Redemption Required

As we survey the first two rounds of the Six Nations, Ireland find themselves in a tight spot. Two games played, two losses is not a good stat, but it’s the manner of the defeats that concerns. Andy Farrell’s men have been no better than mediocre and although there’s plenty of endeavour, stardust is pretty thin on the ground.

Most worrying of all is the listless nature of Irish performances and the inability to score tries. There was, at least, a semblance of attacking shape in Ireland’s opening loss to Wales and the visitors played quite well until Peter O’Mahony’s moment of madness tilted the game in Wales’s favour. In fact, Ireland’s performance with 14 men was pretty spirited, in fairness.

However, even then, Farrell’s men only managed one try. If Irish underperformance was understandable in that context, the French game last week was a severe regression. In terms of attacking ideas, Ireland were virtually non-existent, the only innovation being, err, the tactical novelty that is the Garryowen!

If you didn’t know better, you’d swear it was mid-nineties’ fare. And despite the tactic clearly not working, Billy Burns and his outside backs kept coming back to it-the definition of insanity and all that.

Speaking of Burns, the Ulster ten showed again that he is slightly lacking at the highest level. Don’t get me wrong, Ireland’s reserve fly-half is a decent provincial player who’s done fine things for his club these past couple of seasons.

But he is not yet equipped to boss and dominate a Six Nations encounter at this elite level. Ditto Ross Byrne. Ross’s brother Harry may be the heir apparent, but throwing a supremely talented young fella in at the deep end isn’t the answer either.

So, what does that leave us with? Johnny Sexton! Sexton remains Ireland’s best ten by a country mile, even in the autumn of his career. And that’s a disconcerting thought.

Ireland’s best ever ten has to retire at some stage, but the thought is currently inconceivable given the lack of viable contenders for the throne. Until Joey Carbery returns, there just isn’t an alternative anything close to the same level.

That said, it’s unfair to highlight individuals in discussing Ireland’s lack of creative spark. Farrell has been in the top job for well over a year now and yet his vision is hard to discern.

A brilliant assistant and defence coach, what does an Andy Farrell side look like? What are the hallmarks? We’re still not sure. Yes, there’s plenty of huff, puff and toil, but what’s the grand plan? Integral to all this is Mike Catt.

An unlikely choice, maybe, as attack coach, Catt’s vision is also proving elusive. Apart from his stellar playing career, Catt’s coaching resume is limited, bar a spot on Stuart Lancaster’s doomed England coaching ticket, and a support role with Conor O’Shea’s Italy in recent seasons.

We’ve discussed before the lack of superstars in Ireland’s current panel, but a lack of ambition is altogether harder to defend. Catt may yet prove to be brilliant, but it’s been a baptism of fire so far.

In terms of proving his credentials, however, Ireland’s next opponents, Italy (a side Catt obviously knows well), is a decent place to start!

And that’s the problem for Ireland. The Six Nations is all about momentum and after two rounds, Farrell’s men are playing catch up. Italy will fancy their chances of upset, but even an uninspiring Ireland should have enough to get the job done.

But even then, Ireland still finish with two really tough games: a revitalised Scotland away and then old enemy England at home. Who’d be in Farrell’s shoes?!

And that’s the catch-22. Ireland’s coach needs to experiment a little and spread his wings. He also needs to roll the dice in terms of selection. After all, the World Cup is only two years away.

But he also needs to win or he’ll lose his job. That’s why the Wigan great has so little room for manoeuvre. It’s the tightest of balancing acts.

This is the ultimate transition phase. As anyone who followed Ireland in the late nineties knows, transition phases are zero craic. For what it’s worth, I think Ireland will regroup and recover well.

They may even win all three remaining games. But Farrell needs performances to match. Now, more than ever, his players need to stand up and be counted for him.

P.S. I’ve just finished the comedian, David Baddiel’s new book, Jews Don’t Count. It makes for a fascinating, if at times, uncomfortable read. Nominally about anti-Semitism, Jews Don’t Count focuses on the blind spot held by many progressives in discussing the issue compared to other forms of racism.

It is extremely thought provoking and challenging for anyone not from a Jewish background. It forces us to confront some truths which are difficult to acknowledge. But it’s an important work and everyone, regardless of political persuasion, should read it. It is essential reading. I’m glad I did and it’s helped me look inwards-in a really good way!

@rorymcgimpsey

An Injection of Dog

Don’t know about anyone else, but I’m quite underwhelmed by rugby at the moment. I know it’s a necessary evil, but the sight and sound of empty stadiums just doesn’t do it for me. I must confess I’ve watched very little action recently and struggle to keep up with developments.

