Declan Kidney has now woven the mentality of his Munster teams into the psyche of the national side, writes Martin Scanlon
The year 2009 will long be remembered as the year that Ireland ended its Grand Slam hoodoo stretching back to 1948. Such an achievement alone would normally satiate the appetite of the Irish rugby-following public, especially those capable of casting their minds back to the dismal days of the nineties when Ireland were perennial contenders for the Wooden Spoon. The country can justifiably hope that the successes of this year can be a watershed for the national team.
This coming weekend sees Ireland face their final and greatest challenge in their attempt to complete an unbeaten year. Victory against South Africa would confirm Ireland not only as genuine contenders for the World Cup in 2011 in terms of player potential, but also in terms of player belief.
The Golden Generation of the 2007 World Cup saw a sufficiently talented team implode under the weight of expectation. The core of that side still remains – so is it reasonable to believe that this is any less likely in New Zealand? The appointment of Declan Kidney as head coach may be the final piece of the puzzle.
Throughout his coaching career, one of Kidney’s defining aspects has been his ability to motivate and encourage his players. The first word that springs to mind when one thinks of his Munster teams is ‘resilience’. Although many other factors contributed, would Munster’s Heineken Cup semi-final second half capitulation to Leinster have been so emphatic under his guiding hand?
The final twenty minutes in particular of the Irish performance against Australia were reminiscent of the same stubbornness that was evident in Munster; that same never-say-die attitude.
Rocky Elsom’s try in the 62nd minute of the opening test in the autumn internationals would likely have battered the spirit of earlier Irish teams. In past games it is unlikely that Ireland would have been able to regroup after the television match official found Tommy Bowe had been held up whilst trying to ground the ball for what would have been his late equaliser. The fact that Ireland were even in a position to claim a draw, when for the majority of the opening sixty minutes they were second best, only highlights this newfound belief.
To many commentators, the World Cup of 2007 was to be the peak for this generation. The disappointment of that group stage exit combined with many previous grand slam failures under Eddie O’Sullivan should have been the death knell for that group of players, a view reinforced by Ireland’s mediocrity in the 2008 Six Nations. Kidney’s arrival, though, along with the emergence of some young talent has given a new lease of life into the squad.
Kidney will be acutely aware of the problems he will need to overcome if Ireland are to become world champions. Ireland’s scrum was again exposed by Australia and continues to be a major concern, while John Hayes will soon be collecting his pension book, and injuries will meanwhile have a much greater impact on a smaller nation like Ireland than on other countries with larger playing populations. However, Kidney in his quiet but assured manner will be working on a solution to these worries. The final minutes against Australia have shown that these failings need not be conclusive when the attitude is correct.
Saturday’s encounter with South Africa will be a useful gauge of how far Ireland has come and how far they have yet to travel. Ireland must now establish themselves as being capable of beating southern hemisphere sides on a regular basis, home or away. Under the guidance of Kidney, this has finally become a realistic possibility.