JACK ANDERSON: Is England’s sporting difficulty Ireland’s opportunity?

This week one of Ireland’s leading national teams announced the appointment of a coach who, in his early 40s and at his only World Cup to date, saw his country underachieve amid accusations of player unrest and who was gone prematurely by the end of that calendar year… but that is enough about Andy Farrell, Ireland’s next rugby coach.

Farrell was part of Stuart Lancaster’s coaching team for England at the Rugby World Cup in 2015. England failed to get out of their pool, the first time this had happened to a host nation.

Afterwards, Lancaster, as head coach, received severe criticism for including rugby league convert Sam Burgess in his squad, a move apparently pushed by assistant coach Farrell — who had captained Wigan and Great Britain in the rival code — though Farrell insisted the final call on selection was made by Lancaster.

Lancaster resigned shortly after the 2015 World Cup and his successor, Eddie Jones, axed the remaining coaching staff, including Farrell. A month later, Farrell was part of Joe Schmidt’s coaching ticket at Ireland.

Are both Lancaster (now at Leinster) and Farrell (Schmidt’s successor) better coaches for that 2015 experience? Yes, in both cases, to Ireland’s immediate benefit and England’s long-term loss.

In contrast to Farrell’s appointment, the reaction to Mick McCarthy’s appointment as Ireland’s next football manager has been mixed, even though he is undoubtedly a better man-manager and coach now, post-Saipan, than he was when he resigned from the same post in November 2002.

In 2002, the Irish football team was coming off the back of its most successful decade ever, qualifying for a third World Cup appearance in 12 years. In contrast, between 1991-1993, with Jack Charlton’s team in their pomp, the Irish rugby team lost a record 11 games in a row and had only four players on the Lions tour of New Zealand in 1993.

Slowly, though, and as the sport professionalised, the IRFU began to turn things around, implementing the structures — underage academies, strong provinces, central contracting of players etc — that have resulted in the unprecedented success of 2018.

There are, of course, challenges ahead for rugby in Ireland and globally. Concussion and the sheer physicality of the modern game are presenting medical, insurance and legal difficulties and even an existential crisis for the sport. Commercially, even the most powerful of rugby unions remain heavily dependent on the international game. This week, the RFU announced a yearly loss of £30.9m and 54 staff redundancies, noting that the losses were in part attributable to the fact that England had only two home games in this year’s Six Nations.

Crucially, the IRFU appears well led administratively and has not been afraid to make decisions for the long-term good of the game — the men’s game at least — and to widen its playing base.

The IRFU was criticised in 2017 for not extending the Ulster contract of South African scrum-half Ruan Pienaar. Yet, the three-year contract awarded this year by Ulster to scrum-half John Cooney (who started on Saturday against the USA in Conor Murray and Kieran Marmion’s absence) illustrates the long-term planning of IRFU performance director David Nucifora and Joe Schmidt. Nucifora and the IRFU’s approach is well thought of worldwide and particularly here in Nucifora’s native Australia.

This has been a woeful year for Michael Cheika’s Wallabies. They have lost nine of 13 Tests, Australia’s lowest win ratio in 60 years. Also, Saturday saw Australia’s sixth consecutive loss to England, their worst run since their rugby rivalry with “the Poms” began in 1909.

The future is not altogether bright for Australian rugby, either, as its playing base declines and narrows. An example of this can be seen in Ireland right now. The Australian schools and under-18 team is in Limerick this week and play the Munster academy tomorrow night. They are staying with local families, as was the case 13 years ago when David Pocock lodged with Conor Murray’s family.

In contrast to the 2005 team, and previous Australian schoolboy teams, of the 27 players on this year’s squad, all but one is from a private school. State schools that traditionally played union have turned to league or even AFL.

Returning to Irish rugby, a crucial historical step was the IRFU’s decision not to do what the FAI had done for years: Outsource Irish player development to English clubs. As brilliantly outlined in Brendan Fanning’s 2007 book on Irish rugby in the professional era, the ‘exodus’ of Irish players post-1995 to English rugby clubs — Keith Wood to Harlequins, Malcolm O’Kelly and David Humphries to London Irish, etc — was slowed and reversed by the turn of this century, to Munster, Leinster and Ireland’s benefit.

Despite recent FAI initiatives at underage level under high-performance director Ruud Dokter and others, the number of Irish players playing at the highest level in England remains the benchmark of the health of Irish football.

The FA’s post-Brexit plans may, however, bring this traditional route to an end.

Last weekend, just over a quarter of players starting games in the Premier League were eligible for England — a historic low. Post-Brexit, the English FA wants to increase the number of homegrown players in Premier League squads (from the current eight to 13 in a squad of 25).

The long-term problem for Irish football lies in the FA’s accompanying proposal to restrict the number of under-18 foreign players — which appears to include the Republic of Ireland — in club academies in England.

Domestically, Brexit may, however, present an opportunity for the FAI to really focus on the three factors that appear to underpin a national team’s success: The ratio of qualified coaches to players; accessibility to indoor, outdoor and all-weather facilities; and a recognised national pathway from underage to senior football.

Currently, best practice on player development — at least according to UEFA coaching courses — is to be found in Iceland, population 350,000.

We don’t have to go to Iceland and many in Irish football — Brian Kerr in particular — have been relentless in speaking out about coaching, facilities and (the lack of) centres of excellence.

One of the freshest contributions to the current debate on the state of Irish football came from Niall Quinn in an interview with offtheball.com. He focused, rightly, on the “pathway” point and the promotion of the League of Ireland. In this, the IRFU and FAI appear to have something in common, in that both seem to treat their national club leagues (AIL in rugby and LOI in football) as a ‘problem child’.

The financial sustainability and growth of the League of Ireland would help sustain and grow Irish footballing talent.

Though various club ownership models exist in the LOI — private equity at Dundalk, a supporters’ trust at Cork — one interesting example from outside Ireland that might be worth considering for the IRFU/AIL, but especially for the FAI/LOI, is the franchising model to be put in place at the top level of Scottish club rugby in 2019.

Franchise models, with varying degrees of success, already exist in football (the A-League here in Australia is an example) but the innovative Scottish template is probably of a better, more adaptable scale. How that rugby franchising template might work to benefit Irish football will be discussed in future columns.

It is not always easy or fair to compare Irish rugby and football in their various cycles of success.

Irish rugby approaches its next World Cup with optimism; Irish football’s plan for the next World Cup already includes a change of manager.

Yet, there is a reason why the pool draw for the Rugby World Cup could be done two-and-a-half years in advance; while, in contrast, and even with a possible expansion of teams, qualifying for Qatar in 2020 remains an onerous task in a global sport.

Finally, for the past week, Irish national rugby and football managers have, to paraphrase Muhammad Ali, danced under the lights of media scrutiny.

However, the fight for success in Irish football and rugby is fought far from such witnesses and takes places in our pitches and gyms, guided by good, local coaches at good, local facilities.

A template for success for all of Irish sport.

Jack Anderson is professor of sports law at the University of Melbourne.


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