Category Archives: International Rugby

Why the rugby world should be shouting for Australia this weekend…


It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in the rugby world.

Japan have emerged as a potential top tier nation, the rest of the Northern Hemisphere sides have been roundly bitchslapped and most importantly, almost across the board, attacking, positive rugby has been played in sunny conditions. Best RWC ever? We’ll leave that to the experts to judge after the weekend.

The final itself has thrown up a rather predictable pairing, if a novel one for a World Cup final. The auld Antipodean enemies will lock horns, with plenty of subplots and little battles at play.

Who’ll come out on top? My money is probably on the men in black, unless ‘Pooper’ (sorry!) can pull out a serious performance to nullify Ruchie and co.

Who should we want to come out on top?

Well that’s another question entirely.

A dying sport?

I was lucky enough to spend two months traveling around Australia earlier this year, visiting all the major east coast sights. As a sports fan with a keen interest in local media, one thing stuck out for me beyond all the beautiful tanned people, sun, scenery and *cough* latent racism.

From Melbourne to Sydney to Townsville to Cairns and back down to Brisbane, rugby union really seems to be a dying sport in Oz.

Now I’d heard Matt Williams talk about how little media coverage was given to the sport. But until I saw it for myself I didn’t actually realise the dearth of interest in union Down Under.

I like to buy local papers when I’m away, talk to locals about the one thing I have in common with them, a love of sport, and watch as much local sports coverage as I can. But that’s hard when there’s little to no coverage to speak of.

At the time I was there in late Spring, the much loved NRL was getting started, the AFL was in full swing, there was cricket on and the soccer season was being played out too. Union was relegated to minuscule coverage 6-7 pages back into the sports section. Even in Sydney, where the Waratahs were winning and should have been big news, league was the only show in town, with wall to wall coverage of Origin and the multiple local Sydney sides.

The vast majority of union games are on paid TV and a quick look at any Super Rugby game in Oz will show that bums on seats are another issue, even in sports mad cities.The other codes are on free-to-air television and on radio every weekend – without fail, and both the NRL and AFL do an incredible job marketing their sports. The hype around a grand final or Origin game is similar to a Champions League Final.

A losing Lions tour won’t have helped, nor will years of ARU turmoil and scandal.

The numbers don’t stack up well either.

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Sure, Australians have a notorious love of sport, but it’s an incredibly saturated market. The speed and skill of league, simplicity of soccer, ‘occasionality’ of cricket and the tribalism of AFL, particularly around of Melbourne, meant that union was very much an afterthought. Sure, the ‘Tahs win and the the re-birth of a solid club competition will have helped, but not to a huge degree it seems.

Having grown up on Campese, Ella, Eales, Gregan, Larkham, Latham and Giteau, I felt slightly disappointed if I’m honest. Talking to locals, particularly in Brisbane, union was met with disdain at worst, ambivalence at best.

So here’s my point.

People love getting behind winning teams with interesting characters.

We’ve seen how success and hype can breathe new life into a game – think about how this country reacts when Ireland is doing well in any sport, or look at how union has grown in England since 2003.

Cheika’s Wallabies have the characters and heroes that kids can identify with, including Izzy, Pocock, Moore, Hooper and Gits.

Now Australian rugby needs a world cup in the modern era to go along with it.

We’ve heard multiple journalists braying in the past few weeks about how world rugby is a closed shop made up of a few teams who can win the thing, and there is some truth in this. If union was to die out even further in the sun kissed land, if sporty young Aussie kids were further pushed away from rugby and invited into other sports, our game would lose part of its heritage – the caricature carefree, bolshy, attack minded Aussie that always believes he’s better than anyone else.

The All Blacks are a team for the ages, and will be remembered as probably the best side to ever grace the field.

But for the sake of the game, for the sake of maintaining a traditional superpower in a sport where there’s a small amount of them, I’ll be channeling Alf Stewart, grabbing a Carlton Draught, donning my yellow and getting my inflatable kangroo pumped up for the weekend (I actually did bring one of those home!).

Come on Cheiks and co. Come on Wallabies. Do it for the good of the sport.


Ireland are the communists of world rugby, let’s embrace that…

(Aaaanddd we’re back after a longer than expected hiatus! A round the world trip didn’t allow for much rugby watching or writing, though I did manage to sample some Peruvian beach rugby and a visit to a Crusaders-Chiefs game in Christchurch. As always, thanks for reading and if you’ve something to say, hit me up on Twitter or in the comments below.)


Nearly there now…

Here we are in the ‘no-man’s land’ between the phony war of warm-ups and the start of the RWC and it feels like nothing has really happened yet doesn’t it? I for one still feel we learned little about ourselves.

But then again, perhaps that’s the point? Avoid injury (just ask Wazza) and give nothing away.

Twickenham last weekend represented an unlikely second loss in two games for Schmidt’s Ireland. Ireland played ultra conservatively, even bizarrely box kicking from quick ball in the English 22 at one stage.

Without context, that’s definitely worrying.

But we must presume that it’s deflection tactics designed to not show our hand.

Beyond results, what’s more interesting to me is the little things we have been showing over the last four games.


One of the most interesting aspects of the warm-ups was always going to be watching the potential evolvement of Ireland’s playing style. This is the elephant in the room since the 6 Nations. Particularly since the Cardiff game, Schmidt has been critiqued for playing a negative/robotic/conservative/kicking game (delete as desired).

Common perception was that with a Summer full of training, Joe would have the backs hummin’, and we’d be playing an all singing and dancing offloading game with POC flinging out passes from first receiver.

Based upon what we’ve seen so far, this isn’t the case.

We made three offloads against England, while our most impressive performance, in the first game against Wales, was built as usual on quick rucks, structure and huge defensive effort (oh Andrew, how we’ll miss thee!)

Of course, the worry is our rigidity and our susceptibility against a monster pack of forwards. The White Orcs, led by a rather large Ben Morgan and a rather large Brad Barritt showed a blueprint on Saturday for how we can be beaten. Ironically, it looks like being better at our core strengths (simple, direct rugby based on winning the collisions and being smart with the ball) is the easiest way to beat us, because the Plan B for Ireland doesn’t seem to be there.

But is it really a worry?

I don’t believe so.

I’d wager our Plan A will be up to par by the time France rolls around.


I’ve recently seen Schmidt likened to Trappatoni in a pejorative way by some random internet troll.

But actually, the likeness isn’t as crazy as it seems. Bear with me here.

Trap was criticised for removing the individuality from the Irish footballers, focusing on structure rather than flair.

While Schmidt’s Ireland is undoubtedly more talented, one could say he has followed a similar rigid path, playing to what he sees our strengths to be.

Let’s be honest here for a second, even when Munster and Leinster have been winning all around them, Irish success has been based on defence, structure, and a biblical level of effort from all involved.

Sure, we have plenty of class, but then so does every other team, and size is lacking in our pack compared to SA, France and England in particular. 

It’s clear now that since he’s come in, Joe has taken the opinion that our most likely means of success is based around simplicity, everyone playing their role and being as selfless as possible.

That’s partly why Zebo was sidelined for so long, why Gilroy hasn’t been given a shot and why ‘cart horses’ like Trimble, Kearney and Jones have been preferred. It’s why we hear about the importance of ‘always staying active’ so often from inside the camp.

It’s also why I believe Toner (who’s set piece and maul efforts are unparalleled) will start the France games despite Ryan & Hendo’s claims.

Simply, these guys fit into the system better.

The collective over the individual for a greater good.

We’re the communists of world rugby.


Don’t believe me?

Here’s a look at  Darce’s excellent IT column today, I found this paragraph particularly enlightening for a guy who’s only recently left the squad.

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There’s no magic formula indeed.

He also referenced the New England Patriots and their focus on individuality over the collective via the mantra ‘Do Your Job’.

We know that beating France will be a grind. They seem fitter and more structured than the 6 Nations, but also carry the enormous threat from deep of Huget and Nakaitaci, along with a huge pack based around the underrated Picamoles. Containment, hitting rucks like rabid dogs and maintaining a 90% set piece success rate will be the order of the day.

So when it comes down to it, our big World Cup 2015 gamble seems to be that Irish process beats French passion.

Innovation within reason

Of course, that certainly doesn’t mean we’ll be bored to the back teeth by Ireland.

Within reason, and with risk limited, we’ll definitely seem some novel set plays. Look back at the tries we’ve scored in the past two years, and count how many were ‘training ground moves’

Already in the first three games we’ve seen interesting teasers of moves to expect. Lineout and scrums are the main attacking opportunities for this Irish team.

Against Wales, our maul showed it’s still a weapon.

Against Scotland, a cleanly won lineout was reversed back into traffic. Unfortunately Bowe’s line was slightly off and the chance was lost.

Against England, we used Henshaw twice to great effect in the midfield, while our try was another brilliant example of simple effectiveness and everyone doing their job. Watch big Rory’s rucking effort and McGrath’s ‘diversion’ tactics.

The lineout will prove key in this World Cup, with many big nations already practising their own variations. Our lineout maul is a very important tool because it serves both as an attacking option, but also a deception tool (see Seanie’s try in Scotland for an example).

If the scrum maintains its steadiness, expect some more ‘reverse’ moves from there, akin to Kearney against England the last time we played in London.

Also watch out for Murray and Sexton using kicking to attack off quick ball, like these two little beauties.


The playbook has been developing now for two years, so to say we’re one dimensional is both unfair, but also wrong. The man on the street needs to embrace this, stop criticising the perceived ‘boring’ play and realise that this is the risk we need to take.

I’d go as far as to say that if you see us offloading and throwing the ball around against France, we’ll be in serious trouble.

According to Shane Horgan in a Guardian piece from March, ‘collective KISS’ is Joe’s mantra:

‘Take what you’re good at and become exceptional at it, make it a real weapon’

Our hope has to be that Ireland are ‘exceptional’ enough to overcome a French battering.

After that, anything could happen.

All hail Uncle Joe…

Sir Clive’s formula and and the Autumn progress review…

I’m re-reading Clive Woodward’s book ‘Winning’ again.

Yep, you heard that correctly! While I’m not necessarily a fan of the bald one, it’s one of my favourite rugby/business books, and offers a fascinating insight into how that England squad marched into the professional era.

Woodward, whatever you might of him, was truly a rugby visionary, combining psychology, world class coaching and analysis with a professional edge that hadn’t previously been seen in the Northern Hemisphere game. In that way, there’s quite a few similarities between the step change that he oversaw with England, and the current culture shift that Joe Schmidt is bringing the Irish camp through.

Without wanting to denigrate the work of Declan Kidney, EOS or Gatland, the common purpose that the national side has right now just feels very different to what’s gone before.

Of course, Woodward isn’t shy about putting his success across in his book, and perhaps that’s the key difference between him and Schmidt, but both men share a love for structure, the famous “1% margins” and an analytical, methodical personality.

Progress review

Throughout the book, Woodward emphasises building blocks, iterative goal setting and constantly reviewing progress, learning and refining as his tenure moves towards the famous ’03 win. He uses a 7 step guide to measure success on a few occasions, and as I re-read, it struck me how relevant each of the headlines were min the guise of where Schmidt’s Ireland finds itself currently.

So, with the Autumn Internationals in the rear view mirror, let’s review using Uncle Clive’s method.


In all three games, Ireland were incredibly clinical, setting up high return kicking opportunities, and making the most of ‘red zone’ visits. An continuation of the average of 24.5 points against both Oz and South Africa should be enough to win any test game, particularly given how mean the Irish defence usually is.


