Expectations Encouragingly Low

Expectations Encouragingly Low

What is the secret of the success of the Irish rugby team? If there is such a hack, it’s the ability to do the simple things exceedingly well, over and over again. I know I’m being a little reductive here, but that’s the essence. Over the last six seasons, under the careful stewardship of Joe Schmidt, Ireland have been the masters of the basics, the kings of simple. And what rewards that approach brought. A third Grand Slam, promotion to the dizzy position of number two in the world rankings and a maiden win over the All Blacks on Irish soil. This time last year, Schmidt’s men were indeed the masters of all they surveyed.

A year on, the picture is noticeably different. If 2018 was an unprecedented peak for Irish rugby, this year, so far, fairly underwhelming in comparison. It’s not that Ireland have been poor (they haven’t) but a Six Nations that was bookmarked by two decidedly average performances against England and Wales tells the story of a team rattled from its lofty perch. Displays firmly rooted in second gear as opposed to the polished performances of 2018. Ireland are certainly not suffering from a crisis of confidence, but the strut of recent times has been replaced by a sheepish crawl.

Things were so different a year ago. Irish fans were looking ahead to the World Cup with buoyancy and anticipation. Despite the harsh lessons of history, this time was going to be different. Schmidt’s perfectly prepped side was set up to make its own mark and finally deliver on the biggest stage of all. What could possibly go wrong after the success achieved by a groundbreaking Ireland and its key component, a dazzling Leinster side that had completed an historic double?

It feels different now. The wheels haven’t exactly fallen off, but the landscape has changed. Ireland are chastened and a tad demoralised, while Leinster were overpowered and humbled by a rampant Saracens in the recent Champions Cup final. Not a million miles away, of course, but as the dust settles on the season, the Irishmen are chasing the pack rather than leading. And that’s a definite turnaround from where they were just a few months ago. If a week is a long time in politics, rugby fortunes similarly turn on a sixpence.

All’s not lost, however. There is an abundance of talent and experience in Irish rugby ready to deliver in Japan. The injuries to opensides Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien are sad and unfortunate, but there’s enough quality in Schmidt’s squad to fill the gaps. And the men in green definitely won’t lack for motivation in their desire to send esteemed coach and captain off into the sunset as winners. Irish rugby is down, but not out. They’ve long since discarded the underdog tag, but there remains a feeling that Ireland are still uncomfortable with excessive favouritism. With expectations lower than they’ve been in quite some time, Schmidt’s Ireland will, in fact, arrive in Japan in the perfect frame of mind.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Advertisements

Roof Shut on Irish Ambitions!

I’m just back from a rugby trip to Cardiff; a quite delightful city even if the weather left much to be desired. I was over to see the Grand Slam game between Ireland and Wales at the Principality Stadium. Good times alright, despite an awful result from an Irish viewpoint. The build-up was dominated, of course, by ‘roofgate’.

Much has been made of Joe Schmidt’s contentious decision to keep the stadium roof open. A lot has been written and usually utter nonsense. Irish reluctance to play ball, so to speak, with the roof issue was attributed to concern over the conditions caused by the de facto indoor atmosphere when the roof is shut.

In fact, Irish opposition was more psychological than practical. And the rules of engagement here are simple. If your opponent asks you to do something, you do the precise opposite. It’s important not to cede an inch and do anything that gives your rival even the slightest advantage.

It’s like when Martin Johnson trod all over Mary McAleese’s lovely red carpet in 2003. The former England skipper’s actions were portrayed at the time as premeditated and deeply provocative; a deliberate snub to Ireland’s popular head of state. But it had bugger all to do with any of that.

Johnson’s men mistakenly found themselves on the wrong side following a balls up in pre-match organisation and protocol. However, when asked repeatedly to move, Johnson and his lieutenants famously held firm. To move in that situation is a sign of weakness. And the Lions legend doesn’t do weakness. The entire Irish army could have descended on Lansdowne Road that day and Johnson wouldn’t have budged. This is the mind-set Ireland were in before the Wales showdown.

