Expectations Encouragingly Low

Expectations Encouragingly Low

What is the secret of the success of the Irish rugby team? If there is such a hack, it’s the ability to do the simple things exceedingly well, over and over again. I know I’m being a little reductive here, but that’s the essence. Over the last six seasons, under the careful stewardship of Joe Schmidt, Ireland have been the masters of the basics, the kings of simple. And what rewards that approach brought. A third Grand Slam, promotion to the dizzy position of number two in the world rankings and a maiden win over the All Blacks on Irish soil. This time last year, Schmidt’s men were indeed the masters of all they surveyed.

A year on, the picture is noticeably different. If 2018 was an unprecedented peak for Irish rugby, this year, so far, fairly underwhelming in comparison. It’s not that Ireland have been poor (they haven’t) but a Six Nations that was bookmarked by two decidedly average performances against England and Wales tells the story of a team rattled from its lofty perch. Displays firmly rooted in second gear as opposed to the polished performances of 2018. Ireland are certainly not suffering from a crisis of confidence, but the strut of recent times has been replaced by a sheepish crawl.

Things were so different a year ago. Irish fans were looking ahead to the World Cup with buoyancy and anticipation. Despite the harsh lessons of history, this time was going to be different. Schmidt’s perfectly prepped side was set up to make its own mark and finally deliver on the biggest stage of all. What could possibly go wrong after the success achieved by a groundbreaking Ireland and its key component, a dazzling Leinster side that had completed an historic double?

It feels different now. The wheels haven’t exactly fallen off, but the landscape has changed. Ireland are chastened and a tad demoralised, while Leinster were overpowered and humbled by a rampant Saracens in the recent Champions Cup final. Not a million miles away, of course, but as the dust settles on the season, the Irishmen are chasing the pack rather than leading. And that’s a definite turnaround from where they were just a few months ago. If a week is a long time in politics, rugby fortunes similarly turn on a sixpence.

All’s not lost, however. There is an abundance of talent and experience in Irish rugby ready to deliver in Japan. The injuries to opensides Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien are sad and unfortunate, but there’s enough quality in Schmidt’s squad to fill the gaps. And the men in green definitely won’t lack for motivation in their desire to send esteemed coach and captain off into the sunset as winners. Irish rugby is down, but not out. They’ve long since discarded the underdog tag, but there remains a feeling that Ireland are still uncomfortable with excessive favouritism. With expectations lower than they’ve been in quite some time, Schmidt’s Ireland will, in fact, arrive in Japan in the perfect frame of mind.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

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Chastened Ireland Taught Important Lesson!

Chastened Ireland Taught Important Lesson!

How do we assess Irish rugby after the opening weekend of the Six Nations Championship and the emphatic defeat inflicted by a reborn and resurgent England. Are Ireland just not as good as we thought they were? Have we all got a little carried away by recent achievements? Have Irish rugby folk completely lost the run of themselves? Have our collective delusions of grandeur been ruthlessly exposed a few months out from the biggest show of them all? Does Joe Schmidt and his squad need to go back to the drawing board? Actually, none of the above!

Ireland lost on Saturday to a pumped up England, by far the better team on the day. It’s rugby. It’s sport. It happens. Granted, we Irish tend to be tad myopic about our sports teams, but this Irish side is the real deal. Its imperious record over the past year tells you just how darn good it is.

More interesting are the reasons behind England’s triumph. Eddie Jones’s men smashed Ireland several yards behind the gain line, continually thwarting Ireland’s bid for momentum. Schmidt’s multi-phase game plan is based on superiority in the contact areas and England bossed that aspect of the game comprehensively at the weekend. It’s hard to implement any sort of attacking strategy when you’re lagging so thoroughly in the physicality stakes.

Think of any of the big signature defeats of the Schmidt era: Argentina in the World Cup, New Zealand at home in 2016, the Six Nations reversals suffered against Gatland’s Wales. They all have one thing in common. Ireland came second best in the contact areas. Schmidt’s precision strategy is predicated on winning the collisions and this is a severe problem. England were truly immense in their physical prowess at the weekend.

