Systematic failures abound
Changing the coach is a cosmetic exercise if outdated structures aren't revamped also, says Brendan Fanning
It was October 19, 1995 when Ireland made their first appointment of the professional era. We can't quite remember if there were any tv cameras there, but it was all done and dusted in a small enough room in a hotel near the union office on Lansdowne Road. Not so insignificant that we weren't given a bit of theatre though.
Indeed in an intimate setting, Tom Kiernan gave us a short preamble, and then, looking at the empty chair to his left, announced that the new coach would be one . . . Murray Kidd!
Enter Murray from behind the scenes, beaming.
For those of you who don't remember him, he was an early arrival in the Kiwi rugby invasion of Ireland, and brought AIL success to Garryowen, and promotion as well as a Munster Senior Cup triumph to Sunday's Well. It was from the Well that the IRFU fished Kidd to succeed Gerry Murphy who had signed off after the World Cup in South Africa three months earlier.
To say Kidd's elevation was a surprise would be an understatement. He had shared a flight up from Cork that morning with a journalist who half-believed the line the coach gave him about having some mundane business in Dublin. When the new man emerged at the coronation, the journalist in question gave the room a colourful quote all of his own.
The kingmakers in the IRFU back then were known as the elections sub-committee. At the time it comprised Kiernan, former Lion and captain of Ireland; Syd Millar, former Lion as player, coach and manager; and Eddie Coleman, who wasn't capped but had worked his way up through committee land starting with his club, Terenure.
They were the three men who ran the show in Irish rugby. In the IRFU, enormous weight has always attached to those who had excelled on the field, and you couldn't argue with the CVs of Kiernan or Millar. Nobody questioned the suitability of all three, however, as administrators or planners.
A year later, Murray Kidd was turfed out by the same men who had ushered him in. On Kidd's watch, Ireland had won three out of nine games, and the final run of four losses – including defeats by Samoa and Italy – did for him.
It was all Murray's fault, so Murray got the sack. Next came Brian Ashton, whose coronation was an altogether more high-profile affair, featuring a unique six-year contract. After another year, the same system that had appointed him got rid of him, and the system went on unchanged.
You will be pleased to know that in this world of rapid change some things are constant. The way we appoint our national rugby coach is one of them.
Last Wednesday, Declan Kidney came to Dublin to meet the members of the national team review group. This is the modern-day equivalent of the old elections sub-committee. It has extended from a three-man to a five-man operation, but otherwise not much has changed: they appoint people to positions of power but are not answerable if those appointments go south.
Lo and behold, this might be the last time we replace a coach using this system. As most of you know, the IRFU have signed off on the brave new world that is Plan Ireland, a vision of a professional operation running a professional game, and it may even be functional before the 20th anniversary of the game going open, in 2015.
Bear with us while we run through a few details here. Again.
The plan is for a performance director to be appointed, someone who would install the national and provincial coaches, and a professional game board of six to eight members who would run the pro game, ensuring that all parts in our tidy little system are in working order.
Last week we spoke to a senior IRFU source about the progress of the plan. All signed off at committee level, he assured us. Moreover, the hunt was on already for the performance director. Was it not a pity that this hadn't been done a bit sooner so that the new director could start by finding us a new coach?
"Well, in an ideal world, yes . . ." he said. There is another problem, however, and forgive us if we're going over old ground again here. The first thing the performance director will want to know is the make-up of the professional game board. If, like the national team review group, it's a dressed-up version of the tried and trusted and failed model that served in the amateur era, then the show will close on opening night.
How appropriate that the Ireland campaign should end in carnage in Rome, for it throws light on every aspect of the operation.
The average Joe is now asking if there's something wrong with the way the players are prepared, that so many of them should end up injured. Between pre-Championship and the campaign itself, 17 players were banjaxed. Of this group, four were soft-tissue injuries: both Dan Tuohy and Declan Fitzpatrick had calf tears; Craig Gilroy had a groin strain and Jonny Sexton tore his hamstring.
