Lady luck ran out as injuries mounted
Decision to take the captaincy from O’Driscoll may have been the turning point
Declan Kidney talks to his team in a huddle before the Scotland game at the Aviva Stadium in March 2012. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Ultimately, Declan Kidney ran out of the most important commodity for any coach – luck. Never in the history of the Six Nations has Ireland, or any national squad for that matter, suffered the injury ravages that were heaped upon the Irish camp before, during and, come to think, even immediately afterwards.
Going into the Six Nations, Ireland had already lost Paul O’Connell, Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris – two ever-presents in the last Lions series and another who would have been but for being injured on that tour to South Africa.
This was compounded by losing Simon Zebo, Jonny Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy and Chris Henry for the rest of the tournament by the end of the England game on the second weekend, as well as Cian Healy for one match through suspension and Mike McCarthy for two games.
By the time a patched up, patchwork Ireland reached Rome on the final weekend, Kidney was denied the services of a dozen internationals; a figure which reached 15 by half-time as Luke Marshall, Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald gave way.
About five minutes from the end of the game, as a weary Ryle Nugent began describing a move featuring Paul Marshall, Stephen Archer, David Kilcoyne, Seán Cronin, Iain Henderson and Ian Madigan in support, somebody returning from a Lenten retreat could have been forgiven for asking “Who the hell is he talking about?”
Having used just 22 players in the injury-free 2009 Grand Slam campaign, Kidney had been obliged to use 33 players in just five games. Ireland’s strength in depth has never been sufficient to wheel out that kind of number, and the faults that emerged in the course of the championship – notably in the pivotal and largely self-inflicted defeat in Murrayfield, extend to other coaches and some of the senior players on the pitch.
Recall too that last November Kidney was denied the services of his captain and both his natural stand-ins in Brian O’Driscoll, O’Connell and Rory Best. On foot of a new leadership group coming to the fore in an autumnal window which culminated with handsome wins over Fiji and Argentina, Kidney chose to validate their new status by changing the captaincy.
See the logic
One could see the logic behind the decision, although it didn't sit right that Ireland’s greatest ever captain, O’Driscoll, had effectively been demoted.
It placed both Heaslip and O’Driscoll in difficult positions when results turned against the team and gave Kidney’s growing number of critics ample ammunition to fire at him, adding to the decision last summer to haul Paddy Wallace off a beach in Portugal for the 60-0 defeat in the third Test in New Zealand – a cruel ask at the end of a daunting World Cup season which perhaps contributed to this season’s injury toll.
The preference for Paddy Jackson over Ronan O’Gara and Ian Madigan was another readily-applied stick with which to hit Kidney over the head, even if Kidney was stuck between a rock and a hard place after losing Sexton.
But the captaincy one was the big one. Even if O’Driscoll had made the same calls as Heaslip in Murrayfield and elsewhere, his iconic status ensured they would never have received the same criticism. Nevertheless, it seemed like an unnecessary risk and one that was made almost as if to show that Kidney could take the team forward to the next World Cup.
Most significantly of all though, were the results, and while only drawing one of Ireland’s last four matches after initially beating Wales (the only defeat which Europe’s leading team of the last two seasons has suffered in the Six Nations) did not make Kidney’s position untenable, it did make his position more difficult.
It also continued a run which had yielded just four wins in Ireland’s last 16 Tests, albeit with two draws against France, and 16 wins in their last 40 Tests.
Yet Kidney remains Ireland’s most decorated coach, having helped guide Ireland’s golden generation over the winning line to a first Grand Slam since 1948, which in turn augmented Munster’s Heineken Cup triumphs of 2006 and ’08, and four finals in his last seasons there over two spells.
He also remains genuinely liked by players and employers alike as a decent, dignified and intelligent person, with the interests of others truly at heart, whose primary concern was always the well-being of Irish rugby over personal aggrandisement.
In light of recent results, the Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald was prompted to categorically deny that Kidney might be swiftly returning there.
If he wanted to continue as a professional coach there assuredly would be offers, while he may return to his day job as a career guidance teacher. Never comfortable in front of the media glare, a career in punditry seems highly unlikely. In any event, one hopes that the IRFU chief executive Philip Browne is true to his word when he said yesterday that he would like Declan Kidney to be involved (in Irish rugby) “in some shape or form”.
He has more wisdom now than he’s ever had.