Turbulent Ireland need some harmony
March 6, 2013
Declan Kidney's role as Ireland coach is in the spotlight © Getty Images
Less than five weeks ago, Ireland were heading into the Six Nations with a confident strut, imbued by the belief that the November corner turned against Argentina had opened up a smooth road to fruition.
This was backed up by an exhilarating opening 40 minutes against the Welsh in Cardiff but, since Brian O'Driscoll ferreted over for his try just after half-time in that unnecessarily nervy victory, Ireland's campaign has made a rapid descent into chaos (some would say farce).
Indeed, in terms of periods of turmoil for Irish rugby, only the spectacular flop at the 2007 World Cup and short-lived, long-regretted Brian Ashton era in the late 1990s could mount any sort of challenge.
Injuries have played a major part - Ireland do not have the resources to cope with the absence of performers of the calibre of Paul O'Connell, Jonathan Sexton, Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe and Gordon D'Arcy - while Cian Healy's suspension handed Scotland a critical boost at scrum time last time out.
However, mixed in with absenteeism have been some erratic calls by coach Declan Kidney - now being used as battering sticks.
The decision to take the captaincy off O'Driscoll and entrust it to Jamie Heaslip has backfired in the face of poor results. It was a bold nod to the future and a statement of intent from a coach whose contract expires at the end of the season but defeats by England and, particularly, Scotland have radically altered perception.
Heaslip's form has been reasonable - if not yet near the levels he reached prior to the last Lions tour in 2009 - but his televised appearance for the pre-match coin toss sporting a pair of oversized earphones was not well received.
Then there were the captain's decisions to opt for lineouts when penalty points were on offer as Ireland completely dominated the Scots for possession and territory. This, as England captain Chris Robshaw would testify, puts you in damned if you do, damned if you don't territory depending on whether scores result.
In this instance, the situation was compounded by the fact Ireland had a debutant out half in Paddy Jackson who was not a front-line kicker for Ulster due to the presence of the metronomic Ruan Pienaar. Thus, it looked as though the captain was 'protecting' Jackson whereas if Sexton, or Ronan O'Gara, had been present the decision, and ball, would have been taken out of Heaslip's hands.
Which brings us to O'Gara, Ireland's record points-scorer and caps-holder cut from the squad for the first time in 13 years, ahead of Saturday's clash with France.
It may not have been the ideal way for such a storied international career to conclude but, with Ireland's Six Nations aspirations over, and O'Gara's form straying from mixed to poor, there was logic behind Kidney's decision to have a look at the increasingly impressive Ian Madigan.
However, while there were many who felt this culling had come a couple of years too late, O'Gara became another means of attacking Ireland's embattled coach and, at this week's team announcement, he reacted spikily to suggestions that his recent out-of-character experimentation was prompted by a desire to win the approval of sceptical IRFU bosses.
Kidney, whose long coaching career has been defined by solid success and understated assurance, suddenly finds himself in unfamiliar territory and on unsure footing, becoming the chief target for some hysterical criticism from disgruntled supporters, pundits and former players.
While the fact the 53-year-old has not enjoyed much in the way of luck over the last few seasons has been aired, the bottom line is that, since Ireland's unbeaten run in 2009, Kidney has managed just 16 wins from 38 matches. With the IRFU desperate to re-popularise the national side under pressure from more successful provinces, those are figures that are hard to come back from.
After being overpowered by an excellent England performance in Dublin, it seemed Kidney's only way through to the 2015 World Cup was overseeing three wins on the bounce but the manner of the loss in Murrayfield - where Jackson managed just one kick from four as Ireland squandered 71% possession - seems to have extinguished any lingering hopes.
Is Ronan O'Gara's time with Ireland at an end? © Getty Images
Speculation has moved swiftly to who should come in with Leinster's Joe Schmidt the people's favourite. Kidney's assistants Les Kiss and Gert Smal are in the mix and highly regarded but have been tainted by recent developments where Kiss' attacking strategy has failed to turn opportunities into points and Smal's lineout has wobbled badly.
Defence coach Anthony Foley is having a good Six Nations but, having been overlooked for the Munster job in favour of Kiwi Rob Penney, the general view is that it is too soon for the former Ireland No.8 to take on a job of this magnitude.
Other names being bandied about include Mark McCall, Eric Elwood, Michael Cheika and Vern Cotter while the outstanding Irish candidate, Conor O'Shea, has ruled himself out and committed to Harlequins. O'Shea's case is interesting because he is ideally suited for the soon to be introduced performance director's role - where he would be charged with overseeing the four provinces and national side while bringing an authoritative professional aspect to a union which remains mired in its amateur past.
Kidney has been a wonderful servant to Irish rugby and it is unfortunate that he finds himself in this position. Energising wins over the French and Italians (Ireland's pool opponents at the next World Cup) would allow him to make a final pitch for contract extension but, at this stage, perhaps the only scenario where that could happen would be if the union fail to find a suitable candidate to replace him.
With knives out and sheaths discarded, that would leave Kidney with no wriggle room in the run up to England 2015. However, the likeliest development is an interim coach for the summer tour to North America and new coach by the autumn.
Amid the recent frenzy, there is a desperate need for some calm in Irish rugby and, whatever befalls the Ireland coach, some respect for what Kidney has achieved.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Richards profiles French forward Walter Spanghero, a man who even rugby's hard men thought was a tough nut
"To be part of the Commonwealth Games, I'd wear anything. I'd wear a clown suit." Tom Hamilton talks to Scotland's Sean Lamont
Scrum Sevens looks back at how rugby has fared in both the early Olympics and the past four Commonwealth Games
"Cheika's been phenomenal. He gives you an incredible level of mental strength." Tom Hamilton talks to Waratahs star Jacques Potgieter