Back To The Future

Following the fortunes of Irish rugby has been one of the main preoccupations of my adult life. It’s a pastime that’s given me my fair share of pleasure and pain. Of course it was great to celebrate the successes: the Grand Slam, Six Nations titles, Triple Crowns, provincial glory in the Heineken Cup. But as any true Irish fan will tell you, we’ve also had plenty of disappointment and heartache. Of course we’re supposed to treat those twin impostors just the same, but sport doesn’t work like that. It’s a realm where the heart rules the head.

And there’s been a lot of gloom surrounding Irish rugby in the past eighteen months. Following Ireland’s underwhelming exit from the World Cup at the quarter-final stage, the state of Irish rugby seemed to take a permanent turn for the worse in the ensuing months when the Irish provinces struggled to get out of their Champions Cup groups. All of a sudden, the previously exalted Irish national model was being criticised and condemned by all and sundry. Irish rugby was being stifled by conservatism and inertia, or so the allegation went. Such was the all pervasive wealth of the French clubs, moreover, it was claimed that the Irish could no longer compete on anything approaching equal terms.

Well, fast forward a year and the outlook is rather different. Not only have we seen a resurgent and confident national side thanks to the wondrous, historic victory over the All Blacks, Irish clubs have not only survived but prospered in Europe this season. The turnaround has been quite remarkable indeed. And the crowds are starting to return following years of apathy and disillusionment with the fading success. Nowhere is this transformation more evident than  Munster’s famous Thomond Park fortress. In recent times, the empty Thomond terraces spoke not only of the worst economic recession in living memory, but a more general malaise within Irish rugby. A generation of young rugby followers reared on success and who’d absolutely no memory of the bad old days struggled to adapt to changing realities. The boom had been great, but who needed the bust?

It’s for this reason and so many others, that the recent resurgence is to be welcomed. At last, Irish rugby followers have got smiles on their faces again and supporters are looking forward to the business end of the season with a degree of optimism not seen since the halcyon days of 2009 to 2012. The upturn in fortunes gives lie to the fallacy that the Irish system doesn’t work. Although imperfect and certainly riddled with flaws, the Irish system of central contracts affords a degree of protection and support that players can’t expect to experience elsewhere.

And our envied school and academy system consistently produces a conveyor belt of talent that the rich French clubs can only dream of enjoying. Just think: how good could we be if the supply lines were at last extended beyond the narrow, traditional rugby constituency? If you doubt the extent of talent within the Irish system, take a moment to ponder Joe Schmidt’s options in each position and you’ll realise the abundance that’s available. The last eighteen months have undoubtedly been a relatively tough time for the Irish game. Much soul searching has been done. And yet who were the first two teams to qualify from this season’s Champions’ Cup pools? Leinster and Munster. The demise of Irish rugby has been greatly exaggerated.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

Schmidt’s Boys Make History

We all wondered how the streak would end. Nothing lasts forever. All good things come to their natural conclusion at some point in time. No-one expected it to be yesterday, though. The Irish rugby team’s trip to Chicago to take on the mighty All Blacks was understandably billed as mission impossible. Yes, the trip was important in terms of marketing and global rugby politics; a sort of evangelist mission to take the oval ball game to one of the sport’s final frontiers. And of course a trip to see the sights of Chicago in the beautiful autumnal sunshine is never something to be sniffed at. But no-one expected Schmidt’s boys to win. Nobody. Not even the most ardent Ireland supporter.

You have to consider the context to understand this lack of optimism. New Zealand are the current world champions and have just completed the Rugby Championship unbeaten, amassing ludicrously large scores in the process. When the All Blacks defeated Australia a couple of weeks ago, the New Zealanders set a new world record of 18 consecutive Test wins. Such was their aura of invincibility, many pundits hailed these All Blacks as the greatest team ever to play the game. The very best.

