Sport Rugby

Sunday 17 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: Kidney can't hide the cracks after hitting nuclear button

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Declan Kidney ran a lot of red lights on Thursday evening to get away from the Brian O'Driscoll question. When Declan is rattled, he has a tendency to finish his sentences with the word "okay?".

It isn't so much a question as a warning. A kind of shorthand invitation to desist from whatever line of interrogation is being pursued.

Kidney would have known that stripping the captaincy from Ireland's greatest rugby player two weeks before the Six Nations commences would light a small firestorm of speculation, yet he seemed remarkably ill-prepared to face it.

If anything, he sounded like a man just pulling open the shower curtain to find TV cameras at the bathroom door.

Declan, it was clear, had no compelling reason to demote O'Driscoll. To be fair, he didn't peddle the line – as others did – of making a decision with the 2015 World Cup in mind. This was a relief. The notion that Ireland's captain for that tournament might need to be in place 32 months in advance is, to put it mildly, fatuous.

Sam Warburton was a revelation for Wales at the 2011 tournament, exactly three months after being first given the job of captaining his country.

In any event, who is to say how an Irish team sheet will even look three Six Nations tournaments from now? The only thing Ireland (or any country) can realistically plan at this remove from the next World Cup is what they hope to wear. Anything else is hypothetical.


What Kidney did imply on Thursday was that the decision on O'Driscoll was franked by a desire to facilitate his return to full fitness. Or, as Declan specifically put it, to give him "the space" to focus on simply being a player.

This would be credible but for two reasons. Firstly, few sportsmen on this planet have displayed a greater natural facility for leadership than Brian O'Driscoll since first appointed Irish captain by Eddie O'Sullivan in 2003. Secondly, O'Driscoll – palpably – did not feel a need for any such "space".

His reaction to the demotion was, naturally, cushioned in gentle politesse and, even if Ireland bomb in the upcoming tournament, O'Driscoll won't be throwing Kidney under a bus any time soon. It isn't his style.

But if you doubt that this week's announcement was a personal slight on Ireland's Grand Slam captain, you weren't paying much attention to the words of old colleagues like Shane Horgan and Reggie Corrigan.

Both, remember, are former colleagues not just of O'Driscoll but Jamie Heaslip too. And both believe Kidney has been guilty of a shocking call.

Not from fear that Heaslip might come up short of doing a decent job. None exists. He handled the responsibility well in November and his status in Irish rugby is reflected in him holding the most lucrative of all the current IRFU player contracts. But, as Horgan observed, Kidney's decision now places Heaslip in an invidious position within the Irish dressing-room, essentially trying to fill the boots of a man who – presumably – will still be there.

Just this week, Wales' Jamie Roberts described O'Driscoll as the best on-field leader he'd "played with or against". And it certainly isn't beyond the bounds that, should the Clontarf man come unscathed through a full Six Nations programme, Warren Gatland might yet offer him a second term as Lions captain.

There can, then, be no denying he will feel wounded now, needlessly jettisoned from a role in which he has excelled for almost a decade.

Kidney's observation that there was "nothing to say that Brian won't be back as captain in the future" sounded disingenuous, a cheap bouquet tossed his way to cover the gaping cracks of the decision. O'Driscoll turns 34 on Monday. This is, quite probably, his final tournament in an Irish shirt.

So why the nuclear call from a coach whose own contract expires two months from now? O'Driscoll was guardedly critical of the Irish management after last summer's tour of New Zealand, specifically the tangled lines of communication emanating from the coaching staff. Reading that criticism, Kidney could not but have felt a cold wind inside the chest. For the buck stopped with him.

If there was confusion, it had to carry his fingerprints.

That's not to say it was a factor in this week's decision, but you do have to wonder if a certain distance had grown between the Grand Slam coach and captain. Before the November defeat of Argentina, all manner of discord was being hinted at from within the Irish camp and Horgan spoke on Thursday of recent instances in which O'Driscoll "protected" his coach.

What that means, we can but guess for now.

But on Thursday, Kidney's instinct was certainly not to protect O'Driscoll. He may be comfortable with his reasons.

The rest of us can but wonder if they're sound.

Irish Independent

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