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Five steps to try and spark Ireland's new era of rugby

By Tony Ward

So, where to from here? Last Saturday in Rome Ireland looked like a team on its last legs, having dug as deep as they possibly could just to field a starting line-up capable of performing at international level.

Considering the incredible number of injuries he has had to deal with, the vitriol that Declan Kidney has endured is beyond belief. If I was in his shoes, I know what I would do: I would walk away very swiftly.

For all the talk surrounding the 'golden generation' – and Ireland have had some exceptionally talented players for a decade or more – the reality is that we have won the Six Nations championship only once in the last 28 years, since the 1985 success, and that triumph came in 2009 with Kidney as head coach.

In European rugby's premier club event, the Heineken Cup, we are up there with the very best, but does anyone really believe that those successes would have been achieved if it was not for the contribution of key foreign players?

In contrast, Wales have won the Grand Slam three times and the championship on four occasions since 2005 yet their clubs fail to scale the same heights when it comes to the Heineken Cup.

There is no quick fix to Ireland's problems and simply sacking the coach is not going to bring about the success we all desire. God forbid that rugby should ever go down the soccer route, changing managers at the drop of a hat.

I admire Kidney's fighting spirit and accept what he says when he claims, "I've been in holes like this before and I know how to get out of them."

If we had a player pool as big as England or France, we could accept his suggestion that "now is the time to sit back and reflect" but we don't have that luxury. Now is the time to act.

No doubt the IRFU's National Team Review Group, which includes Tom Grace and Pat Whelan, are working away feverishly in the background. Here are five things that should be done to take the process forward in the correct fashion.

1 Appoint a new management team before the June tour to the USA and Canada

First and foremost is the issue of head coach. For his own sake as well as the players', the time is right for Kidney, a humble and dedicated man, to walk away. Seeing out his contract to the appointed day and hour would serve no purpose whatsoever.

Once that decision has been made, the IRFU must leave no stone unturned to get the best back-room team in place.

The fact that the summer tour to the USA and Canada coincides with the Lions' trek to Australia (not that we will have a massive player involvement in that) provides a heaven-sent opportunity for the new management team to familiarise themselves with the players, apart obviously from those set to be on Lions duty.

2 Go after Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt

As things stand, Cotter is still in charge at Clermont, where Franck Azema has replaced Schmidt as assistant.

Schmidt has a year to go with Leinster before returning to New Zealand, but with the right offer and the right management in place, coaching an Ireland squad he knows so well would surely make for an opportunity extremely difficult to refuse.

His ultimate ambition is to get on the All Blacks coaching ladder and what better way is there to do that than by following the likes of Warren Gatland, Graham Henry, Steve Hansen, John Mitchell and Wayne Smith in coaching at Test level abroad?

I cannot think of a more appropriate appointment. He is young, enthusiastic, articulate, media friendly and more than anything a player's coach who is at his most comfortable in the heart of the training action.

Clearly there would be respective roles to be defined between Cotter and Schmidt but, given their track record, the dynamic would be right, provided they are given carte blanche to appoint their own back-room team.

Hopefully it would include the likes of Les Kiss, Gert Smal, Anthony Foley and Greg Feek, but that decision must be made by the new coaching ticket and not by any committee sitting in a room in Lansdowne Road.

3 Give Brian O'Driscoll time to decide if he wants to play on

I make that proviso on the possibility of a new coaching appointment rekindling the fire so essential to his game at this level going forward.

The difference Schmidt has made to O'Driscoll in terms of challenging him to reach even greater heights at Leinster has been massive – a fact well acknowledged by the legendary centre.

Were Schmidt to come on board then, irrespective of a competitive month with the Lions Down Under, it could revitalise O'Driscoll for one more season at least.

Beyond that personal challenge of working with Schmidt at international level, I suspect that mentally and emotionally our greatest ever player is on the way out – and for sure we will be long enough without him.

4 Address the captaincy issue

Were Schmidt to become the main man in charge, there is every chance Jamie Heaslip might continue as captain, given that he has filled that role for Leinster when Leo Cullen has been out injured.

However, on the evidence of this season to date, and as one who supported his appointment as skipper, the fact is that as of now it is not really a comfortable fit.

Much of the criticism he has taken has been most unfair and little to do with form alone.

He has not been at his best but neither has his form been dreadful.

But Heaslip wearing the armband is an issue.

Whether the role might go to Rob Kearney (my own preference), Rory Best, Jonny Sexton or even O'Driscoll in the short term, I believe the absence of that responsibility would help both Heaslip and the team.

I repeat, the nature of Irish rugby is such that we cannot afford the luxury of allowing players grow into predefined roles, whether it be Paddy Jackson as playmaker in chief or Heaslip as captain.

5 Give Paddy Jackson

and Ian Madigan equal chance to state their case

As of now, with Sexton moving abroad, Leinster out-half in waiting Madigan looks set to copperfasten the position he craves and the long-term chance to develop a more rounded tactical game he deserves.

Both he and Jackson deserve the chance to stake their claim to be the recognised back-up to Sexton.

Certainly at the end of a disappointing Six Nations season bedevilled by injury, we face into a period of uncertainty, but one thing's for sure: if Ireland are to replace their head coach, whatever it takes to get the best possible candidate, it must be done.

Belfast Telegraph


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