Irish excuses were ready made and well prepared in advance. The travel, injuries, lack of game time for key men, truncated preparation, limited time together, jet lag…..I could go on. It was even mooted that Schmidt regarded the Chicago expedition as no more than a hit out, a shot to nothing and was targeting the forthcoming game in Dublin as Ireland’s more realistic chance of victory. With the Irish written off in all quarters, therefore, a New Zealand victory was seen as a virtual fait accompli. Ireland tore the pre-ordained script into a thousand pieces; the world champions falling unwittingly into Joe Schmidt’s unexpected ambush.

In writing a blog, I try very hard to avoid the treacherous world of sports writing cliches. It’s easy to fall into the trap. You know the sort of thing: “The boys done good, the crowd were the 16th man, Chicago was painted green last night etc….” All that meaningless nonsense. I don’t believe in unnecessary hype or exaggeration, either. If a story is strong enough or has enough resonance, it tells itself. No amplification is needed. When everyone else is getting carried away, I always strive to be realistic and measured.

I haven’t watched the game again yet, but my initial impression is that I can’t remember a better Irish performance. That’s why I’m unusually reticent to play this one down. Ireland not only beat a great New Zealand team, they dominated them for large portions of the game. And even when the All Blacks stormed back into it in the second half-as was inevitable-the men in green still had the mental fortitude and resilience to close it out. If this was one of the best Irish performances ever, it was because it simply had to be. Nothing else would be sufficient against one of the standout rugby teams of any era.

Ireland were wonderful. Schmidt’s bespoke game plan was implemented to perfection. Contrary to presumptions, the Irish kept the ball in hand and switched the point of attack with immaculate precision. In coordinating the effort, half-backs’ Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray were outstanding. Their endeavour was matched by Ireland’s magnificent forwards, who bossed the Kiwis in most areas throughout the game.

New Zealand’s makeshift second row made them susceptible to Irish pressure and Schmidt conceded last night that Ireland’s greater experience in the engine room allowed “access” into the game. In truth, it did much more than that. Ireland’s set-piece ascendancy enabled them to achieve unprecedented levels of dominance in the first half. What’s more,the front row of McGrath, Best and Furlong put in mammoth shifts in both loose and tight play. They were awesome. And Jordi Murphy was the embodiment of athleticism and industry before injury cruelly curtailed his afternoon; the Irish openside being replaced by the equally effective Josh van der Flier. Furthermore, the performance was buttressed by a herculean defensive effort that defied belief.

And what about Rob Kearney? The Louth man has been criticised by all and sundry recently, with his place in the team openly questioned. Yesterday, the Irish fullback reminded us what a classy and intelligent player he is. But they were all great. They really were. Henshaw, Zebo, Trimble et al. Heck, I should just list the entire squad and be done with it! The glue that keeps it all together is Ireland’s indomitable captain, Rory Best. Strangely enough, the Ulster hooker still has his detractors after years of consistent excellence in an Irish shirt. I can only assume these critics suffer from some form of visual impairment. Best is a wonderful rugby player and a consummate leader to boot. No-one does more for this Irish team than the reliable Ulster man.

I’m pleased for Best on a personal level. It’s somehow fitting that he led the Irish to their first Test win over New Zealand. One of the privileges of covering local rugby is you get to meet the players. While all players are extremely polite, some are a little different to how you imagined them. You get the impression that some rugby players (either consciously or unconsciously) adopt a bit of a media persona. Not Best. What you see is what you get. A man of complete modesty and humility. He deserves this moment. Think of all the great players and captains who competed against the All Blacks, but came up short. Best’s achievement is indeed remarkable. The former Portadown College pupil has delivered the goods.

And let’s not forget the mastermind behind it all; the architect of Ireland’s finest win. Joe Schmidt has copped his fair share of criticism, but this win is a timely reminder of the Kiwi’s coaching talents. Who knows how long he’s been planning this carefully constructed ambush. If this is what Schmidt can do with restricted preparation, we should be very excited about the next few weeks. The World Cup quarter-final seems a long time ago now. Ireland’s opponents should be worried. The best coach in world rugby has got his mojo back and I doubt he’s in any mood to stop here.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

 

File:Rory Best 2015 RWC.jpg

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARory_Best_2015_RWC.jpg

By Warwick Gastinger (Rugby World Cup 2015 DSCN5033) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons”

For Axel, they stood up and fought!

