Friday 24 November 2017

Eddie O'Sullivan: Trying times

Declan Kidney has much to ponder this week. Photo: Sportsfile
Declan Kidney has much to ponder this week. Photo: Sportsfile

Eddie O'Sullivan

There's an old joke that declares the definition of a good marriage to be a blind wife and a deaf husband. No communication better than bad communication then?

I don't know Declan Kidney's views on social media, but I'd hazard a guess that he doesn't do Twitter and, most probably, struggles to comprehend the thought processes of those who do.

On the face of it, he looks to be in charge of a team in turmoil. Just behind Wales in the table for the most-penalised side in the Six Nations, leading the charge in unforced errors; a backs coach at odds with his captain on matters of communication; players 'Tweeting' angrily against critical supporters; one even seemingly questioning the authority of the coach on selection.

And, to cap it all, a mid-Championship change in the pivotal position of fly-half.

On the surface, all the ingredients for crisis then. Except, they've won two out of three games so far. And they've still got a shout of being Triple Crown and even, potentially, Six Nations champions.

Frankly, I doubt even half of the problems documented are quite as they've been depicted. In my experience, none of them would even be generating debate if the team had been winning games comfortably. But, of course, it hasn't been. Thereby, a sense of crisis is easily conveyed.


It takes me back to my, shall we say, frank exchange of views with Ronan O'Gara in November 2005, two days after a defeat to Australia. We were training and I knew that Rog was still fuming over my decision to put David Humphreys on in his place early in the second half of that game.

So, before the session started, I called him aside and suggested we cleared the air.

And Rog, to his eternal credit, unloaded himself of every ounce of frustration burning away inside him. Our conversation took place at the far end of the pitch from where the players were doing their warm-up. They couldn't hear what was being said, but the body language was self-explanatory.

Suddenly, the newspapers were reporting a "massive training-ground bust-up", the incident recounted almost like a heavyweight title bout. One writer even likened the team camp to Guantanamo Bay. Incredible stuff. Yet, if anything, that argument strengthened my relationship with Rog.

Then you think about the World Cup in 2007 and the rumour mill that had players at each others' throats, Geordan Murphy on a flight home to Leicester and Alan Quinlan being pulled out of his bed to explain criticism of management. All urban myths, like the crocodiles in the sewers of New York.

Looking back, I can only be thankful that these moments pre-dated Twitter. When I was Irish coach, the only 'Tweets' I had to contend with came from a rather raucous family of thrushes that took to nesting outside my room at the team hotel in Killiney.

I still don't really get the appeal of Twitter and I wonder if a lot of those who do even fully understand it. Some of the players seem to have been offended this week by the fact that not all of their 'followers' have had positive things to say about the win in Murrayfield.

This strikes me as gross naivety. Once you open that Pandora's Box of giving people instant access, you surely have to take the bad with the good. This penny doesn't seem to have dropped with some. If you only want to encounter pleasantries, you need to control the access that people have to you. And, with Twitter, you can't do that.

Certainly, there are problems in this Irish camp. Last weekend's penalty count against the team was, for the third match running, unacceptably high. What would really concern me here is that this was one of the precise problems identified by coach and players a full year ago after the Croke Park defeat by Scotland.

So where is the evidence of remedial work? I can't see it.

On the contrary, it seems to persist as a mystery to everybody. I don't doubt that technical analyst Mervyn Murphy has produced a detailed portfolio on each of the referees that Ireland have had in this Championship. That's been a normal part of Irish preparation for 10 years or so now and was hugely instrumental in us becoming one of the most disciplined teams in world rugby.

Or, at the very least, a team familiar with the peculiarities of every referee encountered.

But somewhere along the way, we have lost the plot on discipline. Our average penalty count concession in this Six Nations is just over 12 per game. It's like a motorist picking up penalty points every time he gets behind the wheel. Before long, they're off the road.

Maybe this is down to confidence and individual players panicking when pressure is applied. Maybe some of it is frustration. Either way, it must be resolved.

Speaking of frustration, I was baffled by Alan Gaffney's observation before the Scotland game that the players needed to communicate more on the field. Brian O'Driscoll wasn't slow to pour cold water on this theory and it was unusual to see the assistant coach and captain seemingly at odds on such a fundamental issue.

Quite why Gaffney brought this up publicly is beyond me. This kind of dialogue should stay in the team room because the moment it slips outside, it grows out of all proportion.

That seems to be precisely what happened with Jamie Heaslip and his sympathetic observations on Leinster team-mates Jonathan Sexton and Fergus McFadden being dropped for the Scotland game. It has since been spun into Jamie questioning Declan Kidney's team selection.

Now I can't say I know Jamie particularly well, even if I did coach him for his first few international caps. But I would suggest that questioning Declan was the last thing on his mind.

Everyone agrees that neither Sexton nor McFadden did too much wrong against France so were unlucky to be omitted. Jamie expressing sympathy for them hardly represented earth-shattering news.

Still, O'Gara's performance last weekend has certainly put the fly-half debate right back on the table. His composure and balance justified his recall and he, essentially, put Ireland in a winning position that only the team's indiscipline almost blew.

This was bad news for Sexton, who was clearly No 1 during the November internationals. I expect Rog to start against Wales now as it's unlikely Declan will change horses again for the remainder of the Championship.

This, of course, will re-energise the question about the development of the next Irish fly-half to replace O'Gara. Most people probably thought the transition had already occurred. But nobody told Rog.

The important thing is to get a win in Cardiff that subdues all the existing negativity. Set up a Triple Crown joust with England in our final game and, suddenly, even the Twitter generation may desist from picking holes.

The Tower of Babel may not be what it seems.

Irish Independent

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