irish rugby.

We lost a game we should have won – even the most blinkered Scot will concede that.

Our line-out and scrum were poor, making primary possession difficult. Yet astonishingly we had over 75pc possession and over 70pc field position, which suggests that the team was doing quite a lot right.

These are the remarkable statistics – and almost always in rugby, unlike soccer, such obvious dominance is reflected on the scoreboard.

In rugby, there is no equivalent of the soccer tactic of putting 11 men behind the ball – such suffocation methods are almost impossible to replicate in the oval-ball code, as pressure in the opposition half tends to lead to penalties, which can be translated into points.


The fact that Ireland missed three out of four kicks at goal, allied to some indifferent decision making as to whether to go for the posts or the corner, added to the malaise.

Like so many others, I have been disappointed with the way the change in captaincy has panned out.

I supported the passing of the armband from Brian O'Driscoll to Jamie Heaslip, but I fear it is not working.

Heaslip has not been helped by the absence of so many established leaders in the side. Even the new skipper's most biased critics should acknowledge this.

What most concerns me is Heaslip's dip in form allied to a lack of presence on the field.

That, plus a lack of gravitas behind the microphone when dealing with the media, smacks of a captain ill at ease with the task.

Perhaps he will grow into the role but right now, a captaincy rethink is required – in the best interest of team and individual.

Before France arrive in Dublin, Declan Kidney should ask Ireland's spiritual leader O'Driscoll to once again take back the armband.

We must hope O'Driscoll would not be too insulted by such a request, but if our greatest servant were to turn Kidney down, the coach's next call must be to Rob Kearney.

His leadership has been well recognised since playing a crucial role in the Enfield meeting in 2008 that lay the foundations for Grand Slam glory.

And Kearney's measured words of humility after Sunday's defeat were what I had hoped to hear from our captain.

The uncertainty surrounding decision-making underlined the problems we have with the on-field leadership.

Heaslip's time may still come, but we don't have the luxury of allowing him to learn on the job.

Assuming Jonny Sexton will not be back to face the French – and it looks unlikely, given the nature of his hamstring injury – then Paddy Jackson should be retained at No 10, alongside Luke Marshall.

And Ian Madigan should be promoted to the bench in place of the struggling Ronan O'Gara.

That near suicidal cross-field kick from O'Gara wasn't the act of a wounded player but one wanting to create something out of nothing – a trait that once came so naturally. A great servant of Irish rugby deserves a more dignified finale to a great career.

Amazingly, despite a ropey line-out, a retreating scrum and a misfiring goal-kicker, we should have beaten an abysmally poor Scottish side playing badly. It almost defies the nature of the game.

The biggest job for both camps ahead of the France clash in Dublin will be lifting shattered morale and confidence.

The French put in a similar shift to Ireland for the guts of an hour at Twickenham, albeit against much stronger opposition, yet in the end had nothing to show for their efforts.

That's when it really hurts. When you've given your all but have come up short, there are few places to look for a solution except the mirror.

As to Kidney and this management's future, this could be the end of the road. History will record the change in captaincy as the beginning of the end.

The decision to run with just one recognised goal-kicker – a rookie – was always loaded with danger.

These decisions, plus the Paddy Wallace call-up (from the beach) in Hamilton, could haunt Kidney.

The easy option is to call for his head, and I suspect his growing band of critics will get their wish.

I have said many times that four years, ideally from World Cup to World Cup, is the optimum time for any head coach to be in charge.

If I were in Kidney's shoes, I would announce my intention to step down in the summer – when the coach's contract is up.

And I'd do the same if I were O'Gara. The vitriol that has been coming his way is appalling.

The popularity of rugby, and its place now in the national psyche, hasn't just happened by chance – but hey, sack everybody and everything will be right as rain again. How sad, how short-term and how narrow-minded is that?

Remember, nine of the 23-man squad that travelled to Edinburgh might not have been involved were it not for injury and suspension.

We dominated the in-form, highly confident home team except on the scoreboard but failed to translate possession and territory into points, and the coach is transformed into the devil incarnate?

Why anyone would want this poisoned chalice is beyond me. We have four professional provincial sides coached by four highly qualified Kiwis – what does this say about Ireland as a rugby breeding ground?

As of now there is no vacancy at the top, so I am reluctant to put anyone's case forward, but if there is to be a change of coach, then one man ticks all boxes – Conor O'Shea.

Hypothetical though it may be, I hope the IRFU are beavering away in the background, but don't hold your breath on that one.

In the meantime, as has been his mantra since day one, the incumbent prepares as conscientiously and selflessly as ever.

No one died and no war was lost in Murrayfield, but I suspect we are nearing the end of an era, with sweeping changes on the horizon.

Irish Independent

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