Brian Ashton was a prophet in a land that couldn’t understand his message when he took over as Ireland head coach in the 1990s.
Lauded for his expansive and successful style of rugby with a great Bath side, both as an assistant to Jack Rowell and then as the boss himself, he was offered a six-year deal by the IRFU. It lasted just 12 months. The team just didn’t have the tools to put his philosophies into practice.
Two decades later and Ireland have revisited that renowned Bath school of thought with new head coach Andy Farrell bringing in Mike Catt, who played six of his 12 years with the West Country side under Ashton, as the national team’s new attack coach.
Conor O’Shea played under Ashton for Ireland, and Catt served as his attack coach with Italy from the summer of 2016 through to the recent World Cup, so it was no surprise when he drew a link between the two Englishmen.
“When Brian was here (in Ireland) he tried to give us a skill set that we did not have,” said O’Shea, a regular at full-back for Ireland under Ashton: “Mike is coming into a system that is full of skilful players and they have got the skill sets to be pushed.
“He will probably have very similar philosophies to how Brian played the game but I think we will have the armoury to be able to do it. We were just not ready for Brian. He was too early for Irish rugby but knew exactly what was needed.”
Catt won’t lack for experience. He spent four years as attack coach with London Irish, another of O’Shea’s old haunts, and three in the role of backs coach under Stuart Lancaster with England. The stats suggest he has done a good job in both test roles.
Both England and Italy upped their attacking game under his watch. England’s try-per-game ratio jumped from 1.97 to 2.6 across 41 games when compared with the same sample size before his appointment. Italy’s shot up from 1.4 to 2.2. Encouraging, even with such basic data.
“If you want raw stuff, the Italian team in this World Cup scored more tries in the World Cup than any Italian team (before). You could say, ‘well it was Canada, it was Namibia’. Well, the same teams have always been there and we played one game less.
“I know we might not have scored 20 tries against the All Blacks but… historically, for the last four-year period we have score more tries than the previous ten years before,” said O’Shea. “So all you need to see is that.”
O’Shea described Catt, in “psychometric terms”, as an energy giver and an entertainer. That will be music to the ears of many observers who tired of Ireland’s attritional and basic approach under Joe Schmidt, particularly when they hit such patchy form in 2019.
O’Shea has already contributed to the Italian union’s post-World Cup review and he was asked yesterday for his take on Ireland’s tournament and where the game stands here now on the back of yet another crushing quarter-final exit.
He faced questions about whether the IRFU should abandon the policy of ignoring players playing abroad and, in a separate interview, he went against the idea of the union investing in London Irish on the basis that they should ‘mind’ what they already have.
“I know you have to dissect everything and analyse it but sometimes you can overanalyse things,” he explained.
“You just say the World Cup didn’t go the way they wanted. They won’t get another opportunity for four years so all they can do is look at the next game that is in front of them and win those next games.”
This is something Ireland and the provinces do exceptionally well in between World Cups. The provinces have all put up notable wins in the Heineken Champions Cup in recent weeks and O’Shea’s enthusiasm over the form of certain players was obvious.
Ronan Kelleher and Max Deegan’s emergence at Leinster got a mention. So too John Cooney’s imperious form at Ulster, Joey Carbery’s potential when he returns from injury, James Ryan’s consistent excellence and ridiculously young age profile.
“So when you have that depth of competition and look at the Irish provinces compared to the Welsh provinces at the minute... Scotland are very reliant on a couple of players: you look at Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg. Ireland are in good shape.”