The twitterati, including more than one current and former colleague of mine, has been lining up to mock rugby country for even thinking it ever was that for even a day. A sixth World Cup quarter-final and still no semi-final? Bottlers, not battlers. Forget the Triple Crowns, Six Nations, Heineken Cups that Irish teams have amassed in the intervening years, the group-topping displays of the last two WC tournaments. Progress? What real progress has there been since ’87?
Perhaps the most despondent assessment/tweet came from this paper’s special correspondent Michael Clifford within minutes of the Cardiff Catastrophe.
‘Why, when we lose big games in soccer or rugby, there’s so much breast beating bout systems, etc. It’s not as if we should be world power.’
Considering here’s a man who keeps such a brilliant, vigilant eye on all kinds of institutions in Irish life and is exasperated at their lack of self-scrutiny, it was rather depressing if somewhat ironic that even Michael would tackle any sporting nation or organisation – from the biggest international sport in this country to your local junior GAA club – wanting to voluntarily review and reflect on how it could do things better.
Thankfully a small group of people in Irish amateur boxing haven’t subscribed to Michael’s thinking. When Gary Keegan became performance director of Irish boxing, he and Billy Walsh recognised that the structures and culture of Irish boxing was way off but that they could become world class, that Ireland could become a world power.
Irish rugby has similar ambitions. It is why Ireland national and provincial teams have won the biggest prizes European rugby has to offer while teams from Scotland haven’t even threatened. Good structures have led to good results. But this World Cup will have taught Irish rugby that what got you to here (European standard-bearers) won’t get you to there (world standard-bearers).
There were multiple factors why Ireland were beaten by Argentina – note factors, not excuses, and which Ireland must learn from and mitigate against in the future.
The over-dependence on Johnny Sexton; Ian Madigan is still far too raw to be a Steve Young to his Montana.
The now obvious over-dependence on Paul O’Connell for vocal on-field leadership (it was striking how Joe Schmidt in all his post-match interviews tried every way to express how Ireland lacked presence and experience without mentioning the Limerick man’s name).
The first 15 minutes also suggested that Ireland were not at the right level of mental and physical readiness.
But above all, skills. Argentina were simply far superior at handling and offloading the ball than we were.
In a fascinating article last month Gordon D’Arcy revealed that Ireland had a policy of not offloading the ball because it was “unnatural” to our players. “You are either intuitively good at it or not,” he’d say.
Irish players and teams through the generations hadn’t been versed in this skill, so not even a master coach like Joe Schmidt was going to attempt to get this Irish side to try it.
We’re not blaming Schmidt. He inherited the job two years into a four-year World Cup cycle and calculated that with him not having the time he had with Leinster when he transformed them into the best passing team in Europe, similar ambitions with Ireland would have to wait.
It’s a cultural thing here that extends far beyond rugby. It’s why, as Michael notes, soccer people also ‘breast beat’ about systems when another gallant national team of ours is technically exposed by other opposition.
We don’t develop enough creative, technical players through the ranks because we’re more interested in winning now than developing for later.
We recently came across an interview with Philip Neville who remembers one of the first times he and his brother Gary encountered Brian Kidd. Neville at the time was 11; Kidd, United’s youth development officer. “I just used to clear the ball upfield as far as I could, like you did in the Sunday league. But Brian said, ‘Philip, no. Play with the ball.’ Brian wasn’t worried about you making mistakes; he just wanted you to play and try things.” Too many underage football leagues here are like the Sunday league Neville used play. Munster and Leinster Schools Cup rugby is old-school do-or-die. Win or lose. So win now. Don’t try that fancy stuff and try to go around them; go through them. Forget about a skills programme, stick to the creatine and S&C programme.
In GAA it’s the same, from Féile at U14; coaches imploring forwards to track back and backs not to kick the ball.
We’re all about the squeeze. The win. Today. Which is why we don’t win enough in the future that’s always here before we know it.
We pride ourselves in this country on our passion and competitiveness for team sport. That, as Ali once said, it’s a matter of will, not just skill. In fact the great man once said that the will has to be more important than skill.
But actually he wasn’t fully right. The best measure of a sportsperson’s will is the dedication to skill. Are you willing to keep trying that pass with your non-dominant foot even though it may feel ‘unnatural’, that you’ll look foolish, that you’ll ‘fail’? Will you fail and fail away from the lights so that one day you’ll nail that skill under the lights, on the big stage?
Argentina did. Only four years ago offloading was “unnatural” to them as well. But they realised that huff-and-puff rugby which had got them to so far wouldn’t get them further. Twelve consecutive defeats initially in 12 consecutive games they shipped in the Championship.
The more far-sighted and successful setups see that. Keegan and Walsh recruited Zaur Antia, a technical master. Irish rugby is similarly progressive. Just as Walsh pointed out yesterday that US boxing have signed him up with Tokyo and beyond more in mind than Rio, last year the IRFU appointed David Nucifora as its performance director. The Aussie has worked with Joe Schmidt with the Auckland Blues as well as won a championship with the Brumbies.
Will it guarantee Ireland win a World Cup quarter-final in four years time? There’s a quote the twice grand slam champion Stan Wawrinka has tattooed on his body. Wawrinka, lest you didn’t know, lost in Round Three of five grand slam tournaments before he ever won a fourth round. He’d then lose four Round Four games before he’d finally win a quarter-final. He’d lose another six quarter-finals or Round Four games before finally winning a semi-final. Then he won that 2014 Australian Open, and this year’s French.
His quote? ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’ We’ll take Beckett over Cleese either way. It’s how winning is done.