Crunch Time for Ireland

In the world of rugby writing, there are certain rules and conventions. Most of these are unwritten; some are relatively modern in conception, but all hold true nonetheless. Sort of unspoken rules of engagement, if you like. Riddled with cliche. For example, in modern rugby vernacular, a coaching and management team is universally known as a “brains trust.” I don’t know why. It just is. Sounds good, you see. Fancy. Sophisticated. Similarly, a good old-fashioned clearance kick must now be termed an “exit strategy.” Modern rugby terminology demands it. A Six Nations match involving France, moreover, is invariably referred to as “Le Crunch”. See what I did there? In Anglo-French games, the use of this term is compulsory. Mandatory in previews and sports commentaries. For Ireland-France games, however, use is is optional. Still, you can bet your bottom Euro (I so wanted to say Franc there), that a legion of headline writers will use the hackneyed phrase before the week is out.

Ireland are playing France on Saturday, you see. With both sides having tasted defeat in the championship, the encounter has all the ingredients of a “must win.” While home advantage might prove decisive for Joe Schmidt’s men, you can never rest easy against the elusive, unpredictable French. France. How to make sense of France? Mercurial. Another word synonymous with French rugby and beloved of sportswriters. It’s bound to get several mentions this week, too! Everyone loves French flair, after all. Except France haven’t been so much with the flair in recent years. French sides of recent vintage have abandoned the traditional French modus operandi in favour of a decidedly more structured and formulaic approach. With rather mixed success, it has to be said. Guy Noves’s men haven’t been genuine contenders for quite a while and their fall from grace is a sad sight for those of us raised on the genius of Philippe Sella, Serge Blanco and the rest. France of 2017 have a mammoth pack at their disposal, but not a huge amount else in terms of attacking fluency.

The imminent return of Johnny Sexton after a frustrating spell on the sidelines will bolster an Irish side that’s lacked his direction and guidance in recent games. Paddy Jackson has done a more than creditable job in his absence, but the Leinster man is the best player in the world in his position; the best fly-half we’ve ever had-sorry ROG! Andrew Trimble may also return to the Irish ranks to further strengthen Schmidt’s hand and the Ulster man’s robustness will add extra defensive ballast against the ultra-physical French. If the game is as close as many are expecting, having such experienced and accomplished campaigners on board can only improve Ireland’s chances. It’ll be interesting to see also if Schmidt mixes up his pack for the merciless attrition that’s undoubtedly coming Ireland’s way.

For all the talk of the grand finale against Eddie Jones’s England on 18 March, the men in green have two extremely challenging encounters to negotiate first. Even if France are emphatically dismissed this weekend, a chastened and dangerous Wales lie in wait in two weeks time. To say that these two matches will go some way to defining Ireland’s 2017 Six Nations campaign would be an understatement of epic proportions. The Scottish performance was undoubtedly a massive blot on Ireland’s copybook, but Schmidt’s men are an infinitely better side than that underwhelming display suggested. It’s also wrong to read too much into the facile win over an extremely limited Italy side, but there was enough in Ireland’s performance in Rome to confirm that their Scottish blip was indeed an aberration. Sterner tests await. The first of these arrives on Saturday. There is no room for error. Lose and Ireland’s championship is effectively over. Win well; followed up with a victory in Cardiff, and the dream decider beckons. It’s time to deliver. Allez Les Verts!! 

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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Irish slow coaches pay the price!

Now we all know. It was the bus that did it. In referencing Ireland’s woefully slow start in their Six Nations loss against  Scotland, head coach Joe Schmidt mentioned the tardiness of the team bus by way of a metaphor for his team’s spectacular under-performance. While it’s obvious that Ireland’s coach didn’t intend his allusion to be taken overly literally, it’s amazing how many people have referenced Irish lateness as a genuine excuse for the team’s disastrous performance. Really? If anyone honestly thinks that a team coach arriving five minutes late constitutes a bona fide excuse for losing a Test match, they seriously need to have a look at themselves.

Yes, Ireland were indeed late for the seminal encounter with the Scots, but they were late where it mattered most: on the pitch rather than the stadium itself. In fact, Ireland didn’t really start playing until the second half, by which time much of the catastrophic damage had already been done. Even when the rattled visitors made a spirited comeback in a vastly improved second half effort, they lacked the control and composure to seal the deal. In the end, Schmidt’s men were devoid of excuses. The Irish simply didn’t turn up on Saturday and that will surely hurt them the most. In the gladiatorial and highly pressurised Test match arena, there is no room for obfuscation.

We thought Ireland were beyond this, that Schmidt had instilled a consistency of performance that mitigated against disasters like Saturday. However, I think the Irish seriously underestimated the intensity and aggression that the Scots brought to the party. You have to hand it to them; Vern Cotter’s men were inspired at the weekend and the Irish seemed perplexed at the scale of the incessant Scottish onslaught. I wonder too if the weather was a factor. All week, heavy rain and wind had been forecast and Schmidt, being the perfectionist that he is, would surely have planned for this eventuality. When the predicted inclemency failed to materialise, therefore, it’s possible that Ireland  might have been thrown a little and coerced into a game plan that dragged them unwillingly out of their comfort zone.

When all’s said and done, you can’t gift quality opponents three first half tries in a Six Nations encounter away from home and expect to emerge with the victory. Alex Dunbar’s try, in particular, looked exceedingly soft and betrayed an Irish outfit in slight defensive disarray. One suspects that Schmidt’s infamous Monday morning review was just as uncomfortable for Andy Farrell as it was for any of the Irish players. Equally, before we all get too downbeat and despondent, there’s nothing in the Irish display that isn’t eminently fixable and Schmidt will demand that players atone for their transgressions in this week’s crucial encounter with Conor O’Shea’s Italy. With bonus points up for grabs and a chastened Ireland already playing catch-up on their championship rivals, nothing less than maximum points will suffice. Such is the fate of slow coaches.

I was saddened to hear this week of the passing of Springbok legend, Joost van der Westhuizen. The South African hero was undoubtedly the best scrum-half I ever saw. A fine passer of a football, Joost was also supremely physical and had a tremendous strike rate in international rugby. May he rest in peace. Joost’s celebrated achievements on the rugby pitch pale into insignificance, however, compared to the courage, humility and dignity he showed in fighting the illness that’s cruelly taken him. Through his J9 foundation, Joost raised vital funds for research into motor neurone disease. As rugby remembers one of its own this weekend, we all have a chance to salute a real hero. You can learn more about J9 (and how to make a donation) here:

http://joost.co.za/

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

 

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

 

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.

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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

 

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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

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