In the end, it didn’t work. Wales adapted to the conditions and were infinitely superior on the day. From my vantage point, Ireland had only a handful of notable attacks and barely looked like scoring prior to Jordan Larmour’s late consolation. While the logic of Schmidt’s stubbornness is plain to see, the strategy backfired painfully. What Ireland’s roof decision betrayed, actually, was a lack of confidence in their ability to play in the closed conditions. Whether that’s true or not is a moot point. It’s what it looked like. That was the clear message delivered to the opposition.

The perceived decline in Ireland’s game has been much discussed and dissected lately. While overplayed, there’s indeed a discernible fall from a team that rose so magnificently to second in the world on the back of only its third Grand Slam in history and a maiden win over the All Blacks on home soil. What on earth has happened?

Actually, it’s not rocket science. Opponents have worked Ireland out. Ironically, the fall from grace is a direct consequence of success. Ireland are watched more closely than ever and cracks have appeared. Schmidt’s highly patterned and programmed game plan works brilliantly when winning the collisions and dominating the physical battle. Ireland are a fantastic front foot team and look awesome when settled into their rhythm.

What other teams have clocked is: match Ireland in the contact areas and force them onto the back foot and their game is severely disrupted. England set the template and everyone else followed suit. In fact, all the signature losses of the Schmidt era have followed this familiar theme. This team sometimes struggles to wrest back control when the game drifts away. Regaining initiative is an art form and one Schmidt’s side hasn’t quite mastered yet.

Momentum isn’t helped, moreover, when your two best players are misfiring. Johnny Sexton cut a deflated and annoyed figure on Saturday and urgently needs to find his form. Ireland’s half backs were well below their lofty standards throughout this championship and the malaise has affected the whole team. Criticism is as ignorant as it is unfair, however. The two lads are genuinely brilliant and will bounce back emphatically from this temporary setback. No doubt about that. It’s time to keep the faith.

That applies to us all. How quickly we jump off the bandwagon following a couple of off key performances. Joe Schmidt insists it’ll be alright at the World Cup and who are we to disagree. Ireland’s coaching master has earned our trust. He’s had blips before and come through stronger and wiser for the experience.

Of course, it’s better if Ireland had delivered more consistently this championship, but these things happen. Better to find out now than at the World Cup. Plenty of time left for Schmidt and his squad to find the answers they need before it all kicks off in Japan. And if they don’t? Well, it’s not the end of the world. These days we don’t have to look too far to put sport into proper perspective.

P.S. As I watched Cardiff erupt on Saturday and saw delirious fans dancing in torrential rain, I couldn’t help but contrast the jubilant scenes with the political wrangling occurring in the Welsh game presently. Rugby is Wales’s national sport, but you only understand that when you go there. After the final whistle, everyone I met (men, women, children, of all ages and classes) were celebrating the win. This is their team. Their sport. The pride was palpable. I’ve never seen anything like it. Food for thought for the WRU. If rugby can’t make the professional game work in Wales, we should give up. Because if rugby can’t make it there, it can’t make it anywhere.

 

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

 

 

 

Chastened Ireland Taught Important Lesson!

Chastened Ireland Taught Important Lesson!

How do we assess Irish rugby after the opening weekend of the Six Nations Championship and the emphatic defeat inflicted by a reborn and resurgent England. Are Ireland just not as good as we thought they were? Have we all got a little carried away by recent achievements? Have Irish rugby folk completely lost the run of themselves? Have our collective delusions of grandeur been ruthlessly exposed a few months out from the biggest show of them all? Does Joe Schmidt and his squad need to go back to the drawing board? Actually, none of the above!

Ireland lost on Saturday to a pumped up England, by far the better team on the day. It’s rugby. It’s sport. It happens. Granted, we Irish tend to be tad myopic about our sports teams, but this Irish side is the real deal. Its imperious record over the past year tells you just how darn good it is.

More interesting are the reasons behind England’s triumph. Eddie Jones’s men smashed Ireland several yards behind the gain line, continually thwarting Ireland’s bid for momentum. Schmidt’s multi-phase game plan is based on superiority in the contact areas and England bossed that aspect of the game comprehensively at the weekend. It’s hard to implement any sort of attacking strategy when you’re lagging so thoroughly in the physicality stakes.

