Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Tyrone Howe: Pressure on Declan Kidney to go the distance

Declan Kidney

I have always been open and generous in my respect and admiration for Declan Kidney.

However, as much as he has masterminded Heineken Cup victories, Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam, the Corkman faces the biggest test of his coaching career in the upcoming Rugby World Cup.

Last week, I stated that critical analysis and scrutiny of these warm up games counts for little — the real action is what matters. I was wrong.

Understanding how the player’s aspire for excellence both in preparation and performance, I feel uncomfortable adding to the gathering criticism as they head off to New Zealand.

However, honesty is at the core of rugby — whatever spin is put on Ireland’s latest performance against England, nothing can disguise the fact that the squad has serious issues going into the tournament.

The performances in the last three weeks, never mind the results, must leave Declan Kidney an extremely worried man, and the players searching for a magic wand which doesn’t exist.

It will test all Kidney’s skills as a coach and a manager. He may publicly state that morale has not been affected, but how can it not have been? Ireland never lack effort and heart, but they have been battered and bruised in recent weeks.

First of all, a French team bristling with energy on home soil started the battle; a second French side, almost completely different in look, softened Ireland up further, only for England to finish off the task. In consecutive defeats, the scorelines have flattered Ireland.

Apparently, the upside is that the players are now match fit. However, if that was the main goal, it did not require quite so many matches against such quality opposition. No doubt, as the plane takes off this week, the players will be delighted to be on board, if only to get a rest.

With both sides under real pressure, it was England who got the much-needed morale boost. What Ireland garnered was real clarity of the challenge ahead.

To have any chance of real success, Brian O’Driscoll and Sean O’Brien need to be on the pitch. Ireland desperately missed these two key players, and with the further departures of David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip, Ireland were shorn of their main ball carriers.

Paul O’Connell, as he so often does, led the countercharge ably assisted by Stephen Ferris, who put in an incredible effort. Ferris proved his value once again. He hunted for work tirelessly and is one of very few who can regularly get across the gainline. To have any chance of success, the team needs all its key players to be fit and firing on all cylinders. That, firstly, means no more injuries to the backrow.

No question, it was hugely disappointing. Yet, despite losing out in both possession and territory, the result could still have been different had Ireland employed proper Test match tactics.

When points are on offer, you should take them. Time and time again, Ireland spurned the chance of three points opting instead for the kick to touch. Losing subsequent lineouts, then, negated any possible benefit from these risky decisions. It simply highlighted the worrying sense of confusion and lack of composure at key moments.

However positive the rhetoric sounds, you can’t turn quality performances on and off like a tap. You have to work towards them, step-by-step, with an increasingly high level of consistency. It would take a brave man to win the argument that Ireland are in a better position now than at the start of August.

The pre-World Cup schedule has been overly-demanding, energy-sapping and mentally draining. I will be surprised if the players now go on to perform heroics in the tournament, but more than happy to revise this opinion if they do.

Maybe it is all a ruse. Maybe Declan Kidney has a masterplan after all - four defeats ensuring that public expectation is low, only to overcome the USA and explode against Australia? Wishful thinking, I fear.

As the players board the plane, they carry our hopes and very best wishes for success. Criticism over, it is now time to give them our full support.

Nevertheless, everyone and most of all Declan Kidney, will realise that they need to improve and quickly.