Lions tour can’t come quick enough

There has been times over his decorated coaching career that Declan Kidney has been characterised as a lucky general.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of that assertion in the past, nobody would dare make that claim in what has been a calamitous year for the Cork man.

The Six Nations championship has been such a nightmare for Kidney that every time his mobile rings now, he must brace himself for bad news. While he stands indicted of some questionable decisions since the tour to New Zealand last June, Kidney has had to deal with a multitude of issues outside of his control over the past few months, not least a horrendous sequence of injuries. These things always seem to happen in times of adversity and despite the admirable stance of the management not to use it as an excuse, it stands as a major factor in what is proving an incredibly testing championship.

Even the weather has conspired against Ireland’s cause in the two home games against England and France when the bulk and power of the visiting forwards became a major factor in the final quarter of each contest. I was pitchside after the game on Saturday and you really had to be there to appreciate just how difficult the conditions were.

While Ireland’s kicking strategy worked a treat for the majority of the game, the lack of impact off the bench was always going to tell in a contest such as this. Even then, Ireland were extremely unlucky not to score five minutes from the end when Keith Earls was bundled into touch by the massive Vincent Debaty. I have been asked about the incident by so many people since the game ended on Saturday that it merits revisiting.

The awarding of a penalty try was never on as, in all probability, the covering Louis Picamoles would still have got to the ball ahead of Earls. That said, law 10.1(a) which covers charging or pushing states: “when a player and an opponent are running for the ball, either player must not charge or push the other except shoulder-to-shoulder. Sanction: penalty kick.”

There was no way that the charge by Debaty on Earls could be described as shoulder-to-shoulder as he clearly used his elbow to dislodge the off balance Earls. Therefore it should have been a penalty and a chance for Ireland to close out the game. On any other day, that call should have gone Ireland’s way. It didn’t help the cause when referee Steve Walsh influenced the decision of Nigel Whitehouse when he interjected during the TMO’s video analysis and said “I’m pretty comfortable with the shoulder-to-shoulder running”.

I have been immensely impressed by the manner in which the squad, despite all those injury setbacks, keep dusting themselves off and just go about the business of preparing for the next challenge and, make no mistake, the first ever visit of an Irish side to the Stadio Olimpico next Saturday promises to test that resilience even further. The game is already a 72,000 sell out as the Italians seek to finish their campaign where it started — with a win — in front of an ever increasing and passionate Italian rugby public.

Turned off by a never-ending sequence of scandals on the soccer front, rugby in Italy continues to attract a growing audience.

The Italians have played some great rugby in what has proved to be a very poor championship. After the opening weekend, it has gone steadily down hill with the 18 penalty kicks at goal — a new record for test rugby — in the game in Murrayfield last Saturday, a new low. It is estimated that between preparation and execution of those kicks, Leigh Halfpenny and Greig Laidlaw accounted for over 20 minutes of game time alone. That and the endless resetting of scrums, coupled with free kicks for early engagement, turned that game into a complete snorefest.

In contrast Italy, even in defeat, produced the performance of the weekend when they pushed England all the way in Twickenham. The least they deserved was a draw as this developing England side finally began to show that the weight of expectation, with a potential Grand Slam looming, was beginning to grip their collective mindset. The Italians will take much from that outing and will relish the prospect of making life equally difficult for the visiting Irish in Rome.

The speculation surrounding the future of Brian O’Driscoll reached new levels last weekend with the prospect of a last ever appearance on the hallowed turf of Lansdowne Road registering in the minds of his adoring public. One thing is relatively clear at this stage and that is if he decides to carry on for another season, it will be on all fronts and not just for Leinster.

It is also fair to say that speculating on the issue is pointless as even Brian himself has no idea at this stage whether he will go or stay. Despite the fact that his IRFU contract is up in June, O’Driscoll will postpone any final decision until after the Lions, a tour that he is now certain to make, and in my opinion, should lead. I have no doubt that his employers will facilitate him in whatever decision he makes.

Mention of the Lions offers a reminder that Declan Kidney isn’t the only international coach that has been bedeviled with injuries as his Australian counterpart Robbie Deans had an even worse time of things on that front last season. With the commencement of the Super 15 season down under and the Australian sides going into action a week earlier than their SANZAR partners to facilitate the Lions schedule, Deans must have hoped for a change of fortune. However, when news filtered through that his potential Lions series captain and outstanding open side David Pocock was carried off for the Brumbies against Michael Cheika’s Waratahs last Saturday with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, his heart must have sunk.

Pocock is a massive loss for Australia and for the Lions tour as a whole. It adds to the magic of a Lions test series when all the best players from both sides are pitted against each other. The likelihood of that happening is zero as Warren Gatland, not unlike Kidney and Deans, will undoubtedly face setbacks on that front well in advance of the first test in Brisbane which is now less than 15 weeks away.

The big question on all Aussie supporters lips now is whether this will open the way for a dramatic return for the 110-times capped George Smith, who recently expressed an interest in returning to the test arena after a number of seasons playing abroad.

To do so may require a clearance from his Japanese club Suntory Sungoliath as he is only on a short-term contract with the Brumbies. O’Driscoll may not be the only survivor from that gripping 2001 series after all.

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