Think of any of the big signature defeats of the Schmidt era: Argentina in the World Cup, New Zealand at home in 2016, the Six Nations reversals suffered against Gatland’s Wales. They all have one thing in common. Ireland came second best in the contact areas. Schmidt’s precision strategy is predicated on winning the collisions and this is a severe problem. England were truly immense in their physical prowess at the weekend.

Actually, I thought Ireland recovered quite well from England’s stratospheric start (inevitable as it was given last year’s events in Twickenham). When Cian Healy drove over for his deserved try, Ireland had seemingly withstood the early onslaught and wrested parity from the visitors. But it was Jones’s men who raised their game thereafter. And Ireland had no answer.

Each and every time Schmidt’s side took the ball forward, they were smashed back behind the gain line by a dominant and painfully  aggressive defensive unit. Sure, England flirted at times with illegality, but you could only admire the sheer doggedness and commitment of their efforts.

We certainly didn’t see this coming after November’s dizzy heroics. So, how do we explain the turnaround in fortunes? England were just class, we have to acknowledge that first and foremost. They are an immeasurably better team with the awesome Billy Vunipola leading from the front. And Owen Farrell is at last fulfilling his promise as one of the true modern greats of the game. He was simply mesmeric at the weekend. This was always a difficult assignment first up in the championship: a really strong England hell bent on revenge, equipped with a smart game plan and a massive team armed to implement it to near perfection. Fair play to them.

But Ireland haven’t suddenly become a bad team. Common sense tells us that. I’ve heard it postulated in the last few days that Ireland just can’t hack it in the physicality department against the really big sides, but I’m not buying that. Any team that can dominate New Zealand like Ireland did in the autumn has no such worries. They just lost to a bloody good team, fired up with fury and virtually at full strength. Such is life.

The English reverse is also a reflection of Ireland’s newly found, exalted status as one of the game’s leaders. It’s always easier chasing the pack than sitting with a large target on your back, waiting to be knocked off your lofty perch. But hey, that’s the price of success. Better to find out now than in Japan. There’s no reason to panic, though. Ireland must (and will) get better.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Ireland Miles Ahead!

The late, great Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile barrier in 1954. He was the first athlete to break the much coveted record. Previously it had been assumed a nigh on impossible task. But Bannister believed in his ability and had the ambition, conviction and perseverance to make his dream happen. Lesser mortals crumbled, but Bannister stuck to his task and achieved greatness in the end. Inspiring isn’t the word.

But a curious thing then happened. Within six weeks the new record was broken. And within a decade, five other athletes had managed this once miraculous feat. Because Bannister had proved it was possible, the psychological barrier was removed. Sub four minute miles were no longer viewed as unachievable.

In much the same way, Irish rugby’s own psychological block in relation to the All Blacks is now lifted. Of course there was always the talent and potential to overcome the world’s best, but prior to that unforgettable evening in Chicago in 2016, there was no history, no precedent and no experience to draw on. Post Chicago, I ventured that we wouldn’t have to wait another century to beat New Zealand. So it has proved.

It’s just incredible to think how far Irish rugby has come. Those of us old enough to remember the irredeemably grim days of the 1990s scarcely believe what is happening. Three Six Nations titles-including a second Slam-, a first win over South Africa away from the auld sod, a first series win in Australia over three Tests and not one but two, yes two, wins over the double world champions. Even the golden generation didn’t come close to this. And now the man who masterminded the whole enterprise is off. Oh no! At least the exit was well signposted. Joe had the courtesy to prepare us, bless him!

I’m fascinated by the idea of difference between public and private personas. We know the public persona of Joe Schmidt. Witty, self-deprecating, engaging, erudite and even charming, almost avuncular at times. But there’s clearly another Joe, one the public doesn’t see. There’s Joe Schmidt the coach. I’ve never met the man but the players’ testimony reveals a clear picture of an extremely driven man: tough, uncompromising, exacting and ruthless. A winner.

The Kiwi’s often brutal Monday morning video review sessions are, of course, the stuff of rugby legend. One reason the Kiwis have struggled against Schmidt is they’ve been outwitted by one of their own. Joe thinks exactly the same way they do; he’s a hard working perfectionist who patently detests losing.

One word comes up consistently in any discussion about Ireland’s coach: detail. Schmidt imparts a wealth of detail and knowledge and expects players to do their homework in return. This approach insists on the highest standards, reflecting an Irish set-up that’s set a new benchmark in professionalism and preparation. Irish success over the past six years hasn’t happened by accident.

Although we still have him for another year, time is fast running out on the Schmidt era, with Ireland’s best ever coach stepping down after next year’s World Cup to take a much deserved break and spend some time with his family. Ireland’s highly regarded defence coach Andy Farrell has got the unenviable task of following the guru and while everyone associated with Irish rugby wishes him well, it’s hard to see Schmidt’s unprecedented success being replicated.

The former Rugby League star is a charismatic and capable coach, one who’s obviously gained the Schmidt seal of approval. He has, however, never been the main man and earns his promotion in the unforgiving glare of the international arena. It’s a tough ask but the steely Englishman is undoubtedly up for the challenge.

And the incoming head coach has the fortune of inheriting the greatest environment in Test Rugby and Irish rugby history. Schmidt’s set up is the envy of the rugby world and he leaves a legacy that will enrich the sport in Ireland for years to come. Farrell is taking charge of a young, fearless team, one that is teeming with ambition and focused firmly on continuing its remarkable run of success. Ireland’s young guns are far from finished and that is supremely exciting. The likes of James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale have years left in them.

But for all Farrell’s prospective riches, he has one hell of an act to follow. Because Ireland’s favourite Kiwi has taken Irish rugby into uncharted territory. Our best ever World Cup performance surely awaits next year. New Zealand remain the standard bearers and are still the most talented side in world rugby. However, in terms of preparation and professional standards, Schmidt’s Ireland are miles ahead of the competition.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Image: @OvalDigest [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

God Save Queen!

I’ve always been a bit of a Queen fan. Therefore, I went to see the new biopic Bohemian Rhapsody with a fair degree of excitement and trepidation. Excitement because I was keen to see what they’d done with the movie after years in the pipeline, but trepidation because I hoped they’d made a movie worthy of the name. And, by the time I saw it, I’d read quite a few reviews. To say the reviews have been decidedly mixed is to be kind. However, it’s important not to pre-judge and I did my best to retain an open mind prior to viewing it.

For anyone who’s been put off by the lacklustre reception the movie’s received, I’ve some great news for you. The film is bloody marvellous! It emphatically exceeded my expectations and then some. First of all, Bohemian Rhapsody must be the product of the greatest piece of casting of all time. Gwilym Lee and Joseph Mazzelo are quite uncanny as Brian May and John Deacon respectively (honestly you have to see these performances to believe them!), even if Ian Beale’s son (actor Ben Hardy) isn’t quite right as Roger Taylor.

However, the most sensational performance of the film is delivered, quite appropriately, by the virtuoso Rami Malek. Malek’s performance is nothing sort of breathtaking, at once encapsulating Mercury’s rock god persona and peerless stage presence alongside his simultaneous vulnerability and frailty. It is a performance grounded in pathos. It would be so easy to go over the top with extravagance and flamboyance (and I’m sure that was the temptation) but Malek keeps his Mercury grounded and relatable at all times, while retaining that omnipresent sense of superstardom. It’s a delicate balancing act and one the American actor pulls off with aplomb.

Queen purists be warned, Bohemian Rhapsody plays fast and loose with some of the chronology, but I guess that’s a necessary evil to make the movie as pacey and coherent as it needs to be. The authenticity comes from the emotional trueness of the depiction of relationships within the band and in the faithful recreation of the live performances. Even if some facts are altered slightly and crucial episodes left out altogether, the genuineness of the narrative is always apparent and driven by the superb performances of the leads, especially Malek.

One of my concerns approaching this movie was my knowledge that May and Taylor are executive producers on the project, along with long time Queen manager Jim Beach. How can any individual be objective about his/her own life? Aren’t biopics and biographies always better served by independence in their production?

On the contrary, the presence of such impeccable first hand sources has only enhanced the authenticity and quality of this picture. And there are plenty of good documentaries out there for anyone who wants a less partisan perspective. First hand accounts from the protagonists involved in any project are always going to be a much different animal.

The alleged baddie of the piece (if there is one) is Mercury’s former manager/assistant Paul Prenter. Prenter comes across as a divisive figure and the instigator of considerable tension between Queen’s frontman and the rest of the band. Make of that what  you will. May and Taylor are on record as not being Prenter’s biggest fans, shall we say. Bohemian Rhapsody captures the dual source of Queen’s magic, the genius and innovation of their recording techniques (inspired as they were by their idols The Beatles) and the electric quality of their unrivalled stage performances. That unique chemistry and charisma shines through strongly.

Like any Hollywood movie, Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t without its cheap moments. One particular stinker comes when a heavily made up Mike Myers, when discussing the iconic single after which this biopic is eponymously named, explains to the band while debating its suitability as a single that you’ll never find kids head-banging to it. Grim stuff, I know! There are also some sequences of the band rehearsing in the studio that don’t quite work for me. Such is the nature of the beast. It’s inevitable that such a grand vision falls over in places.

Overall, though, Bohemian Rhapsody is a triumph of epic proportions. Whether a Queen fan or not, it would be hard not to enjoy this movie. Great songs, great performances and an inside perspective on a fascinating era of rock history. The film ends with a stunning recreation of Queen’s reviving Live Aid cameo set that evoked in me a nostalgic yearning for the grand old stadium.

But most of all, there’s Malek. It’s worth seeing this film for his mesmeric performance if nothing else. Prior to seeing Bohemian Rhapsody, I thought the personification of Mercury’s unique showmanship and talent was unrealistic. Many have imitated, but few have come close to capturing the brilliance of one of rock’s greatest ever performers. Malek has done the seemingly impossible, however, and massive credit is due for a career defining performance. But Bohemian Rhapsody is full of plentiful and unexpected delights. Heck, it’s worth going for the music alone!

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Brexit: Deal Or No Deal?

In observing recent negotiations concerning the UK’s ever hastily impending withdrawal from the European Union, I’m finding the vocabulary used extremely familiar. We’re at a seminal stage in the Brexit talks and even at this decidedly late juncture, it’s hard to discern what progress has been made, either real or apparent. With negotiations seemingly deadlocked and with little prospect of a definitive breakthrough, there’s not exactly an abundance of optimism in the air and the mood of the population at large has become increasingly dark. The overriding feelings surrounding the most historic event of this generation are not so much febrile as depressingly toxic. These are certainly unique times. For all that, I can’t shake off this feeling of familiarity with the language being used. Where have I heard it before? Oh, that’s right: Noel Edmonds!

Yes, deal or no deal. That’s the question on the lips of an entire continent and an anxious watching world. Just what has Michel Barnier got concealed in that envelope of his? Alas, nothing of substance as far as Theresa’s May’s bitterly divided administration is concerned. What makes the impasse all the more intolerable is you sense we’re nearly there; that a positive outcome is tantalisingly close. So near and yet so far.

What we’ve seen in recent weeks is the unedifying sight of both sides frantically dancing on the head of a pin to find a commonly accepted form of words that’ll suit everyone. Neither party will get everything it wants, of course, but hey that’s the nature of compromise. Despite the wholly predictable mutual rejection of the latest sets of proposals, the broad outline of a deal is there and has been for many months now. The issue is one of marketability; how well both sides can sell any deal to their complex constituencies.

And May’s position is devilishly complicated. As if leading a party publicly tearing itself apart and in the midst of a de facto civil war wasn’t arduous enough, Britain’s premier must contend with another notoriously disagreeable component. In fact, dealing with arch Brexiteers like Rees-Mogg, Johnson and Davis is a veritable walk in the park compared to the intransigents in the DUP, upon whom Mrs May relies for her government’s survival. On top of all that, the British PM has to combat the impressive and formidable Barnier. A rock and a hard place doesn’t even come close to describing May’s predicament!

Perhaps we should’t be too gloomy. Common sense and pragmatism dictates that a deal will the done. As does the exigencies of the Irish border. The financial markets are edgy, businesses the length and breadth of the continent are begging for certainty and politicians from all sides of the spectrum are scurrying around furiously looking for a way to extricate themselves from this unholy mess. A no deal scenario is inconceivable in that context. Or is it?

