As Tom Brady has said many times, don’t get too up when you’re up or too down when you’re down. The New England Patriots quarterback knows all about winning and losing – he’s got three Super Bowl rings, but has recently been on the end of two losses in the NFL’s biggest game.
Ireland U20s beat the Baby Boks a week ago [an outfit that just trounced the English U20s], and most Irish rugby followers were proclaiming their satisfaction with the future health of the game in the country. The likes of tighthead Tadgh Furlong, lock Iain Henderson, openside Conor Gilsenan and outhalf JJ Hanrahan look like they have the potential to make the step up from representative underage rugby to the test arena within the next three or four years. Four players from one year is a pretty high success rate, and providing injury doesn’t interfere, three of them – Furlong, Henderson and Hanrahan – look like can’t miss prospects.
Then we lose quite badly to the All Blacks at test level with a team lacking four nailed on starters [Ross, O'Connell, Ferris and Bowe – three of them Lions] in a line-up that has new combinations in the front row, second row, back-row, centers and back three and all of a sudden everything is doom and gloom?
If anybody thought that we were going to beat the world champion All Blacks away from home on the back of a two-win Six Nations, when the recent form card saw a 18-38 home loss and a 66-28 away loss, their optimism might just have veered into delusion. We will always need our best players on the park if we’re going to beat NZ away from home.
Anytime the Irish team ship a big loss – and fans have seen two big losses in the last two games – the soul-searching goes into overdrive. There seems to be only a veneer of confidence about Irish rugby … the sort of braggadocio that demands ‘we’ believe we should beat the All Blacks on their own patch when we have a weakened team, but that when the game is lost prompts questions about the fabric of Irish rugby down to mini-rugby level. “We should play kids without boots! The Schools Senior Cup should be a league!”
Calma. Irish rugby is not in particularly bad shape on a macro level. However, at the very point of the spear, the IRFU have handled some serious issues pretty slackly over the last twelve months, and are only getting things ship-shape now.
Johnny Foreigner Taking Our Jobs
They felt the need to issue their document on NIQ players in the middle of the provincial season, when all Irish rugby supporters are concentrating on the Pro12 and HEC – if they had done it post-Six Nations, or even at the end of this tour, it would have met with a lot less resistance from the general rugby fan. Irish rugby fans are like chefs – they work with in-season produce. They support their provinces when they’re in-season, and they support the national team when it’s in-season.
Those responsible for the national planning document had only the brusquest of conferrals with the provincial management teams, and then sprung a paper full of holes right in the middle of the provincial season. It had a few stupid clauses that should have been ironed out before going to print, and if the reasoning behind the timing was the supposed urgency to release it before January [generally contract season], they just read their audience entirely wrong.We should decrease our reliance on non-Irish qualified players over the next three-four years. If all four provinces work to a 4 NIE + 1 NIQ [project player] for the next two seasons [up to the end of the 20-13-14 season] and then a reduced a 3NIE + 1NIQ system from then on – and if the PCRG does its job halfway competently and doesn’t automatically okay every foreign tighthead that each province chances its arm with and brings to the contract table – who’d have any real complaints?
As reported in this excellent article by Dexy’s, the PCRG [Professional Contracts Review Group] is composed of Martin O’Sullivan, Pa Whelan, Tom Grace, Eddie Wigglesworth and Philip Browne. It seems an oversight that nobody from the management of the senior national team is involved. The manager’s job [currently held by Mick Kearney] is somewhat nebulous and underpowered in many respects; this should be an important part of his role. There’s no good reason why he shouldn’t bring the national team’s interests to the table.
If Declan Kidney thinks that the abundance of foreign tightheads employed in Ireland are hurting the national team, his opinion should be represented on-record, not as a reported conversation he had with one of the members of the group. It seems that one hand of the IRFU are continually professing the primacy of the national team and then undercutting it with the other hand. The PCRG can veto any potential signing that the provinces bring in front of them … and yet they signed off on both BJ Botha moving to Munster from Ulster and Ulster drafting in John Afoa. How odd.
It’s not just with regards to non-Irish-eligible players where the decisions have been questionable. Nobody knows how much influence the head coach has on who is awarded central contracts – he’s not even in the PCRG, and yet surely there’s no better-placed man to advise on who is vital to the national team. I don’t like to heap misery on a player who has had to retire prematurely, but the decision to award Dennis Leamy a two-year central contract was ill-judged. The second half of Leamy’s career has been plagued by very serious injuries, he had passed his thirtieth birthday and was no longer capable of getting into his provincial starting line-up. Was he really central to Ireland’s plans going forward for the next two years? As it turned out, he didn’t play a single minute of rugby after he signed on the line that is dotted.
