In a Dublin airport hotel last Wednesday a group representing the national and provincial managements got together to plan a common route forward for the new season. They discussed things like player development and player welfare and channels of communication, and by several accounts it was an open forum and a useful experience.
Reviews like this are always a good idea so long as there is a willingness to change, if that’s the way the cards fall. Otherwise it’s like paying for a personal fitness trainer but keeping the local takeaway on speed dial. We suspect this is a process where the scope for change is non-existent. In which case the exercise will have been a waste of time and money. They meet again this week to move the whole thing to the next stage. More time lost; more money wasted.
Whatever spirit of cooperation emerges from this will disappear when the nuts and bolts need to be tightened. In the minefield of the season ahead there are potentially 11 weeks where Declan Kidney will want the provincial coaches to subtract their Test players from the equation. Of course he will be unpopular for this. He is sufficiently thick skinned to cope with that, but it is unfair to put him in the position in the first place.
The reason he has to ride point on this is because the IRFU are still clinging to the committee system. The amateurs are still calling the shots, and hired help like Kidney are sent out front to deal with the casualties.
When push comes to shove and these meetings are already parked out the back, the provinces won’t want to listen to Kidney’s plans on player management. There are two reasons for this: scientific, and practical.
The provinces are justified in questioning the scientific basis for the union’s demands on players’ downtime because the IRFU have lost all credibility when it comes to a national fitness programme. How else can you interpret their faffing around for 14 months when it came to replacing the head of fitness, Philip Morrow? Between informing them of his resignation in March last year, and his actual departure after the World Cup, there was a void. Bizarrely this extraordinary delay was presented as an illustration of how prized was the job and how detailed the global search to find a worthy doer. In the meantime there was nobody coordinating and leading the strength and conditioning function across the professional game in Ireland. Trying to implement a player management programme against that background left Declan Kidney stuck up a ladder.
The practical bit is driven by the coaches’ belief that they know the players best, and they have no interest in flogging them. Moreover they perceive it as an insult that they can’t be trusted to manage this process properly. There may be a discrepancy here between what they want from the players and what Ireland want – or rather, exactly (itals) when (end itals) it’s wanted – but you get the drift.
The gap between national and provincial will be harder to bridge now because Kidney is on his last lap, and represents nothing like the influential character who took the job only when he was good and ready, in 2008. Of course he should be irrelevant in all of this. And in a highly functional system, he would be.
If Ireland was serious about its business then the Director of Rugby would be all over this like a rash, and not the national coach. Problem is, if Kidney is a fading light then Eddie Wigglesworth’s beam is even less illuminating.
The solution is simple, albeit painful for a few. Seven years ago the IRFU announced it was joining the high performance age with a unit dedicated to that purpose. We await the appointment of its fourth director. Like other things down in Lansdowne Road, the idea wasn’t backed up with a plan.
Getting it right would require installing staff who would make and implement all the decisions that drive the professional game, from scientific support to player pathways to hiring and firing of coaches. This function would be independent of the committee men who owe their standing to club and provincial allegiances rather than a suitability to the task of running the professional game.
Nothing illustrates the clinging nature of the beast better than the Test match inquisition. In Warren Gatland’s tenure, all of 11 years ago, it worked like this.
“It would be up to Dublin on a Wednesday night and by the time you’d done all your work, all your analysis, all your reviews, you had all your information and you’re sitting there discussing the game with guys who didn’t have the information,” he recalled. “I found that frustrating. Then they’d go: ‘In my day when we’d play against Wales in the ‘60s and blah blah blah, and this is what we used to do. I found it incredibly frustrating sitting there and talking to a bunch of guys who didn’t understand the modern game. ”
Yet it persists. On the eve of internationals Declan Kidney regularly has to present his plans for the next day to the National Team Review Group. This is a five-man posse – Philip Browne usually bows out to leave it at four – where Pa Whelan and Tom Grace lead the charge. If this were the mid 1970s their input might be useful.
Instead they are at the core of an organisation that excels at managing money but consistently cocks up the development of the game. The current well-intentioned meetings between coaches and managers across the board is no more than hot air. What’s needed is a chill wind to blow out the old farts.
(Sunday Independent 19/8/12)