Tuesday 21 November 2017

Kidney's high-risk philosophy needs endgame

Declan Kidney: 'You need to box clever at the start.' Photo: Sportsfile
Declan Kidney: 'You need to box clever at the start.' Photo: Sportsfile

Kevin Mitchell

Vote early, vote often used to be the running joke of Irish politics. A variation could be applied to Irish rugby: score early and the rest of the match falls more predictably into place.

Yet there is a hint of confusion in the Ireland camp about their rugby philosophy as this Six Nations rolls on, doubts given life by a tentative win over Italy and so many wasted opportunities in losing to France. If they do not get their heads straight against Scotland at Murrayfield today, they could be headed for a barren season ahead of the World Cup in New Zealand.

In Dublin two weeks ago, Fergus McFadden scored the first of their three tries after just four minutes, yet subsequent over-eagerness at the breakdown allowed France to kick them out of the game and their own impetuosity in attack cost them at least a couple more try-scoring opportunities. The most obvious of those arrived in the final minute, 10 metres from an exposed French line, when the untended three-quarter line was left staring at an overlap as a short pass to the late replacement Seán Cronin charging up the middle was spilled from cold hands with all the profligacy of a novice waiter dropping a bottle of premier cru. That should not undermine Ireland's attacking mindset, though. As their coach, Declan Kidney, observes: "It is frustrating, it is. It's a cliché but it's a work in progress. If we clam up and crawl under a rock we'll actually go backwards. Risk nothing, win nothing."

While Kidney, thoughtful and softly spoken, is not rigid in his strategic thinking, his exposition on Ireland's recent inability to marry daring and care reflects concerns that have been expressed more volubly in private the past two weeks. The backs coach, Alan Gaffney, broke ranks to declare there was not enough talking among the backs; there has been plenty since.

"You need to box clever at the start," Kidney says, "but the best opportunities to score a try sometimes come in the first minute, as France showed against Scotland. I think Scotland were attacking for four or five minutes, there was one turnover and next thing they made a try of it. So, you have the courage to go after it from the very first minute, because you mightn't get one again in the next 79. At the same time you don't want to be forcing an opportunity that's not there. That's when you can run into trouble and concede unnecessary points."

Kidney has shepherd-like instincts about his players but is entitled to his view that they must accept more responsibility. All the talk before selection this week was that Gordon D'Arcy was for the chop. Kidney was having none of it.

"Gordon missed one tackle but probably didn't get credit for the 20 he made. That's my job as coach, to see what the guys are doing. We're very much down on ourselves at the moment, understandably. We're paid to get results but, at the same time, you need to keep a balance.

"When we're winning, we try not to get overly excited. There's no point in getting too down about things outside our control. We're working hard on things that are within our control. Once we get those right, we'll be in a good place. Character is part of it -- and Gordon has plenty of that.

"We just need to play what I'd call a smarter game. The penalty count against us last time was about 10 but the trouble was seven of those were in our half, giving them seven shots at goal. We've taken note of that.

"They're showing a lot of courage at the moment to go and play [attacking rugby], so I don't want to diminish that. We've just got to get that balance right. And that goes from No 1 to No 15. Whoever's in possession needs to make the right decision for the team."

Sounds simple. The trouble is, Ireland have yet to find a coherent attacking rhythm, one that scares the opposition more than their supporters.

Scotland, meanwhile, are in worse shape -- and more vulnerable than any team in world rugby to an early hit. After an encouraging start to their campaign against France, they were woeful against Wales and Andy Robinson has responded by sacking seven of them. They will either respond as they did when snatching a win against Ireland at Croke Park last March, or fold in the face of Irish intensity.

In six of their past eight internationals, the Scots have given up a try within the first 10 minutes. In their past three matches, it has taken the opposition less than nine minutes to breach their defence, most tellingly when Wales came to life with a vengeance en route to a comprehensive win.

That Scotland have gone seven home games without scoring a try -- Graham Morrison was the last to register five points, against Fiji 15 months ago -- will give Ireland further cause for optimism. As Kidney says, it is up to them not to blow it again.


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