The Mole likes seeing guys like Isa Nacewa play for Leinster, Howlett for Munster and Pienaar for Ulster. Ray Ofisa was a great servant for Connacht. They’re exciting. The idea that the provinces should exist solely to supply players to an Irish team and not to compete in their own right would be an enormous turn-off for a majority of rugby fans. There’s no guarantee of success even if you did something like that: look at what happened to Graham Henry in 2007, when he took his All Blacks out of Super Rugby for seven weeks and then got knocked out in the RWC07 quarter-finals by France [on neutral territory in Cardiff, no less].
Irish rugby can sustain 16 NIQ players out of 160 [if we take each provincial squad as having 40 senior pros, with each of them containing 3 NIE players and 1 project player]. They can add enormous value to the game in this country, even if they don’t play tests for Ireland.
Unfilled Top Jobs And Work Left Undone
There were more admin shenanigans up top for the team ‘that drives the game’: as far as The Mole is aware, the IRFU were without a Head of Fitness for seven to eight months. Philip Morrow was appointed in August 2010 in that role, but who’s heard of him anytime in the last eight months? Nobody. He joined Saracens after RWC11. The IRFU advertised the post on 24 October on their website but have only recently [17 May] appointed South African Dave Clark to take over the role, suggesting that it was vacant from October to May, i.e. almost the entire season.
Massimo Cuttita was appointed as High Performance scrum coach a few days afterward [20 May] but, as reported by Brendan Fanning, he won’t be available for duty until December, when his contract with Scotland expires. The position was advertised a couple of days after the set-piece disintegration in Twickenham, but it’s an entirely new role. Despite the fact that Ireland’s scrum has been shown to be a weakness since it was destroyed in Paris in February 2010, and both the provincial teams and the national side have been repeatedly targeted in the set-piece for a number of years, little was done to remedy the situation bar sub-contracting Greg Feek from Leinster for almost two years. Leinster got plowed by Toulouse at scrum time in the 2009-10 Heineken Cup semi-final in early May, and Feek was appointed in mid-June of that year by the province. You can look at that as a knee-jerk reaction, or you can say that four-five weeks is a reasonable amount of time to headhunt a specialist.
There’s still no dedicated attack coach for the first team, and I think it’s fair to say that we have seen a drop off in our defense since Les Kiss started double-jobbing.
It looks like these major positions have now been filled, which is a positive, but the lag in recruiting Clark and the leisurely approach to implementing a country-wide scrum strategy bear reporting. Sometimes the IRFU are unfairly criticised, while other teams they provide a stick with which to beat themselves. Again, it’s good that there are now highly-respected individuals in place in these posts, and the IRFU deserve a degree of credit … but they also deserve a degree of criticism for being consistently reactive, and even then slow to react.
The union [and specifically Philip Browne] consistently talk about the international team being the priority because it earns the money that feeds the rest of the game – and yet to all extents and purposes it looks like they have been cutting corners with the preparation of the international team. No national scrum coach? No national head of fitness? No dedicated attack coach? Come on. Clive Woodward got things right and things wrong when he was the English head coach, but he was always impeccably well-organised, and England were always a well-organised outfit under him.
Good Coaching = Great Value
Investment in technical coaching is money well-spent. The famous speech in Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday about ‘the inches’ making the difference is as relevant on the training paddock as it is on the playing field. That’s where professionals hone their skills – those long hours of effort in the gym and on the field during the week. If that time is well spent, and players improve their strength levels and aerobic fitness, rehabilitate from injuries quicker, up their personal skillset and their unit skills, then you can see an enormous change in attitude, performance and results. On the other hand, if players aren’t being challenged, aren’t being given the right information or aren’t being taught well, you can waste great potential.
Leinster went from scoring 27 tries in 18 games in the 2009-10 regular season in the Magners League [1.5 tries per game] with Alan Gaffney as attack coach and finishing with the second lowest total of tries scored in the league, to 50 in 22 games [2.27 tries/game] in the 2010-11 regular season in the Pro12 with Joe Schmidt as head coach, the second highest number of tries scored. If the average doesn’t sound that much better, put it like this: they scored an extra 23 tries in just 4 more games. They had almost exactly the same playing personnel both years, so the coach has to take huge credit.
Technical coaches – a scrum coach or a skills coach, for example – don’t have to have the rounded capabilities of a head coach: they don’t have to deal with the media on a daily basis, they don’t have to shoulder the responsibility of selection, they don’t have to do too much institutional glad-handing or be available with sponsors for meet-and-greet. All they have to take care of is their patch. It’s a narrower focus which demands expertise in fewer departments. As such, it’s an easier job, which means that more people can do it, which means that they don’t get paid as much. A scrum coach who costs €50k per annum or a player who can only command €50K per annum: who’s better value? If you look further down the line than the end of the season, the longevity factor comes into play … while coaching a scrum isn’t quite a desk job, it doesn’t carry the inherent injury risk of playing games. There’s no reason a good scrum coach can’t have a 20-25 year career if he’s in continual employment and keeps up to date with law changes and technique tweaks.
Over the next couple of years, The Mole would hope to see scrummaging coaches employed by all four provinces. Cuttita’s systems should be an obvious blueprint to work from [there are only so many ways you can scrummage correctly, after all] but individual coaches should bring their own knowledge and utilize the experience that their playing personnel bring with them. However, having a player as your de facto scrum coach – as is rumoured to be the case in Ulster with John Afoa, and in Munster with BJ Botha [despite the presence of Paul McCarthy] – isn’t a sustainable situation.
All things being equal, it’s nice to have an Irish head coach … that’s about it. Nice. On a hierarchical level, what matters most are
- 1] the results; and
- 2] the performances.
The most important part of a coach’s make-up is his ability to improve his team. His nationality? Why does it matter? All things being equal, it’d be great to have an Irish head coach. Would The Mole rather Ireland played 10 matches and won 9 with a New Zealander as a coach or played 10 and won 8 with an Irishman as a coach? I’ll take the Kiwi, please.
Giving a weight to a coach’s nationality rather than their ability – I can’t see the positives. I’m glad that Michael Bradley, Mark McCall and Conor O’Shea are doing well in the UK [and I believe Simon Easterby will do well too]. The only one of them you’d want anywhere near the Irish job is O’Shea: Bradley’s Edinburgh team conceded a thousand tries and McCall’s Saracens played an absolute abortion of a brand of rugby. I’d take Exeter’s Rob Baxter or the Waikato Chiefs’ Dave Rennie over either of them if I were picking a coach.
The Current Coaching Ticket
The Mole believes that there’s little chance of the IRFU sacking Kidney before his term is up; they wouldn’t want to be seen to sack the coach who delivered the first Grand Slam in sixty years.
It seems to me that Kidney will emerge from this test series as a lame duck head coach. He had a reasonable RWC11, but the disappointment of the quarter-final loss to Wales unfortunately cancelled out the elation of the group win over Australia [at least in my eyes]. The form shown in the following Six Nations was very iffy and the tournament ended with as crushing a loss as we have seen against NH opposition during his tenure, against a non-vintage English team. There was very little exposure for players who had put their hands up for selection in the previous four months.
When you take into account that we lost all four of our warm-up games in August 2011 and preceded that with an ordinary Six Nations [bar one good win against the Grand Slam-chasing English, which went a long way to show that the players in green that day are well capable of performing at test level], it’s been a long run of mediocrity.
We only have two tests in November 2012, so there’s little possibility of gaining any sort of momentum there. Ireland have never lost to Argentina at home [we've only played them six times here] and even though they’re a fine side and will be coming off a first appearance in the Rugby Championship, anything less than a win will unfortunately be a historic failure, while a win won’t guarantee that many kudos. It’s a crap fixture for the coach, a lose/lose situation. Argentina typically play a dull, grinding brand of rugby, so it’s difficult to look good against them.
His recent complaints about having to use the national team as an arena for two debutant tightheads to get experience were pretty cringe-worthy for a number of reasons, and showed that the pressure of the job is beginning to take its toll on him.
Firstly, Deccie Fitzpatrick played pretty well, and while Ronan Loughney didn’t do quite as good a job, so be it. He didn’t disgrace himself either. The game wasn’t lost at the scrum, as it was against England. Kidney consistently refers to test rugby as a step up from provincial rugby, so where else are they going to get experience of test rugby than at test level, in that case? Secondly, this is the man who has given thirty caps to Tom Court and twenty-five to Tony Buckley, and was still capping John Hayes as a 37-year old – five years older than Mike Ross is now – after he had been brutally exposed as past-prime in the 2009-10 Six Nations [Hayes was capped twice in November 2010 and once in August 2011].
After 42 starts and 8 appearances off the bench for Connacht in two seasons at tighthead, Jamie Hagan couldn’t even get into the RWC11 training group. Mike Ross couldn’t get a look in for Ireland over four tests in November 2010 despite being obviously the best tighthead scrummager in the country. As Greg Feek said in a recent Irish Times interview: “I’ve said before about depth and growing other guys not just within our provinces but within the national squad as well.” It’s seems clear to me that there’s a difference of opinion in that regard between Feek and Kidney, and that the former backs his coaching ability to improve props as scrummagers.
Across the team though, The Mole has seen nothing in the way Ireland have played in the last two years to convince me that we’re improving, and as Drico has said many times, “If you’re standing still, you’re going backwards”. I’d suggest that we’re not even standing still at the moment, but that we’re regressing.