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.
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.
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.
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.