I was presented with a copy of Tom English’s book No Borders and asked for my thoughts and here they are.
My first impression was that it’s a good looking book interspersed with pictures and printed on quality paper which gives it a nice feel. It deals with Irish rugby post World War 2 and I expected a series of one-on-one interviews but instead the book is written with a far more conversational style. Based on some of the passages, English appears to have arranged to interview groups at a time and hearing the recollections of friends and colleagues no doubt jogged some memories and added greater depth to some of the stories.
There’s a narrative flow to the book which reflects well on the author. It provides an oral history of Irish rugby that manages to cover a lot of ground while remaining a players’ book about a players’ game.
There are some weighty topics covered among the themes in the book, in particular the relationship between the North and the newly formed Republic in a 32 county game, the Troubles, touring the junta-controlled Argentina and apartheid South Africa. English reports a variety of opinions and the only consensus view seems to be the consistency of a cabal of muppets in the IRFU throughout the Union’s history.
There are occasional committee men who are praised and many more who remain anonymous. Part of this tension may be the difference between generations. The book starts with a discussion of Jack Kyle and Karl Mullen’s Greatest Generation team who must have been in their seventies or eighties when these interviews were compiled. It moves through to Millar, McBride and Gibson and the lack of Munster involvement in the book is noticeable until Noisy Murphy and, in particular, Moss Keane arrive on the scene.
The exploits of the post-war baby boomers’ Irish team of Slattery, Keane, Duggan and Campbell are recorded during a turbulent political era and culminates in the 1982 Triple Crown. Although only three years later, the 1985 Triple Crown is almost from a different world and the tone of interviews is markedly changed as Generation X gets capped. Two anecdotes from this time, one from Moss Finn and another from Brian Spillane made me laugh out loud and there are plenty of lighter moments among the worldly issues.
The transition to professionalism and the experiences of the most recent teams and their coaches provides insight into times fresher in the memory. A number of theories are forwarded about the flatness of the 2007 World Cup performance but there’s no agreement about what went wrong other than it was a “clusterfuck”.
The opposition that loom largest throughout the book are France. The violence, the banquets, the physical challenge and the fact that we so rarely beat them made an impression on generations of Irish internationals.
A few passages caught my eye, in particular from the great Mike Gibson
“I’d play games on my own where I would just kick with my left foot or just kick with my right foot and develop a strength in each area, and then concentrate on the simple things in rugby – the ability to take a pass and deliver a pass, and then the thinking bit, which is making decisions. And I think that’s a facet that separates players. If you can go out and make the right decision throughout a match then your side is likely to be successful. I’ve always highly regarded the ability to anticipate and to read situations; I often watch players and see them drift around the field and then suddenly the action takes place close to where they are and I smile and think, ‘Well done, that was class.’
The mental side of rugby is more demanding than the physical. You can work hard and acquire the physical attributes if necessary, but mistakes are often due to a lapse in concentration, a poor decision, and that’s where the mental side is extremely important. The qualities of commitment and concentration, the capacity to analyse situations and to make decisions are all very important in rugby but also in developing academically, and also developing as a person.
I think that a lack of concentration is a defect at all levels of the game. A lack of ability to devote yourself entirely to the game for 80 minutes. At international level, I only felt satisfied if I came off the field feeling mentally exhausted. I had to feel mentally shattered because I had directed all my thoughts to one objective over and over again and that was: what is going to be the best use for this particular ball?”
There’s few others in the book who talk about the mental side with anything like the same degree of precision and concentration although one player in particular was very aware of the importance of concentration and rationing his own capacity in order to maximise his ability:
“Travelling to games, I tended not to switch on mentally to the game until I arrive at the ground and come back in from walking around the pitch. Basically because I didn’t have the capacity to concentrate for two-and-a-half hours solid, so I’d try and relax and have a laugh until that point.”
You’ve guessed who this is, right? He also talks in the book about the build up to playing in an emotionally charged game,
“Luckily it didn’t become overwhelmingly emotional for me. I think I was just so focused on the game that I wasn’t going to allow my emotions to boil over. At times I’ve been teary-eyed singing the national anthem in big games, but I think I was so focused on our performance, the process of that performance, that I wasn’t going to allow any external factors put me off.”
Those are, of course, quotes from Brian O’Driscoll.
The final excerpt that caught me eye came from Paul O’Connell talking about Joe Schmidt but applies to all coaches and all teams,
“It’s not just about attention to detail it’s being able to communicate it to the players in a way that’s easy to understand. Rugby is a tough game, there’s a lot going on. It’s about making things easy and imparting information in a way that makes it easy to do under pressure and he’s really good at that. He’s open to ideas but they’d want to be very, very good ideas. Well-thought out and easy to communicate and easy to execute.”
This is a recommended addition to any rugby library. If you’re looking for a Christmas gift for yourself or another rugby fan then, to paraphrase Lawrence Dallaglio, “buy his book”.
No Borders (Tom English)