It will be no comfort to Declan Kidney as he prepares for a three-Test series in New Zealand but Sky Sports analyst Stuart Barnes believes the Ireland head coach has the hardest job in international rugby.
Kidney today names a preliminary squad for the pre-tour game against the Barbarians in Gloucester on May 29, having delayed the announcement by 24 hours to assess a number of injuries to his potential panel.
The former Munster coach will also no doubt be holding his breath this Saturday in fear of his players getting injured ahead of their series with the world champions during the all-Irish Heineken Cup final between Leinster and Ulster.
And that is not the only problem with that showpiece fixture that is hampering Kidney’s bid to emulate his first-season success in 2009, according to Barnes, who has a simple explanation for the failure to convert provincial success in Europe into Test glory.
“There is a correlation between regional strength and international weakness,” Barnes said yesterday in Dublin, as he previewed this weekend’s final for Sky Sports. “It is easier to come from a weak base and come up, if you have talented players in a country that doesn’t have too much depth, like Ireland and Wales.
“Wales have the Scarlets, Ospreys who are useful teams but not at the level of Leinster. They don’t seem as professional as the international team, so when the players go from the region to the national squad, it is a step up. Psychologically, that makes a difference.
“You look at Ireland — the Heineken Cup has become an all-important prize for the big three. Culturally, there has always been a chasm between how Leinster and Munster approach the game in terms of style and thought, while Ulster have their own style.”
That clash of styles and clearly defined province-by-province mindset further undermines Kidney, Barnes said.
“There has been a lot of criticism of Declan Kidney because he hasn’t been able to translate Heineken success into international success, but the players are arriving with such a clear identity — be it Munster or Leinster or Ulster — and that is much harder to meld into a whole than it would be for [Wales coaches] Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley.
“They get players from the Scarlets, the Blues and they are more than happy to play together. I don’t think there is a happy convergence in Ireland and it is a mark of the strength of the regions. It makes it extremely difficult for Kidney or whoever takes over from Declan when that time comes.”
Meanwhile, heaping on the pressure, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has vowed to use the three tests against Ireland to blood the next generation of All Blacks. Hansen, who took over from Graham Henry in the wake of the All Blacks’ World Cup triumph, named 21 of the players that helped clinch the Webb Ellis trophy in his 35-man squad for training camps, but also a slew of uncapped youngsters.
“We do have a large amount of the squad getting near 30 or plus-30 [years of age]. Over the next one to four years we’re going to have to make some changes,” he said.
“We feel at some point [the younger players] will don the All Blacks jersey and why not bring them in and let them experience the huge expectations and feelings in that camp?”
New Zealand squad (v Ireland): C Faumuina, M Nonu, K Mealamu, P Weepu, A Williams, T Woodcock, S Cane, A Cruden, R Kahui, T Kerr-Barlow, B Retallick, B Tameifuna, SB Williams, B Barrett, C Jane, J Savea, B Shields, C Smith, V Vito, D Carter, W Crockett, I Dagg, A Ellis, B Franks, O Franks, R McCaw, K Read, L Romano, L Whitelock, S Whitelock, T Ellison, A Hore, A Smith, B Smith, A Thomson.
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