Redemption Required

As we survey the first two rounds of the Six Nations, Ireland find themselves in a tight spot. Two games played, two losses is not a good stat, but it’s the manner of the defeats that concerns. Andy Farrell’s men have been no better than mediocre and although there’s plenty of endeavour, stardust is pretty thin on the ground.

Most worrying of all is the listless nature of Irish performances and the inability to score tries. There was, at least, a semblance of attacking shape in Ireland’s opening loss to Wales and the visitors played quite well until Peter O’Mahony’s moment of madness tilted the game in Wales’s favour. In fact, Ireland’s performance with 14 men was pretty spirited, in fairness.

However, even then, Farrell’s men only managed one try. If Irish underperformance was understandable in that context, the French game last week was a severe regression. In terms of attacking ideas, Ireland were virtually non-existent, the only innovation being, err, the tactical novelty that is the Garryowen!

If you didn’t know better, you’d swear it was mid-nineties’ fare. And despite the tactic clearly not working, Billy Burns and his outside backs kept coming back to it-the definition of insanity and all that.

Speaking of Burns, the Ulster ten showed again that he is slightly lacking at the highest level. Don’t get me wrong, Ireland’s reserve fly-half is a decent provincial player who’s done fine things for his club these past couple of seasons.

But he is not yet equipped to boss and dominate a Six Nations encounter at this elite level. Ditto Ross Byrne. Ross’s brother Harry may be the heir apparent, but throwing a supremely talented young fella in at the deep end isn’t the answer either.

So, what does that leave us with? Johnny Sexton! Sexton remains Ireland’s best ten by a country mile, even in the autumn of his career. And that’s a disconcerting thought.

Ireland’s best ever ten has to retire at some stage, but the thought is currently inconceivable given the lack of viable contenders for the throne. Until Joey Carbery returns, there just isn’t an alternative anything close to the same level.

That said, it’s unfair to highlight individuals in discussing Ireland’s lack of creative spark. Farrell has been in the top job for well over a year now and yet his vision is hard to discern.

A brilliant assistant and defence coach, what does an Andy Farrell side look like? What are the hallmarks? We’re still not sure. Yes, there’s plenty of huff, puff and toil, but what’s the grand plan? Integral to all this is Mike Catt.

An unlikely choice, maybe, as attack coach, Catt’s vision is also proving elusive. Apart from his stellar playing career, Catt’s coaching resume is limited, bar a spot on Stuart Lancaster’s doomed England coaching ticket, and a support role with Conor O’Shea’s Italy in recent seasons.

We’ve discussed before the lack of superstars in Ireland’s current panel, but a lack of ambition is altogether harder to defend. Catt may yet prove to be brilliant, but it’s been a baptism of fire so far.

In terms of proving his credentials, however, Ireland’s next opponents, Italy (a side Catt obviously knows well), is a decent place to start!

And that’s the problem for Ireland. The Six Nations is all about momentum and after two rounds, Farrell’s men are playing catch up. Italy will fancy their chances of upset, but even an uninspiring Ireland should have enough to get the job done.

But even then, Ireland still finish with two really tough games: a revitalised Scotland away and then old enemy England at home. Who’d be in Farrell’s shoes?!

And that’s the catch-22. Ireland’s coach needs to experiment a little and spread his wings. He also needs to roll the dice in terms of selection. After all, the World Cup is only two years away.

But he also needs to win or he’ll lose his job. That’s why the Wigan great has so little room for manoeuvre. It’s the tightest of balancing acts.

This is the ultimate transition phase. As anyone who followed Ireland in the late nineties knows, transition phases are zero craic. For what it’s worth, I think Ireland will regroup and recover well.

They may even win all three remaining games. But Farrell needs performances to match. Now, more than ever, his players need to stand up and be counted for him.

P.S. I’ve just finished the comedian, David Baddiel’s new book, Jews Don’t Count. It makes for a fascinating, if at times, uncomfortable read. Nominally about anti-Semitism, Jews Don’t Count focuses on the blind spot held by many progressives in discussing the issue compared to other forms of racism.

It is extremely thought provoking and challenging for anyone not from a Jewish background. It forces us to confront some truths which are difficult to acknowledge. But it’s an important work and everyone, regardless of political persuasion, should read it. It is essential reading. I’m glad I did and it’s helped me look inwards-in a really good way!

