By Brendan Boylan,
Earlier this year, the opinion was expressed that replacing Declan Kidney as Irish Rugby coach wasn’t the way to go. One of the great things about sports writing, however, is that things are always evolving in sport, thus, opinions can change. There are also times when you have to admit you have been wrong and look at things from another angle.
The aforementioned supremo hasn’t gone down in this corner’s estimation – he couldn’t possibly when one considers what he’s achieved with Munster and Ireland. But, time waits for nobody and, as this season progressed, it became obvious that as the provincial sides have continued to progress and dominate, the National team appears to be at and standstill.
Why that is tends to be hard to fathom when one considers how rampant the provinces have been. Leinster are the greatest team in the history of the Heineken Cup. The special place Munster hold with the occupant of this seat will never change – and one is tired of having to almost apologise for same – but the greatness of this current Leinster squad and the magnitude of their achievements is openly acknowledged and admired.
Munster are in transition. Yet, with the likes of Jamie Coughlan and Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo establishing themselves, already the feeling is that transition mightn’t take long. Ulster have made immeasurable progress this term and with Tommy Bowe and others returning may get even stronger. In many ways, though, Connacht have been the story of the season. They are now, rightly, ranked on a par with the other Irish teams and in players such as Ronan Loughney, Niall O’Connor and Tiernan O’Halloran have stars of their own who can make valued contributions to the Irish set up going forward.
With respect to the others, though, Leinster appear to be operating on another level. Ulster’s appearance in this year’s Heineken final was no fluke mind. Having negotiated a pool containing proven powers like Leicester and Clermont and then done what only one other outfit had in the competition – beat Munster in Thomond Park – they were there on merit.
Merit cut no mustard wit this Leinster line up though. Not only are they the greatest team in the history of European competition but they are the best that’s represented this country, provincial or international. Ulster’s time will come. Leinster and Munster tasted heartbreak before savouring glory, the vanquished this time round to do likewise.
Ruan Pienaar’s early penalty sent those who are inexplicably no longer Brian McLoughlin’s charges into the lead but in truth, given their stranglehold on territory and possession, their cushion should’ve been much greater. And failing to maximise every chance against a hardened, classy outfit generally only has one outcome.
Sean O’Brien barrelling over for the holders first try proved as much. It gave them a lead they never lost and visibly deflated the challengers drive. Cian Healy went over again nine minutes before the break and penalty try four minutes thereafter virtually ended the contest. Further five point scores from replacements Heinke van der Merwe and Sean Cronin were cake icing.
Irish rugby has surely never been in better health, but it has to be transferred to the national team. Players from all four provinces that haven’t featured much or at all before need to be brought in and given the opportunity to freshen things up. Looking at how Leinster function brings this Kidney fan to the sad conclusion that under his stewardship we have become conservative, stereotyped and predictable.
Ireland need to play a faster, more fluid expansive brand of rugby. The incumbent was – rightly or wrongly – given a new contract prior to the last World Cup. He’s hardly going to change his staple diet at this stage. Few could blame him, it has been a tasty dish. The game has moved on though. It’s for that reason alone that my feelings regarding Kidney would be shelved for the greater good of things in the long term.
The success of the Irish provinces gives ample evidence of the quality of player that’s available to whoever’s picking the Irish team. What’s baffling though, is how they seem to perform better everywhere than in the Ireland jersey. Personally, I’d be sad to see Kidney go, but the fear would be that things will further stagnate until something changes. So, it looks a choice between trying to get the coach to change his psyche or waiting until a new broom comes in and starts sweeping. Either way, time won’t stand still.
Who replaces Kidney – whenever it may be – is an interesting question in its own right. Given their apparent unhappiness with Brian Ashton and Warren Gatland in the past, the IRFU are unlikely to go for an outsider. Joe Schmidt would be obvious one in this bracket, but why would he leave the most complete package in the game? Likewise, Eric Elwood should stay with Connacht long term and steer the obvious progress there.
There’s a theory that Michael Bradley will never get the Munster job owing to very complex reasons. Whether same would preclude him from becoming Ireland coach is unclear. It’d be ridiculous if it did. I believe he is the men to assume the reins whenever the need arises. At international level, the Ireland set up needs change, either in personnel or style. Whatever needs to be done must be. To ensure the greatest era in the sport this country has seen is built upon and continued for as long as possible.