Lack of Competition Is a Worry

Kidney's loyalty has cost Ireland this year. (c) Art Widak.

In the build-up to this year’s Six Nations, Declan Kidney’s conservative squad selection was not at all surprising. Loyalty is Kidney’s way. He maintains faith in the players who have done well for him in the past. There are positive sides to this loyalty. For example, it can contribute towards a strong spirit of togetherness within the squad, where every player knows he is valued and will not be discarded on a whim.

However, there are clearly negative factors to Kidney’s loyalty too. Picking players on past glories means ignoring absolutely crucial factors in current performance – form and confidence. Furthermore, when a player is almost certain of retaining his place in the team/squad even after a poor display, what effect does this have on his motivation? Competition within a squad is vital.

I’ve waited to write this piece until today because I didn’t want it to be a knee-jerk reaction to the embarrassment of Twickenham, but my feelings are still the same now. I don’t want to accuse Irish players of complacency as I understand that they always try their best for their country. But knowing that your coach is unlikely to drop you or give other players in your position a chance is not going to result in a player being at his most focused. 

Donnacha Ryan, passing, is one player who has shown high levels of motivation. (c) Ken Bohane.

A perfect example came on the stroke of half time last Saturday. English scrumhalf Lee Dickson was dithering over the ball at the base of a ruck just outside the English 22. Donnacha O’Callaghan, who started all 5 games in the tournament despite losing his place at Munster, stands idly at the back of the ruck watching on. Donnacha Ryan, making just his 2nd Six Nations start and with plenty to prove, ferociously clatters into the breakdown with an aggressive counter-ruck, forcing Dickson into conceding the penalty that keeps Ireland well in the game at 9-6.

Ryan jumps to his feet, pumps the air with his fist and screams, “Come on!” His teammates are visibly lifted, and there’s plenty of back-slapping and praise. Ryan is a man playing with high levels of motivation. O’Callaghan is a mere spectator. Again, I don’t want to start slating individual players, but the simple fact is that O’Callaghan has offered Ireland very little over the course of this Championship. In the past, he has been a vital part of Ireland teams, but that was when he had something to prove.

Much the same could be said of Gordon D’Arcy’s showing. There were dropped balls, kicks directly into touch and a badly judged switch of play when England looked to be on the ropes. The single most shocking incident was his attempted drop goal though. As we trailed 6-3, a thumping Ryan tackle on Dickson allowed SOB and Ferris to pile in for a turnover. Cian Healy’s pass to D’Arcy was poor, but to then attempt a ridiculously ambitious drop goal with very little space was hard to understand.

D'Arcy (12) has looked far from his best. (c) Ken Bohane.

The D’Arcy of ’07 or ’09 would have kept that ball in hand and battered into the English covering defence with confidence, looking for a hole to slip through, looking to create something. But this year’s version of D’Arcy, completely assured of his place in the team, doesn’t have that same hunger. Likewise Jamie Heaslip, the key example being Dylan Hartley ripping the ball from his grasp with Ireland in a superb attacking position in the England 22.

Tomas O’Leary’s case is a little different. He does have something to prove, having lost his place in both the Irish squad and with Munster. Still, it is Kidney’s loyalty that is the issue again. O’Leary should never have been near the Irish bench based on form. The decision to replace Eoin Reddan, who was having a decent outing despite one or two bad errors, was mindless. While I will stress that I will never blame individual players for a loss, some of O’Leary’s mistakes were costly.

His lack of confidence and sharpness was particularly evident as he carried the ball over the Irish tryline, providing England with the platform for their penalty try. Farrell’s kick was good, but the scrumhalf had options – either sprint to retrieve the ball before it got that close to the line, or have the belief to let it cross before touching down. As it was, O’Leary made no decision and England secured the game. His passing and box-kicking were both off the mark too.

There was more competition in the 2009 squad. (c) Arun Marsh.

When you look back to the 2009 Grand Slam-winning squad, the level of competition is obvious. Paddy Wallace started the first 3 games at 12, before D’Arcy got the nod for the final two games. At hooker, Jerry Flannery was first-choice but Best started the Scotland game and replaced Flannery in every other one. In the back-row, Ferris, Heaslip and Wallace were the front-liners, but Leamy came off the bench in every game as well as starting against Scotland.

