Kidney playing a high-stakes game with his future
IN poker parlance, Declan Kidney has gone 'all-in'. And in doing so, he has shattered the belief that he is a conservative coach and one reluctant to change.
Throughout his career, Kidney has laboured under the image of a person who mistrusts experimentation. His Munster team through the last decade was, for example, almost set in stone. Every so often, an import of Jim Williams' or Christian Cullen's stature was brought in to augment the stable – but they were the exceptions.
Even in Munster's successful 2008 season when Tomas O'Leary and Denis Hurley were promoted to the starting line-up for their Heineken Cup quarter-final against Gloucester, credit for the initiative went to his assistant coaches, most notably his ultimate successor Tony McGahan.
Kidney has arrived at a crossroads in his coaching career. He has not publicly stated his desire to earn a contract extension to take him to the 2015 World Cup and the silence from the IRFU has been significant.
It is, it would seem, a case of prudence finally coming into vogue with the organisation.
They were badly burned when they signed Eddie O'Sullivan to a new four-year contract when he still had a year to go on his current deal. O'Sullivan, it must be remembered, was due to remain as Ireland coach until the end of the 2011/12 season, but he was gone at the end of the 2008 Six Nations.
The IRFU are steadfastly refusing to make a similar mistake with the incumbent.
This year's Six Nations is an elongated job interview for Kidney. And with one loss already in the debit column, he needs a positive return to get back in credit. As a consequence, the coach has, of late, been emboldened.
The selection of the youthful Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo for the first game of the Six Nations against Wales followed on from November, when he showed his willingness to embrace change after he promoted Mike McCarthy to Ireland's second-row instead of the experienced Donncha O'Callaghan.
The inclusion of Paddy Jackson for Sunday's clash with Scotland, however, represents a major departure from the expected. The nomination of Jackson for the out-half position is a huge vote of confidence in a player with major potential but who is, of course, totally unproven at this level.
The same can be said of the selection of Luke Marshall, whose ability and impressive outings with Ulster have fast-tracked him to the top. At a time when the Irish team has to go through a period of transition, both youngsters are being offered the opportunity to establish their claims to regular inclusion for the remainder of the Six Nations and beyond.
"I don't consider them to be 'sprung' as selection," stated Kidney yesterday. "It's not like I've plucked them from an AIL match and said 'have a go'.
"They've done their apprenticeship with us. These guys are here on merit and have impressed in how they've gone on their business."
Kidney, as is his wont, attempted to deflect some of the pressure that is undoubtedly on the Ulster pair's shoulders by referencing their recent game-time with Ulster, highlighting Jackson's rise to prominence with last season's defeated Heineken Cup finalists.
He efficiently avoided the suggestion that the decision to opt for Jackson could be viewed as the biggest gamble of his career.
"It's the job of the coach to step in a make these tight calls. You take as long as you can to deliberate over them and they're not something you rush into," he said. "When you make tight decisions, you take as long as you can to make them without messing up the players.
"You have to look at all the information you have as a coach, look at where fellas are, what they can bring to the position, how the match starts, how it'll finish and take all those facets into consideration.
"The best compliment I can give Paddy is that he's getting the nod ahead of Ronan."
Kidney is known to agonise over his team selections. He finds it especially difficult to tell a player he is not starting a particular game. At the start of this week until Tuesday evening, everyone inside and outside the Ireland camp assumed O'Gara would be starting against Scotland.
Sometime before 6.0 that evening, the two men had a conversation. Whether you agree with the decision or not, it cannot have been an easy one to make.
Kidney will see out the Six Nations as head coach. And in the remaining three matches, he has to prove to the powers that be that he is the man to bring the team to the 2015 World Cup.
The move of introducing a couple of 21-year-old debutants to supplement the additions of Zebo (23) and Gilroy (21) from November is not a bad opening gambit.
When you add in the relative recent promotion of Peter O'Mahony (23) to the starting team and the inclusion of Dave Kilcoyne (24) and Iain Henderson (who turns 21 today) on the bench, there is a vibrancy about the Ireland squad that belies the injury crisis within the camp.
Even allowing for the circumstances of having 10 players considered as regulars on the absentee list for one reason or another, Kidney has played what he clearly believes is the strongest hand available to him.
The coach is engaged in a game of high-stakes poker. His first raise was the decision to take the captaincy from O'Driscoll.
But what was overlooked in the maelstrom of reaction was that Kidney has sporadically shown the ability to take the hard decisions and not be swayed by an emotional attachment to the past.
When he deems the occasion warrants it, he can be absolutely ruthless. The jettisoning of Tomas O'Leary on the eve of departure for the 2011 World Cup is a case in point.
But with this latest stratagem he has raised the ante considerably. If Ireland lose then every decision and wager will be exhaustively examined and forensically dissected.
Whether or not he has overplayed his hand remains to be seen. The performance and result against Scotland will reveal much.
A win won't necessarily earn him the coveted contract extension, but it will afford him a continuing seat in the game with two hands left to play.
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