Six of The Best

Six of The Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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

 

Plenty To Be Hopeful About!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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