Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Declan Kidney is Playing for the Pot

Declan KidneyIf Ireland do not win their first Championship in twenty-four years this year, or their first Grand Slam in sixty-one, the fault will not lie with Declan Kidney. The Irish coach has been outstanding in his first year in charge and yesterday, with his stunning selection against the Scots, Kidney has proved that he’s playing for the pot and has the belly for big stakes. More luck to him.

Grey old heads nodded into their pints when Warren Gatland made a typically daring selection for Wales game against Italy last. Gatland dropped the guts of the established team, and gave the fringe players a chance to shine and to play for the title in what will almost certainly be the title decider in Cardiff against the Irish.

It proved to the established players that there is no divine right to a jersey and to the fringe players that they will get their chance, and it’s up to them to grab it. By contrast the Irish support, like Pavlov’s dog, expected the expected from their coach yesterday.

And instead, Kidney matched Gatland stroke for stroke. Out go Paddy Wallace, Tomás O’Leary, Jerry Flannery and Jamie Heaslip; in come Gordon D’Arcy, Peter Stringer, Rory Best and Denis Leamy. Compared to what we have seen, this is as revolutionary as Galileo and Keppler announcing the rotundity of the of the Earth.

Would you have made the same changes? Perhaps not. An Spailpín would quibble with one or two himself, but then bow to Kidney’s awesome judgement. We have not seen this before in Irish team selections. This is revolution. There are no sacred cows. Imagine how it will feel this week for D’Arcy, for Stringer, for Best and for Leamy when they hear the skirl of the pipes in Edinburgh on Saturday evening? They know that they have not waited in vain and if they put the Scots to the sword they can make the starting XV in Wales.

Does it show disrespect to the Scots? Yes, it does. About as much as Gatland showed the Italians, because the Scots and Italians are about equal. Is Kidney daring fate and history, the light of other Irish disappointment in Scotland? Yes, and rightly so. History can’t pull on a jersey, and the Scots’ proud history can’t help them now as they struggle to cope with the new world of professional rugby.

There was a time when Scottish rugby was epitomised by the likes of Finlay Calder, captain of the Lions in 1989 in Australia and a man best understood as a set of brass knuckles made flesh and bone. Chiefly bone, actually, as Ireland's former fullback Jim Staples could tell you.

But the days of Scotland having nine Lions, as they had twenty years ago in Australia, are of the past, and the talent gulf between the sides is now considerably in Ireland’s favour. Besides, if Ireland are running scared of the Scots, they have no business in going to Cardiff looking for glory. Glory does not cower before a faded power; it polishes it off, and looks forward to fresh fields of battle.

The rejuvenation of Brian O’Driscoll is perhaps Kidney’s greatest contribution to the Irish campaign so far. What O’Driscoll has you can’t coach. But the open competition for places fostered by Kidney, the absolute meritocracy that he has instilled and the unity of purpose shown by a team previously scared by internecine divisions are the great hallmarks of this rejuvenated Irish team.

Kidney has postponed the axe for the golden generation, and now the Slam is closer than it’s been in quite some time. They will have noticed in the valleys, and will not sleep easy in the coming ten days. And meanwhile, a nation on its knees is deeply grateful for whatever rugger mojo it is on which Declan Kidney seems to have the freehold. Roll on Saturday.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,