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

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Stalemate in Auckland

It all felt a bit flat, didn’t it? The Lions and the All Blacks tied up an enthralling series yesterday in a tense and gripping final showdown. 15 points apiece meant the protagonists couldn’t be separated in both yesterday’s game and the overall series. The acute sense of anti-climax and dissatisfaction was seen in the body language of the players at the end. Nobody was sure how to react.

A draw is indeed the most unsatisfactory outcome in rugby. Even if your side loses, the contest has been a success and the other team can celebrate their win. However, when the contest has been rendered obsolete by frustrating stalemate, neither side can take anything from it. Quite simply, there’s nothing to celebrate. If the Lions had lost yesterday, we’d still have witnessed scenes of delirium, as victorious All Blacks celebrated a hard earned victory. Similarly, if the Lions had prevailed, the players and fans would be celebrating a truly historic win. What we saw instead was something much more hollow and empty.

Despite the palpable sense of disappointment, the 2017 Lions can look back on this series with immense pride. In the midst of regret over a series win that got away, it’s easy to forget just how universally written off  the Lions were before they started their odyssey six weeks’ ago. Prior to kick off, most pundits and commentators were predicting a 3-0 whitewash for the All Blacks. Even the most optimistic of Lions’ fans-myself included-argued that the best Gatland’s tourists could hope for was a 2-1 series defeat. A drawn series is actually a phenomenal achievement, therefore.

Head coach Warren Gatland has been completely vindicated in his selections and decisions. The unfortunate “Geography Six” episode aside, the Lions’ coach has been brilliant throughout this unforgiving tour. It takes a certain type of character and personality to succeed in something as complex and onerous as a Lions tour. There are few enterprises in life where virtually everything is set up for you to fail. A  Lions tour to New Zealand is one such arduous and relentless task. The first thing the tourists had to win, therefore, was the respect of their merciless hosts. They did that and then some. The Lions’ coach was depicted in the New Zealand press as a clown, but the Waikato man has proved yet again what a formidable and smart operator he is.

And how his players have blossomed. The likes of Liam Williams, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly have delivered in exhilarating fashion on this tour. What’s more, in Maro Itoje, we’ve seen the emergence of a genuine superstar. Others will feel aggrieved and hurt at their lack of involvement, but that’s the nature of it. You see it on every tour. However, the perception, from the outside at any rate, is that this has been a happy, well managed tour. Gatland’s squad has got the balance right between paying respect to the locals, enjoying their surroundings and getting serious about the rugby when it really mattered. There were very few rumbles of discontent-a sure sign of a happy touring party.

But Gatland’s achievement is about much more than a drawn Test series. The under-fire Lions’ brand has been strengthened and renewed to an almost immeasurable extent. For this much cherished concept to remain relevant in the professional era, the team has to win Tests. The entire viability of the concept is questioned otherwise. Given the fact that everything is set up for the Lions to fail, consider this. Of their last seven tests, the tourists have won four, drawn one and lost two. That’s a remarkable record!

It must be remembered that this was an organisation in dire need of revival following Clive Woodward’s misadventure of 2005. The recovery in the ensuing 12 years has been nothing short of amazing. And the primary architect of the turnaround has been Warren Gatland, head coach for the last two tours and Ian McGeechan’s chief assistant in 2009. He should be extremely proud of his efforts. More than anything, the 2017 tour proves that the Lions are in great shape.

In recent times, the Lions have been subjected to selfish attacks from ignorant charlatans who care nothing for history, tradition and respect. Sadly, there are many vested interests who’d be more than happy to see the Lions retreat forever into the history books. While that can’t be allowed to happen, the attackers are picking a fight they can’t win. Anyone who’s watched over the last six weeks has seen a brand that is vibrant, modern and ultra successful. An organisation that cherishes its wonderful history but is wholly relevant in the elite world of modern professional sport. From strength to strength. Roll on South Africa. The British and Irish Lions are alive and well!

By Dyfsunctional at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

Green march on road to Glory

The waiting is almost over. On Wednesday, Warren Gatland will put players, pundits and arm chair fans out of their collective misery by announcing his squad for the upcoming Lions Tour to the land of the long white cloud. A Lions expedition is always greeted with feverish expectation by rugby fans and the sense of anticipation is more acute when the touring destination is New Zealand. You see, a Lions Tour to New Zealand is the closest thing to mission impossible in international rugby. The scratch representative side has only managed one successful series win in New Zealand: 1971. Other tours to the country have been met with heartbreaking, inevitable, inglorious failure.

Expectations are marginally higher this time on the back of the magnificent series win mustered in Australia last time and the abundance of talent that Gatland and his coaching team currently have at their disposal. Still, no-one is under any illusions about the magnitude of the unenviable task at hand. This is indeed the toughest assignment in rugby. In order to prevail, the Lions need to upset not only one of the greatest rugby squads ever selected but also rugby history in the process. From an Irish viewpoint, there are several certainties for the plane, while others face an anxious, nail-biting wait. In terms of the safer prospects, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Jack McGrath, Robbie Henshaw and skipper Rory Best seem virtually guaranteed to make the trip; deserved recognition for their consistent and imperious form in recent seasons.

Where it gets interesting is consideration of the possibles and bolters. One imagines that Simon Zebo, for all his faults and mercurial nature, is likely to travel on account of his versatility, while Iain Henderson’s recent return to form and fitness should see him land one of the keenly contested second row berths. Similarly, Sean O’Brien’s physicality and dynamism could see him grab one of the back row slots, but as with the engine room, the competition there is frighteningly fierce and few will be surprised if Gatland includes a liberal sprinkling of Welshmen to contest what is going to be a mouth watering battle at the breakdown.

O’Brien’s fortune could come at the expense of CJ Stander, as it’s unlikely Gatland will accommodate them both given the bountiful back row resources at his disposal. I notice that many of the preview squads in today’s papers include Peter O’Mahony as a nailed on Test starter. O’Mahony is undoubtedly a tremendous rugby player, but my hunch is that he’ll be lucky to make Gatland’s squad let alone the Test team. The Cork man is certainly a thoroughbred, but may suffer due to the aforementioned competition for back row places and a season frustratingly curtailed by injury. Unjust as it seems, the Munster warrior might have to settle for a place on the standby list.

As regards the captaincy, Sam Warburton appears to be earmarked for the role and seems certain to be named squad skipper provided his recent injury can be shaken off on time. Although it would do my heart good, I can’t see Ireland’s Best landing the cherished accolade. A Lions captain must be not only a supreme leader of men but a guaranteed Test starter. As impressive as the Ulster man has been in recent seasons, he’s far from a certain starter even if he is fortuitous enough to make Gatland’s squad. That said, everyone in Irish rugby will wish Best well in his bid to oust the indisciplined and controversial Dylan Hartley. Cardiff stalwart Warburton is indeed a fine player and trusted captain. If the captaincy predictions are correct, he deserves the opportunity to reprise his leadership role from 2013 when injury deprived him of the chance to lead the pride in the decisive third Test.

As fun as the guessing games are, they will soon be academic as Gatland finally reveals his hand. In terms of composition, England are sure to have a sizeable contingent and history tells us that a Gatland coached Lions squad will contain a formidable Welsh presence.  After all, the Lions’ Kiwi coach will want as many players as possible already schooled in the ways of “Warren Ball.” The smallest contingent will probably come from Scotland, but players of the calibre of Stuart Hogg and Johnny Gray have plenty to contribute if called upon.

However, despite a mixed bag of a Six Nations, there is every indication that there’ll be a strong green tint on the perilous road to potential Lions glory. While that’s wonderful to see, one of the best features of the Lions tours is the manner in which they transcend national and regional rivalries. A unifying force that brings together sports men from Britain and Ireland in common cause. United. Where else would you see it? The task is as tough as ever but no less tantalising for that. To paraphrase the great Jim Telfer, this is their Everest. New Zealand are in a virtually unassailable position atop the rugby world but the 2017 Lions are about to roar.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: By Kiwi Flickr (Kiwi Flickr’s photo on Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/license

 

 

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

 

 

 

Irish Rugby mood far from All Black

Blacklash or back-up? Prior to yesterday’s game, we speculated which it would be. Would Ireland  replicate their historic win over a chastened All Blacks in Chicago? Or would the peerless world champions atone for a momentary blip on their relentless drive for world domination by routing the Irish? In the end, it was neither.

New Zealand predictably prevailed at the Aviva Stadium in front of a raucous and expectant Irish crowd, but don’t let the scoreline deceive you. Ireland played incredibly well yesterday. In fact, they were superb. Only the result was missing. Chicago was not only backed-up and emulated, but to  a degree, surpassed. The All Blacks came to Dublin highly motivated and bristling with intent. Back to full strength and with a full panel to choose from, the world champions threw the kitchen sink at Ireland, but couldn’t subdue them. The hosts kept attacking and it was they who looked fresher at the end of a hugely attritional battle.

