The Super Rugby season kicks off tomorrow Down Under.
The Crusaders, aiming for a fourth title in a row, begin at home to the Waratahs. It might have escaped some people that tighthead Oli Jager made six appearances last season and has been included in the Crusaders squad for the 2020 campaign. PS: He’s Irish.
But I’d like to talk about Tim Bateman.
Tim was a star for the Crusaders. Within the playing group he has attained star status, and was frequently namechecked and lauded for his efforts by captain Kieran Read. By the time the Crusaders lifted their 10th Super title last July, centre Bateman had accumulated a sum total of three appearances in 2019, two of them as a starter.
At the Crusaders, the stars are the ones who don’t get to play often. They hold tackle bags. They spar with the Saturday team. Had Finn Russell been picked to play with Scotland tomorrow in Dublin, chances are Harry Byrne might have been fulfilling the most important spot on the sparring map yesterday in Dublin.
Peter O’Mahony will be champing at the bit tomorrow.
Hopefully, he has been a star this week. He won’t agree, but coming off the bench might even enhance his contribution.
Just like Sean Cronin, O’Mahony could be a brilliant impact player who will give the team a fair lift after 50 minutes. He will get people out of their seats and behind the team. The Scots will have a second look and think ‘we could do without this fella coming on’.
Bateman was one of those last year who seldom got to set foot on the turf come Saturday.
But they were hailed as stars within the Crusader group because they’d get a game with almost any other team in the world. It was up to that group to have serious homework done in terms of replicating who the Crusaders would be playing at the weekend.
These are the ones who make or break a squad.
It’s a fascinating topic. You’ve probably never heard of Tim Bateman. He is a genius coach in waiting, possessed of an unbelievable rugby brain. He was essentially prepping the second team to have them at fever pitch on the Thursday before going full metal jacket in games on Saturday.
And no-one did it better.
Tim is a coach operating in a player’s brain. He was head boy at Christchurch Boys High School. He was successful outside rugby, but he was up against Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Braydon Ennor, so he didn’t get a lot of chances to start. When he did start, he was excellent.
That’s when you know your environment is right. When you get guys like Tim Bateman staying around because he feels valued internally in the group.
He gets as much satisfaction from playing in games but a bigger sense of satisfaction from contributing and feeling valued all year.
People wonder why fringe players tend to stay put in Barcelona or Liverpool.
Because they know they are part of something special and the grass ain’t too green on the other side. Some still don’t even get that about Leinster: How they have built a strong environment as much as a winning team.
It would be fascinating to see who are the sparring stars with Andy Farrell’s new Ireland. And how he balances their selflessness with their ambition to play. Every Thursday at the Crusaders, as training wrapped up, Kieran Read would speak: ‘Stars, well done, you brought you’re ‘A’ game, that’s exactly what we needed. You busted us a few times but hopefully we rectify that on the video and we will be ready for Saturday. Thank you.’
The Irish ‘stars’ would have known early in camp what their roles were.
Andy Farrell moved up the team announcement to Tuesday this week but the players should have known a week before.
Because Ireland have been in a two-week build-up, the likelihood is that Caelan Doris was told he was starting some time last week. This enables him to get the ‘wow, this is mighty’ week out of the way before he knuckled down this week in Portugal to the job at hand. The key is getting his focus right and not letting the whole thing pass him by.
Some will say ‘but doesn’t that give him a long time to be thinking about his first Ireland cap?’. That’s rubbish. These guys are highly trained professionals with access to the top sports psychologists in the world if they require them. Gone are the ‘give it a lash Jack’ days.
These lads have been preparing for these big games since they were 15-year-old Junior Schools Cup players. There are no bolters at test rugby level. No secrets. Alun Wyn Jones has been playing test rugby with Wales for over 13 years and no-one has figured out how to stop him yet.
Gregor Townsend’s Scotland team announcement Thursday had a feeling of something missing.
I find the Finn Russell exclusion quite sad and, in my opinion, a completely avoidable situation.
It has the feel of a coach under pressure and a new captain making his mark.
There are some indisputable facts here. Finn played a Champions Cup game last Sunday week for Racing 92 against Saracens, a good bank of work by an metric.
On Sunday night, he’s coming off a slightly different body clock to the rest of the Scottish group. Does that make him a special case?
Not especially, but the fact he’s a top player operating with a top French Top 14 team means he has different biorhythms.
Going on a bender til 6am is obviously out of the question but that does not appear to be the case here, from what I know.
Maybe there were a few lads flexing muscle with the new regime in charge. He is thinking ‘I know my body well enough, I can’t train anyway Monday because I played a full on game away to the European champions. Where’s the problem?’ The over-riding issue here is always what’s best for the team. There’s little debate that a Scottish team with Finn Russell is better than one without him.
He has got to obey squad rules but if it’s a case of him missing out because he wanted a third pint instead of a second pint, then it’s poor decision-making in my view.
With a new coaching ticket comes anticipation if not expectation.
Something fresh, something different.
Something better? Let’s wait and see.
The big difference Ireland fans may notice is less handbrake in 2020.
Not carefree, but more adventurous.
I watched Bundee Aki’s game for Connacht against Montpellier in the last round of the Champions Cup. Great variety in his game, good footwork, and frequently passing the ball out of the tackle.
The critical bit is balance: With Andy Farrell involved in Joe Schmidt’s management, there should be no concerns about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
I am not in the practice of throwing someone under the bus just because he’s now gone.
It is neither appropriate or accurate to be dissing the previous regime with the regularity it is at present.
2019 was a spectacularly bad year for Irish rugby, we know that.
Before that, Joe Schmidt had Ireland incredibly well primed.
Joe brought a brilliant coaching philosophy and structure.
His eye for detail, his coaching mechanisms were light years ahead of the old approach.
In a Utopian coaching environment, you’d still have 85% of what Schmidt brought.
If you could release that other creative 15% from captivity, boy what a mix.
So Joe wasn’t that far off at all.
As a coach, I certainly don’t have that detail of a Joe Schmidt at the moment. Players may come to appreciate that in time.
For the moment though they are in their bubble — they need to be performing well for someone else now.
Duncan & Duncan Rugby: Everest in underpants, Ireland’s ‘transition’, mystery of leadership groups