Monday 23 April 2018

Ireland one defeat away from disarray

Kidney's selection policy shows lack of clear plan and progress

A general view of the Ireland team during the captain's run at Lansdowne Road ahead of today's game against England. Photo: STEPHEN MCCARTHY / SPORTSFILE
A general view of the Ireland team during the captain's run at Lansdowne Road ahead of today's game against England. Photo: STEPHEN MCCARTHY / SPORTSFILE

The England game is special not because of Strongbow, Cromwell or the Black and Tans but because, as the originators of the game, they are every country's team to beat. In the amateur days they arrived in Dublin a quaint mixture of English society and sport.

There were gnarled props from working-class backgrounds, ex-public schoolboys from Harlequins and a sprinkling of students from Oxford and Cambridge.

It was good to beat England before pay-for-play, swinging chariots or Clive Woodward. This time around, the reasons for an Ireland win are as good as they get. The men in white come in search of a Grand Slam, they are raging favourites and Martin Johnson is in charge.

The grasp-at-straws brigade cling to the hope that somehow Brian O'Driscoll and company will be motivated by Johnson's supposed slight on the President by his unwillingness to move off the red carpet in 2003. The contrary is probably true, and I am fearful of a man who refused to be dominated by a baying crowd, officious stewards and the prospect of a diplomatic incident.


The incident proved that Johnson is not only a difficult character but a focused leader of men who knows how to win. His hard-nosed captaincy kept the Lions under Graham Henry on track in Australia when the tour threatened to implode. He realised that only the Tests mattered and he almost delivered a series victory.

Unlike Woodward, who inherited a world-class team, Johnson has built this side from the ground up, and there is not a hint of disunity in the camp. This England coach will not continue the unfortunate tradition of underestimating Ireland, set by Dick Greenwood, Dick Best and Woodward. Johnson's presence is a reason to fear for Ireland.

In contrast, one suspects that Declan Kidney's team is one defeat away from disarray and a descent into the free fall that precipitated the disaster in the last World Cup.

The selection of Jonny Sexton is not an issue of kicking the ball, but rather suggests that the coach does not know who his number one out-half is and, by definition, the team's strategic objective. I cannot remember a case where the coach fiddled with such a crucial selection so much.

More worrying still is that the squad -- after a campaign that has been marked by mediocrity, indecision and lack of skill -- shows no real change. If Kidney were a penitent in Confession, he would not receive forgiveness as he shows no firm purpose of amendment.

He is wrong about Ronan O'Gara, stubborn about Paddy Wallace and irresponsible about Keith Earls.

There is neither rhyme nor reason to the selection of Wallace on the bench. Not because he butchered a match-winning situation, but because he only covers centre, which is already adequately covered by Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Earls. An injury to a wing or full-back this afternoon will mean that the backline instantly becomes a makeshift unit -- the scenario that no doubt influenced Kidney's thinking when Luke Fitzgerald was injured or having a nightmare game, or both, against Wales.

However, the selection of Earls at full-back is a real worry. The youngster has never looked comfortable at full-back, and like Fitzgerald, catching the high ball has never been his strongpoint.

His debut for the Lions in that position against the Royal XV in South Africa was a disaster and effectively finished his chances of a front-line place on the tour. Another failure today could damage his confidence, and should Sexton find the occasion too demanding, then Kidney will have overseen three of the comets of Irish rugby crash and burn to earth in a season.

It is interesting to compare the relative positions of the coaches of Ireland, England and Italy 24 months ago. Kidney had overseen a Grand Slam while Nick Mallett was in charge of a team stuck to the bottom of the table in perpetuum.

Across the Irish Sea there were rumblings about Johnson as his constantly changing team struggled from one sub-standard performance to the next.

Today, only Ireland have failed to make progress, are without a clear plan, and crucially have not solved the No 10 position.

Today, Toby Flood will be in harness with Ben Youngs and they will demonstrate what the 9/10 axis is supposed to deliver. Flood will constantly bring players into the action. Chris Ashton and the England back-row will prosper, hinting at what Bowe and Sean O'Brien could do if properly used.

The odds are stacked against a home victory. Ireland's 20th-century approach is unlikely to overcome the 21st-century commitment to an offloading game as practised by England. Emotion and passion will not be enough against a superior force.

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