Sunday 19 January 2020

Brendan Fanning: Unfilled conditioning job weakens Kidney's hand

Ireland's dip in form at the top level could be linked to gaps in our backroom set-up, says Brendan Fanning

When Declan Kidney got the job as Ireland coach in 2008, you will remember it was far from straightforward. A bit like the slow start to his career in Munster in 1997, he was not the first choice. Kidney would be the last man in the world to be weighed down by this.

Just as it took the IRFU an age to appoint him, he was typically stubborn in not sitting into the hot seat until the temperature was just right. So the tour of New Zealand and Australia that summer was undertaken by Niall O'Donovan and Michael Bradley, with Kidney and his new manager Paul McNaughton shadowing events, rather than shaping them.

The coach and manager scooted about the place talking to potential members of their backroom team. At last, in time for the November series that year, the Famous Five emerged: Kidney, McNaughton, Gert Smal, Les Kiss and Alan Gaffney. A Grand Slam followed within five months of their first game together. Kidney was feted far and wide.

Since then, McNaughton retired, Gaffney reached the end of his time, and then, within the last fortnight, Gert Smal had to withdraw from the rest of this campaign due to ill health. That leaves Kidney and Kiss of the original gang. A different Les Kiss -- the current incarnation of the much-respected Australian sees him straddling the defence and attack portfolios, a unique and painful position, we suspect.

There is another hole in the ship however. This one is below the line, not visible to the public but, we think, one that concerns Declan Kidney greatly. Since the World Cup he has been running the show without appropriate direction in perhaps the single most important function in a collision sport: strength and conditioning.

Almost a year ago, Phil Morrow, who had been head of fitness for the IRFU, told his employers he would be moving on after the World Cup. He has yet to be replaced. At least two separate rounds of interviews have taken place since the job was advertised in October, and still the role is vacant. Eddie Wigglesworth, the union's director of rugby development, says there is no need for panic. In fact, he suggests, it's because our system is the Rolls Royce of the rugby world that they have struggled so hard to find a man worthy to put behind the wheel.

"It's not for the want of trying," says Wigglesworth. "In fact, the only good thing to come out of the process so far is that everyone is telling us we have the right structure. But getting the person with the right skill sets to do the job has been the problem -- it's probably like looking for a very good medic who has been very successful at what he does, but has the ability to strategically think and run the HSE. It's been massively difficult."

How interesting, using the HSE as an analogy for Irish rugby, for in truth the jockeying for various fitness jobs within the IRFU has been highly political. Morrow, for example, was half-loaded into the job of fitness coach to the Ireland team just as Kidney was coming on board, only for the head coach to say he wanted someone else. So a new role was created for Morrow, who by then had reversed from Ulster thinking he was getting the Ireland gig.

That new role was head of fitness for the provincial academies. Next thing, Liam Hennessy resigns as head of fitness from the IRFU on health grounds and Morrow succeeds him. And before you know it, Morrow takes over as fitness coach to the Ireland side as well, when Paul Pook -- who Kidney had accepted into that role in 2008 -- resigned last year. That left the Ulsterman with three jobs, not bad going for a bloke who almost found himself in limbo as many years earlier. At the end of the Six Nations last year, however, he told the union he would be heading to London to hook up with Mark McCall at Saracens. So there are three seats there still waiting to be

filled: IRFU head of fitness; academies head of fitness; and fitness

coach to the Ireland team. It's understood that Morrow also recommended the union add a sports scientist to their set-up.

To plug one of the gaps temporarily, the union shifted Jason Cowman from Leinster into the team job with Ireland. Cowman is experienced and rated at his job, but it's not good for business having a provincial fitness coach handling players, and their fitness coaches, from teams he competes with on a weekly basis, ie the other three provinces. Rather, Cowman is a sticking plaster on a gaping hole. The super system that Wigglesworth portrays Ireland to be is nothing of the sort. It could be, though, if the IRFU were prepared to get ahead of the curve instead of talking about it. To compensate for the low numbers in our pro game, we need to be world leaders in how those players are developed. That would involve not just financial investment in systems and people -- the best people -- but a whole shift in mindset.

Strength and conditioning in rugby is like the arms race used to be: a constant search for ways to outdo your opponents.

Propaganda, like the stuff Wales indulge in, is all part of the game. Ireland aren't even at the starting line. You wonder does this have anything to do with the union's current struggle to fill its fitness portfolio. This is hardly what Declan Kidney was thinking of when three years ago he was assembling a world-class background team. This wasn't the plan at all.

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