World at Their Feet!

There’s a lot of gloom and despondency around the Irish rugby team at the moment. Curious stuff for a team presently ranked number one in the world. Forget for a moment the pure idiocy of the world ranking system, it’s strange to see so much disaffection among followers of the side that’s top of the rugby tree.

This writer-for his sins-has followed the ups and downs of Irish rugby for the best part of three decades. However, despite six years of unprecedented success under Maestro Schmidt, I can’t recall feeling so underwhelmed coming into a World Cup campaign. It’s weird, isn’t it? Three Six Nations titles, encompassing a Grand Slam, and not one, but two, yes two, wins over the ABs should infuse a greater sense of optimism.

Maybe we’re just bloody greedy! After all, we never had it so good. Right? Well, expectations are measured by a fairly flat Six Nations performance that featured two poor losses against England and Grand Slam winners, Wales. While the heroics of last November were always hard to repeat, the sheer scale of those defeats shocked. Those reverses were, well, very un-Ireland, if you excuse the clumsy expression.

Granted, it’s hard at the top of the tree waiting to be knocked down, but fans struggled to understand Ireland’s swift fall from grace. Throw in the complete hammering inflicted by England during the World Cup warm-ups and we see a picture of confidence dented and wind furiously taken from Ireland’s once high-flying sails. Heroes to zeros and all that.

And yet, the nucleus of an extremely good rugby side remains intact. Think about it. Ireland possess mammoth experience in virtually every position and a wealth of talent is at the squad’s disposal. Irish rugby has never had such strength in depth across the board.

Furthermore, in Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, Schmidt has the best half-backs in the tournament. Ireland’s halves are all-time greats whose World Cup stories thus far are of frustrating underachievement. If they stay off the physio table this time, 2019 is the chance to shine.

And in Schmidt, Ireland have one of the greatest coaches: smart, innovative and ambitious. After the anti-climax of 2015, Ireland’s best ever strategist is determined to end on a high. One more roll of the dice for Schmidt and off into the rugby sunset he goes. We want a happy ending for coach and captain of course, but seldom does the rugby gods dispense justice.

We start the campaign with a massive game against Scotland. A good side that knows Ireland like the back of its hand, this is far from the gimme many have supposed. With rain forecast, expect relentless targeting of the Irish line-out and breakdown; with a full blown aerial assault thrown in. Injuries, especially in the back three, have hampered preparation, but Ireland have the experience and nous to negotiate the ambush.

Withstand the Scottish onslaught and Ireland have a relatively straightforward group before another quarter-final; likely against the behemoths of South Africa. This will be the cup final of all cup finals. Ireland’s profile is low but they fancy their chances. Make no mistake about that. Win that almighty tussle and all bets are off. Heck, even the All Blacks don’t frighten anymore!

But there’s much work to be done before that. Toil, sweat and homework in the land of the rising sun. However, Schmidt’s Ireland are up for the fight. Indeed, it will be the last chance for a lot of them; esteemed coach included. See, it’s not so bad actually. Forget the doom and gloom. Ireland will do fine. Schmidt’s boys are primed for their best ever World Cup finish.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

Alun Wyn Jones, Greig Laidlaw, Sergio Parisse, Rory Best, Guilhem Guirado and Owen Farrell 23/1/2019
REPRO FREE***PRESS RELEASE NO REPRODUCTION FEE***EDITORIAL USE ONLY 2019 Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship Launch, The Hurlingham Club, Ranelagh Gardens, London 23/1/2019 Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones, Scotland’s Greig Laidlaw, Italy’s Sergio Parisse, Ireland’s Rory Best, France’s Guilhem Guirado and England’s Owen Farrell Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

Has luck of the Irish run out?

How to handle setback and disappointment. A very pertinent question after a sobering week for Irish sport. First of all, we had the acute of heartache of the football, as Martin O’Neill’s men suffered a near capitulation against a superb Denmark side. A couple of days earlier, their northern counterparts saw their own World Cup hopes go for a Burton against the Swiss. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there was confirmation that Ireland’s bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup has been unsuccessful, with the Irish coming three out of, er, three. Pretty disappointing.

With the rolling 24-hours news cycle we have nowadays, there’s been plenty of analysis and discussion of each of these events. Thus, I don’t feel the need to bore you with any further dissection of the defeats. What interests me more is the reaction to these setbacks. Vituperation and indignation everywhere. I think it tells us something about the modern Irish psyche. And the reflection isn’t necessarily positive.

Compared to the more phlegmatic and philosophical responses of days gone by, modern reaction to Irish setbacks borders on the hysterical. We’re either the best in the world or the worst. We’ve lost all sense of perspective. There’s little balance, no objectivity or logic anymore. In the midst of painful defeat, our players and administrators are castigated as hopeless, making the immediate and seamless transition from heroes to villains. In the battle for collective self-awareness, we’re in danger of losing the plot. You only have to read the column inches and listen to the phone-ins to tap into the anger and umbrage stemming from last week’s defeats. The reaction of fans to the Denmark loss, in particular, is extremely interesting.

Much of the public ire has been directed at Ireland boss, Martin O’Neill. Of course there’s nothing new about a manager incurring the wrath of fans following a heavy and bruising defeat. That’s football. Given the scale of Ireland’s reversal, surely it’s quite understandable that O’Neill should feel the heat? Maybe. But consider for a moment the rationale behind condemning a manager as consistently successful and overachieving as the former Celtic boss. In the overwhelming sense of grievance and injustice, it’s instantly forgotten that a less than vintage Ireland team wouldn’t have got anywhere near a World Cup play-off without the managerial talents of Martin O’Neill!

If anything, the reaction to the Rugby World Cup decision has been even more irrational. Granted, a lot of work has been put into a bid that was meant to finally deliver a World Cup on home soil. This was presumed to be our moment to shine; possibly Ireland’s only chance to stage a genuinely prestigious international sports event. Dignitaries as luminous as Dick Spring, Leo Varadkar and Brian O’Driscoll were drafted into an Irish dream team to woo our fellow rugby brethren to the cause. Therefore, the  confirmation on 15 November  that France had got the nod to host rugby’s showpiece event in 2023 was a profoundly bitter pill to swallow for the Irish delegation.  In the last few weeks, us Irish haven’t exactly covered ourselves in glory, though.

When World Rugby announced that its team of consultants were recommending South Africa for RWC 2023 a couple of weeks ago, the Irish rugby public became apoplectic with rage. Punters, fans and administrators alike were incredulous that Ireland’s bid wasn’t being championed, as if we deemed its rubber-stamping a fait accompli.

The IRFU wrote an uncharacteristically strongly worded letter to World Rugby on the back of South Africa’s recommendation, pointing out alleged defects in both South Africa’s bid and the consultancy process in general. World Rugby was (not so subtly) reminded that delegates weren’t compelled to go with the independent recommendation and that all three prospective hosts were capable of staging the tournament.

Perhaps there was an element of sour grapes in the Irish response. While I don’t doubt the sincerity of the IRFU’s concerns, I wonder if they would have been so vocal on the defects of the process if they’d secured the recommendation rather than South Africa? As it was, neither South Africa or Ireland were victorious in the end but one wonders if the tone of Ireland’s objections did the Irish bid many favours in the final analysis. After all, in the cosy, diplomatic world of rugby administration, blazers aren’t used to being lectured and publicly criticised over perceived flaws in their processes.

In the aftermath of the rugby and football disappointments, our response betrays much that’s wrong with modern Irish attitudes. We tend to overestimate ourselves and often fail to give due respect to our opponents. For example, it was naive in the extreme to think that our structural and resource deficiencies would be ignored in the World Cup assessment.

After all, several of our stadiums needed significant upgrades prior to 2023 and one of the grounds (Casement Park) has yet to be built. In contrast, if the World Cup were to be held tomorrow, both France and South Africa could easily accommodate an event of such magnitude. Indeed, both nations have recent experience of hosting major sports tournaments. Of course Ireland has plenty of time to modernise its infrastructure but it’s understandable the ready made nature of our opponents’ facilities became one of the deciding factors in World Rugby’s decision.

There’s something fundamentally unattractive about some of our recent attitudes to setback. Us Irish are at our best when we’re modest, self-effacing and humble. A tenacious and likeable underdog that’s universally admired for those characteristics. As the ultimate exponents of fun and craic. Arrogance and overconfidence don’t sit anywhere near as well in our national mindset. And yet these are the undesirable traits we’re increasingly exhibiting.

Maybe it’s small nation syndrome. You only have to observe the bouts of reflection and recrimination that follow every Olympic Games to see modern Ireland’s inflated opinion of itself. It’s almost as if we somehow expect success. Why? We’re a small country. And we obviously don’t have the resources of the USA or China! It seems we’ve developed a bit of a chip on our shoulders, a warped and unjustified sense of entitlement.

It’s fine when we’re winning, of course, but negative attitudes have become conspicuously prevalent alongside the pain of defeat. We saw it in the response to Rugby World Cup rejection and in the ongoing excoriation of Martin O’Neill. We’ve lost the run of ourselves and we need to row back. It’s time to restore some semblance of balance and perspective.

