Irish slow coaches pay the price!

Now we all know. It was the bus that did it. In referencing Ireland’s woefully slow start in their Six Nations loss against  Scotland, head coach Joe Schmidt mentioned the tardiness of the team bus by way of a metaphor for his team’s spectacular under-performance. While it’s obvious that Ireland’s coach didn’t intend his allusion to be taken overly literally, it’s amazing how many people have referenced Irish lateness as a genuine excuse for the team’s disastrous performance. Really? If anyone honestly thinks that a team coach arriving five minutes late constitutes a bona fide excuse for losing a Test match, they seriously need to have a look at themselves.

Yes, Ireland were indeed late for the seminal encounter with the Scots, but they were late where it mattered most: on the pitch rather than the stadium itself. In fact, Ireland didn’t really start playing until the second half, by which time much of the catastrophic damage had already been done. Even when the rattled visitors made a spirited comeback in a vastly improved second half effort, they lacked the control and composure to seal the deal. In the end, Schmidt’s men were devoid of excuses. The Irish simply didn’t turn up on Saturday and that will surely hurt them the most. In the gladiatorial and highly pressurised Test match arena, there is no room for obfuscation.

We thought Ireland were beyond this, that Schmidt had instilled a consistency of performance that mitigated against disasters like Saturday. However, I think the Irish seriously underestimated the intensity and aggression that the Scots brought to the party. You have to hand it to them; Vern Cotter’s men were inspired at the weekend and the Irish seemed perplexed at the scale of the incessant Scottish onslaught. I wonder too if the weather was a factor. All week, heavy rain and wind had been forecast and Schmidt, being the perfectionist that he is, would surely have planned for this eventuality. When the predicted inclemency failed to materialise, therefore, it’s possible that Ireland  might have been thrown a little and coerced into a game plan that dragged them unwillingly out of their comfort zone.

When all’s said and done, you can’t gift quality opponents three first half tries in a Six Nations encounter away from home and expect to emerge with the victory. Alex Dunbar’s try, in particular, looked exceedingly soft and betrayed an Irish outfit in slight defensive disarray. One suspects that Schmidt’s infamous Monday morning review was just as uncomfortable for Andy Farrell as it was for any of the Irish players. Equally, before we all get too downbeat and despondent, there’s nothing in the Irish display that isn’t eminently fixable and Schmidt will demand that players atone for their transgressions in this week’s crucial encounter with Conor O’Shea’s Italy. With bonus points up for grabs and a chastened Ireland already playing catch-up on their championship rivals, nothing less than maximum points will suffice. Such is the fate of slow coaches.

I was saddened to hear this week of the passing of Springbok legend, Joost van der Westhuizen. The South African hero was undoubtedly the best scrum-half I ever saw. A fine passer of a football, Joost was also supremely physical and had a tremendous strike rate in international rugby. May he rest in peace. Joost’s celebrated achievements on the rugby pitch pale into insignificance, however, compared to the courage, humility and dignity he showed in fighting the illness that’s cruelly taken him. Through his J9 foundation, Joost raised vital funds for research into motor neurone disease. As rugby remembers one of its own this weekend, we all have a chance to salute a real hero. You can learn more about J9 (and how to make a donation) here:

http://joost.co.za/

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

 

Time for Ireland to shine!

It’s that time of year again. In these tough times we’re living in, it’s hard not to succumb to cynicism and negativity. After all, you only have to watch the television news or read a newspaper, to be bombarded with a relentless stream of woe and bad news. Yes, doom and gloom are everywhere, and there seems to be no escape from the consuming madness. Recent political decisions have only served to compound feelings of despondency and despair. And yet, in the midst of seemingly interminable darkness, the light of spring always brings a welcome infusion of happiness to our slightly beleaguered souls.

