On the night two Patrick Kluivert goals ended Ireland’s aspirations of making it to Euro ’96, it was clear an era was ending. Jack Charlton duly resigned and some household names were never seen in green again. Similarly, after Meath were humbled by Dublin in the 1995 Leinster Final, many of the senior players called time on their careers.
There were calls for Sean Boylan to do likewise at the time. Thankfully, he didn’t. And, having been left in situ, he duly astounded all and sundry by garnering another visit by Sam Maguire to the county the following year. It’s hard to see Irish rugby coach Declan Kidney being awarded such a luxury. Much as it pains this scribe to utter this, it’d be even more difficult to justify it.
Yes, this machine did produce a piece some months back that opining he was still the man for the job. What he has done for Irish rugby cannot be forgotten or discredited, but, circumstance allows for the changing of opinions. Put frankly, certain challenges to his ability as coach/manager have arisen during the Six Nations campaign. Regarding same, to my mind, unfortunately, he has failed.
First off, the captaincy farce. Taking that honour off Brian O’Driscoll at this stage of his career was unnecessary and insulting. Bad enough that it was done, but, his replacement, Jamie Heaslip, hasn’t carried the burden well. Indeed, it could be argued he’s doing well to hold his place. One wonders if he wasn’t captain would he have been replaced against either England or Scotland?
You see, the captaincy in rugby is a really big deal. He or she is the only one allowed communicate with the referee. That’s not something yours truly would agree with, but that’s an argument for another day. Aside from that however, they are responsible for calling nearly every play during a game. The hooker, scrum half and fly half all invariably consult with the special one before deciding what to do during nearly every phase of a game.
It runs even deeper than that though. It’d be interesting to know what the rest of the players thought of the decision to usurp the Clontarf native in the twilight years of his career. For, what has been blatantly obvious in the games to date this season, is that, while Heaslip may be the official number one, his predecessor has been the one continuing to make the big calls on the pitch.
Captaincy issues are only part of the problem however. Before and during the winter series, it was felt the team was in drastic need of freshening up. To be fair to Kidney, this was duly done thanks to the infusion of the likes of Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo among others. With more players, such as the deposed captain and his Leinster colleague Rob Kearney, returning to the reckoning before the Six Nations, the green garden looked to be in full bloom.
An excellent all round display against Wales served only to strengthen that view. Taken from another angle, though, maybe it was obvious the wheels were beginning to come off the wagon. The Welsh totally dominated territory in the second period and were it not for a mammoth defensive effort by the visitors they may have succeeded in turning the game on its head.
If the second half against Wales a warning sign, it wasn’t heeded, because what has followed have been two of the most abject displays – against England and Scotland – since the days when the sight of the Irish team winning any match at all was nearly reason enough for a public holiday!
Granted, injuries to Jonny Sexton and Zebo in the former forced the Irish management into changes. Sadly, it was here the biggest failing occurred. Ronan O’Gara has been – until very recently – the best Irish fly half this one seeing eye has seen. Realism says the Munster man’s best days are gone though. Leinster have been the best side in Europe for some time now. To be so, there has to be an exceptionally strong squad system in place.
In possibly the most pivotal place on the team, fly half, Ian Madigan has been an able deputy when Sexton hasn’t been there and will presumably assume pole position now that the incumbent is off to France after a grotesquely large sum of money. So, to my mind, Madigan was the one to replace him.
Instead, Kidney et al plumped for Paddy Jackson. A decision that backfired disastrously. The Ulster player is certainly one for the future, but was hopelessly exposed against the Scots. Having seen their mistake, they eventually replaced Jackson with O’Gara and that was even worse.
Anyone that has been following Munster’s form in the PR012 and Heineken Cup would know O’Gara has been very poor of late and just about staving off competition from Ian Keatley. As George Hook said after his calamitous contribution against Scotland “It was sad to see O’Gara playing like that”.
So, we’ve arrived at another Murrayfield crossroads. Difference being that, whereas after a diabolical display against England 13 years ago, a large Munster contingent came in at the Edinburgh venue and began a great era for Ireland, this time there’s no quick or easy fix.