Actually, I thought Ireland recovered quite well from England’s stratospheric start (inevitable as it was given last year’s events in Twickenham). When Cian Healy drove over for his deserved try, Ireland had seemingly withstood the early onslaught and wrested parity from the visitors. But it was Jones’s men who raised their game thereafter. And Ireland had no answer.

Each and every time Schmidt’s side took the ball forward, they were smashed back behind the gain line by a dominant and painfully  aggressive defensive unit. Sure, England flirted at times with illegality, but you could only admire the sheer doggedness and commitment of their efforts.

We certainly didn’t see this coming after November’s dizzy heroics. So, how do we explain the turnaround in fortunes? England were just class, we have to acknowledge that first and foremost. They are an immeasurably better team with the awesome Billy Vunipola leading from the front. And Owen Farrell is at last fulfilling his promise as one of the true modern greats of the game. He was simply mesmeric at the weekend. This was always a difficult assignment first up in the championship: a really strong England hell bent on revenge, equipped with a smart game plan and a massive team armed to implement it to near perfection. Fair play to them.

But Ireland haven’t suddenly become a bad team. Common sense tells us that. I’ve heard it postulated in the last few days that Ireland just can’t hack it in the physicality department against the really big sides, but I’m not buying that. Any team that can dominate New Zealand like Ireland did in the autumn has no such worries. They just lost to a bloody good team, fired up with fury and virtually at full strength. Such is life.

The English reverse is also a reflection of Ireland’s newly found, exalted status as one of the game’s leaders. It’s always easier chasing the pack than sitting with a large target on your back, waiting to be knocked off your lofty perch. But hey, that’s the price of success. Better to find out now than in Japan. There’s no reason to panic, though. Ireland must (and will) get better.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Ireland Miles Ahead!

The late, great Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile barrier in 1954. He was the first athlete to break the much coveted record. Previously it had been assumed a nigh on impossible task. But Bannister believed in his ability and had the ambition, conviction and perseverance to make his dream happen. Lesser mortals crumbled, but Bannister stuck to his task and achieved greatness in the end. Inspiring isn’t the word.

But a curious thing then happened. Within six weeks the new record was broken. And within a decade, five other athletes had managed this once miraculous feat. Because Bannister had proved it was possible, the psychological barrier was removed. Sub four minute miles were no longer viewed as unachievable.

In much the same way, Irish rugby’s own psychological block in relation to the All Blacks is now lifted. Of course there was always the talent and potential to overcome the world’s best, but prior to that unforgettable evening in Chicago in 2016, there was no history, no precedent and no experience to draw on. Post Chicago, I ventured that we wouldn’t have to wait another century to beat New Zealand. So it has proved.

It’s just incredible to think how far Irish rugby has come. Those of us old enough to remember the irredeemably grim days of the 1990s scarcely believe what is happening. Three Six Nations titles-including a second Slam-, a first win over South Africa away from the auld sod, a first series win in Australia over three Tests and not one but two, yes two, wins over the double world champions. Even the golden generation didn’t come close to this. And now the man who masterminded the whole enterprise is off. Oh no! At least the exit was well signposted. Joe had the courtesy to prepare us, bless him!

I’m fascinated by the idea of difference between public and private personas. We know the public persona of Joe Schmidt. Witty, self-deprecating, engaging, erudite and even charming, almost avuncular at times. But there’s clearly another Joe, one the public doesn’t see. There’s Joe Schmidt the coach. I’ve never met the man but the players’ testimony reveals a clear picture of an extremely driven man: tough, uncompromising, exacting and ruthless. A winner.

The Kiwi’s often brutal Monday morning video review sessions are, of course, the stuff of rugby legend. One reason the Kiwis have struggled against Schmidt is they’ve been outwitted by one of their own. Joe thinks exactly the same way they do; he’s a hard working perfectionist who patently detests losing.

One word comes up consistently in any discussion about Ireland’s coach: detail. Schmidt imparts a wealth of detail and knowledge and expects players to do their homework in return. This approach insists on the highest standards, reflecting an Irish set-up that’s set a new benchmark in professionalism and preparation. Irish success over the past six years hasn’t happened by accident.

Although we still have him for another year, time is fast running out on the Schmidt era, with Ireland’s best ever coach stepping down after next year’s World Cup to take a much deserved break and spend some time with his family. Ireland’s highly regarded defence coach Andy Farrell has got the unenviable task of following the guru and while everyone associated with Irish rugby wishes him well, it’s hard to see Schmidt’s unprecedented success being replicated.

The former Rugby League star is a charismatic and capable coach, one who’s obviously gained the Schmidt seal of approval. He has, however, never been the main man and earns his promotion in the unforgiving glare of the international arena. It’s a tough ask but the steely Englishman is undoubtedly up for the challenge.

And the incoming head coach has the fortune of inheriting the greatest environment in Test Rugby and Irish rugby history. Schmidt’s set up is the envy of the rugby world and he leaves a legacy that will enrich the sport in Ireland for years to come. Farrell is taking charge of a young, fearless team, one that is teeming with ambition and focused firmly on continuing its remarkable run of success. Ireland’s young guns are far from finished and that is supremely exciting. The likes of James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale have years left in them.

But for all Farrell’s prospective riches, he has one hell of an act to follow. Because Ireland’s favourite Kiwi has taken Irish rugby into uncharted territory. Our best ever World Cup performance surely awaits next year. New Zealand remain the standard bearers and are still the most talented side in world rugby. However, in terms of preparation and professional standards, Schmidt’s Ireland are miles ahead of the competition.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Image: @OvalDigest [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

James Hume: An emerging talent with a steely purpose

Another chance below to hear the interview I conducted with emerging Ulster Rugby prospect James Hume for http://www.insideireland.ie  :

This piece took a bit of organising. Being a part-time sports journo (blagger some might say-that’s how they say blogger in Belfast, by the way!) can be a challenging preoccupation. I only had a short window to meet my interviewee during a busy pre-season for Ulster Rugby. It was worth it, though.

I arrived at the reception of Kingspan Stadium at half nine on a wet Friday morning in the pouring August rain and was directed with a smile to the players’ training room and meeting facilities. I raced around and found a drenched Henry Speight being put through his paces by a photographer. I wondered to myself if Henry had been warned about the notorious northern Irish weather before putting pen to paper and actually muttered something in that spirit to the affable Aussie winger. Henry, it turns out, is aware of the great summer we’ve been enjoying this year, but alas arrives in Belfast just as the local climate has reverted to type.

But no, Henry wasn’t my interviewee. I’d come to at Ulster’s unrivalled facilities to meet James Hume (you can listen to the full interview below-, an up and coming Irish rugby star who’s sailed through the underage representative ranks. I was immediately impressed with James’s assuredness. The youngster greeted me with a firm handshake and calmly settled into our interview like an old pro. If only I’d been as confident and mature when I was twenty!

In a short but thorough interview, we discussed James’s hopes and ambitions for the new season, his experience with the Irish under 20 set-up-including his recent appearance at the under -20 World Cup-, James’s rugby heroes and the warm way he’s been accepted into the professional fold by his colleagues and teammates.

We also touched on James’s extensive knowledge of incoming Ulster Skills coach, Daniel Soper. For those who don’t know, Soper coached James at Banbridge RFC and enjoyed an extremely successful spell together when Soper guided RBAI, Hume’s alma mater, to three Ulster Schools’ Cup victories in a row. Pretty impressive stuff, although that’s hard to say for a Campbell man! There’s sure to be further glory ahead as Hume continues availing of Soper’s expert tutelage at Ravenhill.

James also revealed his thoughts on the recently announced Celtic Cup competition-the replacement for the now defunct British and Irish Cup-and the potential opportunity it offers young players to gain competitive experience and game-time away from the intense cauldron that is the Pro 14.

