It’s only a matter of time before the word ‘embattled’ becomes synonymous with Irish coach Declan Kidney. He’s coming off the back of Ireland’s least successful Six Nations since the 2008 edition that caused Eddie O’Sullivan to hand in his resignation. Bringing an outgunned squad down to New Zealand for an end of season [well, end of the Northern Hemisphere season] three test tour against the world champion All Blacks is hard enough, but when you take into account the injury problems that are already mounting up – Paul O’Connell, Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris, Luke Fitzgerald, Tom Court and Isaac Boss are all out and would certainly have made the flight were they fit, and Munster’s Felix Jones would probably have travelled – then it looks like a ‘Tour From Hell’ scenario.
His recent squad announcement conjured the image of an old general clinging on to power, surrounding himself with the most loyal members of his once-proud junta and the too-few whelps of the new generation on which he hoped to build his dynasty. All very Downfall.
Four Pillars Of The World
When looking at the squad selection itself, there are some important background points to restate.
Firstly, all four provinces were competing in the Heineken Cup for the first time. That means that all Irish-qualified players playing with the provinces are competing in the same competitions; no longer do Connacht players have an asterisk beside their ERC appearances, signifying that their opposition were the likes of I Cavalieri Estra and Olympus Madrid XV in the Challenge Cup. In fact the western province – as is liable to happen to a fourth–seeded team – were drawn in a brute of a group that included the regular-season table toppers of both the English Premiership [Harlequins] and French Top14 [Toulouse].
Secondly, with three of those provinces making it into the knock-out stages of the competition, and those three sporting a combined record of P18 W15 D1 L2 from the group stages [including Connacht’s results, it would read P24 W16 D1 L5, still a 66% winning percentage], it’s difficult to see how anybody could argue against the fact that professional rugby in Ireland is in ruder health than it has ever been. Wales is set up along the same lines as Ireland in professional rugby terms, with their four regions mirroring our four provinces, and just one Welsh region qualified for the knock-out stages. Before anybody reaches for that tired old canard, the Welsh outfits employ just as many – if not more – foreign players as the Irish ones. Cardiff, the lone Welsh qualifier, had Paul Tito, Casey Laulala, Xavier Rush, Ben Blair, Ma’ama Molitika, Mike Patterson and Tau Filise on their books at the time of their quarter-final against Leinster.
Thirdly, with three Heineken Cups in four years [and the missing year accounted for by a semi-final defeat on French soil to eventual winners Toulouse] and appearances in all Magners League/Pro12 Grand Finals since the playoff phase has been instituted, Leinster have established themselves as a historically great European club team. It’s not just the ‘Dublin meeja’ who are proclaiming it: they say the same thing in the UK and France.
Fourthly, by advancing all the way to the Heineken Cup final, and beating Clermont Auvergne, Leicester and Munster en route, Ulster have, at least for this season, pushed ahead of Munster as the second strongest province in Ireland. The Mole has written before about why he thinks that this is a structural situation based on the age profile of the squads rather than a one-off blip – maybe I’m wrong, but maybe I’m not.
The Case Against
When the squad was initially announced, it generated a lot of online heat. Laptop fans were running at thousands of revs per minute. It was contentious.
Firstly, naming a twenty-nine strong squad was an odd move. Twenty-nine. Who ever heard of a twenty-nine strong squad? World Cup squads include thirty players. Thirty players is double the number of a starting fifteen. The All Blacks named a thirty-five strong training squad for the three test series, and they’re at home: if somebody goes down injured, they don’t have to call up a replacement from eighteen thousand kilometres away.
While Kidney and his coaches were widely deemed to have made the right moves in calling time on the tournament hopes of Luke Fitzgerald and Tomás O’Leary in August of last year due to their poor form, those sort of tough calls haven’t been made this time out. Donncha O’Callaghan and Gordon D’Arcy both started all five games of the Six Nations and showed the worst form of their international careers; while D’Arcy’s picked up pretty spectacularly for Leinster once he was back in provincial blue [culminating in one of his finest displays for the province in the last three seasons in the Heineken Cup final], O’Callaghan’s slumped even further.
He missed out on selection for the team to face Ulster in the HEC quarter-final loss at Thomond Park, with Donnacha Ryan selected beside Paul O’Connell in the second row, and then slipped even further down the ranks when selected on the bench behind Mick O’Driscoll and O’Connell [with Ryan playing on the blindside] in the key Pro12 shootout against the Scarlets in Llanelli.
