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Sunday, February 10, 2013

IRELAND-6 ENGLAND-12

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SHOULD HE STAY OR SHOULD HE GO

When we beat Wales, Kidney is a hero. When we lose he has to go. Make up your f***ing mind.”

My apologies to the tweeter I'm quoting above – saw it on my timeline last night and didn't remember to “favourite” it so I can't place the credit where it's due. But it sets up the theme of my writeup nicely.

The point is definitely well made. Whenever things go wrong for Ireland these days, the “debate” on twitter generally descends into a “clash” between demands for “Kidney out” and defensive cries of “Kidney ligind!” and more often than not the battle lines are drawn on a provincial basis.

But there is one way I feel the tweet misses the point somewhat, because I believe both statements are true.

England's success under Stuart Lancaster is as much to do with his PR management as it is to do with his rugby tactics, but mostly because they are very much intertwined. His remit was clearly to put an end to the dwarf-throwing and the ferry-jumping and have his team playing rugby, and he has done just that.

You won't get a better example of the fruits of his efforts than Sunday's battle in Dublin. And the stark contrast between his approach and that of Declan Kidney was laid bare for all who were willing to see.

IRE V ENG CELEBRATIONPut in the most simplest terms, I believe that if it were the English winger that came off after just 10 minutes, followed by the English out-half on 30 minutes, Lancaster's team would have played exactly the same. But instead it happened to Ireland, and we saw the result.

And before I go on, I have to say what a terrible blow it was for Simon Zebo in particular after such a wave of deserved good feeling towards him during the week. But he's a strong lad and will be back scoring tries before you know it.

Because of all the bickering I spoke of earlier, I now feel the need to state that in my view, Declan Kidney is by no means a bad coach and his successes with Munster & Ireland can never be taken away from him. Anyone who suggests otherwise just doesn't know what they're talking about.

But does that record make him “untouchable”? Absolutely not. He walked into the Irish job and delivered the Grand Slam, which we will live long in our memories. Since then, however, we have seen a team that has failed to come anywhere near approaching a level of consistency that could win five matches on the trot.

I don't know if Declan plays Texas Hold Em poker, but if he does, I'd say he's a great fan of the phrase “all in”. Which is ironic, because most people describe him as “conservative”. I'm not too sure that's the right choice of words.

He seems to govern his decision-making by a process whereby he has a tight set of “anointed” players, plays and tactics, and goes into battle with them, whatever the opposition does, whatever the weather does, and perhaps most crucially, whatever way the referee is interpreting the laws of the game.

If you're locked into this mindset, you make yourself just like the little girl who had the little curl right in the middle of her “forrid”. When Ireland played Wales, they were very, very good – with the English in town they were 'orrid.

Not that everything was poor from Ireland – the defence was mostly solid and there was no way England were ever going to score a try bar one Tuilagi chance. But I stress the word “mostly”. Our defensive mindset, effective overall as it has been over the years, is yet another example of the risks of going “all-in”.

The first penalty of a rugby match usually gives you an idea of what areas the referee will be looking at. In Jerome Garces' case, it seemed to be he was to focus on “not rolling away after the tackle”. I'd be pretty sure he would have mentioned this to the two captains before kickoff, or at least that is often the case.

But Ireland are locked in to the choke tackle concept. So when Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy tackled Billy Twelvetrees on just the 2nd minute, since they both grabbed him at the same time, they put the decision in the hands of the ref as to which one of them was the “tackler” and thus should release him. Healy thought he was ok to go straight into “jackling” mode...sadly Garces had other ideas and soon after Farrell was putting the first points over the bar.

We needn't worry, Irish fans may have thought. We got three excellent tries last week, no doubt we'll be on the board ourselves before long, right?

Not when you realise last week we were playing a shell-shocked Wales while this we were facing a tightly-organised England. Yet once more, we were locked in to a set of plays that barring a neat reverse pass from Murray to Earls that worked a couple of times, never looked like troubling the visiting defence.

But because we were “all-in” and there was no Plan B on the table, we had no “choice” but to keep persisting with the strategy, no matter how many different players were knocking on, no matter how well Alex Goode was dealing with our kicks into their back field, no matter how well the onrushing defensive line was smothering us.

27866And notice how they weren't giving away kickable penalties? Most telling number in the match for me was 44 – it was in that minute that we had our first shot at goal.

Another Munster ligind who often gets abuse is Ronan O'Gara. But I lay absolutely no blame at his door for what happened on Sunday. Yet again, I must use the phrase “all-in”. After a period of time when the only debate in Irish rugby was whether or not it was Sexton or ROG for the Irish 10 jersey, once the World Cup was over Kidney finally made a decision...unfortunately he seemed to think he had only two options.

Now we see an O2 ad featuring Sexton that will certainly haunt us on RTE if he can't make the Scotland game and O'Gara is left rueing one of his worst outings in an Ireland jersey because his coach had absolutely no faith in what talent was on display at the provinces.

For an example of what else Kidney could have done, again I point to Lancaster. He too has varying personalities in his squad, but no matter who comes on the pitch for him they seem to be able to play the role of the player they replaced. Tuilagi didn't seem to do that much different to what Twelvetrees was doing with the ball, for example. When Sexton was replaced by ROG, our entire offence had to change, not necessarily for the worse, but often the change itself can be bad for the team.

Yet going by the Wolfhounds' outing against the Saxons, it appears that in Kidney's thinking, the next 10 down the line is Paddy Jackson, someone who is certainly a lot closer to O'Gara's style of stewardship. At the strong risk of Leinster-goggle accusations, I suggest that having Ian Madigan as backup to Sexton would provide a much more seamless substitution at any stage of a test match, as would Jackson coming on for ROG.

But this “locked in” thinking, I believe anyway, has proven to be our undoing. Next up for testing this theory, the captaincy of Jamie Heaslip.

It was certainly a bold move to take the title from BOD, and at least Kidney came out and owned the decision himself. The announcement, however, was an omnishambles from a PR standpoint given all the confusion that came afterwards. Still – it was a sword he was to either live or die by.

heaslip indecisionJamie was never right yesterday. Eddie Butler & Brian Moore picked apart his second unforced error in the first half and rightly so. But the moment I want to highlight is the one in the picture – the second Ireland were awarded that first kickable penalty on 44 minutes.

Garces has blown his whistle and Heaslip stands up from the scrum. But rather than indicate to the ref right away and point straight to the sticks, he instead looks to Gordon D'Arcy and sticks his thumb up as if to say “We definitely need to kick this. Don't we?”.

I still think Jamie is a worthy choice for Irish captain, but I'm not sure he ever dreamed of doing it while O'Driscoll was on the pitch with him. And add the indecision above to BOD being the one to order a kick for touch before halftime in Cardiff, and you get a serious confusion in leadership on the pitch which has to hark back to the coach.

This lacking will also have its affect on “dee-see-pleene” as Garces kept calling it. It wasn't the worst refereeing display I've ever seen, though his “talking to”s need some work, if only with his use of the English language! More than once he called the two captains over and looked poised to say several words yet could only come out with one.

But more often than not, even though the only yellow card was for an Englishman (and could have been two if Garces interpreted Ben Youngs's first-half no-no a little more harshly), it was an Irishman affording the chances for kicks at goal, which can only mean one thing when you're facing a kicker of Owen Farrell's consistency.

Quick paragraph on the booing of the kicker. Yes, they are morons. But no, it had nothing to do with them being Irish. If we want to stamp it out, we either need to say something ourselves when it happens near us or put pressure on the organisers to take more action. It can't be that difficult to make examples of the culprits.

healy stampSpeaking of stamping out, I'd be surprised if Cian Healy wasn't cited for what he did, the most glaring example of our lack of dee-see-pleene. But I'd also be very surprised if he got more than a one-week ban, judging by the various rulings in recent times to people like Dylan Hartley. Which means Church isn't out of the frame for selection against Scotland. The rules may be stupid, but we've seem them work in other countries' favour before many's a time, how about we benefit for once.

Funnily enough, there's no real need for a long spiel on our set-pieces. Scrums weren't perfect but far from Twickenham proportions, though we all know that's because this time Ross stayed on the park so that elephant remains firmly in our room.  And in the lineout I repeat what I said last week – fix the darts, Rory, and the Lions jumper should be yours.

So to summarise...Ireland had nothing to counter a strong English defence and paid the price, which means a week after breaking our string of defeats against the Welsh, we now have a string of three defeats against our “old enemy” to break.

Which leads me to what I think should happen now. The bulk of the online debate after full-time was about how Ireland should deal with replacing the injuries to Sexon & Zebo. I think the Irish team means more drastic action.

Last Thursday, February 7th was officially Stephen McNamara's last day in Ryanair's employ. Which I suppose means he now takes up his new role as the IRFU Director of Communications.

I believe Declan Kidney should announce this week that he will be leaving the Irish post at the end of his current contract, which is after the summer tour. And it would be down to McNamara to spin it in such a way that his positive achievements with the national team will be remembered more than the negative ones. That's why he is being paid the big bucks, after all.

Announcing it now will give the IRFU time to find a replacement, it will give us a chance to say “goodbye” to Kidney at the Aviva against France, and overall could act as a boost to a team that, let's not forget, is still VERY much in the running to finish first in this Six Nations Championship. England still have a resurgent Wales and a wounded France to put away before their chariot can swing TOO low, and four wins could very well be enough to top the table.

As things stand, if nothing is done or said in response to this disappointing performance/result, the uncertainly will remain, as will the lack of confidence.

What I'm afraid of most is the IRFU falling into their familiar pattern of doing nothing in the hope that we'll pull out at least one more good display in this tournament and use that as a reason (excuse?) for awarding a new contract.

Either way, McNamara has his work cut out in his new job – he might prefer a gig handling the Vatican's coaching ticket!

Seriously though...sorry to bang on too much about the Irish coach but I feel it's a hot button issue within our camp.

Bravo to Stuart Lancaster, man-of-the-match skipper Chris Robshaw and the entire English set-up for coming out on top...their road ahead won't be easy, but they are surely well set for a Grand Slam now. JLP

Also this weekend

Ireland Under-20s 16 - 15 England Under-20s

Scotland 34 - 10 Italy

Ireland Women-25 England Women-0

France 6 - 16 Wales

6N table

CLICK HERE FOR THE HoR WRITEUP OF THIS WEEKEND’S LEINSTER MATCH

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