Green shoots of optimism
January 25, 2013
Coach Declan Kidney sits alongside his captain Jamie Heaslip © PA Photos
When Declan Kidney announced his Ireland squad for the Six Nations last week, there was a positive aura wafting over the Ireland coach and an intoxicating sense of possibility in the Lansdowne Road air.
A fresh challenge is always garnished with such excitement and Kidney was delivering his on-stage lines with an easy charm until suddenly assailed by a blunt bit of heckling from the pits.
"Declan, you are facing into your final Six Nations Championship…."
The 53-year-old is defined by his good-natured demeanour and overall sense of calm but this observation elicited an immediate interjection and flinty smile. "Am I? Thanks very much."
The message was clear. The man who had been dismissed as 'dead coach walking' following the 60-0 humiliation in Hamilton last summer has no intention of merely seeing out his contract to the end of the season - Kidney wants to keep going, driven by the need to make up for the opportunity lost at the last World Cup and continue a process of evolution he has been carefully choreographing.
He knows that horror show against the All Blacks did not reflect Ireland's true worth last summer (better represented by the second Test at Christchurch where dubious refereeing cost Ireland a famous victory) while the exuberant thumping of Argentina in November has radically altered the mood around Kidney's squad.
For years the Corkman was, somewhat unfairly, tagged as a conservative coach when it came to selection but this has been blown out of the water by the infusion of youth in recent months.
Names like Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy, Dave Kilcoyne and Robbie Henshaw have got the Irish rugby public, the media and the established players excited, as has the manner of the win over the Pumas, which embraced a more fluid style in a decisive move away from the rigid gameplan of the last few years.
This has come in conjunction with a shuffling of the backroom cards which sees Les Kiss focusing specifically on attack and Anthony Foley looking after the defence (a far healthier situation than having Kiss double up as he did last season).
Further freshness comes with Kidney's bold decision to entrust Jamie Heaslip with the captaincy - another statement of intent towards England 2015.
Removing the leadership duties from Ireland's greatest player after 10 years at the tiller sparked a storm of protest, notably from Brian O'Driscoll's former Leinster colleagues Reggie Corrigan and Shane Horgan, who were variously 'disgusted' and 'baffled' by the initiative.
Both men have previous with Kidney from his short stint as Leinster coach in 2004-05 but were not short of supporters when they had their rants.
However, this is not a call that Kidney would have made lightly. The fact is that O'Driscoll is now 34 and has been battling injury for the past few seasons while Heaslip did very well as interim captain in O'Driscoll's absence in November.
Furthermore, taking the extra burden of leadership off his list of responsibilities worked to O'Driscoll's playing advantage with Leinster and the Lions and now he is freed up to concentrate on staying fit and firing.
Meanwhile, his replacement was a notable hit at the Six Nations launch in London, buzzing at the prospect of leading Ireland's Championship charge and that enthusiasm will filter through the squad, while Heaslip's captaincy record at Leinster (15 matches, 15 wins) brooks no argument.
There are still those who believe that, after nearly five years in charge, Kidney has outstayed his welcome, but it is an optimistic Ireland camp that heads into their February 2 opener.
That said, the fact that it comes against the Welsh in Cardiff means no one is losing the run of themselves.
Even though the Welsh are injury-ravaged, on a wretched run of losses and minus the shaman-esque coaching qualities of Warren Gatland, this is still a side that unnerves the Irish.
As well as stealing matches Ireland thought they had sown up, in their last two Six Nations meetings, Wales were able to dominate Kidney's players physically and psychologically during their World Cup victory in Wellington and are clearly not intimidated by the green jersey.
Simply put, for Ireland to progress and Kidney to convince the IRFU to extend his contract up to the next World Cup, victory in Cardiff is essential.
Lose, and the prospect of facing All Blacks-slayers England next up becomes incredibly daunting. Win, and with England and France both travelling to Dublin, there is a genuine chance of generating some Grand Slam momentum.
Paul O'Connell's absence will be felt in the second row but Mike McCarthy performed admirably in his stead last November while Donnacha Ryan looks increasingly like a Lions Test player in the making. As does Cian Healy at loosehead and Jonathan Sexton at out half, while Chris Henry, once a specialist No 8, has developed into a top-class scavenging openside.
With Gordon D'Arcy rejuvenated at 12 and the newly-discovered zip on the wings compensating for injury to Tommy Bowe, there is enough quality to propel this talk of a Grand Slam tilt more beyond the realms of high stool-dreaming.
However, it is essential that scrum anchor Mike Ross stays fit, for the back-up at tighthead still looks on the Mother Hubbard side of bare while the back five need to compensate for a comparative lack of bulk against the French and English with feral ferocity at the breakdown.
But it all comes back to Cardiff. If Ireland build up a head of steam in the Welsh capital, they will bring their coach along for the ride - the alternative puts the question of his final Six Nations Championship firmly back on the table.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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