As expected, it was a match brimming with emotion. It’s cliched to talk about blood, sweat and tears. But all three elements were abundantly obvious in Thomond Park yesterday. Of course the occasion was poignant and sombre. Paradoxically though, there was something incredibly joyous about yesterday afternoon, a celebration of life in all its bizarre complexity. I wasn’t at Thomond Park-I actually watched the game on my laptop through Sky Go-but I don’t think you had to be there to appreciate the beauty and poignancy of Munster’s epic win over a fancied Glasgow side, battered mercilessly by an unrelenting force of nature.

They came in their droves to honour Axel and pay tribute in the only way these fine rugby folk know. What they got was fantastic and memorable. Way better than any of us had imagined. There are special moments in life and wonderful moments in sport. What transpired in Limerick yesterday was one of those divine moments. The 26,500 lucky souls who witnessed it will surely remember it for the rest of their lives. One to tell the grandchildren about. How I wish I’d been there. Munster’s brilliant supporters said goodbye to a legend. One of their own. They also saw the re-emergence of their side as Champions Cup giants.

We wondered beforehand how they’d fare. How would the players cope with the magnitude and emotion of the occasion? Munster’s players only buried their coach on Friday and were expected somehow to play one of the biggest games of their season yesterday. How was that possible? I ventured during the week that a match was the best thing for them, but I wasn’t sure if I was right. From the kick off yesterday, I knew. We all knew. This was a different Munster, a profoundly different animal from anything we’d seen these last few seasons. From the first whistle, there was an intensity about the men in red that laid down the ultimate marker. Ferocious at the breakdown, monumentally aggressive in defence and their forwards hunting the ball with obsessive determination. “We’re not going to be beaten today. It doesn’t matter what you do, we’re not going to let you out of here with anything.” You can imagine the impassioned battle cries before the game. Defeat simply wasn’t an option.

It reminded me of 2007 and Ireland’s historic victory over England at Croke Park. Given the symbolism and cultural/historical significance of the occasion, Ireland’s players couldn’t countenance defeat at the hands of the old enemy. Losing would have been too much to bear. Guys like Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell have spoken passionately about the responsibility the players felt that day nine years go. It was one of those matches where they just had to deliver-failure wasn’t an option. And deliver they did. England were emphatically routed 43-13 in one of the finest performances of the Eddie O’Sullivan era. That was another emotive and unique occasion. The pre-match anthems were immaculately respected and heartily sung in equal measure. After an emotional build-up, the players and fans delivered together. As one, in complete unison. We were extremely proud to be Irish that day; it was one of the great rugby days. I’m sure the hordes of rugby pilgrims at Thomond Park were proud to be Munster men yesterday.

Typical of Ireland’s romantic province, they did it the hard way. Of course they did. This is Munster! We all remember the great wins against the odds, the “miracle match” against Gloucester in 2003 the most famous. Well, we had another miracle yesterday. Despite Munster’s magnificent start, the Thomond Park men were cast into the abyss after only 20 minutes, with Keith Earls sent off for a tip tackle on Glasgow hooker, Fraser Brown. Irrespective of whether you agree with the decision-I actually think the referee was spot on and fair play to Jerome Garces for refusing to be swayed by emotion-Earls’s red card seemed a calamity for Munster. And yet their performance never dipped. If anything, Earls’s misfortune inspired  his side to even greater heights. Remarkably, an effort that was already superlative, got even better.