However, some recent news genuinely excites me. The appointment of Paul O’Connell as the Irish forwards coach is a masterstroke by the IRFU. Just when the titan of all titans seemed lost to the professional sport in Ireland, we have a welcome if unexpected addition to Andy Farrell’s coaching ticket. A wonderful bit of business.

The Limerick man is a colossal leader and adds significant value to any team he’s part of. A terrific orator, of course, and a genuinely hard man, the former Irish captain is a figure that inspires respect and fear in equal measure among opponents. But that’s only part of it. O’Connell is a much more intelligent and thoughtful individual than many realise, and brings a huge amount of intellectual property to the set-up.

As a player, O’Connell was renowned for his endless hours dissecting opposition lineouts prior to games. He has a marvellous rugby brain, for sure. That said, the big man is still a scary and intimidating presence these days. I saw him at close quarters at Ravenhill a couple of years ago coming up the stairs and can confirm that Paul is a bear of a man.

I like also that Farrell is keeping Simon Easterby on the ticket. The two will work well together; reprising a relationship they had as Irish players who excelled at the set-piece from a tactical perspective. It’s actually quite an All Blacks’ move and reminiscent of Steve Hansen rejigging the roles and responsibilities in his brains trust a few years back. Keeping everyone on their toes. Irish rugby maximising the resources at its disposal.

Of course, in an ideal world, O’Connell would serve a longer apprenticeship before being catapulted into the unforgiving cauldron of Test rugby; preferably as head coach of Munster. We know from the bitter experience of Martin Johnson, the perils of cutting your international coaching teeth too early. But you have to take these opportunities when they arise. It’s undoubtedly a clever move by David Nucifora and the IRFU.

O’Connell will galvanise, motivate and organise the Irish forwards but will do so much more. For this is the return of a talismanic figure who will instil the ingredients the Irish pack has been missing these past couple of years. Expect Ireland’s maul, ruck and, of course, lineout (both offensively and defensively) to be significantly better with O’Connell calling the shots.

It’s exciting too to think of James Ryan’s future development under O’Connell’s mentorship. In my last blog, I spoke of a certain lack of ‘dog’ in the current Irish pack. The savvy appointment of Paul O’Connell goes a long way to fixing the problem.

@rorymcgimpsey

State Of The Union

As another year ends (as crazy a year as any of us can remember), we’re all in a bit of a reflective mood. This is as true in rugby as anything else. In a year that’s seen matches cancelled, competitions curtailed and fans exiled, the sport, at all levels, finds itself asking some existential questions. If that sounds hyperbolic, it’s also true of the unique times rugby finds itself in.

So, perhaps we can give Andy Farrell a bit of a bye-ball as we survey the first full year of his tenure. Given all that’s happening in the world, normal standards don’t apply, right? True. Except time stands still for no-one and for the ever keen and motivational Farrell, the honeymoon period is over. Now, more than ever, coaches must find a way to deliver and garner revenue for their employers in rugby’s darkest hour, financially.

And it’s not gone too badly. Irish performances under their head coach have been creditable. Results have been on the upper end of what we expect. Yes, England have remained frustratingly out of reach with their slick, power game, but most other opponents have been within Ireland’s reach. As regards England, they just have a stronger team at present. These things go in cycles.

More worrying, is the apparent inability of the Irish pack to dominate the biggest games at the highest level. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a truly dominant performance-probably the last time was Ireland’s historic win over the ABs at the Aviva in 2018. The likes of Caelan Doris and James Ryan are superb young players, with massive potential, but you sense a lack of dog in the current squad. Where are the Paul O’Connells in today’s crop? Then again, such legends only emerge once a generation.

And that’s the rub. Farrell and his coaches can only work with the raw materials at their disposal. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, how many current Ireland players would get into a World XV and/or a Lions starting XV? How many are at that level? I can think of: Ringrose, Ryan and Furlong (when fit). There aren’t too many others. Alas Sexton and Murray, while still very important, are past their peak at this stage of their Test careers. Sad but true, I think.

Considering the above, has Farrell delivered or fluffed his first year? I’ve seen some criticism of the lack of evolution in playing style since Schmidt left. Not entirely fair. There’s been new patterns on display and, at least, an intent to play with more width and invention. Although Ireland’s attack had got so blunt at the end of the Schmidt era, it’s hard to go backwards in that regard! As discussed, results have been okay and the coaches can only work with the players they have.

The jury is still out in terms of whether Farrell is the right man for Ireland at this juncture. Remember, this is his first head coach gig in what is, to all intents and purposes, his second sport. It’s easy to forget that! And a man so passionate, driven and ambitious is almost certainly worth sticking with; at least in the short term.

Maybe a deeper truth emerges. We can now appreciate how Joe Schmidt over achieved with this group of players in recent years. The golden generation is long gone and the nucleus of Schmidt’s team is past its peak for those that have not retired. I hate the term, but this is a transitional phase. Perhaps expectations should be corrected on that basis.

P.S. It’s been a strange old year for everyone. 2020 is like the year that never got going. It started normally enough, but then took a turn none of us predicted. It’s been tough, weird and interesting. A period that none of us will forget. And we’re not out of it yet, of course. 2021 offers hope but there’s no guarantee it’ll be better, at least not for a while. Lockdown, as tough as it is, teaches us a lot about what’s really important. Despite the challenges, it’s quite nice being cocooned with our nearest in dearest-in small doses anyway!

With the Covid vaccine being rolled out, we at last have hope things will return to the normality we all remember prior to March of this year. How we all crave that! This isn’t a usual end of year reflection. So much to digest and process from 2020. My lesson? The vast majority that worries us is irrelevant in the great scheme of things. We spend so much of our lives fretting and worrying about stuff that doesn’t really matter. I believe we’ve all woken up a bit this year. It’s the little things that count.

Happy New Year!

@rorymcgimpsey

New World Order

When we last spoke, the Six Nations was in full swing and we were looking forward to spring with the usual burst of excitement and buzz. What a difference a few weeks makes! The Six Nations, along with a raft of other sporting fixtures, has been postponed indefinitely and virtually the whole world has been thrust into lockdown. Welcome to the panicked, slowed and slightly eerie new world we now live in.

Of course, in the great scheme to things, the cancellation and postponement of sports events is frankly irrelevant. People are dying in mammoth numbers from the dreadful Covid-19 pandemic and our hospital wards and emergency departments are under unprecedented stress. If this awful event has done any good it is shining a spotlight on the real heroes in society. And it ain’t pampered, privileged sports stars. It’s the men and women of the NHS and HSE. 

That said, the Six Nations postponement raises some interesting questions. The smart money is on the outstanding fixtures played later in the year. There is precedent here. For those who remember the Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001 (an animal rather than human infection, of course), will recall that Six Nations games were postponed until the autumn that year to prevent spread of the disease.

Who can forget Keith Wood peeling off the back of an Irish lineout to score at Lansdowne Road to deny a superb England team a Grand Slam they deserved and would certainly have claimed had Foot and Mouth not intervened. Even Iain Balshaw was on fire back then. That’s how long ago it was!

And the parallels with 2001 don’t end there. The same inconsistency with enforcement measures applied. Ireland’s Six Nations games were cancelled but others continued, as did the Premier League football season. Go figure.

Similarly, this time, as events were cancelled en masse, we saw the bizarre spectacle of hundreds of thousands of spectators cramming into Cheltenham for their annual punt and party. When the comprehensive history of Covid-19 is finally written, the continuation of the Cheltenham Festival will be one of the most inexplicable chapters. Unless standards are applied equally, restriction measures are rendered impotent and certain sections of society, in particular, were slow to react to the danger.

In all this, though, we must keep balance. The Coronavirus crisis is uncharted territory and it’s understandable that mistakes are made. The powers that be have struggled to contain this, but we should cut some slack. Sure, there have been gaffes in all walks of life, but I’m not of the school of thought that there was any wilful negligence here. People are doing their best in the midst of conflicting and often confusing scientific advice.

And that includes governments! The sands are constantly shifting. No-one wanted to see a single death caused by this illness. Only fools believe otherwise. This damn virus caught us all unguarded and it’s inevitable that parts of public policy failed. Still, lessons must be learnt.

The lack of precedent only adds to our collective sense of worry and uneasiness. The only comparable event I can think of is the onset of the global financial crisis of 2008 in terms of a sudden and catastrophic shock to the global economic system. The silver lining-and I know we must stretch to see it-is the effects of this crisis are unlikely to be as enduring and long lasting.

So, the Six Nations will likely reprise in the autumn and professional football possibly a little earlier. Liverpool fans have been waiting 29 years to recapture their holy grail and it would be a crying shame if the most deserved league title in the history of the game evaded the Scousers after all that toil and effort. Indeed, it would be a pity if the title was sealed behind closed doors.