The New Zealanders played right on the edge, as they thundered into the collisions with a ferocity that’s reserved only for the biggest battles. The game’s pin-up boys sauntered through the Rugby Championship like it was a stroll in the park, amassing massive scores against some of the best defences in the world, playing beautiful, running rugby in the process. The Kiwis didn’t have the same luxury against Ireland. Instead, they had to fight for everything they got. Boy, they were made to work for it. In fact, Ireland’s defence was only breached through a combination of individual brilliance, slight defensive errors and, to be honest, some questionable refereeing decisions. In a contest of breathtaking test match intensity, the Irish gave every bit as good as they got. Leaving the ground yesterday, the pervading feeling of disappointment was palpable among the departing fans. And yet, in the cold light of day, this was a performance to take pride in; one which instils considerable hope for the future.

Fantastic individual performances were littered throughout the side and contributed to a fine collective effort. His defensive lapse for Beauden Barrett’s try aside, Conor Murray was again awesome; the fulcrum of everything Ireland did well. Surely, the Munster man, barring injury, is now nailed on as the starting Lions scrum-half this summer? Tadhg Furlong wasn’t too far behind him. Furlong’s scrummaging prowess has been obvious for a while, but he was immense around the park yesterday as well; bashing opponents all over the place. He was great in Chicago and even better yesterday. The Irish tight-head is another to have catapulted himself firmly into Warren Gatland’s consciousness.

However, the best performance came from Sean O’Brien, by a country mile. Incredibly, O’Brien’s selection had been debated prior to the game, with several pundits suggesting he might be omitted from the squad altogether! Instead, we were treated to a back row masterclass from the Tullow Tank. Every time Ireland’s openside got the ball, he made ground. O’Brien must have covered  every blade of grass in Lansdowne Road yesterday in a very dynamic performance. It says everything about the high standards the Irish flanker sets that he’ll probably be more concerned with the two try-scoring chances he failed to take than lauding his best display in a green shirt for a long time.

In truth, the rugby gods deserted Ireland yesterday. The men in green were extremely unlucky to lose Sexton so early. Not to mention Chicago match-winner Robbie Henshaw, who was poleaxed by a horrendous Sam Cane tackle. How the New Zealand openside escaped (at least) a yellow card is utterly beyond me. And not forgetting CJ Stander, who was having an absolute stormer until he was removed from the action for an apparent head injury assessment, not to return. Josh van der Flier wasn’t too far behind the more experienced O’Brien in the carrying stakes. There’s fierce competition for places in the Irish back row and it’s truly mouth watering to consider the abundance of talent available when everyone’s fit.  Garry Ringrose and Paddy Jackson also contributed impressive cameos off the bench, providing welcome legs and attacking impetus when Ireland were chasing the game in the second half.

To be honest, we’ve become a bit spoilt. As I left the stadium yesterday and headed for the train home, I wondered where my acute feeling of despondency had come from. Even 2013 didn’t feel this bad. After all, it’s no disgrace to lose to the bloody All Blacks! Then it dawned on me that the sense of disappointment is directly proportional to the level of expectation. What we’re seeing is without precedent. There’s never been such optimism within Irish rugby. This team has taken us to uncharted territory. We must adjust our horizons accordingly. Ireland are swimming with the sharks, the big boys. We’re not going to win them all. That’s sport. That’s life.

But the fact Ireland are prospering in this exalted company shows how far the team has come. We’re seeing a seismic shift in Irish rugby and it’ll be fascinating to see how far they can go on Schmidt’s intelligent watch.  When losing to the All Blacks by 12 points prompts a bout of soul searching, you get an emphatic sense of the recent progress. Irish rugby is in a good place. Sean Fitzpatrick spoke yesterday about a clash between the two best teams in the world. Think about that. Yesterday’s result was certainly disappointing, but there’s absolutely no need for any Irish rugby fan to feel all black as the weekend draws to a close.

File:Sean O'Brien 2015 RWC.jpg

Image from Wikipedia: By Warwick Gastinger (Rugby World Cup 2015 DSCN4964) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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”

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

 

The Lion King: Part 2

Where does the time go? I remember writing a piece four years’ ago about the appointment of Warren Gatland as British and Irish Lions head coach. In a very cliched way, I called it “Gatland: The Lion King.” Well, we’re all set for the sequel. This week’s reappointment of the Wales coach was as predictable as the rising of the sun. Gatland joins Ian McGeechan as the only coaches to lead the Lions on consecutive tours in what is undoubtedly the toughest assignment of them all: a tour to New Zealand. It’s not a coincidence that only one Lions squad has won a Test series in the land of the long white cloud (the 1971 side coached by Carwyn James was one of the greatest rugby teams of all-time). New Zealand is a fiendishly difficult touring destination-as seen in the Lions last visit there 12 years’ ago, when Clive Woodward’s tourists were whitewashed 3-0 by Graham Henry’s irrepressible All Blacks side. The Lions committee has deemed the irascible Kiwi as the right man to take on mission impossible-the withdrawals of Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt from the race meant that Gatland’s ratification was a mere formality. That there wasn’t a host of viable contenders shouldn’t detract from Gatland’s achievement, though. This appointment is as meritocratic as it gets. The New Zealander’s record is second to none: a Lions series victory, two Grand Slams, and a Heineken Cup speaks for itself.

Despite having amassed such unimpeachable credentials, the Wales coach remains a polarising figure in this part of the world. Much of the animosity was generated by the infamous dropping of Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll for the third Lions Test against Australia in 2013. The fact that the Lions handsomely won the encounter failed to vindicate Gatland’s controversial selection in the eyes of most Ireland fans. As I wrote at the time, while I understood Gatland’s rationale in jettisoning the Irish icon for the decisive Test, I felt nevertheless that the Wales coach missed a trick. Although changes were undoubtedly needed for the series finale, there wasn’t a compelling enough case for O’Driscoll to be omitted from the match-day squad. Gatland has complained repeatedly (as elaborated last week) that the hostility generated from dropping the Irishman tarnished the greatest achievement of his coaching career. I believe firmly that the Kiwi could have had his cake and eaten it. By making key changes, but keeping O’Driscoll in situ, the Lions supremo could have enjoyed his historic achievement without the unnecessary controversy that emanated from his contentious third Test selection.

That’s all ancient history now, but the episode tells us much about the Kiwi’s character:tough, uncompromising, ruthless and stubborn. That’s why Gatland’s a winner. Although Wales’s main man is universally respected, it’s hard to think of the former Waikato hooker in terms of affection. Yes, Gatland and his achievements are roundly admired, but liked? Probably not. Winners are rarely likeable characters in sport, though. Look at Sir Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho as cast-iron proof of that! Prodigious winners both, but they wouldn’t be obvious candidates for the diplomatic corps. I think Gatland falls into that category too. The Wales coach loves to win and he isn’t too bothered who gets offended or affronted along the way. When push came to shove, therefore, you can see why the Lions’ blazers opted for the incumbent to take on their latest crusade. For a mission as challenging as the New Zealand tour, you have to be led by the best man available. That man is Warren Gatland.

The scale of the Lions’ challenge is underlined by the lengthening achievements accrued by the world champions. The current All Blacks are majestic, a class apart. I rose early yesterday to watch them in the Rugby Championship. The best team in the world was playing Argentina and struggled initially to find its rhythm. The Pumas played extremely well for the first 50 minutes or so, competing ferociously at every breakdown and contact area. New Zealand, on the other hand, looked sluggish and lethargic for large portions of the match. The final score? 57-22 to New Zealand! The All Blacks pulled away in the second half, impressively routing the Argentinians with a barrage of late tries. It was the world champions’ 14th consecutive victory-incredibly, the All Blacks haven’t lost a home match since 2009! The win was instructive and tells us much about the relentless New Zealand juggernaut. This team knows how to win in virtually any circumstance. They invariably find a way, even when subjected to fierce pressure throughout the pitch. When they’re good, they’re sublime, but even when not playing well, the All Blacks usually get the job done. Just ask Ireland about November 2013. This is the size of the task facing the 2017 Lions, then. In order to make history, the tourists must outwit and outplay one of the greatest teams ever to play the game. Mission impossible indeed. There is a glimmer of hope, though, for the Lions have got their first big decision right by appointing the correct coach. Things are about to get very interesting. It’s time for the most eagerly awaited sequel in rugby: The Lion King, Part 2!

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey