Stalemate in Auckland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

Schmidt’s Boys Make History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

 

File:Rory Best 2015 RWC.jpg

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

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

New Zealand All Blacks: Better Every Day

“Better Every Day.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Wikipedia:

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

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

 

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey