Rugby is changing and Irish rugby needs to catch up. This World Cup is a different animal to the tournament that took place four years ago, with a concerted effort by the law-makers to produce a more attractive product than the kick-laden, grind-fest that was France 2007.
The ELVs were a misguided move too far in this regard and seemed to be geared towards turning the sport into rugby league-lite but the excesses of those variations were pared back and the game as it exists at New Zealand 2011 is in a pretty healthy state.
Thankfully, core elements of the sport, such as scrum, lineout and maul, have retained significance (although the ‘crooked feed’ to the scrum law is a farce and too many marginal crooked lineout throws are deemed acceptable) but rugby is now a faster, more skilful beast and it is the teams who have embraced this new departure that have profited.
The four semi-finalists all play with pace, depth and a desire to keep the ball alive while the four beaten quarter-finalists adhered to an old-fashioned, set-piece dominated style and were caught out.
There is a great deal of revisionism and flip-flopping going on in the wake of Ireland’s defeat to Wales and, before looking ahead, a few things need to be reinforced regarding last week.
Ireland were in a pretty good place going into that quarter-final, unbeaten in the pool stages and coming off the back of an impressive dismantling of Italy. There were few quibbles when Declan Kidney selected the same 15 to face the Welsh, it was a team geared to reach the semi-finals that was out-thought and out-played by a very good Wales performance.
That being said, Ireland’s failure to adapt to the situation with a different game-plan was worrying and one of the reasons for the settled selection was the absence of genuine competition in every area bar half-back and on the wing.
Ireland had a team and a style of play that looked capable of getting them to a semi-final but when Wales shut that down, there was nowhere to go.
The lesson, in terms of playing personnel and brand of rugby, to be taken from this dispiriting experience can be summed up with a simple phrase: widen your options.
TRUST IN TALENT:
It is not as though Ireland have never invested in talented youth. Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald and, most recently, Conor Murray (below) are all examples of players brought into the international frame at a young age.
However, a general policy towards gradual rather than rapid progression cannot be denied.
Last November, Munster defeated Australia 15-6 in Thomond Park. It was a young Munster side, shorn of their international contingent with a few older heads to guide them, led by captain James Coughlan.
The Australians were equally youthful and could not cope with the weather nor the ferocity of the Munster challenge on the night. Yet, a clutch of those Wallaby youngsters (McCabe, Faingaa, Slipper, Daley, Polota-Nau, Higginbotham) learned from the experience and are in the mix for next weekend’s World Cup semi-final showdown with the All Blacks.
Star of the game was Munster’s young second-row Ian Nagle who, after his night of glory, went back to the relative backwaters of the fringe Munster squad and All-Ireland League.
It is stretching it to say Nagle should have been immediately thrown into international contention and there is serious, established second-row competition at Munster, but Ireland need to find a way of testing talent like Nagle sooner rather than later.
Irish rugby has a centralised system and the national side should always come first. The European Cup and league competitions are worthy titles to win but should be viewed as, essentially, a means to an international end. Thus, if the national management decree that someone like Nagle or Andrew Conway needs to be exposed to high level rugby and that comes at the expense of a Mick O’Driscoll or Shane Horgan, whose international claims have diminished, then the diktat should be to go with the younger man and see how he fares.
Invest in youth, with provinces dancing to the national tune.
IRISH COMES FIRST:
Ireland has four professional franchises which means 60 starting positions on match weekends. That may be more than Scotland, or indeed Wales, but it is still not a whole lot when compared to the Tri-Nations club franchises where overseas players are a rarity.
The list of overseas players who have contributed significantly to Irish provincial success is extensive, ranging from Trevor Halstead to Doug Howlett, Rocky Elsom, Nathan Hines and Isa Nacewa. However, it is not about winning Heineken Cups — as Wales have proved with their collection of title-less Dragons, Blues and Ospreys — and consistently including non-Irish qualified (NIQ) players over indigenous ones is ultimately self-defeating.
Even more galling is seeing journeyman foreign players indulged in provincial squads. It is not the individuals’ fault, they have a right to earn a wage if Ireland is willing to pay it, but what have Nick Williams, Clint Newland, Peter Borlase or Shaun Berne done to further the national cause?
Furthermore, the easy acceptance of the ‘special project’ means of broadening the playing base is a move in the wrong direction. Ireland does not need to gambol down the cynical path followed by England with this casual approach to nationality, particularly if the three years spent seeing if a ‘project’ player is up to it, equates to three years holding back a home-grown alternative.
Recommendation: Only one NIQ to be allowed in any provincial match-day squad.
EXPAND OR FAIL:
Successful modern rugby is played at pace, with an emphasis on keeping the ball alive. Going into the quarter-finals, there was a general consensus (here also) that ‘cup rugby’ was the best route to success and that was exposed.
Australia lived off scraps and beat South Africa, France’s superior skills were too much for the English, the All Blacks killed off Argentina when they raised the tempo in the second-half and Wales were able to contain Ireland’s direct approach and then hit them for crucial scores.
The ability to off-load to players running from deep at intelligent angles is the hardest style to defend, but too many Irish players take on static ball and seek the comfort of the turf.
Modern, footballing skills need to be embraced at every level of the Irish game from schools level up and, though it requires changing a mind-set that travels back to the origins of rugby in this country, it is the best way forward. This could also include a focus on sevens rugby which has heretofore been regarded as an irrelevant frippery. Sevens is one way to expose talented youngsters to competitive international competition while simultaneously developing their skill-sets and could be well worth the financial investment.
Recommendation: Embrace the off-loading, deep game from the top down and re-examine the creation of an international Sevens side.
COACH THE COACHES:
Irish professional rugby is top-heavy on foreign coaches which is a testament to the greater expertise abroad but also to the quality of Irish coaches coming up and the difficult path to the top.
One of the main reasons for Kidney’s success is that he worked his way up through the ranks of underage, club and provincial rugby yet he was originally rated behind foreign candidates at Munster and Ireland.
The gap between AIL and professional rugby had been viewed as too wide for club coaches to bridge, but if there is a national move towards a central message on style and method imparted to coaches at all levels, it will be possible to bring more indigenous coaching talent into the professional game.
Recommendation: Focus on bringing coaches through from the bottom up.