At scrumhalf, Stringer kept the pressure on O’Leary, starting that Scotland match and appearing off the bench regularly. Rob Kearney was vying with Geordan Murphy at fullback, while Mick O’Driscoll and Malcolm O’Kelly ensured that O’Callaghan earned his place in the team.

Kidney’s loyalty has completely deprived Ireland of that level of competition this season, and the inconsistent performances are the result. On our day (vs. England last year/ vs. Australia at RWC) we are capable of beating any team. Those wins come when the entire squad is aggressive, motivated and hungry. A lack of competition in this current set-up means those performances are becoming more and more rare.


Photos courtesy:  Art Widak, Ken Bohane, Arun Marsh.

10 responses to “Lack of Competition Is a Worry

  1. Great article Murray. I would have to agree….with all of it.

  2. i have to say i agree with all of this as well. im wondering kidney still has the faith of the entire dressing room. many of his decisions have been very poor and much of the squad, like you said, dont seem motivated

    • I think he probably has the faith of the players, because he keeps on picking them! It’s just hard to maintain high levels of motivation when there’s no danger of losing your place. There’s obviously exceptions to the rule, people like BOD or O’Connell. They’re in the world-class bracket, part of which indicates that they are self-motivated to the extreme. Definitely a few players who need a wake-up!

  3. Excellent article Murray. The really telling thing is that this issue has been the main talking point among supporters and pundits since the day the training squads were announced back in January. As you’ve demonstrated here, all our concerns were justified.

    I’ve just discovered this blog, by the way, and it’s a great read!

    • Thanks Steve, glad you’re enjoying the blog!

      Yes, it was definitely a main concern after announcement of the squads. I have reserved judgement until now, after the tournament, but as you said, our concerns were justified. Kidney now has to make changes for the NZ tour, as he cannot ignore the fact that his loyalty is not getting results. I wouldn’t be calling for his head as I’m not a fan of sacking managers before the end of their contracts.

      However, Kidney has to learn from his mistakes. He has to adapt, just as players have to adapt their games to suit different circumstances. Kidney has to embrace change and build up some competition within the squad!

      What would you like to see now? Do you believe Kidney can improve this squad or has he come to the end of his time in charge?

  4. freaky… you wrote what i’ve been thinking / saying.
    it’s not fair on some of these players to be picked when they’re clearly not in form
    the frustrating issue is that, for once, we have quality / exciting options, e.g. Marshall at 9.
    the clincher was calling in paddy wallace as cover for the 1st Paris game

    • Hi Damien, cheers for the comment!

      I think man Irish fans have been thinking these same thoughts, even after the original squad announcement it was a concern. The results and performances in the Six Nations have shown that these concerns were justified!
      Completely agree with you that we have talented options in a lot of positions, who have been playing well week in, week out for their provinces! They have to be brought into the squad now to recreate a more competitive atmosphere.
      I think Kidney will make changes for the NZ tour because his loyalty has not been rewarded by the players.

  5. Hi Murray,

    Good blog and well said, completely agree with you.
    Kidney, like his predecessor, is the ultimate in conservatism and likes to flog the willing horse. As you stated, the writing was on the wall as soon as he announced the training squad. The fact that any bar fly could have named the Irish team for the entire 6 nations once the squad was named speaks for itself. The two players that you identified above should count themselves very lucky to have added another 5 caps to their CV’s based on their current form. I think O’Leary being called into the squad after Murray’s injury was the final insult to all those overlooked. The man is obviously completely devoid of any confidence and is really struggling for form, what message does this send to the likes of Paul Marshal. Even if Kidney wanted to stick with his conservative approach why not call in Boss, at least he is playing well.

    • Cheers George! You’ve covered it all there. I think Boss’ physical, tough performance for Leinster against the Ospreys on Friday night showed how much better an option he would’ve been. McFadden showed what we could’ve had instead of D’Arcy and Ryan’s performances made a mockery of DOC’s selection ahead of him. Kidney surely has to learn and change.

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