Tiernan O’Halloran has been touted for selection as Ireland full-back, on the basis of his good form, but elite sides are delicate eco-systems, and changes can have knock-on effects, writes Brendan O’Brien.
Form. Is there any other word tossed around so carelessly in sport?
Just as one man’s meat can be another’s poison, quantifying form can be a trial. For every Lionel Messi, someone all of us can agree is a player of exceptional talent and productivity, there are dozens more whose worth splits opinion. Glenn Whelan, for instance, has impressed many a Stoke City fan on a cold, wet Wednesday night but he takes dogs abuse in a green shirt.
Or take Ciaran Kilkenny.
The Dublin footballer rounded off the 2016 season with Allianz League, Leinster, and All-Ireland medals. He picked up a second All Star and a nomination for Footballer of the Year but his performances were argued back and forth by supporters and critics who saw his role, mostly in the half-forward line but with a stint or two in defence, through very different prisms.
Kilkenny still has the ability to be a shoot-the-lights-out kind of guy but he has evolved into a type of conduit who filters the ball (mostly) through his hands at regular intervals. Maintaining the team’s rhythm is his brief, blockbusting plays are more of a rarity. His detractors says he does little with a lot of ball, his admirers holler that he is the conductor of the entire orchestra.
Maintaining form is another thing. Anyone who has ever kicked a ball, laced up a pair of spikes or swung a racquet or club knows the transitory nature of it. Don’t play for months and you could return on fire. Spend weeks and months grafting and you could still suck. It’s the type of conundrum that sports science will likely never lick.
“Form is just like a bird that passes by. Sometimes you have it all the time around you, sometimes it just flies away and you don’t know what the reason is.” Those are the words of Dutch football legend Ruud Gullit, the former Ballon d’Or winner and who once upon a time was the most expensive football player in the world.
And there are team selections.
Form is a constant buzzword as major games approach and speculation rises as to who will get the nod. Scroll through any sports sites online, or sit on a bar stool long enough, and you won’t be long coming across someone bemoaning the presence or absence of a player in some line-up on the basis of how he/she is performing at the time.
For some, form is the beginning and the end of the discussion. It is a priceless particle floating in splendid isolation from the rest of the complicated flotsam and jetsam that goes into putting a collective together.
It is, obviously, a blinkered view that has somehow held considerable currency down the years and one that must bewilder coaches and managers. The Six Nations is a notorious breeding ground for it.
There is nothing wrong with making an argument for Tiernan O’Halloran as Ireland’s full-back but elite level sides are delicate eco-systems: tamper with one corner and the knock-on effects can be unseen and, in some cases, catastrophic. Everyone knew how good Ngolo Kanté was last year but who could have foreseen the depth of Leicester City’s collapse without him?
This sort of thing manifests itself across sport.
Every two years we are treated to endless discussion over the Ryder Cup and the two captain’s picks. Do they go for younger players on form or the older guys who might be struggling but know what it takes to bring the cup home? There are no second chances but most coaches and captains get more than the one shot at it.
Follow the fortunes of any one of England’s Test, one-day international and Twenty20 sides for a limited amount of time and the soap opera nature of the permutations can take a fascinating hold. Players unable to find a groove when asked to open the batting are routinely shunted down the line and others back up in the hope that the individual will fire and the collective click.
Balance is everything, from just one ingredient in achieving it.
Picking a team is about more than writing down a list of available right-backs or tighthead props and picking out the one in the best form.
Jim Gavin wouldn’t pick a full-back line adorned with youth beyond the bounds of January and, while Joe Schmidt chose a second row pairing with a combined five caps last year, he only did so because Canada were the opposition.
Landing on the right blend of youth and experience and combining it with form is an art in itself. It was one perfected by the All Blacks in the last World Cup final when they fielded a team with an average age of 28 against Australia and a XV with a total of 982 caps when a minimum of 600 was the accepted minimum required to succeed based on all previous evidence.
Add in any number of other factors — game plan, the opposition, individual skill sets and leadership traits etc — and we’ve surely progressed to a point where we can all dispense with the simplistic argument and easy soundbite that someone’s fine form should equal automatic selection.
Unless we’re talking about a guy like Ruud Gullit, that is.
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