By Richard Anderson
There's been a lot of column inches this past few days devoted to Wales' triumph and England's resurgence, with the two stories battling for supremacy in the wake of the Six Nations.
Over the Irish sea, several people have good reason to be so glad that this is so, for it takes the spotlight off them and they can lick wounds in relative privacy. But it won't be so quiet for long, especially if the Irish head south in June with the same familiar old faces on the plane and take another beating.
There has been a positive reaction from the Irish hierarchy to the Twickenham debacle at least, albeit a quiet one. On a rugby-specific job website this week popped up an advertisement for an 'IRFU High Performance Scrum Coach'. The job specifications left little doubt that this was one to redress Ireland's big failing against England; the only line missing from the true meaning was a spec point saying 'candidate must make sure we never get obliterated like that again up front so help us God'.
In truth, Ireland's problems run significantly deeper than just the scrum. An ushering out of the old guard of players is longer overdue than a salary cap in the banking world. Lovely bloke though he is, that includes Declan Kidney, who just cannot seem to part with several players some distance past their sell-by date.
For example, it's been a long time since Gordon D'Arcy did anything outstanding on an international stage. Paul O'Connell may win line-out ball, but he concedes more penalties than he used to. Donncha O'Callaghan is past his best as well. The biggest debate of all is why the Irish persist in Ronan O'Gara, when the fly-half has simply zero chance of making the next Rugby World Cup and next to zero chance of making the next Lions tour? Where's the future benefit? Even Brian O'Driscoll, whose joints and bones are patched up with more duct tape than the average four year-old tackle pad, needs to be retained only on an advisory basis. His legacy will stay forever, but even he must concede that having spent more time off the field than on it over the past couple of years, it's time to go.
But it's in the coaching staff and tactics that the IRFU have to look hardest. The predictability behind the team and its manner of playing has been the biggest downfall. Start with Jonny Sexton and close it out with O'Gara's boot. Rough the opposition up in the forwards. Rush hard on defence and hold players up in a tackle. In a nutshell, that's about all it's been for too long: a direct contributor to both Wales' (in the World Cup) and England's ability to accurately locate the weaknesses and exploit them appropriately, as well as France's ability to bounce back from what should have been a losing deficit. You don't need to think too much about what Ireland will do, you just need to practice matching it. The older the players get the easier that is, Kidney just doesn't seem to be able to see it.
The post-World Cup years are about new beginnings. This Irish coaching staff has failed to heed that, also failing to heed the emergence of good young players in the four provinces and the need to start looking at what those players can offer, rather than suffocating them in the same old conservative game-plan. The IRFU now need to be decisive, to sweep clean and start again as the English have done, and what has happened in England could just nudge them in the right direction.
Mallett is a real rugby brain, a Professor of the game in all its nuances. He is also as belligerent a character as you could find, adept at making the toughest choices and sticking firmly to his guns. He believes deeply in bringing on youth apace and nurturing promise, more than relying just on grizzled experience. He will take young players under his wing and ensure that, even if not world-beaters, they will perform to their maximum potential.
It's a character and philosophy set that ticks every box Ireland needs if they are to regenerate. It would be the perfect fit, but we'll see if Ireland's bosses make that call. Something has to happen: too much more of the same old diet might see an entire generation of up-and-coming players lost in the stagnation.
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