Questions have been circling in Ireland for months now about the future of Declan Kidney. A huge win against Australia in the World Cup was followed by a letdown of epic proportions against Wales, when the final beckoned for an Irish side that should have easily been the best Northern Hemisphere team in the tournament.
This disappointment was followed by a terrible Six Nations campaign and three losses to New Zealand over the summer, including a 60-0 humbling.
This dissonance between the misfiring Irish 15 and the successful Irish club sides—most notably Leinster who have now won three Heineken Cups in four years—have led many commentators to question whether Kidney is really the man to get the best out of a golden generation of young Irish players.
These questions were, at least for the short term, answered emphatically by the Irish team on Saturday night in a ruthless garroting of Argentina.
It was one of those nights where the team fired on all cylinders. Despite the absence of world class players like Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien, Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney, the Irish team was in a completely different class to the Argentines, and ran in seven tries in a ruthless display of free running from an Irish back line that has long held the potential to punch with the heavyweights of the game, but has rarely translated it into a product on the pitch.
It would be premature of course to look at this result in a vacuum and assume that Ireland are now back on track. We have not played consistently, at all, and there is still no guaranteeing that the team will be able to replicate the performance.
Attention also has to be given to the fact that Argentina—for reasons passing understanding—neglected to blitz against the Irish backs. Very few teams in the world have been stupid enough to make this mistake, and following Ireland's firework display, it would be reasonable to assume it is not an error likely to be repeated by anybody in a hurry.
Selection issues still linger. Conor Murray has played decently in his last two games, but this is on the back of a sequence of average club form and downright awful international form. The speed of his ball distribution is well below par, and his box-kicking is frustrating both in its frequency and its unpredictability. Arguments surely can be made that Eoin Reddan is a better option at 9.
Similarly, despite the fact that he has played rather well recently, Gordon D'Arcy has long had the look of a man wearing a jersey based on reputation alone.
With O'Driscoll back fit the six nations, will Kidney insist in sticking with two over-30 centers, neither of whom will be around for the next World Cup? My hope would be that he would give the 12 jersey to BOD and allow Keith Earls continue at 13, as he is clearly the long-term heir to the throne of Bod almighty. He can then phase in a younger 12—McFadden, Cave or Marshall—over the course of the next few seasons so our new midfield partnership is established and experienced for a run at the next World Cup.
The depth that Kidney has introduced to the team recently is very encouraging. Breaking it down, we now have in or around the squad:
Loose Head - Healy, Court, Kilcoyne
Hooker - Strauss, Best, Cronin
Tight Head - Ross, Bent, Fitzpatrick
Lock - O'Connell, Ryan, McCarthy, O'Callaghan, Tuohy
Back Row - Ferris, O'Brien, Heaslip, Henry, Henderson, O'Mahoney
Scrum Half - Murray, Reddan, Boss, Marshall, O'Leary
Fly Half - Sexton, O'Gara, Jackson, Madigan
Centers - O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, Cave, Earls, Marshall, McFadden
Wings - Bowe, Trimble, Zebo, Gilroy, David Kearney, Fitzgerald
Full Backs - Rob Kearney, Jones.
This is as deep an Irish set-up as there has ever been. There is a core of world class talent. There are some older players we rely on, but there are players of high quality waiting in the wings to supplant them. There is competition for every place—especially in the backs where the fight for jerseys ought to be fierce.
This is a grand slam caliber outfit. This is a team that should be building for a serious run at the World Cup. There are no personnel issues. There are no major weaknesses. There is no position (with the possible exception of fly half) where one—or even two—injuries will kill us. There are no more real excuses.
This team has everything it needs to be a winner. All that has held us back to this point is tactical and performance inconsistencies brought on by bad coaching. And that can no longer be acceptable.
In my opinion the only way that Declan Kidney should keep his job past the end of the upcoming RBS 6 Nations is if Ireland walks away with a grand slam. Anything short of that would be a failure. We have the best squad in the tournament, in my opinion, and there is no reason why we can't win every game.
Ireland has to think long-term. Six Nations competitiveness should not be enough for this generation of players because they are far better than that. This is a team that should be proper contenders at the next World Cup. It is the coaches' job to get the level of play out of the team consistently that would allow us to challenge, and unless Kidney shows he can do it in this Six Nations, its time we looked in a different direction.
We have been blessed to find ourselves in this position with a young and vastly talented team. The IRFU owes it to the fans and the players to make sure that the right coach is in place to make the most of what could be a real opportunity for Ireland to compete at the highest level.
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