@rorymcgimpsey

An Injection of Dog

Don’t know about anyone else, but I’m quite underwhelmed by rugby at the moment. I know it’s a necessary evil, but the sight and sound of empty stadiums just doesn’t do it for me. I must confess I’ve watched very little action recently and struggle to keep up with developments.

However, some recent news genuinely excites me. The appointment of Paul O’Connell as the Irish forwards coach is a masterstroke by the IRFU. Just when the titan of all titans seemed lost to the professional sport in Ireland, we have a welcome if unexpected addition to Andy Farrell’s coaching ticket. A wonderful bit of business.

The Limerick man is a colossal leader and adds significant value to any team he’s part of. A terrific orator, of course, and a genuinely hard man, the former Irish captain is a figure that inspires respect and fear in equal measure among opponents. But that’s only part of it. O’Connell is a much more intelligent and thoughtful individual than many realise, and brings a huge amount of intellectual property to the set-up.

As a player, O’Connell was renowned for his endless hours dissecting opposition lineouts prior to games. He has a marvellous rugby brain, for sure. That said, the big man is still a scary and intimidating presence these days. I saw him at close quarters at Ravenhill a couple of years ago coming up the stairs and can confirm that Paul is a bear of a man.

I like also that Farrell is keeping Simon Easterby on the ticket. The two will work well together; reprising a relationship they had as Irish players who excelled at the set-piece from a tactical perspective. It’s actually quite an All Blacks’ move and reminiscent of Steve Hansen rejigging the roles and responsibilities in his brains trust a few years back. Keeping everyone on their toes. Irish rugby maximising the resources at its disposal.

Of course, in an ideal world, O’Connell would serve a longer apprenticeship before being catapulted into the unforgiving cauldron of Test rugby; preferably as head coach of Munster. We know from the bitter experience of Martin Johnson, the perils of cutting your international coaching teeth too early. But you have to take these opportunities when they arise. It’s undoubtedly a clever move by David Nucifora and the IRFU.

O’Connell will galvanise, motivate and organise the Irish forwards but will do so much more. For this is the return of a talismanic figure who will instil the ingredients the Irish pack has been missing these past couple of years. Expect Ireland’s maul, ruck and, of course, lineout (both offensively and defensively) to be significantly better with O’Connell calling the shots.

It’s exciting too to think of James Ryan’s future development under O’Connell’s mentorship. In my last blog, I spoke of a certain lack of ‘dog’ in the current Irish pack. The savvy appointment of Paul O’Connell goes a long way to fixing the problem.

@rorymcgimpsey

State Of The Union

As another year ends (as crazy a year as any of us can remember), we’re all in a bit of a reflective mood. This is as true in rugby as anything else. In a year that’s seen matches cancelled, competitions curtailed and fans exiled, the sport, at all levels, finds itself asking some existential questions. If that sounds hyperbolic, it’s also true of the unique times rugby finds itself in.

So, perhaps we can give Andy Farrell a bit of a bye-ball as we survey the first full year of his tenure. Given all that’s happening in the world, normal standards don’t apply, right? True. Except time stands still for no-one and for the ever keen and motivational Farrell, the honeymoon period is over. Now, more than ever, coaches must find a way to deliver and garner revenue for their employers in rugby’s darkest hour, financially.

And it’s not gone too badly. Irish performances under their head coach have been creditable. Results have been on the upper end of what we expect. Yes, England have remained frustratingly out of reach with their slick, power game, but most other opponents have been within Ireland’s reach. As regards England, they just have a stronger team at present. These things go in cycles.

More worrying, is the apparent inability of the Irish pack to dominate the biggest games at the highest level. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a truly dominant performance-probably the last time was Ireland’s historic win over the ABs at the Aviva in 2018. The likes of Caelan Doris and James Ryan are superb young players, with massive potential, but you sense a lack of dog in the current squad. Where are the Paul O’Connells in today’s crop? Then again, such legends only emerge once a generation.

And that’s the rub. Farrell and his coaches can only work with the raw materials at their disposal. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, how many current Ireland players would get into a World XV and/or a Lions starting XV? How many are at that level? I can think of: Ringrose, Ryan and Furlong (when fit). There aren’t too many others. Alas Sexton and Murray, while still very important, are past their peak at this stage of their Test careers. Sad but true, I think.