The new competition has been conceived as a vehicle to give ‘A’ and Academy players from the Celtic nations and clubs a chance to gain valuable playing exposure before breaking into their first team set-ups. Elite development and the provision of a pathway to professional rugby are essential components of any rugby system and it’s heartening to see Irish provinces benefiting from this exciting development. David Nucifora, in particular, will be delighted.

Hopefully James Hume will be one of many exciting young Ulster prospects to make their breakthrough this season. Young players, after all, are the future of Irish rugby and the health of the game in Ireland rests in their hands. After spending an enjoyable half-an-hour with the talented and articulate Hume, I was left with the abiding impression that Ireland’s new generation is more than up for the task. Our chat ended and James joined Henry and the others for a scheduled walk through in the rain.  As I departed an inclement Kingspan, I was reassured that the weather may be overcast but the future is definitely bright.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Play It Again Sam!

Sad news has emerged from the world of rugby with the dreadfully unfortunate confirmation that Wales and Lions’ legend Sam Warburton has been forced to retire from the game at the ridiculously young age of 29. Generous tributes have been liberally and predictably offered from all corners of the globe. It’s a reflection of the unanimous esteem in which the Cardiff, Wales and Lions’ stalwart is held by the game he’s graced with such class for the best part of the past decade.

Warburton is indeed a colossal loss to rugby. Since the announcement, there’s been fervent debate in Twitter land regarding whether the Cardiff Blues openside can legitimately be considered one of the genuine greats. And indeed there are strong points of view on both sides of what’s been an impassioned argument. People sometimes get bogged down in detail and complexity when attempting to make such subjective assessments, to such an extent they often can’t see the wood for the trees. Others foolishly fall back on statistics to prove their point. Lies, damned lies and…….

For me, it’s much more straightforward. My definition of sporting greatness is infinitely more simple, but as a test, I’m adamant that it works. In fact, it’s virtually infallible! My test of rugby greatness is this: the ability of a player to transform the fortunes of a side just by their mere presence. The capacity to not just improve a team but make it immeasurably better by your place within it. Consider all the modern day greats of the game: Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Brian O’Driscoll, to name but a few. They all inspired teams to success and achievement through brilliance, influence and talent. Those players possessed individual skills that elevated  teams beyond collective limitations.

Sam Warburton was undoubtedly in that mould. Maybe not the flashest, but he always delivered when it really mattered. The Wales flanker improved teams significantly and decisively by his presence. Sam was obviously a tremendous technical rugby player, strong in the tackle and an imperious operator at the breakdown. That was Warburton’s bread and butter, of course. The former Wales captain was also a much more prolific ball carrier than he was ever given credit for. However, as all rugby fans know, it takes much more than technical proficiency to be a truly great Test back rower. Warburton also possessed the hardness and resilience necessary to operate at the coalface of his sport. ‘The Mongrel Dog’ as they call it in New Zealand.

Warburton also had that intangible, undefinable quality; the attribute that’s so devilishly elusive in life but we all know it when we see it. Leadership. Some forwards are born to be captains: Johnson, Fitzpatrick and McCaw spring immediately to mind. Warburton too. There’s no doubt about his place among that pantheon. Most great captains are wonderful rugby players, but alas not all great players are captaincy material. Sam Warburton was both. It’s a delicate balancing act. The best captains need to have enough intelligence to understand the tactical and technical nuances of the game, an instinct to make good decisions under the most acute pressure and have an ability to inspire the players around them through words and deeds. Diplomacy is vital too. Who better than the softly spoken Sam at getting into the ears of the most stubborn of referees?

In making a case for greatness, Warburton’s accomplishments with the Lions are surely enough to get him there if nothing else. Emulating that other great skipper of the modern era, Johnson, leading the tourists on two separate expeditions is a magnificent and monumental achievement in itself. But it’s Warburton’s record with the Lions that stands out like a shining beacon. A series win against the Aussies, followed by a superb draw against the world champions in their own back yard. Gee, that’s not a bad CV for a guy who’s been forced to retire the wrong side of 30! It’s an interesting debate, but I know which side I lean towards. A modern great of the game? Unquestionably! It’s the end of the road, playing wise, for one of the good guys but what a career he’s had. Play it again Sam. I’ve no doubt Warburton will excel in whatever he turns his hand to next

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

File:Sam Warburton cropped.jpg

By Blackcat [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Respect Earned The Hard Way!

