A difficult tournament to sum up from Ireland’s perspective. Before the tournament there was much optimism and thoughts of a title challenge, but the campaign started with a disappointing, and somewhat controversial, defeat against Wales, and ended with a whimper in the rain of Twickenham.
Starting with the positives, Italy and Scotland were both clinically dispatched, the latter maybe better than anyone else managed in the tournament. In between those two victories, a draw was garnered in Paris, which was both a plus and a minus, given the second half capitulation. The Wales defeat leaves more of a sour taste than anything, while the England defeat will be quickly erased from the memory, after lessons have been learned of course.
On the individual front, the form of Stephen Ferris and Rob Kearney were the two brightest highlights. Both showed incredible form at times, before being extinguished this weekend. Others to shine, but somewhat more inconsistently, were Cian Healy, Rory Best, Paul O’Connell, Donncha Ryan and Mike Ross, which shows without doubt where Ireland’s strength still lies… Up front.
On the negative side, the absence of Brian O’Driscoll was never really covered and no real base was ever set at half back, which will be worrying for Declan Kidney, more of whom later. The big individual negatives were Donncha O’Callaghan, Gordon D’Arcy and Jamie Heaslip, all of whom were shadows of their former glorious selves.
So worrying signs for Irish fans. While other teams, England most notably, have used this first “post World Cup” 6 Nations as a chance to blood several youngsters, Kidney stuck by his experienced men, who will struggle to be at the next Rugby World Cup. This reluctance to give youth its chance is a massive negative mark against Kidney’s name. It doesn’t help that those who were calling for Ryan instead of O’Callaghan were ultimately proved right as he gave a Man of the Match performance against Scotland, while O’Callaghan struggled in mediocrity.
Coach Kidney had a bit of a nightmare this tournament to be frank. Loyalty to first choice players is one thing, but continued loyalty in the face of substandard performances by the likes of O’Callaghan, Heaslip, Murray and D’Arcy in particular, whilst ignoring the claims of Ryan, Tuohy, Zebo and others, leaves him with more than a little egg on his face.
Ireland’s provincial set-up and form in this year’s Heineken Cup was the perfect setup for the 6 Nations, yet players who consistently turn it on in big club games seemed stifled in the green of Ireland. So why is that? Different tactical set-up? Players asked to play slightly different roles (O’Brien, Earls, Court off the bench vs England for example)? A fear of his youngsters losing? I’m sure you have your opinion, but for me it is a case of all 3.
Kidney’s level of support has markedly shrunk as a result. He is now faced with a massive dilemma. Ireland have a Summer Tour to New Zealand coming up. The World Champions in their own back yard. He has a Captain in O’Driscoll who is not getting any younger and needs replacing at some point. His replacement O’Connell is also currently injured and will be 35 come the next World Cup. At some point soon, Kidney has to give the younger legs a run, but is New Zealand the place for that?
So ultimately, Ireland flattered to deceive. Kidney will be praying for the safe and fit return of O’Driscoll and O’Connell, and desperately hoping his masters at the IRFU are happy with his performance. The fans certainly aren’t.
By Mark Bonsall