Friday 25 October 2019

Looking After Number One.......Or Not

Steve Hansen shared some wise words in the bowels of The Aviva stadium in November after the All Blacks were defeated by Ireland in 2018, willingly pushing the impending title of World Number One ranking Joe Schmidt’s direction. Albeit it would take months for the newfound coefficient to be recognised Hansen warned of the pressure that comes with that position. 

‘I said at the beginning of the week that this is the two best sides in the world playing each other,” said Hansen post-match, “so as of now they’re the number one team in the world. Hansen concluded, “So I guess they are favourites.” 

Former All Black’s captain Richie McCaw went through a lot of personal rediscovery after the 2007 semi-final loss to France in Cardiff and by his own admission recognised it was a tough road back. It became a time when he no longer had self-belief. Something hard to fathom when the record shows he not only returned successfully but along with Hansen secured wins in 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cup’s (RWC). Despite all that McCaw rarely does the talk circuit and withdraws into the background of the All Black history and supports the culture where no one stands out. Despite being the only captain ever to lift the Webb Ellis twice. 

In the aftermath of Ireland’s second historic win over the All Blacks, Irish captain Peter O’Mahony, within days was appearing on RTE’s Late Late Show to discuss, what was after all, only a friendly game with nothing riding on it. An insight perhaps into how excitement of the achieving Number One started infiltrating squad thinking perhaps. Since then O’Mahony has played poorly and in Japan was just a shadow of his former himself. along with most of his fellow players. But Hansen was clever in his advice as getting to number one is the easy part. Staying there is much harder as the All Blacks know too well year on year. 

In the build up to the quarterfinal there were more strange signs as only Johnny Sexton completed the traditional Captains Run ahead of the crucial match as seemingly other players deciding that the two and a half hours round trip to the Stadium was excessive. Something even soccer players wouldn’t even dream of saying before any Champions League tie. Then a trip to see Sumo wrestling on the Thursday prior was also the type of activity best done in the early stages of the competition and rather inappropriate days ahead of the knockout stages. Or that contest that everyone in Ireland has been focused on for the past four years. 

Meanwhile New Zealand were thinking about the game it was obvious at the kick-off they came to play and play hard they did. Listening to Schmidt post-match comments, Ireland were stunned by the All Blacks and he blamed nothing in house that led to the defeat. A worrying initial assessment given the contest was virtually irretrievable after twenty minutes. 

The loss to Japan in Shizuoka though was a warning sign that Ireland were far short of even their best. Indeed, the game against the Tier 2 side showed a quicker opponent, with points of attack switching repeatedly and the return of width that killed narrow game plans. This along with rapid handling, increased line speed and sharper players ended hopes of topping the Pool A. Yet for some reason that defeat was explained away as just a bad day at the office and Ireland moved on to a rainy night in Kobe.

Then that win against Russia seemed to somewhat reassure Schmidt for some reason as he still failed to see the persistent lethargy from his team. Even though Japan easily moved beyond the attrition game so valued by Irelands management. Which in fairness has had a successful time and a place. But at this World Cup the opposition have figured out how to counter and disarm Farrell's defensive systems. The bubble think of the Irish camp a phenomenon that sometimes permeates squads during long tournaments - thus diluting the fear that should have abounded ahead of the match with the All Blacks. 

As bizarre as it may seem the thrashing was very predictable even if the 30-point differential unimaginable. Clearly Ireland over read into the win over a poor Scotland and perhaps the emotion of Joe’s last match was not the fuel needed as an aging squad suddenly seemed to look like they were playing a season too far. In fact, in 2013, Rob Kearney said in Sydney, when injured on in the Lions Tour, he would be too old for RWC 2019 and on the evidence, it may have been an accurate self-assessment. Why Larmour wasn’t fully blooded for the six weeks in Japan is unclear. 

Hansen since the AVIVA defeat has innovated both All Blacks personnel - sticking with Richie Mo’Unga and Beauden Barrett at fullback until it they both came good – and changed the way they play. Even if there was a risk and defeat, he persisted as late as September and finally sees it all come good. Meanwhile in Dublin though, Schmidt struggled on through the Six Nations, preseasons and then the world cup itself. Like the reluctant schoolteacher fearing a new curriculum happily defaulting to the known knowns. 

Whereas his country man Warren Gatland constantly seeks innovation and since his ill-fated Irish career has very much progressed with Wales and in addition on two winning British and Irish Lions Tours over the intervening decade. In contrast the Ireland team sheet in Tokyo was virtually the same as the quarterfinal against Argentina in 2015 - bar the injuries to Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton and retirements. 