Munster’s defensive effort was a joy to behold; it was simply marvellous. The Thomond men didn’t concede an inch to the Warriors all afternoon. What really impressed, though, was the shape and perseverance of the Munster attack. The hosts kept going and didn’t let the small matter of Glasgow’s numerical advantage impede their efforts. With a man down, teams often retreat into their shell in an attempt to maintain their lead and hold out. Not Munster. These guys don’t know the meaning of the word retreat.

Special mention must go to skipper, Peter O’Mahony. The Irish flanker was simply immense yesterday. It was noticeable how Munster’s performance only dipped slightly in the last 20 minutes when Glasgow got over for a brace of consolation tries. O’Mahony, still regaining match fitness after his horrendous injury, was called ashore on 61 minutes. The timing of Glasgow’s mini-revival wasn’t a coincidence! Sometimes you only appreciate the true worth of a player when they’re absent. I also thought hooker Niall Scannell had a superb game-a poor early overthrow notwithstanding. It’s unfair to single anyone out, though. They were all outstanding, to a man. Munster’s players gave every inch of their souls with this inspired performance.

It seems perverse to say it, but the tragic circumstances of last week have revived something in Munster. A latent passion that’s been missing for a while. As a city, Limerick suffered badly in the recession. This downturn has been reflected inevitably in Munster attendances. In recent seasons, crowds have been down and the decibel levels much reduced from the halcyon days. We all remember the rampaging red army touring Europe in their thousands. It was the European Cup’s first love affair: Munster and their wonderful fans. The empty Thomond terraces of recent times were an incongruous sight in comparison. Yesterday felt like the good old days. A capacity crowd, a cacophony of sound, flags and banners fluttering in the wind. A wonderful sight. It’s cruelly ironic, but Foley’s tragic, premature passing could act as a catalyst for a Munster revival. It seems wrong to think in such terms. It would be marvellous if yesterday’s heroics could be sustained, though.

Irish rugby needs Munster. The Champions Cup needs Munster. Sport needs Munster. Europe hasn’t been the same without the red army. While Lansdowne Road is the undisputed home of Irish rugby, its soul has always been in Limerick. This ultimate rugby town is the embodiment of the sport’s values. And Limerick people are rightly proud of the egalitarian way they promote rugby’s traditions. In Limerick, rugby is the game of the people and players have always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with their fans in this great city.

It’s strange how tragedy often reveals character in a way the mundane and prosaic routines of everyday life cannot. Humanity, empathy and compassion often announce themselves resoundingly in a crisis. In tough times, we see the very best of mankind. The way in which the rugby community has rallied around the Foley family says much about the values of the sport. Professionalism may have eroded some of rugby’s ethos, but the essence of it remains intact. For that, we should all be extremely proud and grateful. We have seen its importance time and again in the past week. I’m not sure if it was planned or spontaneous but following yesterday’s game, the players formed a huddle and sang the Munster anthem, “Stand Up and Fight.” The huddle included Anthony’s sons, Dan and Tony. It was a lovely gesture. A rugby match can only be a small consolation in the midst of any human tragedy, but as a tribute to a great rugby man, yesterday’s game was undoubtedly something special. Another miracle match. It might sound a bit trite to say it, but I’m going to anyway. A true Munster giant was looking down filled with pride. Rest in peace, Anthony Foley. Munster legend and hero.

‘Stan’ up an’ fight until you hear de bell,
Stan’ toe to toe, trade blow fer blow,
Keep punchin’ till you make yer punches tell,
Show dat crowd watcher know!
Until you hear dat bell, dat final bell,
Stan’ up an’ fight like hell!’

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

Passing Of A Legend

I had it all planned out. I was going to write an article about Donald Trump and the US Presidential election today. With absolutely no disrespect intended to the controversial Republican candidate, events compel me to write about a real man instead. A man of modesty, integrity and humble achievement. I’m writing about Anthony “Axel” Foley instead.

