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Desperate Kidney at breaking point

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Declan Kidney is facing mounting pressure after Ireland's run of four successive defeats

Declan Kidney is facing mounting pressure after Ireland's run of four successive defeats

Declan Kidney is facing mounting pressure after Ireland's run of four successive defeats

AND the hits just keep on coming ... Battered in body and mind, Ireland fly out to New Zealand tomorrow with their World Cup preparations in tatters. You would imagine they will be relieved to get on the plane.

When they touch down in New Zealand they will have jumped ahead in time (11 hours) and landed in a new month. That is no bad thing because, despite their best intentions to avoid a repeat of 2007, an awful August has seen Ireland travel backwards to four years ago -- they are, arguably, in a worse state of readiness this time around.

Low in confidence, low in form, low in squad resources -- reporting on the Irish rugby team over the last four weeks has been akin to following the Irish economy, one bad news story after the next.

The latest chapter was the most demoralising. Losing to England is unpleasant at the best of times, being blown away by Martin Johnson's meat-and-veg side with its cynical approach to the game and mercenary reliance on southern hemisphere imports was particularly galling.

And deeply worrying. No one expected the run-in to be this grim and, on the eve of departure, we find ourselves forced to forensically examine Ireland's ability to avoid another World Cup flop.

Form

Four defeats on the bounce, four poor displays and a mounting injury list have rattled players, management and supporters alike and it's the old George Best scenario of where did it all go wrong? Well, it hasn't yet, officially, but the omens are extremely disturbing.

Declan Kidney's career speaks for itself, with triumph in adversity a particular strong-point, but the challenge that faces him now is his greatest yet -- a fact he acknowledged as he tried to detect shards of light amid the gloom.

"I'm not going to get into a discussion about comparisons between now and 2007 or 2003 or 1999," said Kidney. "We needed the games, to me that was very apparent, we haven't got the results that we wanted but we will be the better for having them.

"I have put together teams in the past and I can see us coming together now. There is obviously work to be done but I know we needed the games and I am glad we played the games. It takes a little bit to get going and we have to be patient, but I know we'll get there."

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In 2009, Ireland had forgotten how to lose and went into every game expecting victory. For the last year, their performances, the win over England in March aside, have been riddled with uncertainty and the results (six defeats in the last eight matches) have reflected that.

With confidence wavering, the Irish defence has creaked alarmingly over the last two weekends and the two England tries were soft concessions (the second coming from Delon Armitage when England were down to 14 men and Ireland should have kicked on).

The World Cup is not a place for self-doubt.

Fitness

The sickening sight of David Wallace being carted off the pitch after a collision with Manu Tuilagi was another body blow for Irish ambitions.

The extent of the damage to Wallace's right knee robs Ireland of one of their most dependable forwards and denies this big-game player his final chance to display his qualities on rugby's biggest stage.

At 35, you just hope it does not mean the end for one of Irish rugby's finest contributors over the past 10 years.

"David is a Lion," said Kidney. "That shows that he's played at the single highest level. It's heart-breaking for him and his family and hugely disappointing for us. He was hugely important for us when we won the Grand Slam, as he has been over the last couple of years."

Shane Jennings was the obvious replacement and brings specialist open-side skills to the Irish squad. However, with David Pocock and Mauro Bergamasco lurking in the pool and no Wallace, the issue of who wears the No 7 jersey has assumed massive significance.

Given Stephen Ferris' encouraging return to form and fitness (one of the few positives on Saturday), the expectation is that Sean O'Brien will move across, but this is complicated by the fact that the Tullow man is nursing a medial ligament knee injury and that he plays his best rugby with 6 on his back.

Scavenging opensides have been a problem area for Ireland since Nigel Carr was forced to retire in 1987, with Willie Faloon and Dominic Ryan the most promising available but not in management's line of vision.

The fact Jamie Heaslip had to leave the field with a bang to the head adds to the back-row worries, while Cian Healy's delayed departure due to an eye injury and possible unavailability for the opening clash with the USA is further bad news. With Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney forced to miss the English game, Ireland go into the tournament with too many injury and cover issues for comfort.

Ferocity

It was suggested afterwards that, historically, Ireland do not 'do' warm-up matches well and that it needs to be testes on the table for the Irish to find their best form. Even if there is something to that, there was enough motivation last Saturday (old rivalry, desperate need for a lift) to get the Irish going and yet the intensity was still missing.

There is also the issue of bulk. For the second week in a row, Ireland were outmuscled by a bigger side. As Kidney noted, Ireland have always punched above their weight when it comes to resources but, recently, those punches have lacked any sort of intent.

The captain's inspirational qualities were badly missed. Paul O'Connell was one of the home side's strongest performers but O'Driscoll is the established leader and there is no way Tuilagi would have been able to arc around the Irish captain with the ease he did to Keith Earls (who responded strongly but is patently happier on the wing than in the centre).

Finesse

What has happened to Irish back play? Three penalties, no tries and no second-half score does not paint a pretty picture. Against France, the moves were so sterile that it looked as though Ireland were deliberately holding back and, after another impotent attacking display, Kidney confirmed that there is an element of keeping moves in reserve.

"There are a few variations we know we have to bring in, we couldn't show everything," said Kidney. The problem is that Alan Gaffney's backline charges didn't really show anything beyond a couple of half-decent incursions that didn't lead anywhere.

When you look at what Joe Schmidt has achieved with many of the same players at Leinster, the situation is especially infuriating and we just have to hope that Ireland can take their training ground manoeuvres into the heat of battle when it matters.

After wrapping up the Tri-Nations in style last weekend, one suspects the Australians are not overly concerned by what Ireland are keeping in reserve.

Foundation

England were always going to present a monumental challenge at the set-pieces. To their credit, the Irish front-row battled gamely at scrum time and Mike Ross' importance was demonstrated once again, while Healy went well against Dan Cole.

The one time Ross was badly done was when Andrew Sheridan was allowed to get away with an early engagement. The line-out was more of an issue as England made use of their plentiful options but Jerry Flannery had another decent showing and, thankfully, his early departure was merely due to a bang on the shin rather than a recurrence of his calf problems.

Gert Smal and Greg Feek have a busy two weeks ahead of them (and restarts should be an area of focus also) but, thankfully, there is no pack as big as England in Pool C.

Future

"The one thing that we'll get out of today is that it will really focus the mind," said Kidney.

It better, because things are not looking good. The prediction of Ireland making it to a quarter-final showdown against South Africa remains but, based on August's evidence, that will be as far as they go. The straw-clutching exercise involves Kidney rediscovering his magic touch for tournament rugby and putting his warm-up woes behind him.

That should not be ruled out, but it is now based on blind faith rather than hard evidence. One thing is certain, there is no danger of Ireland getting above themselves in New Zealand and exceeding expectations cannot be ruled out. Not when they are set so low.

IRELAND -- G Murphy; T Bowe, K Earls, G D'Arcy, A Trimble (F McFadden 71); R O'Gara (J Sexton 62), E Reddan (C Murray 62); C Healy (T Court 70), J Flannery (R Best 51), M Ross; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt); S Ferris, D Wallace (D Leamy 23), J Heaslip (D Ryan 35).

ENGLAND -- B Foden; C Ashton (yc 42-52), M Tuilagi, M Tindall (T Flood 75), M Cueto (D Armitage 22); J Wilkinson, R Wigglesworth; A Sheridan (M Stevens 55), S Thompson (D Hartley 52), D Cole; L Deacon (S Shaw 63), C Lawes; T Croft, H Fourie (T Palmer 22), J Haskell.

REF -- N Owens (Wales).


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