In bringing the curtain down on the era of Declan Kidney as Irish rugby coach, and before previewing that of Joe Schmidt, it is interesting to consider whether Kidney was good or just lucky, or in the end, neither! A mixture of injury crises, retirements and terrible refereeing decisions over the last two years in particular point to a coach who had little help from the rugby gods. The story now written of Kidneys time in charge is that of a coach who arrived on the coattails of Eddie O’Sullivan, eked out a lucky grand slam with what was “Eddie’s team”, and spent the following years fumbling in the dark for consistency and something approaching a modern game plan. This storyline also fits neatly with another Napoleon quote – “history is written by winners”, and the winners in this case are the legions of Irish fans who called for Kidneys head from the moment Ireland’s world cup journey ended last year.
First full disclosure, I’m a fan of Declan Kidney. The man has the most accomplished CV of any living Irish coach (with 2 Heineken cups and a Grand Slam), and is behind probably only Warren Gatland of current or recent Northern Hemisphere coaches. While I agreed that the time was right for him to go at the end of the Six Nations, I didn’t agree with the bile that was thrown at him by people all too quick to forget the success he brought to Ireland. I also don’t agree with the established narrative mentioned above of his time as Ireland coach. Before previewing the impact of Joe Schmidt on the team, I think it’s important to look back at the time of the man who held the position before him, with an emphasis on three main areas;
How can you measure luck you might ask? In a sports world increasingly obsessed with analytics and baseball driven sabermetrics how can you naively assign luck to any outcome? Well the same approach to analytics provides us with a simple way to calculate whether Irelands win loss record over the last 5 years was representative of their point’s differential and the expected outcome that should provide, or whether they were a bit unlucky.
The theory in question is based on the straight forward idea that a team’s points differential is a more accurate way to predict a team’s win loss record then the record itself. Not all wins are created equal, and beating a team by 1 or 2 points is not the same as blowing a team out by 20. You usually need things to break your way to win by 1 or 2 points, but in a blow out the fine lines are not there.
The theory is called the Pythagorean Theorem and was initially developed by Bill James (the godfather of sports analytics) to be used in baseball, and was subsequently adapted for American football. Handily for us the scoring system in American football is broadly similar to rugby and so the Theorem is transferable. The formula is as follows;
[Points For (2.37) / (Points For (2.37) + Points Against (2.37))] x number of games played
So taking a simple example; in the 2012 Six Nations Ireland won 2 games, scoring 121 points and conceding 94. The formula is [121(2.37) / (121 (2.37) + 94 (2.37))] x 5 = 3.23. Ireland’s expected win total based on point’s differential was therefore just over 3 wins; however they actually on won 2 games that year. Charting Ireland over the past 7 years a trend emerges showing that in only one season did the win loss record exceed what is predicted by the point differential, and shows Ireland’s record being over a full game worse in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons. A significant difference when you only play 5 games.
So was Kidney unlucky? The above chart would hint that maybe he was. Though it could also be debated whether even winning 3 out of 5 games would have been good enough to keep his job. This is particularly the case when his predecessor consistently won 4 and the Triple Crown, and still couldn’t keep his. As is the case with all statistical analysis however, the numbers only tell you so much and therefore it’s also important to review other issues, which were somewhat outside Kidneys control, but which had a huge impact on his time as coach of Ireland; namely retirements and injuries.
Here is the Irish squad which ran out against Wales in 2009 in the Grand Slam winning game;
Backs: Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordan D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald, Ronan O’Gara, Tomas O’Leary
Pack: Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris, David Wallace, Jamie Heaslip
Subs: Geordan Murphy, Paddy Wallace, Peter Stringer, Rory Best, Denis Leamy, Tom Court, Mick O’Driscoll.
Of that squad Horan, Flannery, Hayes, Wallace, Murphy, Leamy and Mick O’Driscoll all retired from international rugby in the last 3 years. This means that one third of the first choice Irish panel from that day had to be replaced, and while in some cases there was significant talent (Cian Healy) and experience (Rory Best) to take their place, it would be foolish to ignore the impact on the Irish team.
Take the example of John Hayes. He was often criticised as being a poor, non destructive, scrummager, but he never suffered a day at the office like Tom Court (admittedly playing out of position) and Mike Ross did in Twickenham in 2012. He also was incredibly durable, a trait easy to overlook but critical given Ireland’s lack of options in the position (and something I discuss further below), and a key cog in Ireland’s line out.
Of course retirements should not be used as a crutch for Kidney, it is a basic fact of sport that players grow older and can no longer play the game. He had time to develop a squad capable of dealing with this. However, given that experience is a crucial component in developing consistency, the fact that there was a huge turnover in the squad from his first season certainly did not help.
Let’s again take a look at the Grand Slam squad mentioned above and see the impact of injuries on it and on other key Irish players over the following years.
Of the 20 games played in the six nations following 2009 the impact of injuries on the Irish squad has been little short of amazing. The brackets below show the amount of games of that 20 played by the 2009 squad;
Backs: Rob Kearney (14), Tommy Bowe (13), Brian O’Driscoll (20), Gordan D’Arcy (17), Luke Fitzgerald (7), Ronan O’Gara (17), Tomas O’Leary (4)
Pack: Marcus Horan (0), Jerry Flannery (2), John Hayes (5), Donncha O’Callaghan (17), Paul O’Connell (13), Stephen Ferris (9), David Wallace (10), Jamie Heaslip (19)
Subs: Geordan Murphy (3), Paddy Wallace (5), Peter Stringer (3), Rory Best (20), Denis Leamy (4), Tom Court (13), Mick O’Driscoll (0).
A quick review of the above shows key players from that squad such as Paul O’Connell, Jerry Flannery, Tomas O’Leary, Luke Fitzgerald, Denis Leamy and Stephen Ferris missing large amounts of games due to injuries. In the case of O’Leary and Fitzgerald those injuries have dramatically stalled their careers (with O’Leary falling from being a member of the 2009 Lions touring party to being released by Munster less than 3 years and numerous injuries later). And tragically in the case of Leamy, and to a certain extent Flannery, it meant early retirement.
And in 2013, with the injury bug hitting worst of all, other key players (Johnny Sexton for nearly 4 games) were also lost during the Six Nations, exacerbating an already threadbare squad.
As with the retirement issue discussed above, injuries cannot be used completely as a crutch for the failings of the team, and Kidneys, management. However, when you add injuries on top of a team in transition, in a country with relatively shallow pool of players, you end up in a tough situation.
There are obviously arguments which can be made against the analysis above.
As a professional team you should make your own luck, and winning close games is a sign of a well coached team who know how to close a game out.
Retirements and injuries could have been managed better if Kidney had not been so wedded to the squad he inherited – see the Ian Madigan/Paddy Jackson v Ronan O’Gara argument.
The final answer is ultimately somewhere in between. Declan Kidney is an excellent coach and should be fondly remembered as the man who led Ireland to their first Grand Slam in 61 years. He also should be remembered as someone who dealt with a huge turnover of players and with a lot of injuries. I am not however writing that you should ignore the win loss record, and feel sorry for him. His tenure had probably run its course, and a certain amount of freshness of ideas and approach is no bad thing. But his time in charge deserves a different narrative, with a broader perspective on the good, the bad and the circumstances.
I just hope that Joe Schmidt gets better breaks and better injury luck, because he will have to deal with the most significant retirement of them all – Brian O’Driscoll.