There are some similarities between Graham Henry, Jake White and Declan Kidney. All qualified as teachers, had modest playing careers, coached successfully at school level initially before moving up through the ranks to positions of Head Coach of their respective national teams. With World Cup victories and test win ratios of 85% and 67% respectively Henry & White can rightly claim to be amongst the very best coaches of their generation. Kidney has not yet earned membership of this elite group.
In his first season in charge, Kidney delivered Ireland its first Grand Slam in 61 years and they ended 2009 ranked 4th in the world. Ireland has failed to kick on since then and have since slipped to 8th. With three tests against the All Blacks in June, they may be outside the top eight when the RWC 2015 draw is made after the November internationals. Were this to happen it would consign them to band 3 seeding for the draw which would make life difficult in 2015.
Ireland has a win ratio of 58% in all games under Kidney. The much derided Eddie O’Sullivan had the best record of any Irish coach with a win ratio of 63%. The win over Australia in the World Cup was a highlight but the sorry performance against England in the final weekend of the 6 Nations summed up the lack of consistency which besets Ireland.
In the games against Wales, France and England the Irish struggled badly in the second half. This contrasts starkly with 2009 when the Irish raised their game in the latter stages of games. One suspects that the talismanic half-time team talks of O’Driscoll and O’Connell as well as their inspirational leadership from the front were sorely missing. It should be Kidney’s responsibility to lift the team in the absence of his experienced leaders.
The names of O’Driscoll and O’Connell will sit comfortably in the history books alongside the likes of Gibson and McBride but without them a spark is missing and the team is rudderless. This points to the lack of depth in the Irish game. Equally, once Mike Ross was injured the Irish scrum was incapable of responding to the pressure applied by England. Wales managed to win the Grand Slam with only sporadic appearances of Sam Warburton and while missing a number of other key players.
A post-world cup year is the time to blood new talent. However Kidney picked the same team for the duration of the 6 nations except where injury forced him to make changes. He has persisted with players who are clearly either past their best, out of position or not up to the challenge of international rugby. Gordon D’Arcy has served his country well but is no longer of the required standard. Keith Earls made a couple of breaks against England but failed to find one of the best finishers in the game in Tommy Bowe who was on his shoulder in both cases. He has repeatedly shown himself to lack the composure required at this level.
A disappointing World Cup and a mid table finish in the 6 Nations, amounts to a poor season for Ireland. There is no disputing the limitations of the talent pool available to choose from but equally the coach has chosen to stand by the team which so clearly failed in the quarter final of the world cup. As England rebuilds and Wales powers on from its world cup performance, Ireland have regressed. Kidney must shoulder much of the blame for this regression.