In hindsight the decision to leave Devin Toner looks more ill-advised than it even did when the final squad was announced, as John Kleyn started once in Japan and with only 2 caps hardly carried the same command, grizzle and nous of the reliable Leinster Lock. The persistence with an out of form Robbie Henshaw and Conor Murray showed the lack of a Plan B. Obviously, the aging dynamic of the Irish talisman Johnny Sexton, the world’s most outstanding stand-off of his generation and on field captain, is one of those unstoppable things that happen.

So, there was an urgent need to blood stand offs, and if Jack Carty or Joey Carberry are not the answer then it is time to unearth some other gems. Similar to rise of Gary Ringrose, James Ryan or Dan Levy. Then also give likes of Tadgh Beirne for instance more than cameo roles if good enough. However, Schmidt’s innate cautious nature was once the strength that made Ireland successful yet over time then very predictable and becoming his weakness. 

It is a disappointing end to Ireland’s semi-final ambitions once again, but the hallmark of that obsession made Schmidt worry too much about France four years ago hoping to obviate a clash with the All Blacks before the semi-finals. Meanwhile, Argentina ate our breakfast and swiftly ended those worries, Again, in 2019 being too cute and trying to meet South Africa and avoid New Zealand in a similar way, meant Schmidt was outdone by Jamie Joseph’s Japan in Shizuoka. 

With the Irish provinces overflowing with young talent the lack of ability is not a true assessment either. Rather a failure in trust of younger players to respond to the occasion and a reflection of autocratic the Schmidt way maybe. In truth there is over focus on systems and playbooks. Rather than play what’s in front of you and respond to developing game and as result Schmidt achieved none of his own stated benchmarks at the world cup. Unfortunately, innovation is the only way to remain ahead and not always just the playing talent. 

That is something former Leinster coach Michael Cheika may argue as a lack of depth means Union competes with Rugby League, Australian Rules, overseas clubs or cricket. However, the Wallabies under Cheika probably play too much heads-up rugby with too little structure. But Gatland keeps unearthing new stars and systems even though the Welsh clubs are not performing well in Champions Cup or Pro 14. Not unlike Leinster’s loss to Saracens in the 2019 Heineken Final, Irish teams maybe ooze over confidence, yet their systems become predictable and losing critical games as a result. That is why remaining at the top becomes much harder than getting to the summit in the first place. Just ask Rafael Nadal 

Somewhere along the road to Japan, Ireland lost the ability to think on their feet and as the game changed it left the Number One team in the world watching the final from the side-lines. 

The future is bright though and the Schmidt legacy will endure even if losing to a Tier two nation is a repeat of 1999. Indeed, as have been those battles with Argentina over the years. However, the IRFU’s rush to sign Andy Farrell now seems ill advised with no time for reflection or analysis as this Rugby World Cup has shone a light in many areas. So other candidates who offer a freshness like Jamie Joseph – as a for instance - are now out of bounds. 

Although New Zealand have successions plan in place, with Hansen’s assistant Ian Foster likely to be next coach if the All Blacks win the Web Ellis again. Not unlike Hansen’s path alongside Graham Hendry. But should New Zealand fail then other names will be discussed albeit the All Blacks system means the job is not offered to non-Kiwis A policy the IRFU should consider as the list of talented Irish coaches is now endless. In the meantime, as Hansen rehabilitated his career after a dismal experience with Wales, so will Joe Schmidt in time. But it may require not so much updating his CV but his views on the game. 

On that imaginary list of potential coaches is Mark McCall now at Saracens, Ronan O’Gara back in France after Racing 92 and Crusaders; Bernard Jackman’s French experience and success has value, as does Leo Cullen currently at Leinster; Or Geordie Murphy at Leicester Tigers as Ireland needs all the ideas and knowledge that can be used in the echo chambers at the IRFU. Mais Plus ca Change and the Will Carling infamous quote about the Heinz 57 seems appropriate at this juncture. 

With the likes of Paul O’Connell, Mark McDermott currently with Russia or Conor O’Shea with Italy surely there is a need for them to be included in the wider conversation. From the outside it was one thing Schmidt wasn’t good at it seems or a good listener as he oversaw Jordi Murphy moving to Ulster and then dis-improving; or the trust Joey Carberry who then was revived when he moved to Munster. while Henshaw was brought to Leinster prematurely probably. Then saw Ian Madigan leave for France, as did Simon Zebo, when they both saw the door close post 2015 RWC. 

In the end all sports people are measured on results and the obsession with surpassing the quarterfinals was the beginning of the end. Now with the RWC 2019 over there is no hiding place or ignoring the lack of improvements in results. Rather a devastating defeat at the hands of New Zealand that will leave its mark and probably accelerate the retirement plans of the older Irish players. Which paves the way for the future and offers starts for all those that have waited so long for the chance that Schmidt never gave them.

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