Even if Ireland win in spectacular style against the Italians next week, this has been a Six Nations that Declan Kidney will want to quickly forget. With home ties against both England and France, there was a chance for Kidney to lead Ireland to their second championship of his five year reign. However, bar the first 50 minutes of the tournament against Wales nothing has clicked for Kidney and his team. Such has been the substandard levels of performance that we are left with the very real possibility that this weekend’s game in Rome may be Kidney’s last in the Six Nations.
Kidney’s future first came into question after Ireland’s record 60 – 0 loss against New Zealand during their 2012 summer tour, but emphatic wins over Argentina and Fiji in the autumn and the win in Cardiff on the opening weekend went some way to silencing the doubters. However, a loss at home against the English and the embarrassing manner of defeat at Murrayfield, in a game in which they had over 70% territory and possession, brought the question regarding Kidney’s future back to the fore. Last weekend things hardly improved with the Irish just about managing to hold on for a draw against a disjointed French team, despite once again dominating the statistics.
Admittedly the coach cannot take all the blame. In all three games had a couple of passes gone to hand, or one or two kicks slipped the other side of the post the table might be looking very different. In reality, though, all a couple of wins would have done is to paper over the cracks that have been forming around Kidney’s set up since that famous Grand Slam back in 2009. Since then Ireland have won only 20 of their 44 matches, which is unacceptable for a squad as talented as theirs – after all, for the past three or four years it has been made up of a core group of Leinster players who have ruled the Heineken Cup. That Leinster played some of the most free flowing and attacking rugby in the Northern Hemisphere. Winning became a habit for them. Yet for some reason the national team has failed to replicate this style of play or winning mentality, and for this the blame must lie firmly at Kidney’s door.
Kidney must also be held accountable for the big calls he has got wrong in recent weeks. Firstly the replacing of O’Driscoll as captain with Heaslip has backfired fairly spectacularly. The shadow of O’Driscoll has hung over the number 8 as he struggles to come to terms with the pressures of international captaincy. Against the Scots the big decision over the number 10 jersey again backfired. Although he didn’t look good when he came on, and may well never feature for Ireland again, it is likely that Ronan O’Gara would have nailed the penalties that Jackson missed. In a game as close as that one, it could have made all the difference.
I’m all for the blooding of young players, especially in preparation for the 2015 World Cup. However, to give Jackson a test debut in a must win Six Nations match was an unnecessary risk, and quite frankly surprising given that over the course of his tenure we have rarely seen Kidney blood youngsters. Compounding issues further was Kidney’s bizarre decision last weekend to replace Conor Murray, arguably Ireland’s best player, at the hour mark which had an immediate effect on the course of the game and opened him up to further criticism.
In Kidney’s defence injuries have been a huge factor for Ireland in this year’s Six Nations. Any team that started the tournament without big names such as O’Connell, Ferris and Bowe and then in the following weeks lost the likes of Sexton, Darcy and Zebo would struggle. While I’ll also be the first to admit that as fans we can be a fickle bunch, too many of us seem to have jumped on the bandwagon for the sake of it and forgotten what Kidney has achieved for the Irish team. After all let’s not forget Ireland had been waiting for a Grand Slam since 1948 until Kidney delivered the goods back in 2009.
The fact is, however, we can’t keep living in the past. International rugby is a results driven industry and a new man is needed to rejuvenate this Irish team just like Kidney did when he took over back in 2009. There’s a strong list of possible candidates to fill the vacancy including the likes of Conor O’Shea, Joe Schmidt, Wayne Smith, Mike Ruddock and Nick Mallet, and if the IRFU can act quickly whoever Kidney’s successor might be would still have enough time put their stamp on the squad before the 2015 World Cup. Hopefully at the end of the season when his contract comes to its conclusion both he and the IRFU will realise it’s time to for him to step away and give another man his chance.
If he does this, most Irish fans’ enduring memory of Kidney will be that night in Cardiff back in 2009. However, if he chooses to stay and things continue to deteriorate further his legacy might end up being tarnished beyond repair.
By Guy Michels