Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Under-fire Kidney staring at exit door

Declan Kidney and Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll with the Six Nations trophy following the Grand Slam triumph of 2009
Declan Kidney and Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll with the Six Nations trophy following the Grand Slam triumph of 2009

The respect for Declan Kidney among his players remains undiminished. But not even that will be enough to save him if Ireland lose to Scotland on Sunday.

Kidney remains popular with the majority of the squad but the danger is that players become so familiar with the work of a particular coach that an element of staleness can creep into the relationship.

There is a cadre of players whose respect is intact, in fact flourishing. And the respect those players have for the coaching team of Les Kiss, Gert Smal and Anthony Foley is in the stratosphere.

Straw polls are generally rather useless because the results are not binding. But they can provide an interesting snapshot into what is otherwise a relatively unknown environment – the collective mood, for example, of the Ireland camp at Carton House.

Kidney has not, in soccer parlance, 'lost the dressing-room'. But that won't be enough to save Ireland's head coach if his team lose at Murrayfield. It won't matter that he has evolved and acquiesced to the wishes of his players in terms of who does the on-field coaching and in ensuring that there are two distinct voices running defence and attack.

Neither will it matter a jot that Ireland have an injury crisis of epidemic proportions, one the provinces are at times exacerbating by both recruitment and selections.

The nation's crisis at inside-centre, for example, might have been solved had Fergus McFadden performed at No 12 in Leinster's game against Treviso on Saturday evening. McFadden is benefiting from a sustained run on the wing for Leinster but he is a centre playing out of position.

McFadden is regarded by some of the Ireland coaches as one of the better rugby players in the squad but there are lingering doubts in some quarters over the consistency of his distribution.

Could some of those doubts have been alleviated had he played in the centre against Treviso? Leinster had so much of the possession that McFadden's passing would have been given a proper work-out in the RDS. Instead he spent 65 minutes on the wing and ended the game at outside-centre.

Similarly, given the dearth of international-standard second-rows knocking about, what benefit did Gert Smal derive from seeing Iain Henderson line out at blindside flanker for Ulster on Friday night?

And out-half Paddy Jackson's case was hardly helped by Springbok scrum-half Ruan Pienaar assuming the kicking duties.

If Ireland lose on Sunday, extenuating circumstances won't matter a damn.

Kidney's position will be untenable. And, realistically, even if Ireland beat Scotland but lose to either France or Italy, his fate is also likely to be sealed.

That Scotland could well be his Waterloo is entirely in keeping with Ireland's recent history. It was Scotland who did for Warren Gatland in 2001.

That interrupted season will always be remembered as the 'foot and mouth' Six Nations.

It was the year Martin Johnson and Matt Dawson were derided by the Lansdowne Road crowd when they sheepishly accepted the Six Nations trophy after being beaten by Ireland.

Ireland's season started with wins over Italy (41-22 in Rome) and France (22-15 in Dublin) before an untimely postponement was forced. But even then Ireland were in a good place when the championship resumed the following September.

In between Brian O'Driscoll had become a global superstar through his exploits on the Lions Tour to Australia. All the Irish on that tour returned with their stock in credit, including David Wallace, who had been a late call-up.

When the championship resumed in September 2001, Ireland faced up to their trip to Murrayfield with confidence.

For reasons best known to those involved, the team that had defeated France just under eight months previously was gutted.

Shane Horgan was selected in the centre in place of the injured Rob Henderson. Similarly, Guy Easterby was disastrously favoured over Peter Stringer, while Wallace, Mick Galwey and Alan Quinlan also found themselves jettisoned from the team that had defeated France.

Ireland didn't just lose the game to Scotland. They were slaughtered and the 32-10 final scoreline was generous to them. Ireland went on to defeat Wales and then England, denying the latter a Grand Slam in the process, but it didn't matter.

The damage had been done in Murrayfield. The loss to Scotland had sealed Gatland's fate and, two days after a respectable performance against New Zealand, the Kiwi's services were dispensed with.

Twelve years on, Kidney is in danger of suffering the same fate.

In the event of an Ireland loss, those who are actively and vocally seeking regime change will dust off the obituaries they had prepared in anticipation of Ireland losing to Argentina in November.

They will highlight the statistic that of the 40 Tests played since the 2009 season, Ireland have won only 18, drawn two and lost 20.

It's not the best of records.

But if Ireland win their remaining three Six Nations games the wishes of the majority of the squad should not be simply ignored either.

The one thing even his most vitriolic critics cannot deny is Kidney's ability to 'build' a team.

It's something he has done all through his career, going back to his days with Presentation Brothers College, Cork and onto his time with UCC and with Dolphin in the All-Ireland League – when he repackaged and rebuilt a team that had been relegated the previous season.

He started the process of rebuilding Ireland in November with a team established around the new generation of Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy and Peter O'Mahony.

And it shouldn't be overlooked that it's not just the head coach. If Kidney goes, so does his coaching team. Is it counter-productive to introduce a whole new coaching staff just two years out from a World Cup?

Beating Scotland alone won't, of course, save Kidney. If Ireland beat Scotland and then lose to either France or Italy, any benefit from the former is cancelled out.

Had Ireland beaten England, then Kidney's job would have been secured.

The wave of optimism a victory over the old enemy would have engendered would have carried Ireland past Scotland and into the game against France with purpose.

Now, though, Ireland, and by extension Kidney, are on a damage-limitation exercise.

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