England contest could decide Declan Kidney's Ireland fate, as well as the Grand Slam


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The Independent Online

With his future tied to Ireland's fate in this Six Nations, coach Declan Kidney has stuck with his strongest hand for the potential Grand Slam decider with England on Sunday.

Despite injury concerns over Gordon D'Arcy, Peter O'Mahony and Keith Earls, all three have been passed by the medics as Ireland stick to the same 23 which won in Wales last weekend.

The trio's fitness will have been a relief to the coach, whose current contract expires in June. The Irish Rugby Football Union have yet to open talks about extending deal. How his team fare in the next four matches will certainly have a bearing.

Kidney has been feeling the squeeze since the two countries met in Twickenham last March when England bulldozed the Irish scrum en route to comfortable 30-9 win. What followed for the Irish was a disastrous summer tour to New Zealand where their 3-0 whitewash at the hands of the All Blacks was completed with a humiliating 60-0 defeat in Hamilton.

But having been backed into a corner, Kidney has broken with his normal conservative manner which has always seen him trust experience rather than gamble on youth. During November he capped Ulster winger Craig Gilroy, 21, Munster prop Dave Kilcoyne, then 23, and Ulster's striking back row Iain Henderson, 20. The turf-burning winger Simon Zebo, 22, also earned his second and third caps in the loss to South Africa and the win over Argentina which allowed the Irish to hold onto their second seeding for the 2015 World Cup.

Injuries may have forced the coach's hand to a degree, but he has also installed two seasoned campaigners who have arrived late to the Test scene in Connacht's Mike McCarthy, 31, and Munster's Donnacha Ryan, 29, in the second row.

In total nine personnel changes have been made from the mauling Ireland received just under 12 months ago in London. Although Irish captain Jamie Heaslip tried his best to downplay this weekend's match as an opportunity to seek revenge, the Leinster No 8 harbours a tremendous pain from the loss.

"I haven't really looked back at the England game an awful lot, it was grim enough in the changing room afterwards, it was a tough place to be," recalled Heaslip yesterday. "It was not a proud moment as a professional. Certainly, you bank them; any big loss you have to bank them. But the engineer in me allows me to be somewhat clinical and prevent the emotion coming into it too much when you're preparing for a game. Once you do have the clarity in your job role then you let your emotion out through your actions; that's when you bring out that sort of stuff. You dig deep for that."

Kidney, too, tried to reinforce the message that the Irish could ill-afford to let emotions run riot ahead of 80 minutes that will require the same clinical execution that they displayed until early in the second half against Wales.

"You have to just work hard to make sure it doesn't come into it," said Kidney. "The game itself is the same when you analyse it and let you emotions just settle down. It will be an extremely physical challenge, both technically and tactically. England are going to push us in every single way and they're the bits we have to be right for. We just have to put the emotion of the whole thing to one side. That's sometimes easier said than done."

As for Kidney's future, the IRFU are handling the situation with that same type of cold analysis and emotional detachment and the fact that the coach guided Ireland to their first Grand Slam in 61 years back in 2009 carries little weight now.

The Six Nations fixture list also haunts him like an idle henchman in the gallows. In the odd-numbered years Ireland play host to France and England which lends to an accepted logic that these seasons are their best chances at winning a Slam.

A tough hurdle has been overcome in the shape of Wales. If the Irish can beat England, then only the challenge of an off-colour French team in Dublin on 9 March should remain in the way of a clean sweep.

However, defeat could set Ireland off course and leave Kidney swimming against a tide from which he may not recover.