Intriguingly, at the post-match conference in Rome, Declan Kidney alluded to having a theory on why the dressing room looked like the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan, but that wasn't the time or place to expand on it.
You'd imagine his last-chance-saloon meeting with the union's national team review group was just the place. Soft-tissue injuries in professional sport are considered avoidable. Of course in a collision sport you're going to have fractures and ligament damage, but groins and calves and hamstrings are things you aspire to keep in one piece.
It may be that the cause of all this was just bad luck, that the good fortune which attended Ireland's Grand Slam season in 2009 – starting with beating a France team playing comparatively much better rugby, and finishing with Stephen Jones leaving short his last-minute penalty in Cardiff – had been all used up by the time Declan Kidney got to year five.
But you'd want a top-of-the-range structure to pinpoint this stuff quickly. And the IRFU has as much interest in being world-class as it has in being transparent and accountable.
We have detailed in these pages before the pathetic situation that the union allowed to develop where for over a year they had no head of strength and conditioning. Six months before the World Cup in 2011 they knew Philip Morrow would be moving on; it was eight months after the event, in May 2012, when eventually they hired Dave Clark. It was third-world stuff, for which nobody was accountable.
Ten months down the line, we are no wiser about Clark's plans for getting everyone in Ireland on the same page. Given the cock-up in putting someone in place, you'd have thought the IRFU might let him find his feet and then get him out front to reassure the punters that this was actually something Ireland were taking seriously.
For example, he might have an innovative plan to take to the Sports Council for a programme that would physiologically screen athletes acrossthe country, and across
the codes, at age 15 or 16, to assess their chances of becoming high achievers in one sport over another. Think of the outliers rugby might pick up this way.
Three months after the IRFU had started the search for a head of fitness, England, looking forward to the 2015 World Cup, had appointed a man called Matt Parker to head up their athletic performance. Prior to that he had been 'director of marginal gains' for British Cycling.
Marginal gains, eh? That's something we might hear Jamie Heaslip trot out in the wake of another Irish defeat, but does the current Ireland captain have any appreciation of how far off we are in getting to the point where it's inches that make the difference?
"Our experience with the coaching staff, the management staff, the strength and conditioning, the facilities we had was all amazing," he gushed last week.
Sounds like we're in a Grand Slam of a good place then. Nevertheless, in the next two weeks Declan Kidney will be thanked for his significant contribution to the cause, and not offered a new contract.
The smaller picture is whose face is next in the frame. If Les Kiss was successful last week in convincing the union that his end was kept up then he might get a chance to outline how he would perform the trick as head coach rather than assistant. It is inevitable though that he has suffered some damage from his five years as assistant. Kiss is bright and ambitious and we're about to find out how persuasive.
Alternatively, the desire for a clean sweep could usher Kiss out one door, and through the other bring Joe Schmidt and Vern Cotter. Kiss and Schmidt have a reasonable handle on the Irish system by this stage so they will be equally concerned with the bigger picture. If you don't get the background right then the foreground has no focus. Only the union can change that. If for example they opt to jockey men from the old side of the house into the brand new extension – ie the professional game board – then you can forget about attracting people like Conor O'Shea at some point in the future.
O'Shea's experience from playing and coaching at London Irish and Harlequins, and heading up England's Academy Programme, as well as a stint as director of the English Institute of Sport, serves him perfectly for either the performance director's job in Lansdowne Road, or indeed as successor to Kidney.
Do we need Pa Whelan and Tom Grace and the rest of the gang making decisions about candidates who are in a different league to them?
Whelan's great achievement as a union man has been to survive. His greatest contribution however would be to lead the way now and step aside. It would open the door to a professional system for a professional game, and deliver us from the process that gave us Murray Kidd.
In a remarkable coincidence, a year after the Kiwi was appointed, Kidd was summoned to a meeting in a solicitor's office in Dublin, only to encounter the same journalist en route. This time, with a view to the news he was about to receive, he was already saving a few bob and travelling by train. And there was no need for elaborate stories about his mission impossible.