JOHN MCHENRY: In defence of Declan

Sunday’s result was a bad one for Irish rugby, but the way some of our most esteemed pundits reacted to the result bordered on hysteria, embracing the straight-to-execution culture so evident in our society these days.

The fact Ireland lost to an inferior Scottish team is without question, but haven’t Scotland wrecked the best laid plans of many international teams at Murrayfield down throughout the years?

Declan Kidney and his coaching staff will now be forced to take responsibility for what was a very poor performance on the pitch, yet if only a very few small things like passes had gone to hand or penalty kicks found touch then the final result would likely have been so different.

For much of this year’s Autumn and Six Nations campaign it has seemed that some in the media have an agenda to oust Kidney from his position as national coach in favour of other high profile candidates who currently are experiencing success with their provincial (Leinster) and Premiership sides (Harlequins) in the UK, but Kidney’s own provincial and international success, (such as Ireland’s memorable victory over Australia in last year’s World Cup) cannot be so easily forgotten either.

Kidney’s tenure as head coach ultimately rests with the IRFU now but hopefully in time some in the media will come to fully recognise his more recent achievements which I feel bode well for the future of Irish rugby as a whole.

As a professional golfer on tour years ago, I witnessed first hand the transition of the game of golf from finesse to power. Within a decade, players had transformed their bodies into leaner, more efficient machines capable of maximising the benefits from the evolving technology in the game. Players in some instances were hitting the ball 60-70 yards further off the tee boxes. Once famed championship courses were now being overrun and being made redundant, while many of the more elite finesse players were simply flushed out of the system, simply incapable of matching the talents of a younger generation.

Evolution in sports is a good thing. In a professional game like golf, you must evolve or not survive. You are responsible for your own destiny. In a professional team sport like rugby, the same evolution must occur and this means making the changes essential for the greater good of the team.

Critics will argue that professional rugby is purely about results — and to a degree they are right — but is it beneficial to the welfare of a squad to always play your strongest players?

Was Kidney guilty in fact during his tenure as Munster head coach of doing this to the detriment of the development and emergence of younger players like Donnacha Ryan?

Maybe he has learned from those experiences.

It seems he is, in fact, very conscious of the importance of Ireland’s evolution continuing apace in order that Ireland maintain a certain standard that keeps them at the upper echelon of the world’s leading rugby nations. He also now seems to be determined to blood emerging talent in order to give them the necessary experience to compete at international level. Doesn’t Alex Ferguson, one of football’s most decorated managers, do the same?

He understands the value of investing in youth given the voracious appetite they have for learning and progression in sport.

Kidney is pigeon-holed as being conservative by nature, yet for many years he has demonstrated deft management, plotting strategy both for on-field play and organisational success while also running a happy camp, free of player controversy. He promotes provincial players to warm up alongside senior international players every day and this year,despite calls from many observers to play it safer, he has backed youth and in the process unearthed many players capable of gracing the international stage for many years to come.

Managing this process has not been easy with the incessant media scrutiny and it has involved relieving Ireland’s most decorated captain of that role. Unavoidably over time it will also involve cutting older players who may no longer be right for the team. For Kidney, that time may arrive sooner than later. No doubt it will be hard for him to let go of a player who may have served his province and country so well, but his focus undoubtedly will remain on adapting to the changing times and improving the performances of his players.

For now he will have to trade-off between managing for the short and long run and in doing so he will have to take calculated risks. As we witnessed Sunday, there is always a risk element in doing just that, but his senior players must also share that responsibility. Who knows what the future holds for Declan Kidney? But he deserves to be sleeping soundly in the knowledge he is building a sound foundation for Irish rugby — regardless of who manages the team in the future.

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