Axel Foley's Shogun

Axel Foley’s Shogun

As Rob Penney departs for the Land of the Rising Sun, the Mole stumbled across a reference to an era of that proud nation’s history that struck him as appropriate for the times.

The Sakoku foreign relations policy was instituted by Japan during the 17th century and remained in effect for over 200 years until 1853. Under Sakoku (“chained country”), no foreigner could enter nor could any Japanese leave the country on penalty of death.

It is conventionally regarded that the shogunate imposed and enforced the sakoku policy in order to remove the colonial and religious influence of primarily Spain and Portugal, which was perceived as posing a threat to the stability of the shogunate and to peace in the archipelago.

Most overseas influence has been removed from Munster’s foreign policy and they’ll go to compete in next year’s European competition with an all Irish coaching ticket and an aspiring Irishman in the backline. Shogun Foley will have no truck with this expansive, lateral, front-five-on-the-wing nonsense. Not only is the coaching ticket Irish, it’s all-Munster with Con and Shannon particularly prominent. UL Bohs’ Ian Costello is the only man from outside that duopoly so we know who to point the finger at!

While all new coaching tickets (brains trusts?) are interesting, particularly in a club as celebrated as Munster, these appointments could be a new model for Irish provinces who have been near addicted to Antipodeans since the inception of professionalism. There is no established pathway for a dedicated club coach to move from muddy evenings under floodlights to daily training on the all-weather. Brian Walsh’s progress will be interesting for that alone. He is not the first as Brian McLaughlin and, further back, Bobby Byrne made the transition from Joe to pro while il Dece was a teacher on secondment until the end of his reign as Irish coach. However, he is the latest and that’s enough.

Part of me wonders how much of this was choice and how much was forced upon Munster. Foley strikes me as a very good coach. Ireland’s forwards improved under his watch and when he took over defence that went well also. For the last two seasons Munster’s pack has been strong with a particularly well drilled maul. Foley also gives the strong impression of a man who looks reluctant to go past Roscrea if he can avoid it and I wonder what his network outside of Munster is like and whether working with Foley is an attractive proposition from a political and career point of view. Rob Penney never looked comfortable beside Foley and Brendan Fanning hinted that Franco Smith of Treviso had been approached as backs coach but had rejected the move.

Pat Lam’s appointment as Connacht coach may not have been greeted with universal acclaim but it seems that Kiwis love Pat and his ability to attract players of the quality of Bundee Aki and Mils Muliaina to Connacht is extremely impressive. Knowing the right agents in the Southern Hemisphere and getting players to go to your club rather than France or Japan or, worse yet, a competitor, is an important skill for a big club coach. The travails of David Moyes’ and Ed Woodward’s first summer in the transfer market was an indication that even iconic brands can struggle if the infrastructure is not in place.

The media coverage of Foley and his team and how they deal with it will be very interesting. As a tracksuit coach you get wheeled out for the occasional media days and say your bit for the scribes and cameras. As head honcho you act as a lightning rod for an opinionated public reluctant to criticise players but looking for someone to blame! The quote I most readily associate with the late great Paidi O’Sé was “Being a Kerry manager is probably the hardest job in the world because Kerry people, I’d say, are the roughest type of f****** animals you could ever deal with. And you can print that.” He qualified that shortly afterwards as “What I meant in the article about the Kerry supporters is that they are very hard to please, always demanding the highest standards, because they are a very proud race of people.”

Are Munster rugby folk that different from Kerry football supporters? I’d say there’s little difference and that on some occasions they are one and the same. Jerry Flannery’s wise cracks and media experience ar an teilifis will doubtless come in useful next season but people will be paying attention to what he says then.

On the subject of players getting a free pass while coaches cop the flak, the xenophobia in Leinster has been a very disappointing aspect of the season. It seems to me that Jimmy Gopperth and Matt O’Connor get most of the blame for Leinster finishing, er, top of the league and with a home final.

I feel a bit hypocritical writing this as I’ve been shaking my head in frustration at the standard of some of Leinster’s play this season. Nonetheless, I’m also of the opinion that ascribing the drop in standards solely to the coach is fan-boy populism. We know the players are professional and competitive so they must know that passing the ball behind each other and running across the pitch isn’t good enough. The standards in training are their standards, the culture of the club is largely theirs. One of my personal favourite tales on this topic is Warren Gatland’s anecdote about Wasps in the build up to one of the big finals they contested during his time at the club:

“We were training before one of the big finals. It was a sponsors’ day too, so there were lots of people about. I stood and watched. I don’t think I said anything. The players drove the session, I think one of the other coaches may have run a drill. We warmed up, we trained for about 40 minutes. That was that. Olivia came over to me. She said: ‘Can I ask you a question? I don’t want to be rude, but what do you do?’ I told her that was the best compliment anyone ever paid me. Any side I have ever been successful with had this group [a hard core of experienced men]. The Wasps group, for example, made sure the discipline was right, they made sure that the quality of training was right. And for a long time, we felt we were working harder than anyone else in the game; not longer, just with more intensity.”

Leinster have an experienced group of players who are capable of speaking for themselves. If standards have fallen from Joe Schmidt’s time blaming Matt O’Connor seems an easier option than pointing the finger at players the fans support.

If I were to argue O’Connor’s side of things I’d say that he looked at the squad he had at the beginning of the year and figured he had two internationals in almost every position in the pack, with Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy improving rapidly. His backline had been stripped of the Lions’ test starter Jonny Sexton and Isa Nacewa, his starting centres had lost their cutting edge and their back-ups were unproven. Playing a reductive, forward-oriented game would give him the best chance of success as Leinster would likely have a better pack than whoever they were playing against. In his first season as a head coach, O’Connor needed success and he went about it pragmatically.

Leinster fans under Joe Schmidt “never had it so good” and the more realistic must have realised it at the time. All the talk about Leinster playing a certain sort of way seems a bit precious to me and the preserve of a support base that has been spoiled in recent years. No one was complaining in 2008 in Ollie le Roux and Stan Wright were grinding out the away wins but that was before consistent success I suppose.

O’Connor’s greatest crime seems to be his treatment of Ian Madigan. Again, I’m not convinced by this. Madigan’s an international, not a naïf, and Ronan O’Gara’s testimony about how little Kidney offered him technically and tactically were revealing about how effective an outhalf can be despite his coach’s (perceived) shortcomings.

I’m long a fan of Madigan and wrote this a few years ago, when we used to write articles:

“Madigan is a player that needs a top class coach. Blessed with a naturally high skill level, he doesn’t require that much technical one-on-one instruction. He does need to learn how to control a game, where to put the ball on the pitch, to understand that you don’t have to score off every phase but, by putting the ball into certain positions, you increase your chances of scoring off a subsequent phase. In other words, multi-dimensional stuff…Larkham knew that you didn’t have to score off each phase, attempt trick plays or throw 50-50 passes. You did have to give yourself options all the time, options that increased your chances of scoring and made it more difficult for the defence to stop you. Madigan has the skills to play that game so it’s now a question of choice rather than ability.”

Has Madigan made that step up? I believe he hasn’t and that he still has the ability to. I also believe that he is the one who will effect that final transition, not any coach. A top level outhalf will make those decisions himself as Paul O’Connell testified about the Chairman:

“When you were playing with ROG you did not have to make any tactical calls really because he understood and knew when to change and do something different and when to alter a game. That was the big thing about having him as a captain. He was always a captain on every team he played in himself anyway. Invariably he made the right calls.”

In contrast to Foley, O’Gara made the call to get out of Munster and moved to Paris in order to start his coaching career and develop his experience and network. Just like Foley was, he is seen as an heir apparent to one of the biggest jobs in European rugby but he’s chosen to go about it a very different way. Whether you need to be a top class player to be a top class coach or if it is possible to learn the ropes in the AIL and graduate to the majors is uncertain. Foley’s sakoku regime will go some way to answering both questions.

16 thoughts on “Sakoku

  1. You seem to want to wash away and forget about some of the awful back play and performances under Matt O’Connor, shame.. Leinster rugby is better than him

    • How do you separate MOC’s poor tactics from the loss of three key playmakers this season? (Sexton, Nacewa and Bod, despite still playing, is not opening up defences any time soon).
      As Mole says Leinster have one of the best packs going and not only that the players who make up that pack probably cover the widest range of skills of possibly in Europe, certainly in the Rabo.

  2. As much as the sight of DOC on the wing did not bring joy to the denizens of Thomand park, it was a positive step in terms of opening up the gameplan and making Munster into a 3D side rather then the tough forward oriented limited side they were. Ali Williams didnt just hang out on the wing for Un-Zee for the craic, its about heads up 1 to 15 rugby and creating mismatchs and putting a 17st+ player up against a possibly suspect 12st defender. If Snackbox is to row back on all the good work Penny has done, the end result will be the two(arguably most talented) provinces playing shite rugby and requiring an upskill every November by St.Joe. You may bemoan Un-Zee coaches, but the NZ system works, all the players and teams playing roughly the same philosophy. If both Leinster and Munster are reduced to pragmatic error reduction rugby, the long term future is bleak with only Ulster looking to play a high tempo NZ-esque attacking game.

    As for Ollie and Stan, they were quality operators, deft in the open field and hard in the tight, they could play a wide wide game, it was Chekia who insitituted the pragmatic policy(which incidentally was found out fairly sharpish and his goose was cooked by the time he left). Hard nosed rugby only works long term if you have a conveyor belt of beef like SA, lauding MOC for immediately regressing Leinsters game and skills and labelling criticism of him xenophobic is laughable.

    As for Madigan clashing with MOC, see Schmidt/Spencer at the Blues, Deans/Cooper, Trinh Duc/Lievemont/St. Andre, Leinster unable to develop Christian Warner back in the day. Im sure I could think of a few more, but the point is to say a coach and the systems he implements have no effect on a ten is ridiculous. DK may not have taught O’Gara anything, but he built the gameplan around his strengths and looked to minimise his weakness’s(as opposed to fixing them) at every oppurtunity(see one David Wallace assigned as babysitter). MOC should have built the gameplan around the team he has, not the team he wants, and that should be one with Madigan at ten.

    • If we don’t have a conveyor belt of ‘beef’ like SA, we certainly don’t have a conveyor belt of multi-talented footballers (who also have ridiculous ‘beef’) like NZ to play the ‘heads-up’ style you constantly espouse. In recent years I can think if very few Irish players who had anywhere near the potential skillset of the NZ linking forwards. Heaslip, Healy and POM (please do not go on a POM rant here) of the current crop maybe but i flinch everytime I see anyone else pop up anywhere near a backline. Despite his near cult disregard outside of Munster Foley is in fact one of the few multi-skilled footballing forwards I can remember in green in recent years and so I do not share your particular belief that he will revert to a perceived ‘reductive’ brand of rugby. Penney’s ethos flat out failed and once he realised that Irish players do not, have never and never will come out of the womb spinning an elliptical ball on their finger he was forced to ‘revert’ slightly to a tactical gameplan…..which incidentally is something as a nation we are quite adept at (GAA despite its seemingly random playing patterns is an exceptionally tactical sport – especially hurling).
      I do share your wish for all provinces to filter into a ‘national brand’ of rugby but I cannot agree that the total football Ian Madigan model will ever be the way forward.
      PS-Mole, this is one of the best and most reasoned articles I have read in some time. I hate reading huge hype or huge criticism of coaches (especially in their maiden season in which they were only one win away from a very likely double). For example Joe Schmidt is obviously a fantastic coach but the misconception that he transformed Irish rugby this season is farcical – we mauled our way to victory vs Wales at home, beat two terrible teams in Scotland and Italy, hung on to victory vs the worst French team of this millenium and lost to a well drilled but deeply average England. Don’t get me wrong I think he is a fantastic coach but he certainly has not transformed the gameplan. On the other hand look at MOC – as you said his backline has been shot to pieces through retirement, ageing, injury and transfer, he wins the Rabo convincingly and lost to Toulon (the best side in Europe by a distance away in France) yet the fans are still angry that they didn’t play ‘exciting’ enough rugby – it’s lunacy. Axel seemingly has an attitude of ‘why cant Irish players/coaches’ be as good as anyone else?….and why not?

      • I never said Foley would regress Munster, I said, ‘If’ he does, it would be a terrible thing, pragmatic rugby at provincial level(no matter how statistically brilliant it may be) does not cut it at international level(which the game is set up to feed), O’Gara and Kidneys utterly abject displays/gameplan at international level back this up.
        Its easier to play an expansive gameplan and then tighten things up then it is to chase a game and suddenly try to offload and go wide without ti breaking down into a shapeless mess with dropped balls etc
        I’d agree entirely with you about Schmidt, preformances have been average under him, so far.

      • Ah would you just stop, O’Gara played some class rugby for Ireland and we were a more potent attacking threat pre 2009 than we have been since. You seemingly refuse to believe that anyone who doesn’t run, pass, kick in that order is of no use as an out-half in international rugby. Of course O’Gara played a more ‘conservative’ ‘tactical kicking game’ than Madigan would have. His positional kicking was up there as the best in the world and it also allowed our back-line some room outside him (incidentally he had a very good passing game also but I’m sure you will have blinkered that from your memory). If the opposition know that the 10 is only going to kick once in every 8 moves they will rush quicker and flatter leaving no room for our centres or wingers to do anything. Fantastic player that J Sex is, Ireland had a much more impressive try scoring ratio over ROGs (87+41) caps (1.85 tries per cap / 2.65 tries per start) than we have had over Sextons (35+8) (1.33 try per cap / 1.6 tries per start) in a period where our backline was predominantly the rampaging leinster lions outside him. * I have based the above on their conversion ratio and the fact that they are both roughly 75% goal kickers on average over their careers. Incidentally we also had a much more impressive win ratio overall and in the 6Ns under ROG.
        Of course Sexton has played most of his rugby during Kidneys particularly poor period for Irish rugby so the above needs to be taken into context, but again I don’t believe the book stops with the manager and Kidney has been a massive scape-goat of late IMO.

  3. I’m not sure the backlash against Gopperth and MOC is necessarily xenophobic but perhaps we have moved on from the 90’s when an antipodean accent was all that was required to get an AIL gig ahead of an Irish guy. The same way the influx of southern hemisphere signings prompted the european success on the pitch perhaps we have reached a level off the pitch where we might not have to rely on overseas coaches for much longer. i always valued the overseas coaches in the irish set up for their influx of ideas/methods. With more irish coaches getting work abroad perhaps that influx of ideas can come in the form of Irish coaches gainng experience abroad before coming back into the irish provincial fold.

  4. Unlike Leinsterlion, I support your theory Mole. Leinster with Madigan at 10 from the start rarely look like they know how to dismantle a defence (sole exception being Northampton in the Gardens) and too often every play in the Green Zone seems to involve looking for an immediate answer rather than a structured demolition or out-manouvering.

    As for players standards, it is never totally the answer to blame a coach for deterioration in individual skills. Evert Leinster back this Season has fired balls at the back-shoulder or behind his team mate too often. Is part of the problem that MOC wants them all to take the ball even flatter than St Joe?

    However, to balance that view, where did the A Team backs performance against Leeds in the B&I Final, come from? If you didn’t know, you’d swear that St Joe had devised both game plan and quality of execution…..but it was Sts Girv and Fogs. There is a future!

  5. Not sure I fully agree with the argument about Madigan taking responsibility for his own play (or not). Yes, every player sets his own standards and you can’t blame a coach for an individual’s mistakes, but it’s extremely difficult for any player – especially an outhalf – to improve his game management when he doesn’t get a consistent run of games. You only need to look at Gopperth’s recent form to realise that swapping outhalfs repeatedly does nothing for their form. A good coach knows when to leave a player on, and let him play himself into form. The blame – if that’s the right word – lies on both sides of the touchline.

  6. He’s 25 now and must be pretty much fully formed as a player now so I don’t know if getting game time is enough at this stage if he hasn’t enough of the game-management gene in him to begin with. Unlike Mole I’d say its too late for him to make that step up. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for him in the team or squad at 10 or 12/13 or even 15 but he’s not going to be a first choice/first name on the teamsheet starting 10 like Sexton or ROG.

  7. Mole when are you going to give the public what it expects…… unbiased critique on the career of BOD (dodgy hairstyles and all) with a benchmark against the other star players of this generation. The public waits Mole

  8. Mole, this is a big part of the reason why so many Leinster fans are not totally enamored with O’Connor:
    As one of the comments put it, he’s the coach so shouldnt he coach and make the players better?
    That is his job, right?
    But since he came in, he has been saying again and again he wants to buy players, and not develop what we have.
    I agree, NIQ players have been a big part of what has made Leinster great (Elsom, Nacewa, Contepomi, Wright) but he wants to buyalmost half of a team. 6 players??

    • I hope the mole doesn’t mind me noting this but before I saw your comment I had just made a blog about this topic. You can find it if you click my username here, I won’t include an extra link. Feel free to disagree with my conclusions.

  9. Madigan in 13 Mole…is that the place for him now considering the reluctance of coaches at national and provincial levels reluctance to play him in 10? He probably has the best feet of any irish man at the moment and with a great pass he could be devastating in the outside channel

  10. Pingback: Over the Top | Digging Like a Demented Mole

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