Christmas turkey may never taste better as Ireland's special brew hits right spot
Rewind to the aftermath of that 60-0 beating in Hamilton, and if you’d countenanced Ireland would be missing their two Lions captains, the last two ERC European Players of the Year and two other frontliners, and then, after losing to South Africa, would have to beat Argentina to secure a top-eight ranking, you’d have feared for them. Plenty did, and others had their knives sharpened, but, as the vibes suggested, something special had been brewing in the Irish camp after all.
To have emerged from this November window having blooded four more new caps and scored seven tries with such an inventive, high tempo and potent brand of rugby against the proud Pumas was some achievement.
Along the way they unearthed Ireland’s answer to Shane Williams in Craig Gilroy, despite him being on the bench for Ulster in the Heineken Cup, created another option at full-back in Simon Zebo, unearthed new options across the front-row and real alternatives in the back five, as well as investing in the future against Fiji.
All in all, a good day’s work and a good month at the office, and all to the backdrop of knives being sheathed. For the time being anyway.
This performance had been brewing since the first Monday they came into camp, according to Kidney, and reflecting on the ramifications of the result added: “That’s why I complimented them inside. What they said they’d do, they did. That was the fellas who were in New Zealand. A few younger fellas have come in. They fed into that, and that takes a fair bit of guts then to do that, and to stay positive. It’s difficult in Ireland for everybody at the moment, so to stay positive at these times, hopefully there’s a message too.”
Ireland have moved up to sixth in the IRB rankings, thereby securing that coveted top-eight ranking and with it a second-tier seeding for the World Cup draw on Monday week.
In light of losing by more than 15 points, Argentina dropped below Samoa into ninth, but Wales need to beat Australia next Saturday to stay in the top eight, whereas an Australia win would put Argentina in the top eight at the expense of Wales.
Hence, come next Monday’s draw, Ireland could still end up with, say, New Zealand and either Wales or Argentina in their group at the 2015 tournament, in which case securing a top-eight ranking may be more symbolic than anything.
“That’s a harsh thing to say to me,” joked Kidney, though he did point out that being a second seed as opposed to a third seed usually means a favourable itinerary, as well as having operational benefits such as hotels.
Spring in the step
“But the big thing really, for these fellas, and that’s what we concentrated on, was just playing well, and if you win the match, then everything follows from that.”
The last game of any campaign generally leaves the lasting impression and there’ll be a spring in the step when the squad reassemble for the Six Nations opener against Wales in Cardiff on February 2nd.
“No, I’m looking forward to Christmas,” agreed a relieved Kidney, whose job now, he said, was “to make sure we have as strong a squad as possible. We’ll assemble again at Christmas. I’ll try and get whatever time we can together. It’s a new squad. When you’re in school, you’re used to having different squads all the time, year on year out, but to have so many changes.
“Somebody just counted out that of the 32 we had in training this week, we had 17 new guys compared to the World Cup. That’s a monumental turnover. The bench had three one-cappers. I think four of the pack together had 21 caps; two or three years ago if you had 21 caps you were a novice.”
Come February some very, very good players are going to miss out. The injured absentees will be itching to return that little bit more after watching this and if, for example, Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney were to return to their best and start against Wales, Ireland would have to pick just one from Keith Earls, Zebo and Gilroy.
Kidney admitted he was grateful the forecast rain didn’t come to pass and there was no better way to lighten a gloomy autumnal day than with Craig Gilroy’s 11th-minute try on his debut, as evidenced by the way his team-mates swarmed around him.
“Isn’t it a brilliant sporting moment?” beamed Kidney. “To score a try against them early on was brilliant but just to see their joy in it. That spontaneous reaction doesn’t always happen in sport. I talked about it being infectious in the last couple of weeks? That’s what it’s like. I think it’s the first time I’ve picked a wannabe rapper.”
Kidney and his assistant coaches are under contract until the end of the tour to America and Canada next June, and while this win eases the pressure, the IRFU are not likely to make a decision regarding his long-term future until after the Six Nations.
Asked if he had ever doubted whether he would still be in the job for the Six Nations, Kidney said: “No. This team isn’t about one person, or me, or whatever. It doesn’t matter whether I’m around or not.
“The only thing that matters is that this team does well. That’s the only thing that has ever concerned me.
“When I was asked to do it first day I said I would only do it if I feel I could contribute to it. So, no.”
Joking that you would have to mad to do the job anyway, Kidney also had thought about doing it beyond his current contract.
“I’ve been too busy getting ready for matches, really. I’ve been just enjoying their company and that’s what I hope to do for the next few hours as well,” he said.
He was entitled to that much.