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

 

Every reason for Pat to go on the Lam!

Is there such a thing as loyalty in professional sport? As quaint and antiquated as the notion is, surely fidelity still has merits? The question arises on the back of this week’s shock announcement that celebrated Connacht coach Pat Lam is departing at the end of the current season. Lam’s destination is the currently struggling, but upwardly mobile Bristol, a move made all the more attractive by the fact that the west country club is financed by billionaire benefactor, Stephen Lansdown. Connacht’s players and fans are understandably despondent at Lam’s untimely and unexpected departure. The Samoan coach has been incredible for the province, guiding the franchise to its first taste of silverware through last season’s Pro12 success. Sentiment aside, though, is Lam right to make the move?

There are, of course, commercial and financial factors underpinning all of this. In a free and open market, coaches and players can come and go as they please. Professional rugby has never been a more competitive and rewarding environment. If recent reports are to be believed, Lam’s package at Bristol is rumoured to be in the region of anywhere between £500,000 and £700,000 per annum. Yes, you read that correctly! That is a remarkable level of remuneration for a club rugby coach. Suffice to say, those colossal figures are considerably more than the ambitious Connacht could ever match.

But surely it’s about more than money? Lam is building something in Galway, something substantive that transcends material reward. The men from the Sportsground achieved an historic feat last season and they did so in terrific style. Lam’s brand of running, passing rugby was not only pleasing on the eye, it delivered the goods in emphatic fashion. Make no mistake about it, Connacht’s achievement last term was herculean and its magnitude is hard to convey fully in a couple of paragraphs. Let’s put it like this, though. Leicester’s footballers were rightly hailed for their wonderful Premier League achievement last season. As good as Leicester’s win was, I believe that Connacht’s achievement was even greater.

After all, this was a franchise that almost went out out of business in 2003. Connacht were finished, as extinct as the legendary Dodo, only for a last minute reprieve to save them as a professional entity. From that indubitably dark place, the Galway men emerged to become Pro 12 champions last year. What a metamorphosis. What a transformation. What a journey. And it’s the brilliant Lam who delivered it for them, building on the firm foundations laid by Michael Bradley, Eric Elwood and others. The achievement of the Connacht coach wasn’t just manifested on the rugby pitch, however. It was much more holistic and all embracing than that.

Lam has done so much to instil and inculcate a progressive, winning culture in the west of Ireland. Connacht are not so much improved as unrecognisable from their former selves. Yes, the players have been a revelation, but the primary credit must go to their head coach. Lam has been relentless and uncompromising in driving standards at the previously unheralded club. At last, the phrase “four proud provinces” has been invested with some meaning beyond a catchy marketing slogan or the verse of a dodgy Phil Coulter song. Lam will certainly be a tough act to follow. No wonder the players are concerned. Bundee Aki, in a moment he may or may not regret, has already tweeted to announce that he’s “pissed.”

Is it fair to blame Lam, though? I don’t see how it is. From what I’ve heard of him, the challenge in Bristol will appeal just as much as the obvious financial rewards. And it’s hard to blame anyone for wanting to develop and advance their professional prospects in a challenging role. One of the common descriptions of Lam in the last couple of days has been “career coach.” The term is levied almost pejoratively.

But surely everyone working in professional rugby is careerist to some extent? After all, Lam’s not working for the good of his health! Connacht’s coach has a young family and it would be quite wrong to begrudge him this unique opportunity, given all he’s done for Irish rugby. Professional coaching is predominantly results driven. It’s a precarious and fickle way to earn a living. More than ever, a coach needs to make hay while the sun shines. Lam’s departure is also symptomatic of an inflated and commercially driven rugby market. As in soccer, coaches can now enjoy the plentiful and unprecedented opportunities currently available.

And let’s not forget that Bristol’s recruitment of Lam is the flip side of Irish rugby’s burgeoning success. The better we get, the more vulnerable we are to losing key personnel. Witness the Premiership’s snapping up of Ulster veteran Dan Tuohy this week by, you’ve guessed it, Bristol! It’s always sad to see Irish rugby losing people they’ve invested a lot of time in, but that’s the nature of the beast. It’s a players’ market. And, increasingly, a coaches’ one, too. As for loyalty? Loyalty is a noble and laudable trait, but to the best of my knowledge, it’s yet to put food on anyone’s table. Good luck to Pat Lam.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: By supernova3688 from Flickr [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

File:Bath v Connacht Rugby - 28th October 06 (32).jpg

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

Pienaar’s Departure: Rhetoric and Myth

Ulster rugby fans are in a daze. Their state of discomfiture has been caused by the shock announcement that star scrum-half Ruan Pienaar is departing Belfast’s shores at the end of the current season-2016/17. The unexpected announcement came yesterday and follows seemingly intensive negotiations between the player, his employers in Ulster Rugby and the governing body charged with the administration of the sport in Ireland: the IRFU. In a brief statement yesterday, Ulster Rugby confirmed that their best player will leave at the end of the season and the wording left no doubt that this devastating decision was the IRFU’s call. The union’s rationale centres around their so-called “succession” policy, that is the IRFU’s insistence that only one non-Irish qualified player is permitted across the four provinces in each position. Given the dearth of indigenous scrum-halves following last season’s retirement of Eoin Reddan, Pienaar’s position at Ulster has become increasingly untenable, it seems. The news prompted predictable bile on the internet and social media from the fair-weather keyboard fans, who haven’t the first clue about Irish rugby structures or Ulster’s role within the national system. A lot of these guys are new to the sport and their knowledge of Irish rugby could be written on the back of a postage stamp, leaving plenty of room to spare.

The IRFU has been cast as the villain of the piece, the big bad wolves who have come to take our beloved Ruan away. Is this an accurate depiction of events? Is it fair, even? I don’t think so. Leaving emotion and sentiment aside for a moment, let’s look at the facts. Pienaar has been with Ulster for six years and counting. It’s extremely rare-unprecedented even-for a foreign player to survive so long within the Irish system. It just doesn’t happen. The only comparable figure in terms of longevity is Leinster’s Isa Nacewa and he’s currently enjoying his second stint at his province, having returned from retirement in New Zealand. In reality, Ulster have done extremely well out of their superstar scrum-half and have undoubtedly seen the best of him since his arrival in 2010. The South African international was an instrumental figure in Ulster’s march to the Heineken Cup final in 2012 and Pienaar was one of the key men in making the red hand province the perennial contenders they are today. That the province has come up short of silverware can hardly be laid at Pienaar’s door. Think where the Ravenhill men would have been without him these past few seasons. In truth, Ulster are fortunate to have had Pienaar for so long. Remember, he was nearly gone two years’ ago when French giants Toulon came calling. Only the adroit negotiation of David Humphreys kept Ulster’s star man at Ravenhill in one of his final acts as Operations Director.

Ireland’s scrum-half shortage isn’t a myth. Following Reddan’s retirement, international class nines in Ireland consist of Conor Murray and Kieran Marmion. That’s it. And Marmion is a comparative rookie in Test terms. One of the main arguments in favour of keeping Pienaar in situ at the Kingspan was his pivotal role in nurturing, developing and mentoring young Ulster scrum-halves. Bringing native talent on. Except it hasn’t really worked out like that. Ruan’s deputy is still veteran Paul Marshall, while the promising David Shanahan is untested at the highest level. Pienaar has been the integral figure in the development of Ulster’s half-back play. There’s no doubt that the Springbok superstar has taken his side’s back line to new levels. But if Pienaar’s continued presence, six years into an already extended stay, is  now impeding the development of indigenous Irish talent, then surely the time is right for a parting of the ways? This certainly seems to be David Nucifora’s train of thought. The Irish provinces exist to serve the national team, not the other way round. Some of our new fans might not like that fact, but that’s how it is. Like it or lump it.

While the fans’ disappointment is understandable, there’s been an unduly emotional and sentimental angle to this story that’s not helpful. Since yesterday, I’ve read several people complaining how it’s unfair that Pienaar is being uprooted from Ulster against his will. How exactly? Well, it’s claimed that Pienaar’s family is well settled in Belfast and apparently they have a strong association with a local church. While that’s terrific to see, it seems preposterously idealistic to expect the IRFU to take such factors into account while negotiating a professional contract. Ruan Pienaar is a professional rugby player and a very well remunerated one at that. He knows the drill. Professional rugby is an unsentimental business and it’s naive to think of such dealings in terms of fidelity. This is business. Emotion doesn’t come into it. At the end of the day, it’s a reciprocal relationship. Ruan Pienaar has been brilliant for Ulster Rugby and Ulster has been good to Pienaar, but all good things come to an end eventually.

That said, I’m sorry to see him go. Ruan is undoubtedly the greatest Ulster player I’ve seen, bar none. He is indisputably world class. When it comes to quality, I didn’t think David Humphreys would be surpassed, but Pienaar is a cut above the rest. The very personification of class. More than that, he’s a good bloke. Everyone in Irish rugby will wish him well and we’ll be delighted if he comes back in a coaching or off-field capacity some day. It’s sad indeed to see Ruan go, but even the greats must depart the scene some time. Irish rugby doesn’t owe anyone a living, however, and although the IRFU will be criticised over this, they’re right to put succession above short term expediency. At the end of the day, Irish interests will always come before any non-qualified player, no matter who they are. Thanks for everything, Ruan. You’ve been the man. Now the time’s come for your adopted province to prosper without your expert guidance.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

 

Sublime Ireland Sink Boks

I’m finding it hard to make sense of it. You know the way events sometimes just don’t make sense no matter how hard you try and rationalise them? Well, I had that sensation in abundance yesterday. For those who missed it, Ireland defeated South Africa (Saturday 11 June 2016) at their Newlands stronghold. The win was significant enough in itself. Prior to Saturday’s game, the Irish had never tasted victory on South African soil. In truth, they hadn’t even come close. Therefore, their win was historic and unprecedented in equal measure. However, as anyone who witnessed the Irish performance will tell you, Saturday’s effort was so much more.

Typical of this enigmatic Irish side, they made history the hard way. The visitors found themselves down to 14-men after just 20 minutes thanks to the controversial sending off of their naturalised back row, CJ Stander, who was red carded for a clumsy challenge on his former compatriot and team-mate, Patrick Lambie. A Test match in South Africa is an unforgiving environment for any rugby team. The conditions are notoriously brutal, confrontational, and hostile. Therefore, for a young Irish side to think their way to victory in such challenging circumstances is nothing short of incredible.

I’ve been watching rugby for nearly thirty years, and can’t remember anything remotely like Saturday’s career defining performance. Indeed, I’m old enough to remember the bad old days when underpowered Irish sides were sent to South Africa to compete against enormous  Springbok sides comprised of utter behemoths. In those days, the men in green faced mission impossible, they were ritual lambs to the slaughter. In writing this piece, I think back to 1998 when an Irish team led by Paddy Johns faced shocking levels of aggression and attrition on the Highveld. The Battle of Pretoria and all that. Look it up on You Tube if you haven’t seen it. It was shocking stuff. Notorious. Madness everywhere. Nevertheless, Johns’s men didn’t take a backward step, meeting fire with fire on one of rugby’s darkest days. Thankfully, the game has come a long way in the ensuing years. Such overt and unfiltered violence simply isn’t tolerated in the uber-sanitised modern, professional game. Here’s the point, though. In those days, it was inconceivable, unrealistic even, to think that Ireland would ever defeat the Springboks on their home patch. That they did it in the midst of such adversity is remarkable in the extreme.

Of course many of Ireland’s woes were self-inflicted. What of the sending off? While Stander’s challenge was undeniably reckless and ugly (it doesn’t get any better with repeat viewing), CJ assuredly had no intention of hurting his former team-mate, and it’s hard to resist the impression that Ireland’s flanker was committed to a challenge he was unable to avoid in the heat of the moment. The post match consensus held that a yellow card was a more fitting sanction, and I don’t disagree with that analysis. Despite Ireland’s deeply ingrained propensity to make life difficult for themselves, this was a performance to be admired and treasured as a monumental effort. While Ireland’s tactics undoubtedly worked a treat, this was a win achieved with old fashioned grit and determination. The Irish refused to submit, just wouldn’t be beaten; even when reduced to 13-men following Robbie Henshaw’s first half sin-binning. This victory was all about belief and conviction; the young side showing unwavering heart and composure to withstand the South African onslaught.

Witness the way three Irish defenders bundled JP Pietersen into touch at the death to deny the South Africans a win they scarcely deserved. This display  was all about collective will and determination, the Irish simply wouldn’t be denied. In a side shorn of experience and leadership, good performances abounded everywhere. To a man, Ireland’s players emphatically rose to the occasion. Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, Jamie Heaslip, and Jared Payne all contributed outstanding performances. So too Paddy Jackson. The Ulster youngster has waited a long time for his opportunity and he grabbed it with both hands, with a performance full of composure and thoughtfulness. This was Jackson’s moment. And what about captain fantastic? Rory Best was magnificent. I lost count of the times the Irish skipper saved the day. Best was everywhere in a game where his leadership and character shone brightest. If anyone still doubts the class of the Ulster hooker, I suggest they look again at the video.

Incredibly, an historic series win is now within the ambit of Joe Schmidt’s men. After Saturday, belief and optimism must be surging through the veins of the entire squad. A word of caution, though. I can’t recall a worse South African performance. The Springboks were dire on Saturday, and this proud  rugby nation will unquestionably be smarting like never before. I fully expect a terrifying backlash next week. However, if Ireland can somehow withstand the mammoth onslaught, anything is possible. The bar has been set, and Schmidt’s men will be determined to make further history. It’s going to be a fascinating couple of weeks. It seems fitting to leave the final word to Man of the Match, Devin Toner. It’s been a difficult few weeks for the giant second row following the passing of his father. Toner has developed into a mature and vital member of Schmidt’s squad; his humble, modest demeanour reflecting the core values of this Irish team. On collecting his thoroughly deserved MOTM award, the big man simply said: “I just wanted to say, that’s for dad.” It was a poignant and evocative end to one of Ireland’s greatest days.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey