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
Advertisements

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

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