Munster head coach Foley passed away last night in a Paris hotel ahead of Munster’s Champions Cup fixture against Racing 92. Sometimes news hits you that stops you in your tracks. The devastating, heartbreaking news that Foley had passed away was in that mould. The rugby community is in mourning at the premature passing of one of its own. In coming to terms with this awful news, we must remember that this is a personal tragedy. Anthony leaves behind his wife Olive and two young children. He was just 42 years old. With any sudden passing, there’s always a feeling of numbness and utter disbelief. Incomprehension. How can something so dreadful and unpredictable happen? While it’ll surely takes us all a very long time to make any  sense of this tragedy, it’s only fitting that we take time to remember Anthony Foley, the legend.

Who was Anthony Foley? Foley was an Irish rugby icon. The son of Munster legend Brendan Foley, the former Irish number eight captained his beloved province to its maiden Heineken Cup victory over Biarritz in 2006. The pictures from that win are so poignant today; Munster’s captain the vision of pride and happiness as he collected the trophy. After all the years of heartache and near misses, how apt that it was Foley who held the cherished trophy aloft in Cardiff. Like his good friend and teammate Keith Wood, Foley was a native of Killaloe in County Clare. A talented sportsman, the young Foley grew up playing several codes-as is often the way in Munster-but it was inevitable that rugby would capture his heart. Anthony was part of the great Shannon side that dominated Irish club rugby at the tail end of the 1990s. It was here that he first came to my attention, as part of one of the greatest back rows ever to emerge from the Irish club game: Quinlan, Foley and Halvey. They were an awesome combination, the bedrock of the Shannon side that won four AIL titles in a row.

One of the first club games I attended while studying in Dublin was St Mary’s v Shannon in Templeville Road. The Templeogue side had a good pack in those days. Trevor Brennan was in the thick of it on the blindside, a real hard man who was an extremely good back rower to boot. Big Steve Jameson was the captain, if memory serves me correctly. Another beast of a player. My abiding memory of that day was how little dominance the St Mary’s pack got. This was a superb St Mary’s team (Denis Hickie lined up on the wing), but nobody dominated that Shannon team in those days. They were just too good. This was the 1997/98 season-the Thomond Park men were at their peak then. And a young Anthony Foley was central to their dominance.

Foley gained his first international cap in 1995 in what was then the Five Nations. Test recognition strangely eluded him for a few seasons before he was recalled by Warren Gatland in 2000. He was a mainstay on Eddie O’Sullivan’s team for the next few seasons, accumulating 62 caps in the process. O’Sullivan always spoke very highly of Foley and clearly regarded the Shannon man as a very clever rugby player; one of his pivotal men. Foley wasn’t the most dynamic of number eights and didn’t carry as much ball as, say, his Leinster peer Victor Costello. You never saw him claiming that much ball in the lineout either. Yet for all that, there was no doubt that Foley was a tremendous rugby player. A man for the trenches. A bit like former England flanker Richard Hill, the Munster back rower did so much unseen work and revelled in the unheralded graft that his position demanded. He was invariably in the right place at the right time and could always be relied upon to make crucial, match winning tackles when needed.

Anthony Foley was the ultimate leader. A man of few words, Munster’s talisman led by example and set an uncompromising standard that his teammates were bound to follow. Anthony was old-school. Fashioned in the amateur and semi-professional environs of the AIL, he nonetheless seamlessly made the transition to professionalism through hard work and incredible mental toughness. Just like his Shannon club-mate Mick Galwey, Foley not only survived amateurism but was part of the core group that set the standards at Thomond Park at the start of the professional era. He was undoubtedly a really hard man, but Anthony was so much more than that. He was a totem, a winner, a captain, an inspiration. Someone who may not have been Munster’s most glamorous player, but was always the most valuable player.

