WHEN you’re hot you’re hot they say, and when you’re not you’re not.
Right now Declan Kidney is not. The poor fellow can’t catch a break. His Ireland team have become experts at losing a lead, while the mounting injury toll makes the trip to Rome especially daunting.
Italy looked resurgent in Sunday’s game against England and will take confidence from their performance which means this is their best chance for a two-win series in some time.
For Ireland, defeat would mean a probable, almost unthinkably awful, wooden spoon.
How has it come to this? It was a campaign that promised much — don’t they all — but Ireland have stumbled from crisis to crisis and, unfortunately, from injury to injury. The old adage is that it’s better to be a lucky general than a good one, but right now Kidney is neither.
He can’t do much about Ireland’s savage injury toll. With these matters it’s tempting to say that everyone else has the same experience, but this appears to be far from the case. England have the odd injury, but appear to be getting more players available for selection the longer the tournament goes on. This week they brought long-term absentee Tom Croft back into action. The rest of the teams are in relatively good health.
Ireland, by contrast, are down no less than four wings with Fergus McFadden the latest to be ruled out. He joins a long list of casualties including Johnny Sexton, Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy and Gordon D’Arcy. Meanwhile, several other players will be walking wounded this week, and Donnacha Ryan appears to be playing through the pain barrier.
Don’t expect the team to be named for the Italy match until late in the week.
On this we can have some sympathy with Kidney and his team but those looking to excuse results in light of the injuries need to remember the almost freakish good luck Kidney had in his most celebrated achievements.
In the 2009 grand slam, Ireland could select the XV they wanted in every single match. Indeed, Kidney had the luxury of rotating his squad to make four changes in the penultimate game of the series, a potentially tricky tie in Scotland. It was canny management, bringing vital squad players like Rory Best, Peter Stringer and Denis Leamy into the thick of things, to make them feel a greater part of the action. And the changes were only in positions where Kidney knew the selections were marginal in the first place, and that he wasn’t losing much by changing. It had the desired effect in ensuring minds were focussed on the trip to Murrayfield, and the danger that some players might be thinking ahead to the week after, a Grand Slam finale in Cardiff, was averted. It also succeeded in getting up Jamie Heaslip’s nostrils, and coaxing a huge contribution out of him when he came off the bench in Murrayfield. But what a luxury to be able to do it! Almost unthinkable that it could happen under today’s circumstances.
The good fortune extended beyond injuries, not least in the final dénouement, where Gavin Henson was passed over for the chance to kick a winning penalty, not so much based on a lack of ability, but seemingly because he was such a pain even his team-mates didn’t want to have to have to endure his preening should he convert the kick. Instead, the ball was given to Stephen Jones, fatigued after 80 minutes of rugby and never with the biggest boot in the first place. His kick fell just short and the rest, as they say, was history.
Kidney’s other great achievement, his tactically astute win over Australia in the World Cup, was also a case of stars lining up for the coach. Australia suffered two very late injuries, with Benn Robinson, their only capable scrummager, and David Pocock, their breakdown-dominating openside, ruled out just hours before kick-off. This was compounded by the rain pouring down on Eden Park. Cian Healy and Mike Ross had their finest moments for Ireland, laying waste to the Australian scrum, and without Pocock, Australia were clueless in loose play, walking into one choke tackle after another. But just weeks later, the full scale of how Ireland would struggle to cope against a breakdown-marauding No.7 was baldly exposed, when Sam Warburton dominated that facet of the game in the quarter-final. Had Pocock played, how differently might things have panned out?
Sympathy is further eroded by how Kidney has deployed his able-bodied men. It’s one thing having to withdraw players due to injury, but the removal of Conor Murray from the fray with 20 minutes to go on Saturday’s game against France looks like the last nail in the coffin of Kidney’s coaching tenure. Murray was controlling the game, with his accurate box-kicking consistently resulting in territorial gains for Ireland, but he was pulled ashore and replaced by Eoin Reddan. It was all the more baffling because Kidney has never shown any inclination to favour Reddan in the past. There have been plenty of games that looked made for Reddan’s skill-set, but he has invariably been overlooked. Then he is called into action on a rainy day when the game-plan was entirely at odds with the strengths Reddan brings to proceedings.
When your luck runs dry, it seems, the temptation is to make wild, miscalculated gambles. It’s been that sort of series, and unfortunately for Ireland, none of them have come off.