Ireland RWC 2015 Report Card: Part 8, Irish Rugby

Eddie is Establishment now but the Randwick man got his big break coaching the upstart Brumbies. The great Rod MacQueen had laid the foundations for a team originally composed of discards from Queensland and NSW. Innovation comes from the margins.

Eddie is Establishment now but the Randwick man got his big break coaching the upstart Brumbies. The great Rod MacQueen had laid the foundations for a team originally composed of discards from Queensland and NSW. Innovation comes from the margins.

The RWC being hosted so close to home meant that I was bound to travel, particularly with the previous edition being in NZ and the next in Japan. I decided that Cardiff would be the most likely destination for Ireland to see some decisive action and booked the necessary for the France game and both quarters.

The day before returning to Cardiff for the quarters, I met with some Kiwis headed the same way. We swapped details of our arrangements with the New Zealanders revealing that they’d all booked tickets for one quarter (based on winning their group), one semi (based on winning that quarter) and the final. And they weren’t joking about it. That experience reinforced for me the outlook of the two nations about rugby and I was once again reminded of the adage that the difference between Irish rugby and NZ rugby is that in NZ the situation is often serious but never critical while in Ireland it is always critical but never serious.

The Kiwi fans were pretty happy with themselves after the French game but they were nervous before. There’s a huge pressure that goes with playing for the All Blacks and I don’t believe that they will find it easy to fill the void left by Carter and particularly McCaw, the greatest player I’ve ever seen. They wheeled out of Cardiff to head for London where they’d bigger fish to fry. What remained were thousands of Argentinean and Irish fans, ready for the following day’s quarter final. In the aftermath of that, a large group of both congregated in the pit of the Brewery Quarter off Mary Street and swapped songs. It was hard to imagine Kiwis doing the same in defeat.

Great Man Theory

The Great Man theory is a 19th-century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men”, or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact. But in 1860 Herbert Spencer formulated a counter-argument that has remained influential throughout the 20th century to the present; Spencer said that such great men are the products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetimes

Our Great Man in this tournament was our adopted Kiwi, Joe Schmidt aka #TrustInJoe. My issue with the whole #TrustInJoe thing is that it turns Schmidt into a TV-based sorcerer or into an unambitious Luddite who brings a knife to a gunfight. Neither is the case. Schmidt is the product of NZ rugby society dealing with conditions presented to him by the Irish game.

Two decades ago, the star power of Jonah Lomu and the presence of Nelson Mandela and his joyous aura brought rugby to a prominence it had never before experienced. The concern of some panjandrums in 1987 was that the inaugural tournament invited the barbarians right up to the gates and that professionalism would soon be upon us. They weren’t wrong, and if it took some box office to tip the whole thing over, then the game could provide it.

In Ireland, the optimistic sentiment was that professionalism would allow our best players to train full time and attain the levels of fitness that eluded them as plucky, diligent amateurs. We told ourselves that it was this conditioning gap that meant that we couldn’t beat the Southern Hemisphere teams and that was because they were as good as pros anyway. Sure, didn’t they all get cushy numbers with breweries and banks that allowed them to train as much as they wanted?

Be careful what you wish for. With the genie of professionalism out of the bottle, Irish rugby players at the top level could pursue their max squat to their heart’s content. And, as evidenced by Cian Healy’s lifting during the tournament, they’re doing alright at it.

Instead of it being our fitness, it turns out that it was really our rugby that was the issue all along. Maybe a little glib but not too wide of the mark as yet again the national team bounced off the glass ceiling presented by the quarter final stage. Our understanding of the game, its skills and its requirements remain sub par to those of the Southern Hemisphere teams. Will this tournament prove a watershed in that development of awareness?

Ball Carriers or Ball Players?

I saw a line that I really liked in the comments of a recent article, about how we refer an awful lot to ball carriers and rarely to ball players. I loved it. It summed up for me a way of thinking about the game that dominates Irish rugby discourse. Watch a match on TV, listen to the commentary and I’m sure you’ll hear the colour pundit (rather than the play by play guy) intone about the need to “go through the phases”. This is the panacea to all rugby ills as far as a large proportion of the cognoscenti is concerned.

Horseshit.

Sometimes it is and sometimes it ain’t. A little diversion down the lane of rugby history coming up here. Ever hear of a guy called Iain MacRae? Fred Allen? Fred Allen was captain of NZ when they were whitewashed 4-0 by the Springboks in 1949. It was the first test series between the two since 1937 when the touring South Africans won the final two tests to triumph 2-1 in the series, the only away series win until Sean Fitzpatrick’s men evened things up in 1996. War intervened and it was twelve years before NZ could return the favour, by which time apartheid had been instituted through legislation in the Republic. NZ, itching to settle matters, left three of their best Maori players behind to appease their hosts and their hateful policy.

Allen retired after that and concentrated on his business as a women’s clothing manufacturer – Cheika’s not the first – and as a coach. He became coach of Auckland in 1956 and guided them through their Ranfurly Shield era. He took over the All Blacks in 1966 and led them to 14 wins from 14 games over three seasons. They hosted the Springboks in 1965 and won the test series 3-1. They hammered the Lions in 1966 and toured Britain in 1967 with Allen as coach, going undefeated for the first time since their ’24-25 tour although they were prevented playing Ireland because of foot and mouth and had to burn all their gear before departing London for home.

It was a glorious period for NZ rugby. Ken Gray, Kel Tremain, Waka Nathan, Stan and Colin Meads were part of a great pack. Iain MacRae played at second five eighth, “at 1.87m and nearly 90kg he was much bigger than most backs of the era, even in the midfield. His size and strength made him an outstanding player and his power in going in for the tackle to create rucks and second phase became an invaluable All Black tactic.

The NZ Herald opined in 2005 that "the innovations they introduced have had an influence which is still being felt. Oddly, the lessons provided by the Lions on 1971 may have been of more benefit to New Zealand than to the British Isles. Even by the end of the 1971 season some New Zealand sides were starting to show an appreciation of backline counterattacking."

The NZ Herald’s view in 2005 was that “the innovations they introduced have had an influence which is still being felt. Oddly, the lessons provided by the Lions on 1971 may have been of more benefit to New Zealand than to the British Isles. Even by the end of the 1971 season some New Zealand sides were starting to show an appreciation of backline counterattacking.

The 1949 tour was pretty seismic in NZ and the 1967 tour to Britain took place because the proposed trip to South Africa was cancelled due to apartheid. Fred Allen was central to both those trips and is considered by many to be the greatest All Black coach. His finger prints are all over the modern game and his impact went further than the shores of NZ as rugby entered the television age. The 1966 Lions were the first to have a coach rather than an assistant manager but the captain sidelined him and took over himself. Coaching became a big deal in Britain after that and Carwyn James moulded a brilliant Lions back line to win the series in 1971, a win that the Welshman thought was necessary for NZ rugby as he thought the fun was going out of their game – because their talented backs were being told to crash it up rather than play!

So, big first centre to get over the gainline? Multi-phase attack based on rucking? That’s the Fred Allen and Iain MacRae template, copied by many. And a ball-handling, counter-attacking, tight scrummaging game isn’t unique to New Zealand and the conditions available there.

Which brings us back to 2015 and an Irish team with a Kiwi coach and a big first centre that sought to play a multi-phase rucking game and didn’t pass all that much. There was a stat doing the rounds after Leinster’s loss to Wasps about phases in the opposition’s 22. Leinster accumulated 33 while Wasps managed 1. Of course, the real stat of the day was the score which was 33 – 6 to Wasps.

And the aim of the game isn’t to recycle the ball endlessly, it’s to score tries. Yeah, granted, there’s a skill in scoring after multiple phases by manipulating the opposition’s defence and it’s a way of keeping possession as well as creating opportunity. But keeping the ball just for the sake of having it rather than scoring earns no points and will never win a game. Both Rugby League and American Football have the same antecedents as rugby but in those games if you don’t fulfil a predefined objective after a certain number of possessions you have to get rid of it or turn it over.

Won’t Somebody Think of the Children

I was at that Wasps game and watched the mini-rugby at half time which gave a fascinating insight into the game in Ireland. One scrum took about a minute to set – the game lasts about ten minutes – as the ref fussed about but I don’t think the kids are even allowed to push!

The rest of it was kids running across the pitch ignoring their team mates until they were scragged near the touch line at which point they threw the ball infield – offloaded it – towards their side. There were a few tries but no convincing tackles. And I thought to myself that those kids will remember that, that’s rugby to them.

So, what are you saying Moley? That Ireland’s world cup exit was due to eleven year olds ignoring passing opportunities? I can’t stretch it that far but I thought that game was a reflection of how Irish people see rugby and that those traits evident in the minis’ game are carried through all the way to the big show.

Richie McCaw wrote about growing up in the South Island of NZ in his autobiography:

When I was seven, Dad took me across the river to Kurow on Saturday mornings, where I began to playing in age-group teams for the Kurow Rugby Club. That first year, Barney McCone was our coach, because he had a son, Ross, in the team.

Barney farmed Domett Downs on the foothills of Mount Domett on the southern side of the Waitaki Valley, and was an ex-halfback and a great mate of Phil Gard, Kurow’s All Black, who played outside Barney at first-five. Barney was also assistant coach of the Kurow seniors so rugby was part of every day of his week and he was a real thinker about the game. We were very lucky to come under his tutelage so early in our playing careers.

He wouldn’t let us play in competition that first year, for instance. We had to spend the first season learning skills. So every Saturday morning, Barney would teach us all how to catch and pass and tackle, and at the end we’d play a game among ourselves. We didn’t know it at the time, but that was an advantage Barney gave us. He quickly picked up that I liked contact and was pretty fearless, and he knew that it was really important to teach me to tackle properly, so that I didn’t damage myself.  As a result he spent a lot of time with us on correct body position, straight back, eyes open, all that basic but essential stuff.

We entered the North Otago Under 9s competition the following year straight into full tackle. The best thing about Barney’s coaching was that he made us all part of the team. His mantra was that everyone loves playing good footie, and good teams produce good players. He rotated the captaincy every week, rotated the kicking duties, both for touch and for goal, and kept meticulous records of who did what in his exercise books. He wanted everyone to share in the team responsibilities. He had a cup that he used to award to the player of the day, which never went to the kid who scored the most tries, it always went to the kid who had lifted his game the most from the week before.”

Everyone loves playing good footie. Catch and pass and tackle. Get your support algebra right early, if one man runs straight the next cuts a line or vice versa while the next runs straight again. The support Runs to Daylight while the ball acts as a flame to the defensive moths. And it doesn’t get much more complicated than that but if you don’t figure those bits out then the game becomes difficult. I think coaching a kid to do those things is like teaching a kid to say please and thank you. The kid doesn’t know why he has to do it but he’ll appreciate it when he’s an adult.

McCone was, in McCaw’s words, “a thinker about the game”. If you invert the story above, always a good habit, then you could ask how many of the rest of those kids ended up as All Blacks and the answer is zero. But the approach is that you teach everyone the fundamentals and give the most talented kids the opportunity to become great. Is this what happens in Kerry football generation after generation? And is having a thinker about the game in that mentoring role essential, someone who appreciates that the game is the most important thing and that is the gift that you give a kid? Trying to draw a parallel, if you teach a kid carpentry, would you just let him at it or would you give him a grounding in the fundamentals of the craft?

Transmission Mechanism

Assuming you give kids a grounding in the basics and encourage them to play football, how do you ensure that the best players are graduating through your system and what are they graduating to?

At the moment each province has an academy structure but I’m not sure how effective they are. The main benefit to them seems to be twofold: if a player gets injured in the academy he can rehab and isn’t forgotten about and it allows young players to train as full time athletes which in a collision sport means putting on muscle mass and developing power.

The downside to the academies is that they seem cosy and have to balance an individual program with the demands of a team sport. An elite is appointed at 19 or 20 and those guys are the only ones who are given the chance to play pro rugby. Leinster fielded match day squads this season with seven of the 23 from St Michael’s. That just cries out “concentration risk” to me. If the question is whether St Michael’s have the best underage coaching set up in the province then I’d have to say yes, based on that evidence. If the question is whether seven of the best ball playing athletes in the province all went to one medium sized school in Dublin 4 then I’m dubious.

There definitely needs to be some program between school and the pro game and I’m curious as to how a federal academy system would work where players train with their local province for 2-3 years and that local province gets first call on 2, 3 or 4 guys per season but after that it’s a draft with anyone in the academy eligible for selection. I definitely like the idea that a young fella who is a late bloomer and is playing some good club footy can get invited in. I think it would keep the others on their toes and encourage competition.

An even more radical idea is to have the national u20 team compete in the AIL with a view to providing as much game time as possible together to that age grade in order to prepare them for the JWC each year. After that grade they’re eligible for draft. There’s a raft of issues to be surmounted including where that team would train and play but I think it would give the national u20s a better chance in tournament play and the coaches a feel for what players are like in a regular match day environment.

Give it a Lash

Of all the Irish coaches, Mick Doyle made the greatest impression on me with his mantra of “give it a lash”. In 1990, the Irish soccer team were sent on the greatest sporting expedition the nation has ever mounted with their manager being exhorted to Give it a Lash, Jack. “Johnny Aldridge, showed the Maltese, that he hadn't lost his touch, he's holding back now, for the craic now, ‘til the day we get revenge on the Dutch” I love that song.

Of all the Irish coaches, Mick Doyle made the greatest impression on me with his mantra of “give it a lash”. In 1990, the Irish soccer team were sent on the greatest sporting expedition the nation has ever mounted with their manager being exhorted to Give it a Lash, Jack. “Johnny Aldridge, showed the Maltese, that he hadn’t lost his touch, he’s holding back now, for the craic now, ‘til the day we get revenge on the Dutch” I love that song.

The best Ireland matches I’ve ever been at were vs England in ‘93 and ‘11, the first half vs NZ in ‘13 and the France game in Cardiff in the RWC. Based on those performances I’d love to see an aerobically fit, tactically aware team have a cut against the opposition from everywhere by ratcheting up the pace and moving the point of attack. This requires passing skills, a hunger by players to run at space and a scrum half who can keep the ball moving. It’d be a rucking team and a low tackling team, hitting from the hips with the back straight and chasing with the feet, daring the other team to pass out of the tackle but not allowing them to get onto the front foot. And it would mix it up with a kicking game that sought out space and mismatches by providing chasing opportunities, turning the big packs of England and South Africa by keeping them going backwards. I’d sacrifice size for guile in the midfield as long as the players could tackle. I’d encourage short props and big hookers so we could scrummage low without conceding too much size.

Brave New World

Ireland is small enough that it is nimble. We’re more alike than we’re different and when we make up our mind to change then we can do it quickly. But how do you change a mindset? Everyone of my generation grew up watching teams coached by O’Sullivan, Kidney et al with an emphasis on a solid lineout, pre-planned moves and “going through the phases”. The way the game is thought about and discussed is moulded by these preconceptions. 

Irish professional rugby operates under federal system rather than a collectivised bureaucracy. This is good, the game needs regional rivalries to create atmosphere,  harness people’s sense of identity and most importantly to create competition. Movement between provinces is still less than you’d expect and I don’t really understand the reason for this. I think John Cooney and Quinn Roux have improved more at Connacht than they would have at Leinster and that this sort of movement benefits Irish rugby.

On the subject of Connacht, innovation comes from the margins: disruptive innovation often comes from outsiders without an invested stake in the status quo and for whom the new idea represents little risk. Realistically, little is likely to change about the playing style of the professional teams in Ireland unless one of them has proven success with an alternative method.

The Maroons have put together an incredible Origin record over the last decade, frequently fielding a team outweighed by NSW but with buckets of pace and football. To go even more esoteric in League, I loved the 2005 Wests Tigers. They started the season poorly and were the smaller team in every game they played but they were fit, hungry, skillful and could score from anywhere.

The Maroons have put together an incredible Origin record over the last decade, frequently fielding a team outweighed by NSW but with buckets of pace and football. To go even more esoteric in League, I loved the 2005 Wests Tigers. They started the season poorly and were the smaller team in every game they played but they were fit, hungry, skillful and could score from anywhere.

Only proven success will do; Ian Keatley’s quote sums up the reality about rugby for most competitors rather than supporters “We have won our first four games kind of ugly, but I think it’s better to win ugly than to lose being very creative.” That’s an OK trade off until you lose ugly and can’t find a way to win that’s either good or bad. The hallmark of a good team is its ability to play well in more than one way and as long as you can keep doing that and winning then everyone is happy – it’s more important to play the opposition than any particular style.    

Oddly, one of the things that would benefit Irish rugby would be if Italy and the Italian clubs in the Pro12 started playing like Argentina. The Italian teams are marginal at the moment, constantly rooted to the foot of the table but if they were both to qualify for Europe playing a hard running, handling game – maybe even with a few Irish pros considered surplus to requirements by the provinces  – then I think that would raise the level of our teams’ ambitions.

But remember, the condition of Irish rugby is often critical but it’s never serious. Here’s hoping for straight running, hungry lines of support, tackles that bite and passes that stick…and a weak yen in 2019.

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16 thoughts on “Ireland RWC 2015 Report Card: Part 8, Irish Rugby

  1. Superb stuff. If I say that this represents Peak Mole, I mean that as a very good thing indeed.

    On a parochial note:
    “Sure, didn’t they all get cushy numbers with breweries and banks that allowed them to train as much as they wanted?”

    Hmm. I seem to recall a very successful Wanderers side of the 1980s, about a dozen of whom – including a Big Name Cross-Border Transfer – all worked for the same insurance company…

  2. “There’s a raft of issues to be surmounted including where that team would train and play.” I like the idea of a dedicated U20 Leinster – sorry – Ireland team in the AIL. As for where it wopuld train and play well, that’s a no-brainer. Why, Leinster of course. Since the vast majority of representative games are played there, why rock the boat. Of the last 200 Irish representative games of all sides, the vast, vast majority have been in and around Dublin. About 170 games. Now, there must be a good reason for that. A few have been held in Munster – less than 20 of those 200 and a couple in Connacht. Of the 200, 2 have been held in Ulster. It’s really not on to expect the committee and their friends to have to travel so far when they can just shot a few miles up the road.

    • Hey-up jaco!
      The idea of a national U20 side is superficially appealing (agree with Jaco that we could do with being less Dublin centric), but on balance I don’t think it’d work well. One of the things that rugby still does well here IMO is the holistic view of individual development (on and off the pitch) of the guys at this level, e.g. most are in third level education in parallel with their rugby. Not sure how you’d maintain this with a single national academy.
      I would however like to see more of a draft type system encouraged to spread talent more evenly. It is great as a Leinster fan to have 3 Ireland THs available, but with NIQ players in Ulster and Munster (and not much appearing to come through behind), it doesn’t make sense from a national perspective. Tough balance to strike though between rewarding/acknowledging the development work done in bringing these guys through, spreading the talent and dealing with individual players wishes to play for particular teams…

      • I think the 3rd level element is one of the biggest constraints to implementing this. We’ve looked at some of the demands on players in the 5 Up series. Jack O’Donoghue finished chemical engineering last year as well as starting for Munster which is exceptional. The experience of Conor Gilsenan, who stretched his studies to five years rather than three and moved to London before that term was completed, seems closer to a mean.

    • One option for that u20-team-in-the-AIL is that they would be a touring team i.e. no home ground, no home games. They could have team run on Friday along with whatever meetings/tactics etc they do. All contact sessions are done during the week at provincial level so conditioning shouldn’t be an issue.

  3. Until we win a 3 match series in NZ, or at least SA, any talk of WC’s is fanciful at best. I hope #TrustinJoe is also involved with coaching development because as has been pointed out here and other places there’s only so much he can do when the players arrive to him. They’ve had 15 odd years of rugby behind them at that stage and their habits/instincts are pretty well established.

    Maybe I’m reading too much into what you’ve written, but I am starting to worry are the academies picking gym bunnies rather than ballers. Or at worst developing gym rats rather than rugby players. Lifting tin is obviously an important part of the game, but it’s easily taught and nurtured – are the academies and schools doing enough to develop actual playing skills? It would appear not really. I have seen maybe three schools games since I left school so I might be talking through my hole here. One of the recent Kiwi additions to Connacht, cant remember who, said he never lifted so much as he did when he started out West.

    I know Mole Towers was a big fan of Cpt Toland’s recent piece on counter attacking and I think it’s worth bringing up again. Have we become too set pieced orientated? Obsessed even?

    At any rate, here’s hoping your last paragraph rings true!

    • I think it’s more important to develop awareness rather than skills. If I was to try to draw an analogy I’d say it’s the difference between following a diet for a period of time and being aware of the nutritional value of what you eat and what you don’t eat. I don’t want to stretch that metaphor too far but I think if you’re aware of the nutrition and implications then you’ll eat more healthily than if you’re relying purely on discipline.
      That’s OK from an individual perspective but in a team game you also need to have a sense of responsibility that you’re capable of completing your designated tasks and an awareness of what your team mate is meant to do.
      If you can instil a sense of both awareness and responsibility then the skills will be attained.
      As regards the academies, it easier to measure gym scores than it is to measure awareness so there’s a natural bias towards emphasising that. I suppose there’s a feedback loop there as well; if players think that physical prep is that important then they’ll prioritise that.

      • A total rugby approach! Yeah, I was being a little lazy using skillful as an all encompassing word. I’m sure they can zip a pass to each other in training as a skill, they just don’t seem to use them all that much in games! When to pass is as important as doing it.

        Keatley’s quote is illuminating, and a little saddening. I wouldnt blame a team, or an individual, for trying to win a game. The safe option is exactly that. There’s a time and place for it but it’s too often the default.

        All very critical as you say! At least we cant get relegated from the PRO12

  4. Longtime fan but first comment…best piece of mole and indeed rugby writing I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading…magnum opus stuff. Who needed Grantland anyway.

  5. If this doesn’t become required reading in Lansdowne Road and every Academy headquarters, Irish rugby has missed a trick.

    More importantly, every fellow and girl going out this weekend ‘to take the minis’ should read the story about Richie McCaw’s first coach.

    I’m in large agreement with your diagnosis and also a fan regarding participation of National U20’s team in AIL. However, I really would like to see more coaches like Schmidt and Lam teaching our Coaches about what you term ‘rugby knowledge’. NZ have had the same Sevens Coach for 10 plus years because he does a great job. We should find somebody with comparable skills. Gerry Murphy or Niall O’Donovan or Brian McGloughlin were all coaches who appeared to be more interested in developing young player skills rather than merely winning at all costs.

    Well done Mole on inspiring Irish rugby fans to think about our game and well done for the quality of your prose and thought sequences. The highest quality of sports writing on the island

  6. The post mortem following a disappointing world cup regularly leads to pundits bringing the game down a basic level and giving guidelines on how to make the disappointed country a contender for the next world cup. There has obviously been a lot of that in the English press following England’s world cup. It is a regular theme when it comes to soccer too, and certainly when it comes to soccer in Ireland we share a lot of the perceived problems that they have in England (unfortunately I am going to use soccer as a reference point a lot for a couple of reasons: I grew up playing soccer so I understand the dynamics of playing the game better, although lets face it soccer is a lot simpler to understand than rugby; I am a big rugby fan but I struggle with some of the technical stuff which is why I find reading blogs like this highly illuminating).

    So to stick with soccer momentarily, and again to stick with England as the example point because they have notions of being a contender in world cups whereas in Ireland due to a dearth of good players we are just happy to qualify. When England fail, the general consensus is down to the style of play: they cant keep possession and build attacks patiently and incisively. It is said this comes down to how the kids are brought up playing it at grass roots level; the focus for the kids is on winning and using your bigger more powerful players to run faster, kick the ball harder and bully their way to goals and victory. Whereas we are told that in countries like Spain, size doesn’t matter and the players learn the basics of passing and ball retention from the get go, and it seems that the mantra is not about winning at a young age but getting the basics right.

    I was a Leinster season ticket fan for a few years and I saw many a minis game like you at half time. And it was always the same as you described it, no passing and whoever got their hands on the ball would run as far as possible with it (laterally if they were smaller and straight through the middle if they were big). Not to sound like a pr1ck here, but you are not the first person to say that catching and passing should be taught to kids at a young age, and we would have to assume that most coaches around the country would agree with that, so where does it obviously go wrong? For those minis games, there are going to be some coaches who aren’t rugby experts; they are probably enthusiastic volunteers who thinks its good for kids to play in team sports, and of course its great to have these volunteers. But there has to be a good amount of coaches out there who know their stuff and know that the focus should be on catching and passing. When you watch these minis games, what are the coaches on the sidelines saying to them? I know they are small kids and you cant expect them to have rehearsed moves, but by what goes on the pitch is the instruction “if you get the ball run as close to opposition try line as possible”? Its possible that if you get a bunch of kids, try and drill them with the basics and then get them to play catching and passing in a minis game, they will make more mistakes then the teams that run with the ball and probably lose as a result. It may be better for their development but will the kids and their parents always agree when they are losing every week?

    So what goes on in NZ at a young age that this isn’t an issue? If all the kids play games based on passing and not hard running, then it would be a level playing field and it would make for more competitive games. When I see those minis games, you can see how tough it is for young kids to catch and pass, I’m sure if they focused more on it they would be better at it, but they are only small, so mistakes are going to very common. So if we took a bunch of minis from Ireland and played them against a bunch from NZ what would be the outcome? Would the easier game plan of hard running favoured by the Irish team trump the passing and team involvement of the NZ team, based on the fact that the NZ kids might be better at catching and passing but they are after all only kids and mistakes will rack up on their side whereas the Irish kids play the low risk game and win by virtue of fewer mistakes.

    This then leads me to national team issues and the post mortems following a world cup. Again I don’t want to sound like a pr1ck to you mole (I’m a big fan of your blog), but you are just a rugby fan then what advice can you give to a national set up on about how to move forward? The IRFU is a professional outfit and they surely consider these things all the time. I’m sure they would love us to play the brand of rugby NZ do, but how realistic is it to come up with this game breaker of a plan that will have the country playing the game the right way at all levels. Back to the soccer stuff again, people look at Spain and Barcelona and they see teams winning matches based on short passing. Short passing is something that most amateurs can do well, so it looks simple, so it has people saying “yeah, Spain don’t complicate things, they play it simple, and look it works”. Then people expect Irish and English players just to be able to do that. Of course an Irish player can pass a ball 10 yards so if it were that simple to win games by simply having the ability to play 10 yard passes then we should be doing better than we do. But its obviously a lot harder than that, its about playing the pass at the right time, good movement off the ball and other factors that really good players make look very simple. NZ can have that effect too, they do the basics really really well, so it gets people asking why we cant just do that stuff as well?

    So what exactly goes on in organisations like the IRFU after a world cup. We have a great coach in Joe Schmidt, a Kiwi who has first hand knowledge of growing up in that particular rugby environment. We don’t have the club v country issues that they do in England so bringing in national changes should be a simpler thing to do. So how much can we change in 4 years, and can we really ensure that kids at a young age are being taught the fundamentals. I get the feeling that with a lot of things in life, internal politics play some part in preventing sweeping changes and the logistics of it might make it difficult as well.

    By the way I have absolutely no answers to any of these issues but I like reading about this stuff when it comes up. I think there is a lot of lazy journalism out there on post mortems, what they write seems so bloody obvious (with the benefit of hindsight of course) and it makes those involved in the failed team look like a clueless bunch. Its always just reactive stuff. England are obviously getting slaughtered in the press after their world cup, but I feel for Lancaster. Look at the job he did for England following the mess of the last world cup. England became a well drilled team, not fancy or stylish but tough, gritty, hard to beat and capable of scoring. He also created a very likeable team, which seemed an impossible job after the shower that attended the 2011 world cup. He did so by sacrificing some of their better but troublesome and dislikeable players in Ashton and Hartley and inserting honest pro and very likeable but ultimately limited captain Robshaw. And they just missed out on the last two 6 nations. It’s kind of a shame that all the good work just got binned for the world cup, and of course he has to take the blame for that with some of his selections and game plans. But by the tone of some of the post portems, its like the 4 years work he did matters nothing.

    To summarise, again I have absolutely no answers, and I love reading your opinions about it, but I do wonder how easy it is to implement nationwide plans that on paper sound like the right strategy. How do things actually work in national rugby set ups, when your average punter can identify pretty obvious issues with a style of play and yet nothing seems to get done about it. I doubt the NZ union is this perfect union, I am sure they have their own internal politics and other stuff, but are they the best in the world due to brilliant coaching set ups and insightful thinking or is it just from the sheer weight of the fact that rugby dominates life over there?

    • I believe that if Ireland had better luck with injuries then they’d have beaten Argentina and in that alternative universe it’s quite feasible that Scotland would have held on to beat Australia. That would have given us a really good shot at getting to the final which would have qualified as success but it wouldn’t have changed any of the underlying issues.

      To summarise, you can get lucky breaks at tournaments or unlucky ones. What I’m more interested in is tilting the odds in your favour rather than reform based on a tournament finish.

      The really interesting thing to me is how football is understood and talked about in those different cultures. I believe that understanding determines how you play. I haven’t yet read Raphael Honigstein’s Das Reboot but I know it deals with the reinvention of German football. Whatever about the technical changes, German football is based on Sepp Herberger’s truths that “the ball is round and the game lasts for 90 minutes, everything else is pure theory”. What does that mean exactly? I believe that’s the point, there’s no exact definition. There are so many different ways to set up and play the game and win that you must do what is best for you. But there’s real thought in that saying and I don’t think there’s much thought in English football, there’s a lot of toil and effort so that’s what gets prioritised.

      So what gets told to kids by coaches? I don’t know, probably a lot of different things. In any communication with a number of participants, its easy for the intended message to get lost as it gets interpreted in different ways at different speeds. If I were training kids my message would be to run straight and tackle hard. I think fundamentally not much can go wrong if you do those two things on a rugby pitch. If they are your two core beliefs, one for when you have the ball and one for when you don’t, then you can add a lot around that. If you start with non-fundamental areas then you miss the signal for the noise.

      I’ve never been in NZ to see their kids play but I imagine that there’s far less uncertainty about what they’re trying to do. This is a good article on the subject; “catchpass” is mentioned in the conversation with John Daniel. http://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2015/sep/11/all-blacks-how-new-zealand-sustains-its-rugby-dynasty

      I’d have to take issue with your point about the IRFU being a professional outfit. At the professional level it is professional but at the amateur level it is not and the amateur game is far bigger in terms of participants than the professional game. Of course, all the participants in the professional game have been involved as amateurs through schools or clubs and that is where their habits and understanding are moulded and formed. In fact, my experience of the IRFU at a coaching level, where professional staff interact with amateur volunteers, is that there is too much detail in the message so it gets diluted. If the message was “run straight, tackle hard, catch and pass” and everything was brought back to that then there’d be more consistency of thought.

      Furthermore, the provincial system has to serve a dual purpose which can also be confusing. Is the role of each province to supply team Ireland or is it to earn the best results for itself. Are the provinces in competition with each other or complementary? I think you need that bit of friction, that bit of creative destruction (more Germanic thinking!) to keep people moving and engaged because as noted earlier, its not really about a static snapshot of a tournament result its about repeatedly tilting the odds in your favour.

      I don’t think there are any easy answers but there are principles which can guide towards a clearer understanding of “the truth”, such as it is. Run straight, tackle hard, catch and pass.

  7. Mr Mole, you put most of the commentators in the national newspapers to shame. I look forward to,the most, your articles and if I was to have a gripe at all, it’s that you don’t write enough of them. Brilliant.

  8. “Is the role of each province to supply team Ireland or is it to earn the best results for itself. ?”
    The answer of course is both yet to enable the first it seems the IRFU deem it necessary to hamstring the provinces with an ever prescriptive ability to enrol NIQ players. What is wrong with 5 NIQs in a squad of 40 players? Nucifora would be far more effective if he stopped Ulster for example from stuffing the squad with hopeless failures / players who are not good enough and seem to have been signed simply because they are a) ‘professional’ and b) IQed.

    The decline in Ulster’s play is spiralling out of control and anyone with even half an eye could see that there is little to no prospect of this changing. The team isn’t playing as a team. No matter how good the backs might be, when they are getting retreating ball over and over they are going nowhere. The forwards look as if they have been de-skilled and then rebooted by being coached by Danny La Rue. to make matters worse, apart from Alan O’Connor who may be unable to continue due to injury there are no players on the ‘bench’ who could step up. Tragically, there are simply no forwards apparently worth a damn in the Academy. Signing up semi-decent AIL guys is bad for the team and bad for those players. Clive Ross isn’t within a country mile of a pro player. Nor are Reidy, Sam Windsor, Willie Faloon and nearly all the recent signings. Some of the top players are nearing the end of their careers. Those filling the next tranche are never going to take their places.

    Success in any pro sport is cyclical in nature. The trick is to make any interregnum short. In order to do this you need men of vision and courage at the top. Do Neil Doak and Alan Clarke have those qualities? No they do not. Do Ulster need an A.B. 15 at 500,000 a year or three good back row players at 150.000 a year. Answers on a post card to David Nucifora.

  9. Pingback: 4 Up 2013 – Year 3 | Digging Like a Demented Mole

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