Considering the above, has Farrell delivered or fluffed his first year? I’ve seen some criticism of the lack of evolution in playing style since Schmidt left. Not entirely fair. There’s been new patterns on display and, at least, an intent to play with more width and invention. Although Ireland’s attack had got so blunt at the end of the Schmidt era, it’s hard to go backwards in that regard! As discussed, results have been okay and the coaches can only work with the players they have.

The jury is still out in terms of whether Farrell is the right man for Ireland at this juncture. Remember, this is his first head coach gig in what is, to all intents and purposes, his second sport. It’s easy to forget that! And a man so passionate, driven and ambitious is almost certainly worth sticking with; at least in the short term.

Maybe a deeper truth emerges. We can now appreciate how Joe Schmidt over achieved with this group of players in recent years. The golden generation is long gone and the nucleus of Schmidt’s team is past its peak for those that have not retired. I hate the term, but this is a transitional phase. Perhaps expectations should be corrected on that basis.

P.S. It’s been a strange old year for everyone. 2020 is like the year that never got going. It started normally enough, but then took a turn none of us predicted. It’s been tough, weird and interesting. A period that none of us will forget. And we’re not out of it yet, of course. 2021 offers hope but there’s no guarantee it’ll be better, at least not for a while. Lockdown, as tough as it is, teaches us a lot about what’s really important. Despite the challenges, it’s quite nice being cocooned with our nearest in dearest-in small doses anyway!

With the Covid vaccine being rolled out, we at last have hope things will return to the normality we all remember prior to March of this year. How we all crave that! This isn’t a usual end of year reflection. So much to digest and process from 2020. My lesson? The vast majority that worries us is irrelevant in the great scheme of things. We spend so much of our lives fretting and worrying about stuff that doesn’t really matter. I believe we’ve all woken up a bit this year. It’s the little things that count.

Happy New Year!

@rorymcgimpsey

Cobra Kai Never Dies!

Don’t know if any of you have seen the new series, Cobra Kai, on Netflix. I approached it with slight doubt but thoroughly enjoyed the series. Much more than I expected, in fact.

We all grew up with the story of The Karate Kid, Daniel Larusso, the outsider kid from New Jersey who moves to Reseda in California. His story of bullying and redemption is instantly familiar. A whole generation of boys, this writer included, grew up with Karate Kid as their favourite movie.

Ostensibly, a typical ’80s movie of good guys versus bad, I watched it recently and the film is actually much more nuanced than that. The portrayal of bullying is very realistic-as is the truism that the bully backs down the minute you stand up to him.

Also bucking the trend in a era of cringe-worthy excess, the hero of the piece is not a muscle bound All-American, but a 60 year-old Japanese man. Just another reason to love the movie.

Cobra Kai has an altogether different conceit. Some 34 years later, Larusso is a successful car dealer struggling for balance in his life. Circumstances contrive him to be reacquainted with his nemesis from all those years ago, Johnny Lawrence.

The ensuing years have not been kind to Lawrence. We see him as troubled and disturbed, but fundamentally a good guy. It’s an interesting inversion from the original films.

As well all know, the central pillar of bullying is power. Power, and the abuse of it, is what makes bullying possible. That’s the essence of it. In the original film and its sequels, privileged Lawrence holds the power over poor kid, Larusso.

However, Cobra Kai neatly twists the relationship by making Daniel the powerful one; the successful businessman to Johnny’s down and out character. It’s an interesting role reversal.

The progression of the series plays out the complex relationship between these two well meaning, but flawed individuals.

The rivalry is exacerbated when Johnny coaches a young karate student who ends up dating Daniel’s daughter. The picture is complicated further when Daniel becomes the sensei of Lawrence’s son.

It’s a complicated dynamic and it’s unclear who the good guys are. In the rebooted version, who is the Mr Miyagi figure? Is it Larusso or is Lawrence? By the end of the second season, it’s still not clear.

In truth, both the main protagonists are revealed to be flawed and difficult individuals, each capable of acts of kindness and poor judgement in equal measure.

Neither cover themselves in glory despite their evidently good intentions. In Cobra Kai, unlike its predecessor, it’s not a matter of black and white but muddy shades of grey.

Of course, there are ridiculous moments in the series and some of the fight scenes are downright silly. But there’s a depth and warmth to the series that can’t help but captivate. It’s good stuff.