‘Passionate.’ That’s the adjective once commonly used to describe the Irish rugby team. The term was particularly prevalent among the rugby giants of the southern hemisphere. Prior to any big game against opponents from south of the equator, rival players would queue up to tell us how respectful they were of the fighting Irish and how they were  wary of the ‘passion’ Ireland always brought to the party. These extremely patronising descriptions made the cream of Irish sport sound more like horny Love Island contestants than elite sportsmen.

The curious thing about the ‘passion’ label is that was applied long after Ireland became genuine and legitimate contenders on the international stage. In the old amateur and semi-professional days such condescension was perhaps forgivable, but even as the golden generation of Irish rugby was strutting its stuff on the Test stage, opponents could still be heard routinely rabbiting on about Ireland and their famed passion.

I used to wonder about this bizarre tendency. It was excusable when Irish results were unremittingly poor, but why did such attitudes prevail when the men in green were regularly winning in the Test arena? The answer was delivered in the context of Ireland’s unremarkable record against the All Blacks-just one win recorded in countless attempts; last November in Chicago. Before a New Zealand Test a few years ago, I read an interview with a former All Black international explaining the apparent lack of recognition afforded to Ireland’s finest. ‘In order to gain our respect,’ he explained, ‘you have to beat us.’

Well, the vernacular surrounding Irish international rugby has changed markedly from the well worn and tiresome platitudes of the past. Opponents from near and far are falling over themselves to fawn over Joe Schmidt’s record breaking outfit. Recent results tell a magnificent and unprecedented story. Three Six Nations Championships, a Grand Slam, a first win over the Springboks on South African soil and the aforementioned maiden win over the world champion All Blacks is a truly formidable record. And now, remarkably, Ireland’s first ever southern hemisphere series win (against a revitalised Australia) contested over three Tests has just been achieved.

And to think there were idiots calling for Schmidt’s head not so long ago. The absurdity! Ireland’s favourite Kiwi has built a relentless and formidable squad, one capable of consistently overcoming anyone in world rugby. Number two in the world and on merit. And this side is taking Irish rugby to uncharted territory; places the golden generation could only dream of.

At the turn of the century, we marvelled at the infusion of youngsters like Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara who entered Test rugby without the fear and inferiority complex that blighted their predecessors. But the current crop is the product of an even more impressive harvest. Today’s youngsters literally expect to win every game they play. Take James Ryan. Ireland’s new dynamo of a second row has only lost one match as a professional rugby player. Consider that for a moment!

But this is what we’re dealing with. Schmidt and his squad of modest and humble superstars are taking Irish rugby to new, exciting places. The overriding concern of the Irish coach post the 2015 World Cup was to build new depth and resourcefulness into the Irish squad. And while some positions remain relatively callow, there’s no doubt Irish rugby is in as strong a position as it’s ever been. Winning plaudits from all corners of the globe and primed for an assault on rugby’s premier competition. The trophies, of course, tell their own tale, but if you need substantive proof of the esteem Ireland’s players are currently held, just listen to the respectful way opponents are now talking about them. Respect that’s been earned the hard way!

PS The football World Cup has kicked off in far away Russia and the tournament has thus far been characterised by a series of upsets and unexpected results. Despite the unpredictable start, few are expecting too many surprises come the business end of the competition. It’ll be the usual suspects in with a chance of ultimate glory. Or will it? They always seem to fall short and are perpetually addicted to underachievement, but England are due to perform in a major tournament one of these days. Maybe, just maybe, 2018 will be the year?

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

No Longer Once in a Blue Moon

They didn’t do it with the style and panache we expected, but Leinster duly prevailed as anticipated on 12 May to win an incredible fourth Champions Cup. The muted celebrations after the game told a tale of relief and quiet satisfaction more than exaltation. Indeed, anyone who didn’t know the outcome would swear that Leinster had lost such was Johnny Sexton’s sullen demeanour. One wonders if the perfectionist Irish fly-half actually enjoys days like this or is he too caught up berating himself over perceived errors and looking ahead to the next challenge to savour the moment?