I didn’t know Anthony Foley, but I had the pleasure of brushing shoulders with him a couple of times. I remember covering the 2015 Pro 12 final for Planet Rugby at Ravenhill. Foley’s Munster were well beaten by Glasgow that day, but Anthony didn’t flinch from facing the assembled hacks afterwards. Typical of the man, Foley answered the media’s questions with candour and humour. Despite his obvious disappointment, Foley fronted up in his forthright and accessible manner. True Munster honesty. It was the same when his Munster side defeated Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium last season. Admittedly, performances had been decidedly mixed since Foley assumed the head coach mantle in 2014, but it’s extremely unfair to lay all failings on a man who’s Munster through and through. For all that, Foley never shied away from his own mistakes and could be very honest in highlighting aspects that needed to be improved. Therefore, we must be fair and acknowledge Axel’s immense role in rebuilding a province going through a challenging and transitional time. Change is never easy and you have to admire those who have the balls to take on a job knowing it’s going to be tough. That’s the definition of character.

Much was made of Anthony’s de facto demotion following the appointment of Rassie Erasmus as Munster Director of Rugby. However, Munster’s decent start to the season indicates that the two men have been working well together and were in the process of forming a formidable coaching partnership. I heard a journalist discuss recently how relaxed Axel looked this season compared to last term, suggesting that Erasmus’s arrival had the desired effect of taking the pressure off Foley. One of the saddest elements of Anthony’s premature passing is the feeling that he was only getting started in his coaching career. In rugby terms, this man had so much more to offer. How devastating that we’ve lost him. This is a monumental loss for Irish rugby. I’ve always had a huge amount of respect for Anthony Foley. In fact, he was the subject of my first bog on these pages. Little did I know then, he would be gone less than six months later. How awful. How unbelievable. How tragic. Such is the fragility and fleetingness of life. Knowing life’s innate shortness doesn’t make it any easier to bear, however. Sometimes the transience of life is too cruel for words. Goodbye Anthony Foley. Rugby legend, Munster hero, family man. Gone way too soon.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

New Zealand All Blacks: Better Every Day

“Better Every Day.”

Three small words. As far as mantras go, it’s deceptively simple. And yet that concise phrase encapsulates so much.”Better Every Day” is the catchphrase of the New Zealand All Blacks. It’s not so much a phrase as a mission statement, a forceful affirmation of everything this great team is about. For make no mistake about it, the All Blacks are great in every sense of that hackneyed word. It’s hard to improve on excellence. When you’re already the best (and by some considerable distance), how do you become even better? How do you ward off the corrosive effects of complacency and overconfidence? How do you continue the strive for excellence when you’ve already achieved everything your sport has to offer? You do it by being better every day.

We know that the All Blacks are a phenomenon. And yet the current crop is exceeding every expectation in terms of performances and achievements. The men in black have won the last two World Cups and have just wrapped up the Rugby Championship (the southern hemisphere equivalent of the Six Nations) with a 57-15 rout of South Africa in Durban. New Zealand went through the tournament unbeaten-itself a fine achievement. Since winning the World Cup on home soil in 2011, the All Blacks have accrued a winning ratio of 93%. Indeed, since retaining their crown in last year’s World Cup, the world champions have yet to taste defeat-their unbeaten streak encompassing a full calendar year and counting. In fact, last weekend’s facile dismissal of South Africa equalled their own proud world record of 17 consecutive Test wins. Few will bet against them inking a new chapter into the record books in the upcoming weeks.

However, it’s not just the unimpeachable record that’s beguiling rugby fans. It’s the nature of the performances, too. These All Blacks are not simply beating good teams, they’re hammering them. And they’re destroying them with a brand of rugby that’s taking their sport to new levels. This team really has everything. They’re not just streets ahead of every opponent, but light years. From a different planet. It’s not that their weaknesses are imperceptible. Non-existent, more like!

In fact, it’s hard to identify any discernible weak points in the New Zealand side. If any failings exist, they keep them extremely well hidden. Good set-piece, dynamic forwards, creative backs, pace, power, experience, tactical nous, offloading, imperious kicking…….I could go on ad nauseam.  The All Blacks have it all. To be honest, I actually don’t think that this is the best All Blacks team I’ve seen, talent wise. However, despite that, Steve Hansen’s men have found a way to take consistency of excellence to new levels. They invariably find a way to win, even when not playing well-the definitive hallmark of any great side. Winning is not so much a habit as an imperative for these guys. As former England coach Stuart Lancaster once said, they are always finding a way to out-think opponents; to “problem solve” in the moment.

So how is such excellence sustained? How does a great team continue to get better? “Better Every Day” was first introduced by former All Black coach Graham Henry and the motto has been continued under the astute supervision of his successor, Steve Hansen. Henry conceived the phrase as a way of guarding against complacency and ensuring his side always performed to its optimum. While the All Blacks famously set the bar high, Henry wanted something that would enshrine and inculcate the expected standards within the squad. Something that would prevent them relying on past accolades and push on for more success. To not just set standards, but instil a philosophy where the entire organisation was constantly focused on getting better. That’s what the phrase means. “Forget about what you’ve achieved in the past, what have you done to improve yourself today?” “What are you doing to improve yourself tomorrow?”

Ostensibly the phrase is a bit glib when you first hear it, but its meaning is actually rather profound. Contrary to first impressions, the motto isn’t about perfection. It’s about the quest for excellence. Always striving to do better. Looking for constant improvement. Not being content simply to maintain standards, but wanting to enhance and augment them. Never settling for anything but the best. It’s also about learning. The concept is: achievement is a journey rather than a destination. And common goals are made manifestly easier when everyone commits to continuous improvement; learning everyday to make the team better. By committing to constant improvement, standards aren’t just adhered to but really amplified, in both an individual and a collective sense. Objectives are rigorously and methodically surpassed; achievements routinely ticked off through a relentless desire to reach the highest standards.

Therefore, “Better Every Day” isn’t just a highly effective team motto. It’s much more than that. It’s a value system. Those three short words encapsulate everything that it means to be an All Black. That it’s not enough simply to win. You have to keep winning, keep learning, keep striving to be better and do better. And like all great value systems, the phrase is universal; you can apply it to virtually anything. It’s the reason why the All Blacks are so good. The reason they win more often than they lose. The reason why they are never content with past achievements, but are always looking for more. It’s the reason why they never succumb to complacency. It’s the reason the All Blacks are so far ahead of the game and the rest of the world is forlornly playing catch-up. Any team or individual can have talent. But talent alone doesn’t equate to greatness. What all great sportsmen have in common is an irrepressible drive for excellence. An insatiable appetite for success that countenances almost any sacrifice in its fulfillment. A steadfast refusal to accept anything less than the best. To not just go the extra mile in the pursuit of greatness, but to travel the extra highway. “Better Every Day” as a way of life. Ireland play this great side twice this autumn. Some fans are predicting Joe Schmidt’s men will finally break their All Black duck. You have to admire such optimism! This prediction could come back to haunt me and I’ll be delighted if it does. Ireland have two chances of beating the current All Blacks: slim and none. And slim is leaving town fast!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia:

By Roman.b (Own work) [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Zealand_national_rugby_union_team

 

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

 

Should Schmidt Stay Or Go?

It’s fair to say that the Irish rugby public has had a less than straightforward relationship with head coach, Joe Schmidt. When Schmidt first assumed the mantle of Ireland boss, it seemed he could do no wrong. The Kiwi cut an almost messianic figure, winning praise and admiration from virtually everyone in Irish rugby circles. Sure, like anyone in the public eye, Schmidt had his detractors, but the prevailing consensus was that Ireland had bagged one of the smartest and most capable coaches on the international rugby circuit. Schmidt was the man. And Ireland’s subsequent results vindicated this assessment. Schmidt led the men in green to an unprecedented two Six Nations victories in succession, masterminding a remarkable run that culminated in Ireland’s superb destruction of Scotland in the 2015 Six Nations decider. Schmidt’s totemic status was assured, as sports fans the length and breadth of the country became enamoured with the erudite but unassuming New Zealander. And the affection was reciprocated. Ireland’s coach seemed genuinely taken with his adopted home, as confirmed by his proud naturalisation as an Irish citizen last year.