The recurrence of O’Connell’s injury meant that O’Callaghan started the Pro12 semi-final in The Liberty Stadium alongside O’Driscoll, but he turned in a very, very poor performance. Munster’s forwards were played off the park, and it’s when things are going against you that you need your experienced players and your leaders to stand up and rally the troops. He didn’t get the job done. You expect more from a guy with 85 caps.
Having a cut off players is no craic, but O’Callaghan is playing like yesterday’s man and has been the beneficiary of more leeway than anybody else. He’s already the most frequently capped test player of Kidney’s tenure by some distance: he’s played 38 games [starting 37 times] since the Corkman took over, with captain Brian O’Driscoll next behind him on 32 games [all starts]. It’s not a like-for-like comparison, either. While O’Driscoll is revered worldwide as one of the greatest players in the history of the game, O’Callaghan is widely seen as a hard-working but limited role-player or [in more jaundiced eyes] merely Paul O’Connell’s sidekick.
Furthermore, over those four years there have been plenty of viable contenders to the Irish No4 jersey: three-time Heineken Cup-winning Leinster captain, Leo Cullen; O’Callaghan’s provincial team-mate Donnacha Ryan [who totally outstripped him this year when given the chance]; and Ulster’s hard-charging Dan Tuohy. Connacht’s Mike McCarthy has been toiling away in relative obscurity compared to the above three, and while playing beside Michael Swift in provincial colours makes the comparison a little less direct – Swift being the more heavyweight of the two by some distance – The Mole reckons that McCarthy could definitely function as the front-jumping, tighthead-scrummaging lock in another partnership.
Instead of promoting competition for the jersey in a position in which we have seemingly good depth [imagine if we had four or five No12s of that standard, or four or five fullbacks, nevermind four or five tightheads!], O’Callaghan has been a bolted-on selection. Has he been so good in the last four years that none of those guys could get a run for more than two matches in a row?
Generally a head coach will feel the need to bring three players to cover each of three ‘specialist’ positions: hooker, scrum-half and outhalf. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to pick three players who only play those positions, but it’s generally felt that if a guy in one of those positions goes down injured in the warm-up, you need position-specific cover on the bench.
This was always given as one of the reasons for Paddy Wallace’s inclusion in Irish World Cup squads: he could cover outhalf. He was at various times primarily considered an outhalf, a fullback or a first centre, but he could cover outhalf. For the tour to New Zealand, after the best provincial season of his career, Paddy Wallace finds himself omitted from the touring party.
Declan Kidney has named two outhalves in his touring party: Jonny Sexton  and Ronan O’Gara . He has named three hookers [the 29-year old Rory Best, the 26-year old Sean Cronin and the 23-year old Mike Sherry] and three scrum-halves [the 31-year old Eoin Reddan, the 23-year old Conor Murray and 26-year old Paul Marshall of Ulster].
Marshall has had a very reasonable season, playing in twenty-seven games for his province and scoring five tries. He and Peter Stringer share a sharp passing game and are similar in build – Marshall is 173cm [5’8”] and 79kg [12st6lbs], while Stringer is 170cm [5’7”] and 71kg [11st3lbs]. The kicker is that while Strings turns 35 in December, Marshall turns 27 in July; Marshall is eight years younger than him.
He has taken some flak for not playing more Heineken Cup rugby, but the lad has actually played in seven games in the competition this season, starting two of them … and he’s behind a genuinely world class scrum-half in the brilliant South African Ruan Pienaar. That’s two more starts than Tomás O’Leary has seen this year in the HEC, and his competition is a 22/23 year old neophyte having some form problems of his own.
Marshall’s record of 16 starts + 11 sub appearance for 1225 minutes of total gametime compares well with Eoin Reddan’s [13+7/1028] and Isaac Boss’ [13+10/1030], and his über-snappy pass and turn of pace offers something like the option that Stringer provided in his prime. The size thing is relatively inconsequential. There are plenty of small scrum-halves out there: England’s Danny Care is 172cm [5’8”] and 84kg [13st2lbs] and gets along pretty well at international level, and Will Genia is 174cm [just under 5’9″] and 85kg [13st 4lbs] and he’s one of the best in the world.
Outside of his exciting performances for Leinster in the No10 jersey, Ian Madigan has shown some useful versatility this season, coming off the bench to play inside centre for an hour in the Pro12 semi-final against Glasgow [going head to head with 39-times capped Scottish centre Graeme Morrison, who has 15cm on him in height and 11kg in weight], as well as stepping in at scrum-half against Connacht in the Sportsground.
He has previously lined out at fullback for both Leinster against Glasgow in April 2010 and Ireland U20s in the 2009 Six Nations against Wales and France; in the latter he kicked an injury time penalty to win the game for Ireland 9-6.
Critics of the young outhalf often bring up the fact that he’s not Leinster’s first-choice goal kicker, nor even their second choice [nor their third choice, for that matter]. That’s fair enough – he’s not. However, Leinster have three players ahead of him who are kicking at an 80% success ratio in Johnny Sexton, Isa Nacewa and Fergus McFadden. When Madigan has been asked to do the job, he’s stepped up: he kicked six goals for seventeen points in his two games this season as front-line goalkicker, against Newport Gwent Dragons in Rodney Parade earlier this month and against Aironi in early March. He has also knocked over late drop goals to take losing bonus points away from both Connacht and Munster this season.
Put it this way: where’s the value in not bringing Madigan? His fellow professionals nominated him as one of the three best young players in Irish rugby. He’s had a sparkling season, playing twenty-six games [starting sixteen of them], and notching a remarkable eight tries from the outhalf position. He made his starting debut in the Heineken Cup as a 22-year old, directly in opposition to the incumbent French No10, Francois Trinh-Duc, a match that Leinster won 25-3. He has shown good versatility when asked, he’s made a hell of a lot of tackles, and he’s brim full of confidence.
Having been at pains to tell the assembled media that this might be the last time in twelve years that Ireland play the All Blacks in New Zealand, Kidney has just gone and left behind one of the most talented young players in Ireland, who coincidentally covers two positions where the squad is short-staffed. A ‘small eye’ on the future indeed.
Oh, didn’t it come up? We’re only going to bring one fullback. F*ck it, if Rob Kearney gets hurt, we’ll just move Earlsy back. Earls’ performances in the No13 jersey for both Ireland and Munster this season have proved a lot of critics wrong – including this one. He has spoken before about how he wants to throw off the ‘utility back’ tag, and selecting him at fullback against the Barbarians seems a retrograde step. By the few accounts that have emerged it seems that he went well, but is fullback really a viable future for him when Rob Kearney has just been announced as the ERC and IRUPA Player of the Season, and Munster have both Felix Jones and Denis Hurley in harness?
It seems that once Jones was ruled out through injury [again], Kidney decided against picking another fullback in the squad.
In The Mole’s eyes, picking Earls at No15 against the Baabaas was not a progressive selection. Craig Gilroy, whom alongside eventual winner Peter O’Mahony and Madigan was nominated by his fellow professionals as one of the three best young players in Ireland this year, played fullback for Ireland U20s vs Italy in the 2011 Junior Six Nations and against England in the Junior World Championships later that year. He shone as a winger in Gloucester, scoring two tries and putting further pressure on Kidney’s selection of Simon Zebo as a tourist.
Zebo has never played professional rugby at fullback, either at senior or age-group level. He’s a winger [and one with a lot of potential], but it’s a luxury selection to choose a player who can only play one position in the back three when you’re only including one fullback in your squad.
What about the 21-year old Tiernan O’Halloran? He started 27 games for Connacht this year, bagging two tries in the Heineken Cup and a further five in the Pro12. O’Halloran played fullback for the Irish U20s against South Africa and Scotland in last year’s Junior World Championship, less than twelve months ago. He played fullback for Connacht against Ulster earlier this season in Ravenhill.
Dave Kearney played fullback for Ireland A last season against the England Saxons and fullback for Leinster four weeks ago against Newport Gwent Dragons. He’s played a lot of rugby there for Ireland U20s, both as an U19 during the Junior Six Nations of 2008 [versus Scotland, Wales and England], during the 2009 Junior Six Nations and during the 2009 Junior World Championships, where he shared the No15 jersey with Ian Madigan. While he mightn’t have been available for selection for the Barbarians match because he was sitting on the bench for Leinster in the Pro12 final, he ended up only coming on at the end of that game for two minutes.
Irish By Birth, Munster By The Grace Of God
This is a squad whose fringe selections are open to accusations of whimsy and bias. Kidney has included two uncapped players in Mike Sherry and Simon Zebo, both of them from Munster. He included one uncapped player in the 2012 Six Nations squad: Peter O’Mahony of Munster. He included one uncapped player in the RWC11 squad: Conor Murray. Guess who he plays for? Are Munster the only team producing good young players or giving them a run?
Even in passing, Kidney brings up vastly underqualified Munster players. When asked who the possible replacements for Tom Court were, Connacht’s naturalized South African Brett Wilkinson was the first name out of his mouth – Wilkinson is 28 years old and has made 94 starts for the province in the Magners League/Pro12 and 34 starts in ERC competition for the western province; he’s also started five times in three seasons for the Wolfhounds. The next name out of Kidney’s lips as the first of the other players in contention? Dave Kilcoyne. On the back of a whopping 84 minutes of professional rugby in his career, Munster Academy loosehead Dave Kilcoyne was somehow presented as being in consideration to travel to New Zealand.
Before mentioning Ulster’s Paddy McAllister – who played almost eight hundred minutes of rugby as a 22-year old loosehead this season, and almost seven hundred as a 21-year old last season [in total a mere seventeen times as much gametime as the older Kilcoyne has seen] – or Leinster’s Jack McGrath – who [again] is younger than Kilcoyne and has seen a huge amount more rugby than the Munster man – the second name out of Kidney’s mouth when it came to a loosehead to replace Tom Court was a Munster player who has started one Pro12 game in his entire career.
Let me put that into context: “Isaac Boss is out, but we’ve got some good backup there: Tomás O’Leary, John Cooney, Peter Stringer, Paul Marshall …” or “Stephen Ferris has failed a fitness test, but we’ve got some fine blindside cover in Kev McLaughlin, Iain Henderson, John Muldoon, Rhys Ruddock …”
It’s incongruous. Cooney, Henderson and Kilcoyne have one thing in common – they’re all young players who have only started a single Pro12 match this season, and have logged fewer than ninety minutes of first-grade pro rugby since September.
Is it just Munster who are producing young players at the moment? Kidney still seems to be operating under the belief that if you’re good enough for Munster, you’re good enough for Ireland. Of course, this sort of thing isn’t anything new.
Free-scoring Wingers In Their Early Twenties Have Always Got A Shot
Fionn Carr banged in 8 tries in 17 games in the ML/Pro12 and 3 tries in 6 games in the Challenge Cup in 2008-09 as a 22/23 year old; a total of 11 tries in 23 matches for the season*. Despite that impressive scoring record, he was overlooked for that season’s end of term summer tour to North America in favour of Munster winger Ian Dowling and Munster sub-fullback Denis Hurley, both of whom were subsequently capped.
Dowling played the same number of games as Carr, but scored just 3 tries in his 23 games. Denis Hurley was more of a bit-part player, starting only nine competitive games that year [all of them in the then Magners League], and coming off the bench in eight others. He failed to score a single try as a fullback/winger for Munster over the entire season … but sure Deccie took him on tour anyway, ahead of Carr.
Now Simon Zebo has had a cracker of a season, scoring 12 tries in 23 games as a 21/22 year old. Just like Fionn Carr back in 2008-09, he’s an exciting runner but an extremely inconsistent defender. However, while Carr couldn’t make a tour of North America with no fewer than four Irish back three players [Kearney, Bowe, Fitzgerald and Earls] away with the Lions, Zebo is drafted in for a tour of New Zealand with just two wingers [Bowe and Fitzgerald] missing.
Selection isn’t a science. It’s an art. Some players are selected for a team on form, others are selected because of loyalty to past accomplishments and specific strengths they bring to the team. While form is readily apparent to most rugby fans, those other qualities can be less evident but no less important. However, ignoring good form from some players and rewarding it in others is a situation that is always going to generate heat … and despite the wintry conditions in New Zealand, a poor tour will see the heat turned up on Declan Kidney again.
* Next season Carr did even better, bagging 7 tries in 15 Magners League games and 7 tries in 8 Challenge Cup games for a whopping 14 tries in 23 games. Still no tour though!