The Olympics has also been put back a year, causing massive uncertainly for the (mostly amateur) athletes who’ve trained  lifetimes to compete at the Games. And yet, we must return to the central point. Sport is irrelevant in all of this. Vast numbers are getting sick and lives have been lost.

The world has changed in an unbelievably short period of time and we’ve all had to adjust to this new world order. But things will return to relative normality and all those glorious trivialities (sport, socialising, meeting family and friends) will return. What remains to be seen is what lasting damage is done to the economy and individual lives by this unique crisis.

But normal life will resume. We will get through this together. In the meantime, all we can do is look after those close to us, especially the frail and vulnerable, and support our wonderful health workers. See you all, please God, on the other side.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Six of The Best

Six of The Best

It’s only a moment since the end of the World Cup and the Six Nations is upon us. Such is modern life. It’s a sign of age. The time in between events gets shorter and shorter. Remember, as a kid, when it seemed a veritable lifetime between the summer holidays and Christmas? Now, one thing merges seamlessly into the other. Oh well! At least, we don’t have to wait too long for the big events to come around.

This is a critical tournament for Ireland. And I’m not indulging in hype. It is. After the acute frustration of yet another World Cup under-performance, Andy Farrell’s men need to re-establish momentum quickly and emphatically. Nothing else will do. Even a cursory look at the upcoming fixture list underlines just how difficult that task is.

It’s a tough one for Farrell. Ireland’s game plan and personnel clearly need to evolve and develop from the ultra successful, but now slightly jaded Schmidt era. We all see that. And yet Farrell has to win and do that consistently. Anything less costs him his job. The IRFU prioritise the Six Nations to such an extent, for historical and revenue reasons, tournament success is not so much aspired to but demanded.

That is Farrell’s catch-22. All the noise surrounding John Cooney (in imperious form for Ulster) and demands for wholesale changes in personnel and style of play must be seen in that context. Ireland’s new coach has limited room for experimentation, but not much.

The new man has to win, first and foremost. The evolution will be gradual. Therefore, to the irritation of the masses, there won’t be wholesale changes. It’s clear, however, that it’s not more of the same either, so the precise nature of Farrell’s influence will be fascinating to see in the next few weeks.

In all this, it’s important to remember this is Farrell’s first gig as head coach. It’s always difficult making the step up from lieutenant to general in any walk of life. And he’s doing it in his second sport! It’s easy to forget that. Of course Farrell has peerless credentials, the two-time Man of Steel winner coming out of that great Wigan side of the 1990s that set the standards in modern professional rugby.

No doubt, Farrell has added significant value since his transition to Union, from both a playing and coaching perspective. But that contribution as Union coach, for obvious reasons, has primarily been confined to defence. Now, as Ireland head-honcho, Farrell is in charge of the whole piece; attack, defence, forwards, set-piece and everything else in between. Despite his formidable reputation and experience, that’s a significant elevation.

The mood music coming out of Ireland camp recently is good. The players clearly think highly of their new coach and Farrell has the presence and charisma to galvanise his squad. Any gaps in the head coach’s skill-set are off-set by the quality of the people around him.

Mike Catt brings a wealth of experience and know-how to Ireland’s attack. An extremely versatile player who also played fly-half and fullback, Catt’s added most value, in a stellar playing career, to England’s best ever midfield. Granted, Will Greenwood and MikeTindall were the combination that won the World Cup, but their best rugby was played with Catt at 12.

We watch with interest what Catt’s influence means in practice for an Ireland team that needs to add strings to its bow in terms of creativity. Perhaps Farrell’s most important assistant remains Simon Easterby; a man who’s done much to solidify the Irish set-piece and provides vital continuity from the previous regime.

All in all, the positives outweigh the negatives and the early signs are good. Ireland’s new boss needs a little luck, of course, but that’s outside his control. While Ireland probably won’t win the championship, a decent win ratio, bolstered by a few really good performances and the infusion of some new blood will do nicely and keep the wolf from the door. It’s a strange one for fans. Even if the Six Nations goes well, a lingering question remains: why couldn’t they do it at the World Cup when it really mattered?

Picking up my theme from the start of the article, do you want to feel old? It’s now 20 years since a 21-year old Brian O’Driscoll scored a hat-trick in Paris to announce Ireland’s first ever global rugby superstar. Good lord! Caelan Doris is the same age now and has the potential to do great things in a green shirt. God speed, young man!

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Alun Wyn Jones, Greig Laidlaw, Sergio Parisse, Rory Best, Guilhem Guirado and Owen Farrell 23/1/2019

 

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

United in Rugby

Recently, rather belatedly, I saw Brian O’Driscoll’s documentary, Shoulder to Shoulder. The film is superb. It tells the story of Irish rugby’s paradoxical, unique ability to unite Irish people of all backgrounds, including during the darkest days of the Troubles, with the intense hatred and division that reigned in those times.

If you haven’t seen it, Shoulder to Shoulder is essential viewing. And its relevance extends way beyond rugby. The documentary has many highlights, but the interviews with rugby heroes, from very different backgrounds, confirming how their differences were set aside for the common cause, are both inspiring and thought provoking.

This is surely Irish rugby’s greatest strength: the ability to unite in a society that’s  historically been divided and polarised along sectarian lines. Many organisations purport to unite Irish people, but how many actually do it in a genuinely inclusive, unifying way? What else unites men and women of the island, from all traditions, on the same terms? I can’t think of any other organisation or sector of society that does it in quite the same way as rugby.

Catholics, Protestants, Unionists, Nationalists, Loyalists and Republicans all buying into the idea of a 32-county Irish team and prepared to support that team on an equal basis. It’s a truly fantastic thing. Rugby leads the way. That’s before we even get to the unique concept of the Lions, an international sporting team whose fans wave tricolours and Union Jacks in unison. Honestly, where else do you see anything like that?

Now, I’m not one that idealises rugby. The sport has a legion flaws and is far from perfect. We all know the historical problems with social exclusion and the perception that the sport exemplifies a certain type of snobbery. Although, even that idea has always been somewhat of a myth. Try going to Limerick, for example, and claiming rugby as a purely middle-class preoccupation.

Furthermore, we can talk all day about the dangers and risks associated with a contact sport increasingly obsessed with size and violent collisions. Yes, rugby is far from ideal. We know that. But it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate rugby’s unique ability to bring people together. That trumps everything else.

Shoulder to Shoulder tells how members of northern security services played together with those from Nationalist and Republican backgrounds during the height of the Troubles. If that sounds remarkable, it’s fair to say this fact was never the issue it could have been within Irish rugby. In the oval ball game, there was always a keen sense that what unites us is much more important than what divides. They were all Irishmen, united in common cause. The politics was left at the door.

Brothers spilling blood, sweat and tears for the green shirt. The IRFU has made provision for the diversity of identities within the sport in Ireland with the introduction of Ireland’s Call. While the song itself is far from great, it symbolises something much more: the ability of Irish men (and women) from different community backgrounds to come together for the good of Irish rugby.

However, long before the introduction of the unity anthem (brought in for the 1995 Rugby World Cup), many unionists and Protestants from Ulster played under the tricolour and stood respectfully for Amhran na bhfiann. It happens to this day. One of the proudest facts about Irish rugby is that many of its key men throughout history have been from the northern, unionist tradition. Think of Willie John McBride, Mike Gibson, Syd Millar and Jack Kyle. True giants of Irish rugby.

But the truth is (and Shoulder to Shoulder shows this perfectly) that none of that actually mattered. Religion, political beliefs, allegiances, community backgrounds. These labels were wholly irrelevant. Because, in Irish rugby, we’re all in it together. From all corners of the country. North, south, east, west and everywhere else in between.

It’s a weird phenomenon: this predominantly middle-class sport that unites Catholic, Protestant and dissenter. As we move forward, many desire to unite the people of Ireland, from all backgrounds, peacefully and are looking for novel and workable ways to achieve this aspiration. Those in need in inspiration should look no further than Lansdowne Road. Because the IRFU did it years ago.

 

P.S. So, the inevitable has happened and Boris Johnson has acceded to his lifelong dream and become British prime minister. Comparisons are, of course, being made with Trump but Bojo is different; a much more complex and nuanced character. I don’t buy his buffoonish persona for a second. Johnson is clearly an extremely intelligent and knowledgeable man. A driven operator, whose ambition is matched only by this opportunism. A master orator who will compel many to his cause.

However, it’s hard to see much in his colourful past that remotely qualifies Boris for the job at hand. Indeed, Johnson’s elevation tells you all you need to know about his relentless ambition. Surely there has never been a worse time to be British PM? Just ask Theresa. The gloves are off. The most febrile and ugly of debates has begun. Stand by for a frenzy of virtue signalling, faux indignation and extreme polarisation. I’m bored already!

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

 

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

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