Time for Kidney’s men to get their spark back
DECLAN KIDNEY’S career has been characterised by his ability to extract motivation from the musings of opponents.
When Warren Gatland offered the ludicrous opinion that the Welsh players didn’t like the Irish in the lead-up to the 2009 Grand Slam decider, and then took a pot-shot at Kidney’s far more measured approach to his dealings with the media, the Ireland coach must have been giddy inside.
He brushed the comments aside and, as expected, refused to get involved in verbal sparring with Gatland.
Instead, he turned Gatland’s words to his advantage and used them against the Welsh. It also helped enormously that the Irish players took umbrage at the disrespect Gatland had shown their coach.
“We were fired up and spoke about making it right. Having our coach insulted like that didn’t sit well,” one of the Irish players recalled.
Kidney is a master of making even the smallest issue work to his advantage.
There is no better coach than Ireland's at finding material to pin up on the dressing-room wall to motivate his team.
HORROR-SHOW Of course, the Irish can also shoot themselves in the foot on occasion. It is impossible not to suspect that the England players read Stephen Ferris’ opinion that they were “bad losers” in the build-up to the Twickenham horrorshow last season.
No team is immune from a bout of verbal diarrhoea every so often.
How Kidney could have done with a Gatland-esque gaffe from Scotland interim coach Scott Johnson this week.
Unfortunately, Johnson didn’t play ball. Instead of launching into the verbals he has been ‘bigging up’ the Irish players. O’Driscoll is “world-class” and a “potent weapon”, Paddy Jackson “a threat” and Sean O’Brien is a “magnificent rugby player”.
Scotland finished last season with the Wooden Spoon. The win over Italy has already ensured an improved return.
Johnson is unique among the coaches in this year’s Six Nations, in that he has nothing to lose. Contrast that with Kidney, who has everything to lose.
Heaslip must belatedly repay coach’s faith and ensure Ireland win crucial breakdown battle Distasteful as it is to have people’s livelihoods open to discussion by all and sundry, that’s the world we occupy.
It’s not known if victory in the next three matches will earn Kidney a new contract. It is, however, suggested that a loss in any of the three games will probably be enough for the IRFU to decide to look elsewhere.
It is up to Kidney to find his own words to motivate his players and he will undoubtedly appeal to their pride and their ambition and the need to restore reputations after the England setback.
Unfortunately for Ireland, Scotland are possibly the worst team they could be up against with the stakes so high.
It is not that they will bring anything spectacular to the game – they won’t. But they will be efficient and disciplined in denying Ireland penalty opportunities and, conversely, will set out to ruthlessly exploit any mistakes Ireland make.
Scotland will happily let Ireland have the ball and try to force the inexperienced players into playing too much rugby in the wrong places. This is why the cerebral presence of O’Driscoll is so valuable tomorrow.
He must ensure that Jackson and Luke Marshall remain calm and calculated, that they play ball when it is appropriate and don’t try to force things.
Above all, that they make the right decisions.
If Ireland allow themselves to be hustled into mistakes Scotland will punish them and, if they turn over possession, Tim Visser, Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland will crucify them.
For Ireland, and in particular Jackson, it’s about knowing when it’s the right time to have a go. The opportunities to hurt Scotland will be present. If Ireland’s runners – especially their back three – can attack in the right areas, Scotland are vulnerable.
Ireland’s kick-chase, for example, must be vastly improved from the England game. Keith Earls and Craig Gilroy have to chase down Jackson’s and Conor Murray’s kicks, and Rob Kearney must also get in on the action.
The pressure on Jackson will be at an almost unbearable level. He has to keep calm and become a leader.
It’s an incredibly difficult task, especially as he must also shoulder the responsibility for kicking.
It is unfortunate in the extreme that playing with Ulster hasn’t prepared him properly for that, with their preference for Ruan Pienaar to do all the kicking… from the tee and the hand as he did last week against Zebre.
This is where the Irish system breaks down. Pienaar is a world-class kicker but Ulster’s inclination to rely on the South African might be to the detriment of Ireland this weekend.
Those issues aside, as is often the case, the result will be influenced heavily by the battle on the ground, and Scotland are massively impressive at the breakdown.
Their captain Kelly Brown caused Munster all sorts of problems in this facet of the game when he was wearing the Saracens uniform. All three backrow forwards have an eye for it, but Brown is especially effective, while John Beattie is another master on the deck.
They are adept at disrupting ball and will make life miserable for Murray if allowed to cause havoc unchecked.
Jamie Heaslip has to step up this weekend, something he has failed to do in this year’s Six Nations so far. He has yet to repay the enormous trust placed in him by his coach. He, O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony have to show endless bravery and, more importantly, accuracy in everything they do and have to drive the Scotland players off the ball when Ireland go to ground.
SMOTHER And when it’s Scottish ball the Ireland players have to smother their counterparts. At the breakdown Scotland continuously recycle and keep coming unless they are put to ground and ultimately made to retreat empty-handed.
The good news for Ireland is that they have the weapons in their arsenal. They have flankers who are terrific ball carriers and Donnacha Ryan, if fit, is more adept out of touch than Richie Gray, which should help nullify one of Scotland’s attacking platforms.
Ireland must produce a high-tempo game that matches their determination to chase the Six Nations trophy to the very last series of games and must eliminate the mistakes that pockmarked their indifferent performance against England.
They need to recover the verve and enthusiasm that helped them crush Argentina and run Fiji to distraction.
They must produce a high-energy, driven performance that will see them put the ball through hands efficiently and speedily, so the fleet-footed Earls, Gilroy and Co can penetrate for the tries that will enable them to maintain their high return and put their Championship challenge back on track.