Perhaps the worst area, since none of the three performances were ‘Schmidt perfect’. The backplay likely needs work, the centre conondrum needs to be solved, and, perhaps most importantly, the set-piece fell apart twice. There’s been talk of a ‘smooth transition’ between Plumtree and Easterby, and indeed it hasn’t been too bumpy, but losing 4 lineouts and scrum penalties to James Slipper won’t have pleased the management. The Irish maul also looked like it had dropped a level from Spring and Summer, though perhaps this is by proxy of a shaky lineout and different personnel.


Going back to Woodward, there’s a story in his book about a trip to a Royal Marine training camp, where the inspectors opened his eyes about ‘energy sappers’ within the group, the guys who moaned when the going got tough, and ‘sapped’ the positivity from others. After a dressing down from the coaching team, some of these stepped up, while some never played for England again.

Jamie Heaslip told a story last year of how Schmidt operates in a similarly manner, emphasising positivity. According the the number 8, the manager mentions all of the negative points in a player’s game early in the week, and after Wednesday, only says positive stuff to his team.

Bringing a team of four proud provinces, with such separate identities together has always been a challenge, but looking at the way POM embraced Madigan after the latter’s final turnover on Saturday, and how cohesive the team has looked generally, this problem seems to finally be relegated to a bygone era.

Enjoyable Experience

Similar to the above, the Irish camp hasn’t always been the highlight of many careers. You got the feeling at stages in the EOS camp, and particularly in the latter stages of the Kidney era that players just wanted to get back to their provincial side.

Of course, that’s an indictment of both the players and the coaches. But listening to Sexton talk yesterday about how he’ll be looking forward to Christmas camp, and hearing the players speak so glowingly about Schmidt’s methods, Carton House, like Woodward’s Pennyhill Park, is a fortress of unity. ROG made a good point on Against The Head last night with regards how these players ‘aren’t robots, and need to be enjoying themselves’. It seems the balance is right at the moment.


Given the loss of so many players to injury, this was always going to be a series where fringe players got their opportunity. It’s no stretch to say that competition in Irish rugby is at its healthiest since the start of the professional era. Foley, Ruddock, Zebo, Madigan, Payne, Henshaw and McGrath all showed their test credentials across the three game period, while Jones, Olding, TOD and Cronin all re-iterated their worth. Injury will happen, and the guys coming back in, perhaps other than SOB and Healy, will find it difficult to get back in. Healthy competition breeds healthy results.


Similar to the supposed provincial divides within the team, the support base is usually split down provincial lines when it comes to selection. Of course, winning denigrates all dissenting voices, and this time around, there’s been little to give out about, even if the denizens of a certain Munster fan site still have the claws out! The atmosphere at the new Aviva has been a slight sore point, but against South Africa, and particularly Oz, the decibel level really rose. Irish fans love a good bandwagon, and with England at home this year, along with a ‘home’ World Cup, expect the support to only ramp up.


Perhaps the most impressive point of the Schmidt reign has been the flexibility, but without losing consistency. Sure, we’ve had better days than others, but one loss in 2014 in Twickers is an incredible result. I’ve discussed before how Irish rugby needs to move beyond needing to be written off as underdogs, towards accepting favouritism. That’s a journey that Leinster and Munster have come through since the early 2000s, and it seems our national side is now accepting it too. The Oz victory, given the pressure and expectation of the new world ranking, was most impressive.

Being an international head coach is no longer sending out 15 lads to do battle. Without wanting to be too sycophantic (we’ve seen with Lancaster how the narrative can change so quickly in international rugby), across the full gamut of management (psychology, culture, strategy, innovation, team building) Schmidt has united Ireland. By Sir Clive’s standards, we’re on course for a World Cup tilt.

Let’s hope we see a Schmidt equivalent of ‘Winning’ in early 2016. Somehow, even if the unthinkable happens and we do the business, I doubt it. It’s just not Joe’s style.