The trouble is the protagonists have entrenched themselves so deeply that it’s becoming ever more difficult to negotiate a safe and secure way out. Pride and stubbornness have become factors here. No-one wants to lose face. But the stakes are way too high for pointless grandstanding and brinkmanship. Good sense must prevail in the middle of all this madness.

If that means a few extra customs checks on goods coming across the Irish sea, then so be it. It seems a small price to pay to avert the biggest political, economic and constitutional crisis to afflict these islands in a generation. This is a time for courage. A time for bold and conscientious leadership. It’s quite ironic that the calamitous breakdown in British/EU relations was at least partially inspired by the global financial meltdown and bail outs; whose grim ten year anniversary has just been marked. Brexit: Deal or No Deal? I wonder what The Banker has to say about it all?

 

File:Flag of Europe.svg

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Image courtesy of Wikipedia: By User:Verdy p, User:-xfi-, User:Paddu, User:Nightstallion, User:Funakoshi, User:Jeltz, User:Dbenbenn, User:Zscout370 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

James Hume: An emerging talent with a steely purpose

Another chance below to hear the interview I conducted with emerging Ulster Rugby prospect James Hume for http://www.insideireland.ie  :

This piece took a bit of organising. Being a part-time sports journo (blagger some might say-that’s how they say blogger in Belfast, by the way!) can be a challenging preoccupation. I only had a short window to meet my interviewee during a busy pre-season for Ulster Rugby. It was worth it, though.

I arrived at the reception of Kingspan Stadium at half nine on a wet Friday morning in the pouring August rain and was directed with a smile to the players’ training room and meeting facilities. I raced around and found a drenched Henry Speight being put through his paces by a photographer. I wondered to myself if Henry had been warned about the notorious northern Irish weather before putting pen to paper and actually muttered something in that spirit to the affable Aussie winger. Henry, it turns out, is aware of the great summer we’ve been enjoying this year, but alas arrives in Belfast just as the local climate has reverted to type.

But no, Henry wasn’t my interviewee. I’d come to at Ulster’s unrivalled facilities to meet James Hume (you can listen to the full interview below-, an up and coming Irish rugby star who’s sailed through the underage representative ranks. I was immediately impressed with James’s assuredness. The youngster greeted me with a firm handshake and calmly settled into our interview like an old pro. If only I’d been as confident and mature when I was twenty!

In a short but thorough interview, we discussed James’s hopes and ambitions for the new season, his experience with the Irish under 20 set-up-including his recent appearance at the under -20 World Cup-, James’s rugby heroes and the warm way he’s been accepted into the professional fold by his colleagues and teammates.

We also touched on James’s extensive knowledge of incoming Ulster Skills coach, Daniel Soper. For those who don’t know, Soper coached James at Banbridge RFC and enjoyed an extremely successful spell together when Soper guided RBAI, Hume’s alma mater, to three Ulster Schools’ Cup victories in a row. Pretty impressive stuff, although that’s hard to say for a Campbell man! There’s sure to be further glory ahead as Hume continues availing of Soper’s expert tutelage at Ravenhill.

James also revealed his thoughts on the recently announced Celtic Cup competition-the replacement for the now defunct British and Irish Cup-and the potential opportunity it offers young players to gain competitive experience and game-time away from the intense cauldron that is the Pro 14.

The new competition has been conceived as a vehicle to give ‘A’ and Academy players from the Celtic nations and clubs a chance to gain valuable playing exposure before breaking into their first team set-ups. Elite development and the provision of a pathway to professional rugby are essential components of any rugby system and it’s heartening to see Irish provinces benefiting from this exciting development. David Nucifora, in particular, will be delighted.

Hopefully James Hume will be one of many exciting young Ulster prospects to make their breakthrough this season. Young players, after all, are the future of Irish rugby and the health of the game in Ireland rests in their hands. After spending an enjoyable half-an-hour with the talented and articulate Hume, I was left with the abiding impression that Ireland’s new generation is more than up for the task. Our chat ended and James joined Henry and the others for a scheduled walk through in the rain.  As I departed an inclement Kingspan, I was reassured that the weather may be overcast but the future is definitely bright.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey