‘Steady Deccie’ postpones Ireland refit as Lions tour looms
In 2008, Eddie O’Sullivan’s long reign as Ireland coach came to an end. After a wretched 2007 World Cup and subsequent Six Nations campaign, his nickname ‘Steady Eddie’ transformed from a byword for reliability to a backpage gag poking fun at his steadfast unwillingness to inject new talent into an ageing team.
After Wednesday’s squad announcement for the upcoming Six Nations, some commentators may be forgiven for making parallels to Declan Kidney. To some surprise the Munster man named a primary panel of 24 – to a man all involved in last year’s World Cup – with six additional uncapped players – Ian Nagle, Peter O’Mahony, Simon Zebo (all Munster), Andrew Conway (Leinster), Tiernan O’Halloran (Connacht) and Paddy McAllister (Ulster) – joining the senior setup for next week’s training camp. These six youthful faces are misleading – it’s unlikely Kidney has any of them in mind for game time, though O’Mahony has made a case after a series of excellent performances.
So it’s the same old then. No place for Tomas O’Leary or back-in-form Luke Fitzgerald. But, more importantly, no place for the wealth of Irish talent who helping propel Ulster, Leinster and Munster to the top of their Heineken Cup pools and Connacht through a historic first season in the competition.
Particularly frustrated was Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin, who believed many of his resurgent side, deserved a chance. “We’re disappointed those two [Chris Henry and Dan Tuohy] are not in the senior squad,” he told the press on Wednesday. At least they made it into the Wolfhounds ‘A’ selection though McLaughlin was further annoyed that winger Craig Gilroy and scrum half Paul Marshall, currently in excellent form, missed out on even that.
Despite the chagrin of McLaughlin, ‘Steady Deccie’ isn’t under the same kind of pressure to change as his predecessor O’Sullivan. Ireland’s limp quarter-final exit to Wales was disappointing, but the tournament featured some of the side’s best rugby of 2011 in beating Australia and Italy.
However the lack of any new talent was unexpected. Warren Gatland successfully guided his exuberant, youthful Wales side to a semi final, and made Ireland appear flat, slow and, well old. Led by a rampaging 22-year-old captain in Sam Warburton, Wales’ ebullience appeared a blueprint of sorts for the inevitable reconstruction of an ageing Irish team.
Moreover the loss of O’Driscoll – icon, legend, captain, 32-year-old – appeared symbolically to represent an opportunity to promote a new generation of Irish talent. Instead Kidney has kept faith with even aging bit part players such as Paddy Wallace (32), Shane Jennings (30) and lock Leo Cullen (34), though he is likely to undergo Achilles tendon surgery next week and miss the entire tournament.
It’s not that the Irish coach lacks a ruthless streak. After all he dumped Lions tourists O’Leary and Fitzgerald on the eve of the World Cup. And he’s certainly canny enough to acknowledge his weather worn squad is in desperate need of fresh faces.
But it’s possible the Cork man has an eye on other challenges not limited to Ireland. Kidney, Warren Gatland and Andy Robinson are the leading candidates to lead the Lions to Australia in 2013. Just over a week ago it was confirmed by John Feehan, Lions chief executive, the upcoming Six Nations would effectively be an audition for the head coach job, a three-gun shoot-out. And Kidney has decided to pack his most trusted ammunition.
Still it would be foolish to rule out Kidney springing a selection surprise or two in the coming weeks, particularly since he treats traditional squad boundaries with disdain. Whereas other coaches choose a large panel – England’s 32-man-sqad, Scotland’s 36-man-squad – Kidney prefers to go with a smaller group initially, supplemented by the Wolfhounds, before selecting a 30-man squad at the start of match week.
On Wednesday Kidney claimed any player could yet force their way into the senior squad for the opener against Wales and, for once, this is a coach who means it – this time last year Tomas O’Leary played for the Wolfhounds before being drafted into the starting senior XV a week later. It’s realistic to suppose some from the ‘A’ squad – possible Tuohy, Henry or, more likely, Fitzgerald – could yet be involved in the tournament.
Whatever Kidney’s thoughts on the Lions gig, he’s practical enough to recognise new players will have to be introduced but realistic enough to know the old guard may yet have enough mileage to provide a solid Six Nations. After the dashed hopes of New Zealand, a decent campaign, with home wins against Wales, Italy and Scotland, could be enough to put Ireland on the right road to restoration. However a failure to perform combined with conservative selection could be disastrous – Kidney need only ask ‘Steady Eddie’.Tagged in: 6 Nations, declan kidney, ireland, Rugby, rugby union, Six Nations
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