Dublin: Ewen McKenzie, the Queensland Reds coach, has emerged as the front-runner to become the next Ireland head coach following the decision of the Irish Rugby Football Union on Tuesday not to offer Declan Kidney a new contract.
Kidney, who guided Ireland to a Grand Slam in 2009 but was the target of increasing criticism this season after a poor Six Nations campaign, left his post following a review process carried out by the IRFU’s national team review group.
Les Kiss, Ireland’s defence coach, has been appointed interim head coach for the side’s tour of North America, where he will be assisted by Gert Smal and Anthony Foley.
McKenzie’s recent announcement that he is to resign from his Queensland post at the end of the Super Rugby season to pursue a national coaching position has made him the favourite to replace Kidney on a permanent basis. Leinster coach Joe Schmidt, who is regarded as one of the finest coaches in Europe having guided the Irish province to back-to-back Heineken Cup titles, is also among the contenders despite signing a one-year extension earlier this season.
Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall would be the most qualified home-grown target for the IRFU, having guided Saracens to the Premiership title in 2011 and with the club still on course for a domestic and European double this season. But McCall signed a two-year extension with Saracens in January while Conor O’Shea, Harlequins’ director of rugby, recently ruled himself out of consideration for the job after being linked as a successor Kidney, 53.
Kidney’s fate was sealed when Ireland’s injury-ravaged campaign culminated in a first Six Nations defeat by Italy in Rome.
The tournament begun well for Ireland, with a stunning victory over eventual champions Wales in Cardiff. But defeats by England and Scotland and a draw against France, following controversial decisions such as appointing Jamie Heaslip as captain ahead of Brian O’Driscoll, left Kidney with few supporters in the IRFU.
Kidney had first come to prominence as a successful schools coach who led an Ireland Under-19s side featuring Brian O’Driscoll to victory in the 1998 World Cup in France, beating the host nation in the final. Having been an Ireland assistant coach during the 2003 World Cup, he was appointed as head coach of his national side in May 2008 but did not take up his position until after guiding Munster to their second Heineken Cup title that year.
In his first full season in charge he led Ireland to only their second ever Grand Slam, bridging a gap of 61 years, and was voted IRB coach of the year. Ireland won three of five matches in the 2010 and 2011 Six Nations and in the 2011 World Cup won all their pool matches in the tournament, including a famous victory over Australia before suffering a frustrating defeat to Wales in the quarter-final.
Ireland lost to England and Wales in the 2012 Six Nations and were thrashed 60-0 in the third of three Tests against the All Blacks that summer, having come within a whisker of beating New Zealand (22-19) in the second Test.
A thumping 46-24 win over Argentina in November augured well for Ireland’s Six Nations campaign however, but the victory over Wales proved to be a false dawn for the popular Corkman.