One of the best things about being Irish is, after all, our smallness. And I mean that it in the best possible way. We’re minnows. A tiny country whose people have shaped the world and done outstanding things on the global stage. A country that’s produced Liam Neeson, George Best, John Hume and U2. A people who consistently succeed in the midst of severe adversity and tragedy; winning despite our small stature. That’s precisely why our victories mean so much. And why handling defeat should be easy for us. After the ludicrous hysteria of recent days, we’d do well to remember that.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

 

 

 

 

Here come the girls!

It doesn’t generate the hype, profile and (if truth be told) over-exposure of the men’s equivalent but the Women’s Rugby World Cup kicked off this week. The tournament is being hosted in Ireland this time. I must admit that until recently I was an avowed sceptic of the women’s version of the game. Despite being a committed rugby fan, it wasn’t something that tickled my interest in a major way. I had watched a little in the past but hadn’t quite been converted. Therefore, I noted the comments made by ex-Ireland international flanker David Corkery with interest this week. For those who missed it, Corkery, as reported in the Irish Independent, said:

“Personally, I find watching the women’s game complicated and arduous to watch. I think we all partly watch rugby because of the physical battles it produces. The big hits, the powerful runs, the struggle at the scrum and so on, however I simply do not like watching ladies knocking lumps out of each other.”

Until recently, somewhat shamefully, I agreed with some of what David said.  I believed that although there was absolutely nothing wrong with women’s rugby-if ladies wanted to play the game, good luck to them-it wasn’t something that I found particularly appealing. However, with the World Cup having kicked off, I find myself thinking quite differently. Why shouldn’t the female version of the game receive the same support and backing as its male counterpart? Why should the girls accept a status as secondary and subservient to men’s rugby? Okay, the female game doesn’t generate anywhere near as much publicity or money as the male version but does that mean that it should be considered worthless, without merit? Of course not!

I haven’t watched a huge amount of women’s rugby in recent times, but the last time I viewed a game, I was blown away by the vast improvement in the standard of the rugby on offer. The skill levels were quite superb and the players certainly weren’t lacking in physicality or technical application either. It was a world away from the first few games I’d taken in many years ago when the women’s game was still very much in its infancy. In fact, I was extremely impressed and unquestionably entertained by the spectacle on display. Absolutely nothing secondary or inferior about it.

His views have been branded controversial, but does Corkery have a point? My former misgivings about the female game had nothing whatsoever to do with the gender of the participants. I certainly wasn’t being sexist. Like the former Irish international, I merely believed that a contact sport of such obvious attrition lent itself more to the male version of the game. That the ladies, as good as they obviously were, were unable to replicate the physical intensity and aggression that’s routinely seen in a men’s rugby match.

Based on recent evidence, I’m more than happy to admit that I was wrong.  Women’s Rugby is on a definite upward curve in terms of skill and interest, as the substantial crowds have testified this week. The fans wouldn’t be coming in their droves if the standard wasn’t excellent. Women’s Rugby has indeed arrived and its emergence is a tremendous credit to everyone involved. The product may differ slightly from what punters are used to, but it undoubtedly has much to offer. Indeed, like tennis, it can be the variances that make us enjoy the sports even more. Vive La Difference! 

Despite the undoubted spectacle on offer, there’s another reason to support the Women’s Rugby World Cup. With Ireland’s bid for RWC 2023 still under consideration by World Rugby, a successful tournament can only work in the country’s favour. With everything still to play for, there’s a real incentive for Irish rugby to show the world what a wonderful job it can do. We all know about Irish hospitality, infrastructure, organisation and, of course, our wonderful fans. In Ireland, we don’t just believe, we know that we have the tools and resources to host a major international sporting event. But it’s not enough to say it. Much better to demonstrate our aptitude to as wide an audience as possible. If Ireland manage to secure the rights to host RWC 2023, the next couple of weeks could be crucial in the mission. Another reason to cheer loudly for our ladies. Here come the girls. Come on Ireland!!

On a completely unrelated note, events last week reminded me of some of the discussions I had while Donald Trump was running for the presidency. Whenever I expressed concern over a potential Trump victory and what that might mean for global relations, I recall a lot of people reassuring me: “Don’t worry, he’s very insular and isolationist by inclination.” Well, it doesn’t seem to be working out like that! Here’s hoping that cool heads prevail in this latest, unnecessary showdown. We elect our leaders to lead, to demonstrate calm, considered and reflective authority. To deescalate conflict and tension. They’re privileged to serve us. With that honour comes a massive responsibility. It’s about time they showed it!

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Image courtesy of Wikipedia: By Pierre-Selim Huard (Self-photographed) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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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.

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Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joe_Schmidt_coaching_Irish_team.jpg  @OvalDigest.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey