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.
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 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?
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
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.
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.