So far, so good. But then something changed. That something was the 2015 Rugby World Cup.  The relationship altered after that. It became complicated. While I’ve no reason to believe that Schmidt’s opinion of Ireland changed, there’s no doubt that the post-World Cup period has seen an altering in the perception of the coach by fans. Of course supporters were naturally devastated when Ireland crashed out the tournament at the hands of a classy, ascendant Argentina side. But the questioning of Schmidt’s methods went beyond mere disappointment with the outcome of the doomed quarter-final. The entire modus operandi of the  Schmidt regime was openly challenged. All of a sudden, all and sundry were disputing Ireland’s style of play. Apparently, we were boring, predictable, one dimensional. Those were some of the kinder verdicts! That’s not to say concerns over style hadn’t been expressed prior to the tournament. Before RWC 2015  kicked off, many pundits had pleaded for a more expansive and entertaining game plan. With the side winning, however, such disenchantment was easily dismissed. Why change a winning formula? That Argentina performance was a game changer in every sense, though. Post-Cardiff, it was open season on the amiable and intelligent Schmidt.

And you know what? It’s all rather unfair and unjustified. More than that, it’s a little un-Irish. I’ve always had a strong belief that us Irish support and cherish our stars and icons in a manner not always seen elsewhere. Maybe we sometimes go a bit too far in our idolatry, but that’s another story. Historically, we haven’t subscribed to the extreme iconoclasm that our English neighbours-especially their tabloid newspapers-seem to revel in. Building people up just to mercilessly knock them down? As a nation, it wasn’t something we ever did. It wasn’t our style. And yet here we were apparently doing just that to someone who’s actually done a bloody terrific job for us!

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been as critical as anyone about Ireland’s oft conservative style of play. There’s been plenty of times in the past eighteen months where I’ve been willing the boys to throw off the shackles and give it the proverbial lash. But I’ve always appreciated Schmidt. My admiration for him hasn’t dimmed. As a rugby fan, I understand the value he adds as a tactician and strategist. Some of the more vitriolic and polemical criticisms are hard to fathom, therefore. Maybe it’s a symptom of modern society. We live in an internet age, in an era where bland soundbites and easy answers replace rigorous analysis and assessment. An age where Twitter threads and chat rooms silence the real experts. And such unfiltered noise can drown out the evidence of our own eyes.

The thing is we’ll miss him when he goes. Schmidt is on record as saying he’ll make his mind up about his future this summer. Ireland’s coach is contracted until next spring, but thereafter he’s a free agent. While an official announcement might not come until later, it’s suspected that Schmidt’ll reveal his intentions to his employers before the end of the summer. Having waited until the finale of the recent tour to South Africa-itself a tremendous success-Schmidt’s attention now turns to his future. It’s making his mind up time. No-one knows for sure, but the early indications suggest Schmidt might go. The Irish boss has already been linked with the Highlanders and Chiefs in his native New Zealand recently.

If Schmidt has an ambition to coach the All Blacks, a return to the land of the long white cloud is an essential piece of the jigsaw. However, professional aspirations aren’t the only consideration. As Schmidt movingly revealed last month, his family is his absolute priority and the health of his son Luke will be foremost in his mind. Will Schmidt stay or go? I don’t know.  Like the majority of Irish fans, I’d love him to stay and finish the job with this talented and ambitious group of young Irish players. If he goes, though, I wholeheartedly wish him all the best for the future. He’s a great coach who’s undoubtedly done a wonderful job for Irish rugby. I believe the overwhelming majority of Irish rugby people feel the same. I don’t believe that his pernicious critics represent the true fans. For all his detractors, though, it’s worth bearing in mind one of the great truisms of life. You only realise what you have when it’s gone.

File:Joe Schmidt coaching Irish team.jpg

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joe_Schmidt_coaching_Irish_team.jpg  @OvalDigest.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey