Sometimes you read an interview that makes you question how much you know about rugby.
Declan Kidney’s reputation for gnomic utterances precedes him. Sometimes they’re of the common or garden variety [thank you, Franno]; other times they’re more aphoristic in nature. He can be quite dry when the mood takes him: think of how he responded to the postponement of the game in Stade de France in February, when he noted how Ireland, with all its economic woes, at least had undersoil heating in its national stadium.
You get the feeling that there’s a side to Kidney that only the players who have worked with him get to see, and that it’s probably a lot more varied and engaging than the bland poker-face that he presents to the media, an approach that would appear to be aimed at deadening expectation and not giving the opposition team any mental ammunition.
Inside The Tent Pissing Out
“It will ask a lot of questions of us and if you people want to nit pick …”
It’s a very human and understandable reaction in Kidney’s position to identify the hacks as your persecutors, especially when you see how they operate on a day-to-day basis. Some of them are less than professional, and carry their prejudices and vendettas into their work; Eddie O’Sullivan didn’t make many mates amongst the scribblers, and when results started going against him, they didn’t waste much time in slaughtering poor old Dagger. The major label chaps have a hell of a pulpit from which to sound their trumpets, and the indies never really get a look in when it comes to getting primary source material, so as a coach you have a relatively limited group of people who are your messengers to the outside world.
Kidney’s style would seem to be one message to the group of players, and another message to ‘the meeja’, and thus to the Irish rugby public – and that second message is so bland and compromised that it’s not really a message at all: the “aren’t we lucky to have them both” sort of guff. A message would imply that you’re actually telling somebody something.
Rugby correspondents like Thornley and Farrelly are privy to more than they print, which is an entirely legitimate standpoint: they’re told things in confidence that informs their articles, but they don’t go out blabbing everything they hear in order to keep their source’s confidence and continue to get background information from the horse’s mouth. However, they can at times come across as régime-supporters, rather than disinterested members of the fourth estate.
The Unforgiving Climate That Is Test Rugby … Or A Game Against The Baabaas
“If you look at the turnovers on Tuesday night, it’s an unforgiving climate; it’s getting them to understand that. You heard Ronan talk about it, the difference between Test matches and provincial rugby. Emotionally, there would be similarities at provincial level but the technical and tactical stuff at Test level; the jump is huge.”
The Mole just don’t understand this. Sure, I get how Ireland playing the All Blacks is an enormous step up from say Leinster playing the Scarlets, or Munster playing Glasgow – but surely Scotland vs Italy or England vs Scotland from this season’s Six Nations isn’t a ‘huge jump [in terms of] technical and tactical stuff’ from a Leinster vs Clermont HEC semi-final, or a Munster vs Ulster HEC quarter-final. And the idea that a Barbarians XV vs an Ireland XV is ‘an unforgiving climate’, or in some way a higher standard than top class club rugby – that’s just bunk. They’re two scratch teams. We saw [or rather didn't see] Declan Fitzpatrick at tighthead for the Ireland XV scrummaging against Duncan Jones at loosehead for the Barbarians: neither man a first choice player in his position for either of their respective clubs.
Implying that all test rugby is one level – i.e. New Zealand vs South Africa is the same level as Scotland vs Italy, simply because it’s ‘test rugby’ – and that it’s automatically better than anything that the club game can produce … well, it doesn’t pass the eye test. I don’t think Declan Kidney believes that, but who can tell? Ireland generally field a team that has a number of players who have proved themselves against the best teams in the world – Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip, Stephen Ferris and Paul O’Connell have all had strong games against Southern Hemisphere opposition on a sufficient number of occasions [for both Ireland and the Lions] to give a decent sample size to use as evidence – so maybe Kidney is referring to ‘test rugby’ as a shorthand for any test in which Ireland are involved.
Self Promoter … Moi?
At this point, it’s impossible to take anything O’Gara says without a grain of salt. It should be pretty obvious at this stage that he has his own agenda when it comes to his statements to the media, and they generally revolve around getting himself back in the Irish No10 jersey. That’s his prerogative, and it’s fair enough. The Mole isn’t a fan of how he does it, and that’s fair too.
It’s handy for him to say that test rugby is a ‘huge’ step up from provincial rugby, because Sexton is absolutely tearing up European club rugby in the Leinster No10 jersey: the subtext is that Sexton can do it at club level, but he can’t do it at international level … and Radge can, baby!
There’s no reason Kidney wouldn’t choose to peddle the line that O’Gara is pushing, because it’s something of a get-out clause that justifies why his team struggled in the Six Nations both this year and last year [Jesus, does anybody remember the turgid brand of shite we produced against Italy in Rome?] when Leinster were winning back-to-back Heineken Cups.
It’s difficult to watch really high quality knock-out games in the HEC or Super Rugby and think that they’re by necessity a step down from test rugby, especially when you have a player as experienced as Nathan Hines [a 2009 Lion who won 77 Scottish caps, encompassing three Rugby World Cups] saying that the Leinster vs Toulouse Heineken Cup semi-final in May 2011 was the hardest game in which he ever played. He was quoted in the firewalled Sunday Times of Sunday 8th April saying:
‘Leinster’s match against Toulouse last season was the fastest and hardest game I’d ever played. I walked past Clément Poitrenaud [Toulouse full-back] who was looking shattered. “This game is so fast. I’m gone”, he said. I was gone as well, but I wasn’t going to tell him. These big Heineken games are do or die. It’s international rugby without the jersey.’
I could easily imagine that emotionally international games are a bigger deal than Heineken Cup games – after all, you’re carrying the hopes of many more people, you’re representing your country, there’s a long history behind the games, you’re playing in huge stadia crowded out with fans … but to say that it’s technically and tactically a huge step up?
I just don’t understand why that has to be so. If I was the Irish coach, I’d rather face Italy or Scotland than a full strength Clermont or Toulouse. Those French club teams are jammed full of current French internationals and supplemented by hugely decorated test players from other nations [Clermont have Debatty, Pierre, Bonnaire, Lapandry, Parra, Fofana, Rougerie, Malzieu + Hines, Sivivatu, Byrne; Toulouse can field Poux, Servat, Maestri, Dusautoir, Picamoles, Jauzion, Fritz, Clerc, Medard, Poitrenaud + Steenkamp, Albacete, Burgess, McAlister] and are trained by extremely well-respected coaches in Guy Noves and Vern Cotter.
To put it bluntly, I see neither a technical nor tactical step-up from how Leinster play when I watch Ireland play. I see a step down. I see more dropped passes and more aimless kicking when Ireland play. I see less inventive backline moves and less cohesion between backs and forwards. I see a lot of one-out pods that generate slow ball. I see the same players making the same mistakes and still be in the team week after week.
Declan Kidney’s Record Says That He Knows What He’s Talking About
Kidney has won a lot of important trophies as a coach: the Six Nations [with a Grand Slam, no less], the U19 World Cup, the Churchill Cup, two Heineken Cups and a Celtic League. He’s won his three trophies at international level at different standards – U19, ‘A’ level and test level – and he’s won three trophies at professional club level. You can’t knock the success he has achieved in his career.
However, Ireland haven’t been a successful team by any standard since 2009 turned over and 2010 rolled in. Kidney seems to have lost the motivational voodoo that turned good sides into successful sides, and that was always his magic key. He wasn’t a guy who came in and tuned up the passing game, nor was he a scrum-doctor, nor a technocrat who planned out every game, action-by-action. He focused players’ minds and got them to perform near to the limit of their talents. However, like any exercise, if you stick to the same routine too long you’ll plateau and stop making gains. That looks like what has happened with the Irish squad.
With that said, the little bugger seems in feisty form, in direct contrast to most of the Irish fanbase:
“Yeah. It’s brilliant. It’s like bungee jumping. It’s the best place to go … it’ll show us exactly where we are. You need to be playing those teams. In the provincial land if you said you only play six Heineken Cup matches in three years you’d be worried where your rugby would go. We will look to play these guys as often as possible. So when you say is it daunting? Pity we’re not playing them four times.”
Let’s see if he’s still after that fourth test on the 24th June!