Category Archives: Irish Rugby

Taking the positives from a post World Cup meltdown

It ain’t a happy time to be an Irish rugby fan.

After all the build up to the World Cup and talk of a possible ‘best ever’ finish, the flattest performance of the Schmidt era so far put an end to the positivity.

Since then, we’ve had the usual post loss provincial sniping, some tasty digs at the game in Ireland from the usual suspects in the press, the potential of some big defections to France and some downright depressing performances from Leinster, Ulster and Munster.

In pro. sport, the atmosphere has the capability to turn sour very quickly (just ask Stuart Lancaster). And yes, the economics of Northern Hemisphere rugby look loaded against a team from this island having European success in the near future.

But enough of the wallowing.

Tis the season to be jolly after all and from a playing point of view, there hasn’t been enough made of the good parts of the season so far.

Things aren’t that bad, and there’s plenty of reason for hope and excitement as we enter 2016.

The west’s awake

After the World Cup, the question was asked ‘where to we go from here’.

I heard a good Q&A recently with Kilkenny hurler Henry Shefflin, where the topic turned to Brian Cody. One of the things ‘King Henry’ referenced about Cody’s genius was his ability  to keep things fresh by bringing in 1-2 new young tyros each year. My guess is that Schmidt is thinking the same way, and despite all the gloom, lots of new guys are putting their hands up for green geansais.

Indeed, most of the guys doing so are already wearing the green. Connacht, despite an enormous injury list, have been the success story of the season, carrying the goodwill of all Irish fans with them. Healy, O’Halloran, honorary Irishman Aki and even unheralded forwards like Aly Muldowney have been carrying the can with some incredible skills based rugby, while both Marmion and Cooney continue to push Reddan and Boss.

Big Ally has been one of the in form forwards in the country this year. The 6'9 second row is a former basketball player, and indeed it shows when he's handling the ball.

Big Ally has been one of the in form forwards in the country this year. The 6’9 second row is a former basketball player, and indeed it shows when he’s handling the ball.

Don’t be at all surprised if Connacht keep making strides that the IRFU might knock on Mr Lam’s door if Joe decides to move on in 2017…

A Christmas Kiss

Moving northwards from Galway, one of the best European performances of the weekend came from the Ulstermen, who stormed an admittedly out of sorts Toulouse for the second week in a row.

Whether it’s a ‘bounce’ effect from Kiss coming in, or a real indication that Ulster are still a force to be reckoned with will become clear next year.

But for now, Ulster looked like a different team to the one that started the year.

It might be a cliche, but Pienaar is the real fulcrum of the side from 9. When he’s in form and controlling, PJ can concentrate on the things he does really well, like bringing in the vast array of talent from 11-15. With Madigan riding the pine, Jackson is coming back to himself nicely, and it’s heartening to see at least one Irish 10 in form (let’s presume Gareth Steenson is out of the reckoning!). Wee Paddy will never be a Sexton or ROG, and will never have the athleticism of Madigan, but with a good 9 inside him and some space to work with, he’ll carve teams open.

Perhaps more interestingly for Schmidt and the upcoming 6N is the form of McCloskey, Marshall and Trimble. Here are three guys tailor made for the current international game, and for the latter two in particular, it’s great to see them back and firing.

McCloskey in particular looks like he could be a superstar. Along with his obvious bulk and leg drive, he possesses a smart defensive brain, some nice hands and at least some semblance of a kicking game. Pairing the ‘Bangor bulldozer’ with Robbie Henshaw in the centre and Trimble (an old Schmidt favourite) back on the wing in would be very, very exciting indeed.

 

And then of course, we have the other two.

Considering this is a positive post, I won’t mention the jeering from the Thomond stands or Leinster’s complete lack of cutting edge, and instead focus on what’s gone right.

In the blue corner, Luke Fitzgerald and Rhys Ruddock were two of the best players on the pitch in both Toulon games. Ruddock looks fit and fearsome, and should provide a perfect cover for POM at 6 if the Munster man doesn’t make it back for February. Fitzgerald, though defensively still learning the inside centre role, took the scalp of Nonu a few times over the last 10 days with fleet of foot. He too offers Joe another backline option.

Leinster’s youth is also coming through slowly. Ringrose will be a star, and should see some more time in the saddle during the Christmas period, but Josh VDF and Luke McGrath have been the real start. Both could see Wolfhounds action.

Wearing the red of Munster, again leaving aside the negativity, Stander’s form is the obvious thing to emphasise. Say what you want about the project player system, if it produces any more CJs (and Bundee Aki could be another), we won’t mind. Even in defeat against Tigers, he stood up and though still a little light for international rugby, he’ll push both Heaslip and O’Brien for a starting berth.

Stander's blockdown against Embra showed a hunger to compete that Munster have lacked at times this season.

Stander’s blockdown against Embra showed a hunger to compete that Munster have lacked at times this season.

From the weekend, Mike Sherry and James Cronin put in huge shifts against two international class opponents. Given the lack of options at hooker and LH for Ireland, both could bench in the 6N too.

So where to next? Us Irish sports fans are great at bandwagon jumping, yet if the bandwagon hits a hitch, we’re also very good at cynicism and whinging. For now, let’s hold our fire. Let’s promise to enjoy the festive battles with a smile on our face. Cullen and Foley in particular are being impacted by mitigating factors, and deserve time and support to work through the issues.

Oh, and how about this for a side with fresh blood and enough experienced faces to defend a third 6N?

Henshaw, Trimble, McCloskey, Fitzgerald, Healy, Sexton, Murray, Heaslip, Stander, Ruddock, Toner, Henderson, Ross, Best, McGrath

Cronin, Sherry, Furlong, Ryan, SOB, Marmion, PJ, Earls 

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.)

ONWARDS TO GLORY!!

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.

Elephant

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.

Communists

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.

Gamble

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.

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 09.35.06

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.

Scoreboard

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.

Performance

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.

Team

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.

Competition

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.

Supporters

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.

Consistency

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.