MICHAEL MOYNIHAN: Devil in detail for meticulous Joe

These are the good days for Joe Schmidt, and there may be a slight danger of looking ahead a little too fast.

If what we are told about Joe Schmidt is true, then the surgical conference this morning in a certain Dublin hospital should be pretty interesting.

Schmidt’s name can’t be used in public without ‘attention to detail’ being added nearby almost immediately so the medics who looked after his case of appendicitis can brace themselves for a grilling.

What kind of stitches were used, the angle they employed to investigate the rogue appendix, the size of the needle, the colour of the sheets. Everything.

God help them if they filmed any procedures carried out on the Ireland coach: Schmidt’s fondness for forensic reexamination of games on screen the Monday after games is legendary.

Perhaps he’ll get the doctors to explain why, in fact they chose to go in at that particular angle instead of this one, if maybe they need to look again at their foot position with that approach because they’re not maximising their efficiency the other way...

I raise this because these are the good days for Joe Schmidt, and there may be a slight danger of looking ahead a little too fast. The flurry of questions and suggestions about the World Cup, which is a year away, struck this observer as a little unseemly in the wake of the win on Saturday evening. We hear all the time about a new mindset in Irish rugby, but wins over South Africa and Australia within a couple of weeks of each other aren’t that common: couldn’t they just be enjoyed for what they are? The rush to anticipate also missed out on the small matter of the Six Nations next year, or only a couple of months away, to look at it another way.

The tournament and its assorted financial benefits remain a key part of the IRFU’s fiscal plans, but you wouldn’t know that by the slightly hysterical focus on the World Cup. Reality and hard experience tells us that any team with a relatively small squad to pick from must keep its fingers crossed ahead of a World Cup tournament, with its potential for attrition. Nobody in Ireland seems to have mastered the fine art of being bullish enough to be confident while remaining realistic enough to stay grounded. Witness 2007, or draw a charitable veil over the events of that autumn, as most of us have.

As for TV pundit comments about rugby being the game which reveals the best and etc etc... what if Ireland had lost? Does that mean the game isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be?

Merging the statistics with the psychology

I won’t dwell on the whole data explosion in sport too much longer, I know when your patience is wearing thin but something struck home yesterday, on the way up to the Gaelic Grounds.

It was the potential for tension, if not conflict, among backroom teams of the future.

The acceptance across the board that statistics, or information, or data, or whatever you want to call it, is here to stay in sport raises the possibility of disagreement with another outlook common in sport: the psychological approach to dealing with and improving athlete performance.

Will the sports psychologist find the data-driven manager hard to deal with? The new focus on measurement and results, on objective evaluation and decisions based on the statistics, may not be to the liking of what is, after all, a subjective approach to improving player performance.

The classic image used to illustrate the clash between the new and the old approaches in sport is the scene from the movie ‘Moneyball’, where the baseball manager who relies on statistics disagrees with the scouts who are relying on intuition and instinct (ruling out one prospect because his girlfriend isn’t good-looking, which suggests to the scouts that the player lacks confidence).

This usually provokes a good deal of chortling from the numerate — and the not so numerate — but is the scouts’ projection of player confidence so different to the sports psychologist’s suggestions to improve player confidence with visualisation and positive reinforcement? As long as teams in all sports try to maximise their returns, they’ll try anything at all to give them that edge. What’s surprising to this observer is that nobody seems to have picked out the potential for strife in management meetings with the number-crunchers and the head-shrinkers.

People often ask what managers do when surrounded by a plethora of skills coaches and strength and conditioning experts, medical specialists of every hue... add in stats man keen to make his point, and the sports psychologist piping up with his views, and it looks like sifting through the competing voices is a full-time job. I hear you when you point out there are times when (all) the views coalesce, but what about when they don’t? You can say that that’s when the manager earns his corn, but it could be an interesting fight to referee. They used to say the farmer and the cowboy should be friends: how about the stats man and the psychologist?

A fond farewell to Mike Nichols

In the Nobody Asked Me, But department this week: the passing of Mike Nichols.

Performer and director Nichols died last week at the age of 83. He won piles of awards for his comedy records, his movies (from The Graduate through to Primary Colors) and his plays, gaining huge kudos for his direction of actors across five decades. Not bad for a kid who landed in America without a word of English at seven years of age and without a hair on his head thanks to a faulty whooping-cough inoculation.

I’m a fan because of a passage in one of Neil Simon’s memoirs which made we warm to Nichols immediately. Nichols was directing one of Simon’s early plays, which was in Boston on a dry run in order to iron out any kinks.

There were kinks aplenty with this production, and the two men repaired to Simon’s hotel to come up with an answer.

Simon, frantic, was pacing up and down racking his brains when Nichols rang room service and ordered ice cream.

“You’re ordering food?” said Simon.

“What,” said Nichols. “I can’t solve the problem if I eat some ice cream?”

Limerick drama was extra special

As yesterday’s game between Cratloe and Kilmallock edged towards 60 minutes — and slightly beyond — there was the usual contradictory impulses in the press box.

Of course you want resolution. Of course you want a neat narrative. Of course you want it to end on the hour.

Then you have the Clare and Limerick champions playing out a tussle for the ages, complete with extra time in a chilly Gaelic Grounds: translation, an extra hour hanging around when you were thinking you’d be halfway home.

Complaints? Not a one.


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