This is a tv show with plenty of heart and drama, not to mention its fair share of comedy. It’s well worth a watch if you’ve any nostalgia for the movies. You’ll not be disappointed.

P.S. Ireland finish yet another Six Nations campaign in an underwhelming manner. So much potential, but yet the same old story at the end. Criticism will be aimed at Farrell, of course, but it’s misguided.

For all the talk of Irish depth in recent years, how many world class players do Ireland actually have? How many are Lions starters or World XV pedigree? Not too many. Just goes to show, yet again, what an incredible job Joe Schmidt did in overachieving with this group.

@rorymcgimpsey

Irish on Top

Saturday  brings the final of Pro14 and it’s an all-Ireland affair as Leinster face off against Ulster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. It’s been a strange old year and this event is happening four whole months after it should have done.

On paper, it’s a bit of a mismatch as unbeaten Leinster (yes you read that correctly) face off against underdogs Ulster, bolstered by a mighty win over Edinburgh in the semi-final but largely unconvincing since play resumed after the Covid break.

When you add virtual home advantage into the equation, all signs point firmly to the trophy remaining in D4. But the delight of finals, particularly derby finals, is the form book goes out the window. At least, that’s what Ulster are hoping.

Another compelling factor is the strong Leinster contingent in the Ulster side; including semi hero Ian Madigan. How satisfying it would be for Ulster’s Dublin boys to upset the apple cart on their home patch.

But Leinster, as ever, look polished and have the really big guns, not just in Ireland but Europe. Sexton and co need little motivation to excel and accumulate silverware and normally deliver when it matters. With Saracens on the horizon, this game matters in more ways than one.

That said, the Ravenhill men have a glorious opportunity to not only make history but lay down a marker in the process. A chance to land their first trophy since 2006 and turn Leinster over in Dublin in the  process. That can’t be bad.

Nobody outside the camp expects Ulster to do it. All the pressure and expectation sits with the Blues. This is a shot to nothing. Dan McFarland’s side enter the fray as the ultimate underdogs. And that’s not the worst position to be in!

Either way, Irish domination of this competition continues. Exciting times with rugby back with a bang. In the rush to cram two seasons into one, we just hope player welfare doesn’t suffer too badly.

@rorymcgimpsey

New Normal

We’ve been locked down for more than two months now. It’s been tough. A difficult time for everyone as the pace of life has changed, possibly permanently. But, as lockdown restrictions start to lift, we are gradually charting the way out. Lately, we’ve seen the slow, tentative return to relative normality. Shops are reopening, services reviving and many are returning to normal working hours.

Of course, the easing of restrictions (clear evidence the lockdown is working) is great news. Don’t know about anyone else, though, but I’m slightly anxious and apprehensive about the prospect. When I think about it, I’ve mixed emotions, to be honest. Isn’t that strange? I suppose it’s a form of Stockholm Syndrome. Us humans are regulated by patterns and routines. And with the lockdown throwing ordinary norms out the window, the restrictions ordered to save lives have replaced our old ways of life and become new daily habits.

Of course, the overriding priority is the need to save lives. We’re all keen to return to normal working patterns and for the high streets to reopen. But we locked down for a reason and the easing must be cautious, incremental and guided, above all, by the best scientific advice. The economy is important. Jobs are important. But the protection of human life is the most important consideration of all. Especially the elderly and frail in our midst.

It’s how we define civilisation. Any society can protect its strongest and fittest members. That’s easy, frankly. Anybody can do that. But the true test of any compassionate and equitable society is how it protects its most vulnerable components. And that’s where we’ve excelled these last few weeks, as difficult as it’s been at times. We’ve made tough decisions to look after the most brittle individuals in our communities. And that is something we should all be immensely proud of.

It’s the least we can do. Especially when our health workers (the real heroes in society) have made such monumental sacrifices for the rest of us. Literally putting themselves in danger for the common good. It’s humbling to think what an incredible and outstanding job they’ve done-and are continuing to do- under the most acute pressure.

Yes, the protection of life and public health must be the priority. For all that, it’s pleasing to see the gradual return to normality and heartening to know the improving situation on the ground permits such movement. But, as I say, I feel a little discomfort (albeit mild) at the prospect of the lockdown lifting. And I wonder if any of you feel the same? If we’re heading to a new normal, what’s that going to look like? How will we adapt to the changes thrust upon us?

To be honest, I sense it’s almost happening by stealth anyway. I’ve no hard data to back it up, but I sense the lockdown being slightly less strictly observed in recent weeks, especially with the onset of good weather. Of course, the vast majority are following the rules really well and have done from the start, but I feel a slight slacking off in recent weeks. Perhaps symptomatic of lockdown fatigue as opposed to complacency. I hope I’m wrong about that. But I think it’s almost inevitable in a crisis like this, sadly. Mixed and confusing messages from the top haven’t helped, either.

What’s remarkable, actually, is how the majority has observed the restrictions so well. Prior to this crisis, if you’d said the entire civilised world and their economies could be shut down almost seamlessly for months on end, you’d be labelled barking. And yet that’s precisely what’s happened. This is compliance on a truly global scale. Having come so far, it’s important not to let up, though. This virus takes no prisoners and it’s vital to maintain momentum while we’re ahead, no matter how tough that is on us.

The war’s nowhere near over and we must keep going until victory. There’s no other option. But what of my mixed emotions about the gradual, winding return to normality? Why can’t I welcome the easing of restrictions with unequivocal relief? It’s human nature, I suppose. We’re loathe to admit it, but we all crave the devil we know. And the restrictions imposed by lockdown have become our new reality. Routines have already been established.

What we must remember, though, is that the lockdown was only ever a means to an end, a necessary evil in order to combat this grim virus. Things won’t be remotely normal for some time yet, but these are steps in the right direction. The effects of social distancing and the sacrifices made are allowing a slow march to the new normal, whatever that looks like. And that’s something to be welcomed, not feared.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

New World Order

When we last spoke, the Six Nations was in full swing and we were looking forward to spring with the usual burst of excitement and buzz. What a difference a few weeks makes! The Six Nations, along with a raft of other sporting fixtures, has been postponed indefinitely and virtually the whole world has been thrust into lockdown. Welcome to the panicked, slowed and slightly eerie new world we now live in.

Of course, in the great scheme to things, the cancellation and postponement of sports events is frankly irrelevant. People are dying in mammoth numbers from the dreadful Covid-19 pandemic and our hospital wards and emergency departments are under unprecedented stress. If this awful event has done any good it is shining a spotlight on the real heroes in society. And it ain’t pampered, privileged sports stars. It’s the men and women of the NHS and HSE. 

That said, the Six Nations postponement raises some interesting questions. The smart money is on the outstanding fixtures played later in the year. There is precedent here. For those who remember the Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001 (an animal rather than human infection, of course), will recall that Six Nations games were postponed until the autumn that year to prevent spread of the disease.

Who can forget Keith Wood peeling off the back of an Irish lineout to score at Lansdowne Road to deny a superb England team a Grand Slam they deserved and would certainly have claimed had Foot and Mouth not intervened. Even Iain Balshaw was on fire back then. That’s how long ago it was!

And the parallels with 2001 don’t end there. The same inconsistency with enforcement measures applied. Ireland’s Six Nations games were cancelled but others continued, as did the Premier League football season. Go figure.

Similarly, this time, as events were cancelled en masse, we saw the bizarre spectacle of hundreds of thousands of spectators cramming into Cheltenham for their annual punt and party. When the comprehensive history of Covid-19 is finally written, the continuation of the Cheltenham Festival will be one of the most inexplicable chapters. Unless standards are applied equally, restriction measures are rendered impotent and certain sections of society, in particular, were slow to react to the danger.

In all this, though, we must keep balance. The Coronavirus crisis is uncharted territory and it’s understandable that mistakes are made. The powers that be have struggled to contain this, but we should cut some slack. Sure, there have been gaffes in all walks of life, but I’m not of the school of thought that there was any wilful negligence here. People are doing their best in the midst of conflicting and often confusing scientific advice.

And that includes governments! The sands are constantly shifting. No-one wanted to see a single death caused by this illness. Only fools believe otherwise. This damn virus caught us all unguarded and it’s inevitable that parts of public policy failed. Still, lessons must be learnt.

The lack of precedent only adds to our collective sense of worry and uneasiness. The only comparable event I can think of is the onset of the global financial crisis of 2008 in terms of a sudden and catastrophic shock to the global economic system. The silver lining-and I know we must stretch to see it-is the effects of this crisis are unlikely to be as enduring and long lasting.