But Leinster did indeed win and what a magnificent achievement it is. Some of us are old enough to remember Munster’s travails in the early years of this competition (or its predecessor to be more precise), when buckets of blood, sweat and tears were expended in the search for the elusive holy grail. All those great performances and victories only to come up short. So near and yet so far! Leinster on a quadruple? Damn it, Munster fought so hard to win one!

Some are even old enough to remember the glorious time when a team of semi-professionals from Ulster blazed a trail for the Irish provinces in the European Cup in the year the English clubs boycotted the competition. Believe me, it was no average achievement as European giants like Toulouse and Stade Francais floundered in Belfast’s cathedral of pain.

In those days, it seemed absurd, inconceivable that an Irish province would ever win four European Cups. The achievement is put into clear context by the numerous obstacles that were put in place to prevent this very eventuality from occurring. The old Heineken Cup was a truly wonderful rugby tournament, adored by fans all over the world. But the English and French club owners didn’t share the supporters’ affection. Some perceived a Celtic bias.

The Anglo-French clubs, financed by tv sugar daddies and billionaire benefactors, were rattled by the illogical success of the Irish provinces. Despite pouring a fortune into the game, the European Cup was a competition they couldn’t buy easily. Unable to beat the Irish as regularly as they wanted, the Anglo-French owners were left with only one option in their myopic minds: to destroy European rugby’s pride and joy.

Maybe they were jealous of the provinces’ success. Maybe they resented that the old ERC was based in Dublin. Whatever the motivation, the moguls were set on dismantling the Heineken Cup. And when the English Premiership clubs unilaterally sold their European tv rights to BT Sport, the writing was on the wall for the European Cup as we knew it. Determined to get a bigger share of the tv and monetary spoils, the English/French clubs and their sympathisers eventually brought the curtain down on the ERC and facilitated the establishment of the EPCR in its place.

Initially, the ploy worked well. The new competition was dominated by our Anglo-French cousins, the first three tournaments being won by Toulon and Saracens; clubs that are the very embodiment of the new European order. Meanwhile, the Irish provinces struggled to get out of the pool stages and it seemed the days of Irish glory in the European Cup had been permanently consigned to the past.

But then something curious happened. The Irish provinces stormed back into contention, culminating in the superb fourth tournament win by the best team in the continent. You see, as it turns out, there are some things that money can’t buy. Irish rugby’s strength is that it controls its players. Once the IRFU made the bold and visionary decision to centrally contract its star names and ward off the avaricious advances of club owners, it set a template for rugby governance that’s the envy of the world. The rewards are there for all to see: two Grand Slams and six Champions Cups tells its own tale.

In all of this, Leinster lead the way and the province is building a legacy that has the potential to last years. The Blues are currently reaping the benefits of a veritable conveyor belt of talent. Brilliant and fearless youngsters like Jordan Larmour, James Ryan and Dan Leavy are the product of an unrivalled schools system that’s producing not just quality but massive strength in depth. The rest of Europe can only look on with envy at the wondrous production line that is the Leinster Academy.

Massive credit goes to Leo Cullen, a coach who was openly questioned in his first season in charge, but has become the first person to win Europe’s premier competition as player and coach. What a story! Cullen’s double act with the ever modest and self-effacing Stuart Lancaster has delivered the goods time and again. Such vindication for the former England coach after his World Cup nightmare. Few would begrudge his ebullience at the final whistle. How sweet his redemption must taste.

But the real plaudits are reserved for the Irish system. It’s been a testing season for Irish rugby for reasons we all know but the Irish have finally rediscovered the winning formula. It’s an incredible achievement given how the odds are stacked against them. Something tells me that we won’t need to wait for a Blue Moon for the next Irish European Cup triumph.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

By justinhourigan (flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

File:Magners Cup final Coming on the field2.jpg