The job of any coach is to maximise the performance of their charges. Rob Howley clearly gets a pass having transformed a team that looked out on its feet 40 minutes into the campaign into one that won the title in some style. That a significant number of their players ply their trade in club sides for whom winning is an alien concept, makes it an even more impressive achievement.
I think that Stuart Lancaster can also be pleased with his team’s return. Contrary to the hyperbolic reporting of the last week, they are an inexperienced and limited side. Robshaw, their leader and star turn, makes remarkably few mistakes, but has a fraction of the impact of a Tipuric or O’Brien. Dan Cole’s weaknesses have been ruthlessly exposed, and their half-backs have repeatedly been shown to be frail. Add to that the limitations of their three-quarters, and it is to their credit that they put themselves in a position to have a tilt at the Slam. The foundation is there, and when they teach Tuilagi to catch and pass, they could be the real deal.
On the other hand, Kidney (and to a much greater degree, PSA) has taken a squad of top-class performers and done something, I know not what, that has resulted in their spending long periods looking clueless. The times when they have played well now look to be the exception rather than the rule. The suspicion that this only happens when the leaders within the team abandon the script and give it a lash is growing. Following Italy’s try on Saturday, BOD, Madigan and O’Brien dragged Ireland down the pitch by running excellent lines at high pace, off-loading and going wide with sumptuous missed passes. It was cheese to the chalk of the first 20 minutes and if we could have sustained it, we could have beaten Italy despite the injuries. Why Ireland didn’t start this way, and why they chose to kick the ball to the Welsh to let them have a go, are questions to which I’d love to know the answer.
Kidney is a good man with an impressive CV. But he has lost the plot. The manner in which BOD was relieved of the captaincy and ROG jettisoned from the scene, the selection of Tom Court ahead of Killer only to be dumped out of the squad for the following match and the total mismanagement of the bench have made his position untenable. I hope that the IRFU act swiftly so that they can get the new regime in place for the US tour.
Other issues will have to be looked at. The spate of injuries does call into question the player welfare system and the overarching strength and conditioning regime. That said, I’m not at all sure that anything has changed since 2009 when Ireland swept all before them with almost no injuries. However, since the World Cup, the S&C management for the Irish team has been a bit of a shambles, as Brendan Fanning outlined in this article last year.
The most pressing issue is the tight-head crisis, which shows no sign of improving. We are in a Catch-22 whereby the provinces can’t afford to play our indigenous players but by not doing so, the likes of Hagan, Archer and Fitzpatrick fail to improve. I would like to see our tight-heads playing regularly and if the AIL can’t provide the requisite schooling, then they should move to the English Championship or the Pro D2 to get some game time against gnarly opponents. But something needs to be done, starting at schools level, to address the underlying problem. The long overdue appointment of a scrum supremo would be a start.
In failing to address the S&C and scrum appointments expeditiously, and in allowing both EOS and Kidney to soldier on for too long, the IRFU has not covered itself in glory. The first thing they should do is appoint a professional Director of Rugby and set him clear objectives. They should then sit on Joe Schmidt’s lawn until he agrees to take the job. If they can get Vern Cotter as well, then that would be a bonus and we may, someday, be able to look back on this 6N as the catalyst for something special rather than a total and utter disaster.
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