So, the Six Nations will likely reprise in the autumn and professional football possibly a little earlier. Liverpool fans have been waiting 29 years to recapture their holy grail and it would be a crying shame if the most deserved league title in the history of the game evaded the Scousers after all that toil and effort. Indeed, it would be a pity if the title was sealed behind closed doors.

The Olympics has also been put back a year, causing massive uncertainly for the (mostly amateur) athletes who’ve trained  lifetimes to compete at the Games. And yet, we must return to the central point. Sport is irrelevant in all of this. Vast numbers are getting sick and lives have been lost.

The world has changed in an unbelievably short period of time and we’ve all had to adjust to this new world order. But things will return to relative normality and all those glorious trivialities (sport, socialising, meeting family and friends) will return. What remains to be seen is what lasting damage is done to the economy and individual lives by this unique crisis.

But normal life will resume. We will get through this together. In the meantime, all we can do is look after those close to us, especially the frail and vulnerable, and support our wonderful health workers. See you all, please God, on the other side.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Six of The Best

Six of The Best

It’s only a moment since the end of the World Cup and the Six Nations is upon us. Such is modern life. It’s a sign of age. The time in between events gets shorter and shorter. Remember, as a kid, when it seemed a veritable lifetime between the summer holidays and Christmas? Now, one thing merges seamlessly into the other. Oh well! At least, we don’t have to wait too long for the big events to come around.

This is a critical tournament for Ireland. And I’m not indulging in hype. It is. After the acute frustration of yet another World Cup under-performance, Andy Farrell’s men need to re-establish momentum quickly and emphatically. Nothing else will do. Even a cursory look at the upcoming fixture list underlines just how difficult that task is.

It’s a tough one for Farrell. Ireland’s game plan and personnel clearly need to evolve and develop from the ultra successful, but now slightly jaded Schmidt era. We all see that. And yet Farrell has to win and do that consistently. Anything less costs him his job. The IRFU prioritise the Six Nations to such an extent, for historical and revenue reasons, tournament success is not so much aspired to but demanded.

That is Farrell’s catch-22. All the noise surrounding John Cooney (in imperious form for Ulster) and demands for wholesale changes in personnel and style of play must be seen in that context. Ireland’s new coach has limited room for experimentation, but not much.

The new man has to win, first and foremost. The evolution will be gradual. Therefore, to the irritation of the masses, there won’t be wholesale changes. It’s clear, however, that it’s not more of the same either, so the precise nature of Farrell’s influence will be fascinating to see in the next few weeks.

In all this, it’s important to remember this is Farrell’s first gig as head coach. It’s always difficult making the step up from lieutenant to general in any walk of life. And he’s doing it in his second sport! It’s easy to forget that. Of course Farrell has peerless credentials, the two-time Man of Steel winner coming out of that great Wigan side of the 1990s that set the standards in modern professional rugby.

No doubt, Farrell has added significant value since his transition to Union, from both a playing and coaching perspective. But that contribution as Union coach, for obvious reasons, has primarily been confined to defence. Now, as Ireland head-honcho, Farrell is in charge of the whole piece; attack, defence, forwards, set-piece and everything else in between. Despite his formidable reputation and experience, that’s a significant elevation.

The mood music coming out of Ireland camp recently is good. The players clearly think highly of their new coach and Farrell has the presence and charisma to galvanise his squad. Any gaps in the head coach’s skill-set are off-set by the quality of the people around him.

Mike Catt brings a wealth of experience and know-how to Ireland’s attack. An extremely versatile player who also played fly-half and fullback, Catt’s added most value, in a stellar playing career, to England’s best ever midfield. Granted, Will Greenwood and MikeTindall were the combination that won the World Cup, but their best rugby was played with Catt at 12.

We watch with interest what Catt’s influence means in practice for an Ireland team that needs to add strings to its bow in terms of creativity. Perhaps Farrell’s most important assistant remains Simon Easterby; a man who’s done much to solidify the Irish set-piece and provides vital continuity from the previous regime.

All in all, the positives outweigh the negatives and the early signs are good. Ireland’s new boss needs a little luck, of course, but that’s outside his control. While Ireland probably won’t win the championship, a decent win ratio, bolstered by a few really good performances and the infusion of some new blood will do nicely and keep the wolf from the door. It’s a strange one for fans. Even if the Six Nations goes well, a lingering question remains: why couldn’t they do it at the World Cup when it really mattered?

Picking up my theme from the start of the article, do you want to feel old? It’s now 20 years since a 21-year old Brian O’Driscoll scored a hat-trick in Paris to announce Ireland’s first ever global rugby superstar. Good lord! Caelan Doris is the same age now and has the potential to do great things in a green shirt. God speed, young man!

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Alun Wyn Jones, Greig Laidlaw, Sergio Parisse, Rory Best, Guilhem Guirado and Owen Farrell 23/1/2019

 

Plenty To Be Hopeful About!

We’re living in uncertain times. An era where confusion and polarisation reigns. You see it everywhere. From Trump, to Brexit, to fake news, and everything else in between. Granted, social media exacerbates our sense of the problem. Excessive noise and obnoxiousness online bears no relevance to real life and, in reality, never has done. Yet, for all that much needed perspective, it’s hard to shake that feeling of uneasiness.

This state of disorientation has neat symmetry with the present state of Irish rugby. What a profound difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, Ireland were sitting pretty atop the world rankings, having just (deservedly) beaten the All Blacks in Dublin and genuine contenders for the World Cup. We all know how it unravelled after that. A decisive defeat against a resurgent England in the Six Nations opener set the tone for the rest of the calendar year.

By the time Joe Schmidt’s team rocked up to Japan, it was already in decline; weakened and demoralised by the events of preceding months. The success enjoyed in recent years was unprecedented and the freefall experienced in 2019, equally, like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Seldom has something so accomplished fallen so far, so fast.

In the predictable rush to apportion blame-one of the uglier modern trends-we forget the natural and inevitable order of things. What goes up must come down. And the steeper the rise, the sharper the fall. The chickens certainly came home to roost for Joe Schmidt in the past year, but we’re stupid to forget the glory and greatness that came before. Baby, bathwater and all that.

As successor Andy Farrell gets his plates of meat under the table, there’s no time to reflect, though. As is the way in the Six Nations, the new coach’s team must settle quickly; finding ways to win and also expanding a predictable game plan as it obviously needs to.

Yes, that’s a daunting prospect, but also an exciting one. The ultimate clean slate. The best thing about taking over from a control freak is you get one hell of a chance to put your own stamp on matters.

And Farrell has decisions to make across the piece. The captaincy, game plan, team selection and overall strategy, to name but a few. But that is the price of leadership and the popular coach will relish the prospect. Provincial performances in the Champions Cup re-affirm the wealth and depth of talent pervading Irish rugby.

Leinster are already qualified for the knockout stages, of course, Ulster are almost there, while Munster have some work to do, but should qualify too. Even Connacht have played good stuff in patches. While the success of the provinces has been redemptive, it further hints at what might have been in Japan.

None of that should concern Farrell. His job is to look forward rather than back. Of course, there are lessons to be learned from the World Cup misadventure. Chief among those is moving beyond over reliance on a handful of senior players whose best days were behind them.

Irish rugby bosses must also equip players to handle success and expectation better. It’s easier chasing the pack, of course, than leading the way. Continual evolution is the key. It’s what the All Blacks have excelled at for generations. In all this, fans and administrators alike hope Ireland have found the right man to make the necessary adjustments and lead the charge. We’ll know soon enough!

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

On the theme of hope, Christmas is a good time for us all to reset. What a great time of year. A time when most of us make that extra effort to be nice to each other and enjoy ourselves. To see hope rather than the stress and worry. In these challenging times, we need such optimism more than ever.

Christmas is a remarkable thing. The festive season has a wonderful ability to unite. I’ve yet to meet an atheist so staunch in their convictions that they don’t celebrate it!

Of course, Christmas means different things to different people. However, whether religious or secular, most of us still get something out of it.

It’s primarily about children, of course (I’ll be spending the holidays marvelling at the excitement of an almost three year old!), but we can all use this time to regenerate.

For what it’s worth, I see Christmas as a time to count blessings. And if that extends to a little charity to our fellow men and women, so much the better!

Merry Christmas everyone. I hope Santa comes and you all have an awesome and healthy 2019!!