For rugby fans, this can only mean one thing: the Six Nations Championship. It’s fair to say that the much derided tournament has delivered much hope to an Irish nation that’s suffered its fair share of gloom in recent years. The Six Nations has been good to us. What wonderful memories we’ve been given by this great tournament. BOD’s hat-trick in Paris, ROG’s famous drop goal to seal the long awaited Slam and so much else besides (for those wondering what on earth I’m on about, Irish rugby fans have a strange tendency to speak in acronyms and abbreviations. And yes, I understand how irritating this must seem!).

Regardless of what else is happening in the world, the Six Nations always provides a welcome antidote to the harshness and monotony of everyday life. The competition itself is a mass of contradictions: a commercial powerhouse but one that is deeply rooted in history, tradition and Corinthian values that belong to a bygone age. In that sense, the grand old tournament is something of a sporting anachronism. A thoroughly professional competition that retains the quaintness and old-fashioned appeal of an amateur era long since consigned to the history books. Needless to say, the fans love it. What’s more remarkable, however, is that the Six Nations retains its enduring appeal despite a lack of spectacle and consistent entertainment value.

I appreciate there are those who may disagree on this point, but ask yourself the question: how often in the last ten years have you been blown away by a Six Nations match and the rugby on display? How often have you thought: “The occasion’s great and it’s nice to have a few pints in the spring sunshine; however the match we’ve just watched was pretty crap?” Of course, there have been exceptions and the business end of the tournament is never less than captivating, but the rugby itself has rarely sizzled in recent seasons. Instead, we’ve often been subjected to bore-fests, with defences dominating and teams adopting  win-at-all-costs mantras. Given the traditional format of the tournament, the absence of entertainment has hardly been surprising. Up to now, the Six Nations has predominantly been about survival and winning by any means possible.

That’s why the belated introduction of bonus points has been so universally welcomed. The initiative not only standardises the Six Nations with every other major rugby tournament on the planet, but opens up the possibility of a competition where attacking rugby is at a premium; with teams focusing on scoring tries and accumulating scores rather than shutting down opponents. One can only hope. Change was long overdue and it’s now up to the teams to show the same level of innovation on the pitch that administrators have shown in the boardrooms.

In terms of national interest, Ireland look well placed to mount a serious challenge for silverware. While the holy grail of the Grand Slam seems as elusive as ever, there’s absolutely no reason why Joe Schmidt’s men can’t regain a trophy they’ve won twice in the last three years. If a tricky opening fixture against the ascendant Scots can be negotiated safely, Ireland have the form and talent to go all the way. As ever, momentum is the key to Six Nations success. Of course so much depends on fortune and factors beyond Schmidt’s obsessive control. Injuries are part of the fabric of the modern game, but there are some men that Ireland dare not lose in the weeks ahead. Schmidt will pray that Johnny Sexon, Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw get through the tournament relatively unscathed.

In some positions, though, Ireland have an embarrassment of wealth. Consider the abundance of talent the back row, for example, where the form of Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander could keep SOB on the bench (I’m at it again!). With the year that’s in it, Lions selection adds another layer of spice to an already fascinating competition in prospect. While Wales and France can never be discounted, Ireland’s main adversaries for the title seem to be Eddie Jones’s England. In extolling Ireland’s championship credentials, we mustn’t forget that Jones’s men have gone over a calendar year without tasting defeat.

Already, that final game on 18th March has the look of a championship decider. England, in Dublin, the day after St Patrick’s Day. It doesn’t get much better than that! How exciting would it be if both sides were going for a Slam to boot? Remember 2003?! Stay tuned. There’s certain to be twists, turns, upsets, and incidents galore. It’s what makes this tournament the colossus that it is. I guess it’s prediction time. Who’ll win the title, then? It’s a tough one this year. Do I go with heart or head? Who am I kidding. Heart wins every time. Ireland!!

P.S. Although I didn’t stay up to watch it, I was sorry to hear that Carl Frampton lost his title last night. I know Carl will be devastated to relinquish his unbeaten record, but all great champions come back from defeat even stronger. What a perfect opportunity to show, once and for all, that he belongs in the pantheon of greats. We haven’t heard the last of Carl Frampton!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia: By Hoops341 (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAviva_Stadium_from_North_Stand.jpg

 

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey