BRENDAN O'BRIEN: There’s an i in ‘Simon’, but none in ‘team’

The ‘Cult of Joe’ that has fastened itself around the team and its coach is no bad thing, writes Brendan O’Brien.

It has armed Ireland with an extra layer of respect and added an air of something close to mystique.

There was a time — and it doesn’t seem like all that long ago — that you would routinely hear mention of players whose training habits left more than a little to be desired, but whose performances on the pitch come the weekend almost always seemed to make up for such obvious shortcomings. Coaches or teammates would chuckle when talking about these individualists, like a loving father indulgent of a slightly errant child whose indiscretions wouldn’t have been countenanced by another without the same abundance of talent. Team-mates may have chaffed at the fact that some were more equal than others, but they knew that genius merited such perks.

That’s just how it was.

You rarely hear that anymore, though football offers some recent examples.

Rio Ferdinand once revealed that Carlos Tevez used to routinely sit on a massage bed and complain about being tired while the rest of the Manchester United team trained. Alan Pardew, a man who believes more than most in work ethic, was no fan of Hatem Ben Arfa, who supposedly did not share that ethos, when the pair were at Newcastle.

Rugby doesn’t do indulgence in the way of football, with its multi-million pound contracts and culture of entitlement. Nor has football embraced the strength and conditioning philosophy to the same extent, as evidenced by the experiences of Jerry Flannery and Johnny O’Connor during their recent stints in that department at Arsenal.

Add all that — and rugby’s nowhere-to-hide physicality — together and there simply isn’t the same leeway to breeze through rehearsals for rugby players.

The case of Simon Zebo has highlighted the lack of leeway that now exists for players whose rare talents once may have excused them from the same demands as their peers.

Zebo found himself frozen out of Joe Schmidt’s plans during the Kiwi’s first year in charge with Ireland, but has since allied his mercurial abilities with an appetite for work that resulted in him delivering a master class in the basics against England last Sunday despite a total absence of opportunities to run for open grass with ball in hand.

Work comes first under Schmidt, even for a Simon Zebo.

“Yeah, and Zeebs would be the first person to say that and he is obviously a player with X-factor and flair,” said Conor Murray, his Munster and Ireland colleague, this week. “He likes to express himself on the pitch and he still does that. The areas that were highlighted by Joe were his fielding of the ball, his breakdown, his defence. Things that were going to make him a really top class winger, which I think he is at the moment, he is playing really well.

“As Joe would have said, he would accept he probably would have slipped off a few rucks a year ago. He would probably admit that himself, but Joe has helped him do that and at the weekend, when the game wasn’t very expansive, we saw him being very effective. It wasn’t that there was much free running, but he was a standout player I thought.”

We can crib about this if we want. About how a carefree spirit has been curbed and remoulded by the modern game, but the reality of rugby at this level was again made plain in Belfast yesterday where Ireland trained in front of a few thousand punters at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast.

The ‘Cult of Joe’ that has fastened itself around the team and its coach is no bad thing. It has armed Ireland with an extra layer of respect and added an air of something close to mystique, to such an extent that you might have expected to see an error-free session from a fleet of po-faced automatons yesterday.

Not so. Balls were spilled and drills spoiled and Sean O’Brien, Ian Madigan, Tommy Bowe and Rory Best were just some of the players to produce a smile under the watchful eye of their boss and his lieutenants like Les Kiss.

“Get up! Fight! Fight to get up!” said Schmidt at one point as players piled into tackle bags held by colleagues. This was Joe the Taskmaster rather than the Genial Joe we normally get to see, but there were no revelations to be uncovered.

The 17 players on duty spent just over an hour practising. They ran, kicked, shuttled, lifted, passed and sweated their asses off. Every blade of grass was covered and every skill, bar the tackle, worked on before time was called and lungs could be refilled.

“He’s very detailed, he has a game plan that everyone can buy into,” said forwards coach Simon Easterby of Schmidt. “There are no grey areas. We understand how the team are expected to play, in whatever facet of the game. That just makes it easier for players to be intensive. If you have a little bit of doubt, or players are unsure about certain things, then they can’t do things at the level of intensity that you need.”

It is two years since Zebo produced THAT flick of his heel in Cardiff. It stands as proof that there will always be a place for skill even in this most choreographed of games, but it is in Belfast and Carton House that they are won and lost.

There really is no ‘I’ in team anymore.


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