Ireland took on South Africa last Saturday hoping to put the embarrassment of their summer tour to New Zealand behind them, which included a 60-0 drubbing in the final test to complete the whitewash. South Africa, meanwhile, were coming off a second-place finish in the inaugural Rugby Championship, where they lost half of their games.
Injuries had hit Ireland hard, keeping the Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Rory Best (Irish, Munster and Ulster captains respectively) out of the side, as well as preventing Kidney from choosing a former ERC European Player of the Year, Seán O’Brien, the current ERC European Player of the Year, Rob Kearney, and human-wrecking ball, Stephen Ferris.
The result of these injuries was a new-look side, with Richardt Strauss making his Irish debut against his birth-nation, as well as against his cousin, and fellow hooker, Adriaan Strauss. Kidney also chose three uncapped players on the bench in the form of David Kilcoyne, Michael Bent and Iain Henderson.
South Africa were not without casualties either, with Bismarck du Plessis, Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brussouw, Juan Smith, Pierre Spies, Fourie du Preez, Francois Steyn and Jacque Fourie all unavailable, while Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira was a late cry-off for the Springboks.
In the end, South Africa finished stronger and came out as 16-12 winners, despite being down 12-3 at half-time. For all of Ireland’s good play in the first half, they were ultimately lacking in creativity in attack and D’Arcy looks to have lost yet another yard of pace in the centre.
The decision by Kidney to start Conor Murray will be questioned considering his form before the game, and his performance during it. Too often was he guilty of poor decision-making; whether it was a loose box-kick or his continued obsession with the blind side.
Murray needs to utilise his size by making more runs at the defence, much like Mike Philips of Wales. South Africa were happy to commit as few players as possible to the ruck defensively, which left space to be attacked just off the sides. If Murray were to have taken the ball on himself from the base of the ruck, and had his wingers been alert to the plan, an Irish try could have been fashioned.
It was never going to be easy for Ireland to beat the third-ranked test team in the world without six players who would be pretty much guaranteed a starting berth, but there was a lot riding on this game. At the end of the year, the pools for the 2015 World Cup will be drawn based on the IRB’s world rankings at that time. Going in to the internationals, Ireland lay in seventh place.
With Argentina’s 14-point victory over Wales earlier in the day, Ireland are now down to eighth in the provisional rankings. This puts them dangerously close to falling out of the second tier of seeds and guaranteeing them a place in a group of death come 2015.
If there is any doubts about whether or not the IRFU is thinking about this, look no further than their decision to not sanction a full test against Fiji. Since the IRFU have the match listed as an ‘A’ fixture, a loss would have no effect on their world ranking.
On the one hand, this could be the IRFU giving Kidney some leeway to give more game time to inexperienced players like Ian Madigan, Michael Bent and Paul Marshall and see how they work together, but on the other it shows a lack of confidence in the man currently behind the wheel of a misfiring Irish team.
Ireland’s record since winning the grand-slam in 2009 is played, won 23, drew 2 and lost 24, with nine of those wins coming from sides currently ranked outside of the top ten, and two of those losses coming against Scotland. During this period, Ireland have only beaten three teams ranked higher than them at the time of the match; South Africa (2009), England (2010) and Australia (2011).
Despite Leinster’s three Heineken Cups in four years and Ulster’s appearance as a real force in Europe over the last year, Kidney seems reluctant to bring in new players unless he is forced to or they are from Munster. It seems as if Kidney’s hero-status in Munster, as well as his villain status from his time at Leinster, has coloured his judgement.
Gordon D’Arcy is one of the greatest servants Irish rugby has had in recent years, but his body is feeling the effects of over a decade of top-level rugby. Despite having young players like Fergus McFadden, Darren Cave, Eoin O’Malley or even Danny Barnes, Kidney persists with what he knows. D’Arcy will be 33 at the start of the next Six Nations, and O’Driscoll will be 34, yet Kidney does not seem to be bringing through the next centre partnership.
We have seen this story already play out in the second row, with Kidney refusing to replace the O’Connell-O’Callaghan dynamic, even after it was no longer the starting pairing for Munster. O’Callaghan even managed to earn a spot on the bench, despite the performances of Dan Tuohy over the past year and the potential of Devin Toner.
With the Autumn Internationals already technically halfway over for Ireland, it would be a surprise to see any major changes to the Irish set-up. Hopefully the Six Nations will allow Kidney to start rebuilding a team without having to worry about the world rankings. Let’s just hope it’s not too late.