He has led Munster to four European Cup finals, winning two of them, and Ireland ended their long wait for a second Grand Slam in history under his watch. And he has the most successful record in Irish World Cup history, winning four out of five games.
What has been the foundation of this success? A rock solid defence.
In his time in Munster, Kidney always put emphasis on how we defended. He would regularly tell us that on average we were only in possession of the ball for 40% in most of our games and that we had to rely on how we guarded our line to win. I don’t know if there was any basis for this statistic but it certainly created a steely determination when we were confronting attacking teams like Toulouse and Leinster.
In the modern game, all professional sides have a fully dedicated defensive coach. Ireland has had some of the best. Mike Ford and Graham Steadman both moved on from their roles on these shores to work with England and Scotland respectively. Les Kiss, who was drafted into the squad by Kidney, has been a cornerstone in recent successes and can take huge credit for Ireland’s development in attack also.
But in their last two matches, the Welsh have exposed some glaring failings.
Wales targeted two specific weaknesses on Sunday. Warren Gatland clearly picked the blindside as one of his main attacking options. On two occasions in the first-half, Ireland were left with only two defenders against a fully stacked attack on the narrow side of the ruck. Mike Ross produced a great effort the first time to scramble across and haul down Jonathan Davies short of the Irish line, but two phases later Ross and Bowe were unable stop Priestland offloading to put Davies in for a try.
In international rugby, attackers have the ability to find mismatches and expose them. Wales loaded their blindside with backs and mobile back-rows. There was only going to be one result.
When Tony McGahan first arrived in Munster he had one simple mantra when we were defending: corner-flag, posts and corner-flag.
If a defender takes the time to scan his eyes across the pitch, he will realise where the attacking threat is. Last Sunday, Irish players were racing across to the open-side of the ruck when Wales quite clearly had the numbers down the blind.
Tonight, Ireland face the ice-cool Morgan Parra, , who pulls the strings behind his pack. He will attack any perceived shortage of manpower. The French back three of Maxime Médard, Vincent Clerc and Julien Malzieu would relish the opportunity to take on front-row forwards down the narrow side. Ireland have to work hard to match French attackers with sufficient numbers.
The other weakness the Welsh exposed was the Irish centre partnership. Brian O’Driscoll made his name as an attacking force, scoring great tries for the Lions and Ireland, but his ability to defend is just as impressive. He rarely misses a tackle and never deviates from the defensive system. And how he was missed in this regard last weekend. On Sunday Wales punished Ireland off first phase when Gordon D’Arcy rushed at big George North, who evaded him and then bounced off Fergus McFadden. Following a slick offload, and poor tracking back by the Irish defenders, Jonathan Davies was in for his second. It was eerily similar to the try Davies scored in the World Cup quarter-final.
Aurélien Rougerie and Wesley Fofana also pose a huge threat this evening. Ireland have struggled defending against big backs like Jamie Roberts and George North recently. Rougerie has a massive frame but also has winger’s pace. Fofana was explosive against the Italians and looks like he will be a big name in world rugby. Keith Earls and D’Arcy have to work cohesively, making sure they don’t get separated when faced with French attackers. They also have to link in with their wingers and shut down any French threats.
Ireland will get opportunities in attack. If they get quick ball and multiple phases in attack, France will struggle. But it is crucial they address weaknesses that have cost them dearly against Wales.