While monitoring the fortunes of the Irish rugby team over the past month — indeed, the past year and a half — my mind has often thought back to something that came up at the inaugural Movement and Skill Acquisition Ireland conference in Cork IT in April 2018.
Only a month after Joe Schmidt’s team had blown away England in Twickenham to complete the Grand Slam, a number of Eddie Jones’ staff were among the speakers and attendees in Cork.
Ric Shuttleworth, the Australian-born skill acquisition specialist who has been a regular advisor to both Jones and the RFU through the years, gave a brilliant presentation, outlining some lessons from studying and collaborating with New Zealand Rugby and some of the work he had done with squads ranging from English rugby underage teams to the Australian sailing team.
New Zealand, he noted, had a proud tradition in shaping how rugby was played and how they were now all about trying to create an environment that encouraged players to share their view on how the game should be shaped. England and the RFU had now adopted a similar outlook, which they termed CARDS, looking to develop players that were creative, adaptable, resilient, decision-makers, and self-organised.
He took as a case study an England squad that had won the U20 World Cup. The players were encouraged to play by numbers in the first phase but then after that play by ‘feel’: to play what was in front of them, something they’d state in their post-tournament review that they became very comfortable at. Decision-making was all about adjusting to the moment in front of them.
If they were being constantly fed explicit instruction, it deterred them from being in the moment. A video clip illustrated the point, an England player turning the ball over because he was thinking five seconds ahead and of what his coach had told him, rather than being in the moment, reading what was in front of him and playing by feel.
As Shuttleworth’s slot segued into a Q&A, one of the conference’s facilitators raised the matter of the elephant some of us would have spotted in the room. Eddie Jones had been championing the style of coaching and skill development consistent with the thrust of the conference and the science and Shuttleworth’s presentation. And yet now here was his England team, coming off a desperately poor Six Nations, culminating in being dismantled by an Irish side coached in an explicit, structured manner. Was all this stuff of playing by ‘feel’, implicit rather than explicit coaching, just airy-fairy, pie in the sky?
Shuttleworth was diplomatic in his answer, as was Daniel Abrahams, the then England team sport psychologist, who was also in attendance (none of Schmidt’s staff were present). Over a period of time like that of a World Cup cycle, there would be blips. In trying new things, you sometimes had to get worse to get better. Just as they didn’t advocate explicit coaching, their bottom line wasn’t explicit either — but the inference was: wait until the World Cup.
Irish Examiner rugby writers Brendan O'Brien and Simon Lewis look back at where it all went wrong for Ireland. In association with Nissan Ireland.
Almost everything that could go wrong for Ireland in 2019 and at the World Cup did go wrong — a perfect storm, if you will, to the point of being a Japanese typhoon.
There was a reason why a decade ago, the side of O’Driscoll, O’Connell, and O’Gara were touted as the golden generation — because at the time it was hard to envisage Ireland producing such stellar talents as that triumvirate again anytime soon. Yet Ireland would subsequently not just continue to compete, but improve, not only because they had an exceptional coach in Joe Schmidt, but two genuine world-class players in Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray.
They were the axis of the operation, in hindsight as pivotal to Ireland as LeBron James and Dwayne Wade were to the Miami Heat, and in 2018 they were at the peak of their powers. No one could have predicted that their annus mirabilis would be immediately followed by their annus horribilis, their alarming loss in form being more a cause than a symptom of Ireland’s decline.
It is galling that the fine body of work Ireland produced in the Schmidt era — and indeed post-Lens era — has yet to translate itself into a satisfying World Cup campaign, that with the possible exceptions of 2011 and 2015 — when at least the team nailed one big performance against a proper side — none of them have been demonstrably better than those of the amateur and immediate post-amateur period.
For all the strides Irish rugby has made in the last 20 years,detailed in Brendan Fanning’s fine book From There to Here, here it still is with the national team, stuck in the same spot when it comes to the sport’s biggest tournament, locked out of its semi-finals.
Maybe Schmidt and his team built the World Cup and especially a quarter-final into something too big. This time last year, I interviewed Mike Ross upon the release of his book and he spoke about how he couldn’t get to sleep until 2am the eve of World Cup quarter-finals.
A man who had won multiple European Cups and Six Nations couldn’t see it as just another huge game. It was bigger than all the rest “because I probably wasn’t going to get another opportunity like this”. Ireland last weekend played like a team with numerous players gripped by a similar degree of anxiety and instead of facilitating performance, it debilitated it.
Enda McNulty has contributed handsomely to Irish rugby over the last decade, both with his work with multiple European-winning Leinster sides and then with the national set-up which he joined in 2013, but there’s always the danger in that kind of role that the players have heard and absorbed all you’ve got to say and offer. Sometimes stability can lead to stagnation.
It certainly was a factor at play in Schmidt’s own coaching. As unfortunate as Ireland were in 2015 with injuries, Argentina’s display and flamboyance highlighted the paucity of play of northern hemisphere sides: all four semi-finalists that year hailed from the Rugby Championship. The question we posed at the time was — who from the northern hemisphere would respond the most positively and expand their play and thinking?
At the time we hoped and suspected it could be Ireland, that Schmidt, having a four-year cycle to Japan instead of just a two-year lead-up to 2015, would improve Ireland’s offloading game, much like he had Leinster’s. But it didn’t happen. He discarded that template, and with it, Simon Zebo, the kind of player a Jones would cater for.
Even Jamie Heaslip, one of Schmidt’s biggest advocates and Ireland’s optimists — as late as last Saturday morning telling the nation he wouldn’t swap any starting Irish player for an All Black — has suggested in his book that Ireland and Schmidt could learn from Stuart Lancaster at Leinster.
“What Stuart did really well, by contrast to Joe, was to construct and replicate chaotic environments, how we would respond if the ball went loose, if we faced a structured play we hadn’t seen before… Stuart was making us ready to react to the unexpected…
That is now the question. And as Shuttleworth at the conference would say, the answer is in the question. Ireland need to become more “comfortable in chaos” as Shuttleworth, Jones, and Lancaster describe it, even if it leads to some dips like England experienced in 2018, or the discomfort players would have experienced when Jones (on Shuttleworth’s suggestion) would shave the oval rugby balls of the pimples and dip them in water, making it all the more difficult to throw.
England may not win the World Cup. But they have made the semi-final, acknowledging the make-up and style of play of the final four of 2015. And they scuppered Ireland’s World Cup year as much as Japan and New Zealand did by how they unleashed chaos and dismantled our predictability in Dublin back in February.
At the same conference in Cork, Mickey Whelan, coach at the start of the decade to the Dublin team that would come to own it, remarked: “If players are not solving, they’re not evolving.” In that statement lies a key — and free — reason for Dublin’s sustained dominance and how Ireland might eventually win a World Cup quarter-final.