Dave Gantly, the newest member of the ‘Sport Is Everything’ team, dissects the Irish Six Nations campaign thus far and addresses the Declan Kidney ‘situation’:
What a difference a few weeks can make. Coming in to the first round of the Championship, Ireland were quietly confident they could beat a Welsh team low on confidence in their own backyard.
At the Millennium Stadium that day, in the first half this proved to be the case. Ireland played some of their best rugby in recent times in the first 40 minutes. Even the most pessimistic Irish fan was surely being turned by the way they kicked off their campaign. Thoughts of a Grand Slam and Triple Crown began to have some substance for Ireland and they hung on to beat Wales 30 – 22. Job done. Confidence high.
Next up was an eagerly anticipated clash with England at the Aviva. In very poor conditions, Ireland’s mistakes cost them dearly as a tenacious English side recorded a first win in 10 years in Dublin. Their troubles did not stop there, however. Munster winger Simon Zebo went off injured in the first 10 minutes and was substituted by Keith Earls. A big loss to the Irish team for a player who has that x factor to make a difference in such a tight encounter. It was later revealed he had broken a bone in his foot and as a result was ruled out for up to 10 weeks. Munster fans waiting nervously for news on Zebo’s injury were left disappointed. He is now likely to be ruled out of their Heineken Cup quarter Final against Harlequins on April 7th.
But back to Ireland’s problems. As if losing Zebo was not bad enough, shortly after in form out-half Jonathan Sexton pulled up with a hamstring injury and was replaced by Ronan O’Gara. We all know what happened next. England closed out the game to win 12 – 6 with England flyhalf Owen Farrell putting in another composed performance at the age of just 21. Doing his Lions prospects no harm in the process. While his contender for the no 10 jersey down under watched on from the sidelines. Ireland’s worst fears were realized soon after as it was revealed Sexton had torn his hamstring and would be lucky to play again in this year’s Six Nations.
The injuries didn’t end there however, with second row Mike Mc Carthy damaging ligaments in his knee. Gordon D’Arcy followed the trend by being ruled out of the rest of the campaign with a foot injury. An act of madness (stamping) by loosehead prop Cian Healy has left Ireland, more than likely, without his services for the rest of the campaign. Add these to the list of long-term absentees such as Tommy Bowe, Paul O’Connell and Stephen Ferris and you knew Ireland’s strength in depth was being stretched to the limit.
Declan Kidney’s team announcement to take on the Scots was an intriguing one to say the least. Kidney, usually so conservative in his approach, named Ulster rookie Paddy Jackson to start at out half. A few eyebrows were raised to say the least. There is no doubting Jackson’s talent, but to make his debut in a game of this magnitude against Scotland was a nerve-wrecking task for the Ulsterman. O’Gara’s poor performance the weekend before for Munster working hugely in Jackson’s favour. In what was no real surprise, Earls came in for the injured Zebo on the wing while Ulster centre Luke Marshall was handed his début at inside centre, replacing the injury stricken Gordon D’Arcy. Tom Court was chosen ahead of Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne to replace Cian Healy. Big boots to fill and a surprising decision given Kilcoyne’s performances this season.
Unfortunately, what transpired at Murrayfield is that little bit harder to explain. Despite enjoying vast amounts of possession (71%), Ireland never really looked like threatening and a lack of leadership was evident. At various times, Heaslip opted for the corner when a kick at goal seemed the more sensible option. Possibly Paddy Jackson’s nervy start at out-half was the reason. In a game that is so close, you need your out-half firing on all cylinders. His missed kicks came back to haunt Ireland but the blame cannot be pointed solely at Jackson. They were playing a poor Scottish team and even with the amount of injuries they had, you would have expected an Irish win to set up a clash against France at the Aviva. This was not to be.
Perhaps it shows just how poor Ireland’s performance was that Brian O’Driscoll, Ireland’s best player against Wales, was relatively quiet by his standards. Sean O’Brien made a few breaks that we haven’t seen in a while and is one of a few to come out with his reputation intact. Warren Gatland watching from the stands, surely impressed.
Heaslip on the other hand is seeing his touring chances diminish with every game he plays, not leading by example and O’Driscoll making the decisions tells it’s own story really. Calls for O’Driscoll to be reinstated as captain will surely not come to fruition. Heaslip has a lot of making up to do in the weeks ahead. What was refreshing was the performance of Luke Marshall at inside centre, making two fine breaks and being a constant threat throughout. Lets hope for more of the same against the French from the Ulster centre.
All in all, Kidney’s gamble to play Jackson at out-half backfired and his decision to choose Tom Court ahead of Dave Kilcoyne should be reversed against France. Kilcoyne’s ability in the loose head has been demonstrated on numerous occasions this season and he should be next in the pecking order behind Cian Healy. As for O’Gara, who has had a few disappointing outings recently, his position on the bench may come under threat by the in form Leinster outhalf Ian Madigan. But the man who is now under the most pressure is Declan Kidney. Where does he go from here? Calls for his resignation are a bit harsh considering the success he has brought to Ireland. However, a change at the helm could re-energize the Irish team. Kidney’s next moves will be fascinating. Does he stick with Paddy Jackson and Tom Court against France or reshuffle his cards once again? Surely he will stick at least with Jackson, giving him invaluable experience against Les Bleus.
Kidney has just two games to prove his critics wrong. This writer hopes he does.
SPORT IS EVERYTHING. Dave Gantly.