Let’s face it, Ireland are stuck in reverse
England game showed that Kidney's failure to blood new talent is proving very costly
With the 2012 RBS 6 Nations now consigned to history it’s time to pick the bones out of Ireland’s campaign and ask if they are better placed after it than was the case before it started.
In particular, is coach Declan Kidney any wiser or further on in his thinking and planning for a three-match series against the world’s best team, the All Blacks, in June? Or towards a World Cup in 2015?
In a Twickenham weights room on Saturday night, surrounded by some of the apparatus required by modern-day athletes, Kidney highlighted the changes he has made since the Grand Slam heroics of three years ago. Fourteen new players, he stressed, were in the 22 we had just seen humbled by England.
But Ireland’s ‘changes’ are not comparable to those made by Wales — the new Grand Slam champions — or England, the runners-up, who have introduced young players with a view to building towards the future rather than concentrating on a here-and-now result.
Kidney’s fixation with today is to the detriment of tomorrow. In the series just finished he deployed 18 starters, 11 of them ever-presents. His changes in each case were forced upon him by circumstances.
Consider: had Keith Earls’s new-born daughter not been unwell, would Fergus McFadden have started against Wales in the championship opener?
Had Paul O’Connell not been injured against France, would Donnacha Ryan finally have been given a start in the game against Scotland, his first ever in the Six Nations? No; as Ireland’s captain O’Connell would have played in all five matches.
Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Donncha O’Callaghan, Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip, Jonathan Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy, Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney started every time.
O’Connell and Earls would have done so, but for circumstances. One suspects Kidney would also have persisted with Conor Murray at scrum-half but for the fact that, like O’Connell, he picked up a knee injury in Paris.
And I very much doubt that promising Munster flanker, Peter O’Mahony, would have been given a start against Scotland but for Sean O’Brien’s skin infection.
O’Connell, O’Brien, Murray and Earls were Ireland’s first-choice selections in their respective positions, and given Kidney’s decision to persist with the 11 unaffected by injury or unavailability, I believe he would have gone into all five matches with an unchanged starting line-up, the physical severity of four Tests in 22 days notwithstanding.
As for the assertion that the 2012 line-up is much changed to that which went through 2009 undefeated in all of that year’s 10 Tests, it is misleading to suggest that Kidney has made calls comparable to those of Wales’s Warren Gatland or England’s Stuart Lancaster.
They have introduced new players in preference to those they replaced. But Ireland have not made significant personnel changes; replacing an injured player does not represent a change of heart or mind.
Consider Saturday’s Welsh line-up against France in the match which saw them complete the Slam. With Wales having reached the semi-finals of last autumn’s World Cup using youngsters, Gatland went into the Six Nations knowing that they were battle-hardened.
Look at their ages: wingers George North and Alex Cuthbert are 19 and 21 respectively. Their magnificent back row forwards — Dan Lydiate, captain Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau are 24, 23 and 21. Alongside those guys, 25-year-old fly-half Rhys Priestland looks like a veteran.
The England side which outplayed Ireland later in the day included a pair of 20-year-olds in Owen Farrell and Manusamoa Tuilagi, and in loose-head Alex Corbisiero and No 8 Ben Morgan two outstanding forwards aged 23
In contrast the 14 players to whom Kidney alluded in the hope of illustrating the changes under his watch include Ross (31), Ryan (28), re-invented Trimble (27), Sexton (26), O’Brien (25) and Earls (24).
Worryingly, Saturday evening’s bench included Ronan O’Gara (35), Tom Court (31), Mike McCarthy (30), Tomas O’Leary (28), Sean Cronin (26) and Fergus McFadden (25). Not exactly fledglings.
The one youngster named in the replacements was O’Mahony who is 22.
In 2009 Ireland ruled rugby’s northern hemisphere roost. In 2010 they finished second in the Six Nations. In 2011 they were third. They have now finished third again by virtue of winning twice — at home to the bottom pair, Italy and Scotland — drawing one and losing two.
They have now dropped to eighth in the IRB world rankings and with three games against the All Blacks in June, their prospects of climbing are not good. Currently their 2015 World Cup Tier Two place is under threat.
Does that represent progress in your opinion? If so, we’ll agree to differ.