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The Kidney quandary: Time for a change?
By Rory McGimpsey
Another international rugby season is fast approaching and the $64,000 dollar question for Irish rugby fans is this: has the moment finally arrived for Ireland to change their head coach?
Until recently, the mere suggestion of replacing the man who led Ireland to only their second Grand Slam, and who secured two Heineken Cup victories at Munster, would have been considered heresy. It was assumed that Kidney's coaching achievements had guaranteed him some job security. But, following a string of disappointing results and performances, many pundits in the Irish game feel that the time is right for a change.
There are several reasons for the seismic shift in attitudes. Firstly, Kidney's palpable failure to follow up on the Grand Slam triumph of 2009 has fostered genuine concerns over his stewardship of the national team. A few exceptions notwithstanding, Ireland's performances since that epic day in Cardiff have been average at best.
Since capturing the elusive Slam, Ireland have produced only two performances that have replicated the intensity and quality of 2009: the victory over England in the 2011 Six Nations, and the superb destruction of Australia in last year's Rugby World Cup.
Those occasions aside, Ireland's performances have been characterised by mediocrity and stagnation.
Of particular concern is the lack of inspiration that is impeding the development of the team. While the forwards have largely excelled throughout Kidney's tenure, the backs have been conspicuously lacking in spark and imagination. With a back-line that includes Rob Kearney, Jonathan Sexton, Brian O'Driscoll and Tommy Bowe, such inertia is positively criminal.
A lack of invention has been painfully apparent throughout Kidney's reign, and is unquestionably hampering the team's ambitions. Since his time at Presentation Brothers, Cork and throughout his stint at Munster, Kidney has been renowned as a conservative coach. His coaching success has been built on pragmatic, win at all costs principles.
While this philosophy has served him well throughout his coaching career, it is now constraining an Irish team that is capable of so much more. How infuriating it is to compare the fluid, 15-man style of Leinster to the staid and turgid approach of the national team. The disparity is further highlighted by the fact that the personnel of the respective back-lines are fundamentally the same.
Ireland's backs can only be green with envy at the creativity and innovation displayed by their Welsh counterparts. Kidneys myopia is further evidenced by his failure to replace Alan Gaffney as attack coach, preferring instead to rely on his trusted lieutenants, Les Kiss and Mark Tainton. Attack coaches are de rigueur in the modern game, and the decision betrays an appalling lack of vision. Perhaps such conservatism is only to be expected of a coach who has routinely preferred the steady O'Gara to the mercurial, but brilliant Sexton.
Similarly, Kidney's lamentable failure to identify a feasible successor to Brian O'Driscoll is particularly worrying. While the Irish captain will prove impossible to replace as an icon, it is imperative that Ireland produce a player of sufficient calibre to occupy the pivotal outside centre position.
Rather than think outside the box, Kidney has tended to opt for the safe Keith Earls. Although a winger of undoubted potential, Earls lacks the physicality and defensive nous to play 13. Darren Cave and Fergus McFadden are the only players in the squad with the pedigree to fulfil the role, while the tragedy in Ulster last week has denied Ireland another outstanding young candidate.
If Kidney persists with Earls at outside centre, it will be another indication that he has run out of ideas. There are those within the Irish game who are convinced that a change of coach is inevitable.
I am not inclined to agree. Ireland should stick with Kidney. If he removes the shackles, the Cork man has the experience and knowledge to re-invigorate this Irish side. Kidney has done substantially more for Irish rugby than any of his predecessors. It would be unthinkable if that legacy were lost.
Given all that he has achieved, Kidney deserves another chance. It is imperative, however, that his team re-discover its attacking instincts, and fast. If Kidney is in need of inspiration, he does not need to look too far.
For the last three years, Leinster has been at the vanguard of European rugby. It may be time for the IRFU to reverse their long established preference for home grown coaches. For if Ireland were to make the bold decision remove their head coach, Leinster's Joe Schmidt is the obvious replacement.