In Roald Dahl’s famous short story ‘Lamb to the Slaughter‘, the police turn up to interview the murder suspect with a view to finding the murder weapon. Said item was a frozen leg of lamb which she currently has cooking and feeds to the police officers. Upon leaving, one of the officers comments that the ‘murder weapon was probably right under our very noses’.
It’s not dissimilar to the standard of sleuthing being demonstrated by much of the Irish rugby media at the moment. The likes of Farrelly, Thornley and even Matty Williams are keen to present this season’s divergence of provincial and international form as a seemingly unsolvable mystery, an endlessly ponderable enigma, like what happened at the end of the Sopranos.
Could it be to do with the abundance of foreign players? What about the fact that Leinster train and play together more often than the national team? Or is there just some magic in the provincial waters that seemingly dries up once the players get to Carton House? Is it the lack of a national rugby philosophy? Everyone wants to put forward a handful of half-baked theories, but the leg of lamb is sitting right under their noses – and nobody dares to consider it.
Previously, Thornley in particular has been at pains to tell us how successful Heineken Cup group campaigns have generally led to successful Six Nations Championships, but this season the picture doesn’t fit. What’s more, Wales’ ascendancy has mirrored their much-discussed unravelling at club level. What a mystery! If only some clues would present themselves! Is it the ‘Welsh Way’ – the great history of Welsh international rugby – that inspires players that look workaday in their club sides?
One thing’s for sure – it certainly can’t be the coaching, tactics and selection, right? Because that would mean – shock horror! – that Ireland’s coaching ticket isn’t really all that. Oh dear, and how does one square that circle with Gerry’s ability to uncannily predict the team week after week? I mean, 3 HECs in 4 Deccie-years, or 2 Celtic Leagues from 3 (and maybe more) in the same timeframe? Surely that means our players are good? So why aren’t they doing it at international level?
Lately we have had Thornley telling us the Heineken Cup had suddenly become ‘less correlated’ with international rugby, Farrelly declaring that foreign imports (especially at Ulster) are thwarting the hopes of developing Irish talent and on this week’s Wednesday Night Rugby, Keith Wood and Gerry Thornley pondered the ‘mystery’ of why Leinster players looked so much better in blue, and could only come up with the theory that they play together more often – it was up to Shane Horgan to belatedly mention that the coach had to ‘create the right environment for players to express themselves’, and argue that while he didn’t consider Gatland a great coach, this was an area in which he was strong. Hilariously, Farrelly’s piece yesterday alluded to the national team’s patchy form as ‘the elephant in the room’. While displaying a complete lack of understanding of the meaning of the phrase ‘elephant in the room’, it also raised new levels of irony in not mentioning the possibility that national management could be in some way culpable. Now, that’s the elephant, Farrelly!
Matty Williams’ piece on Monday certainly sounded a note of clarity, in that it highlighted a lack of national rugby philosophy on which we can fall back, but it overlooked the fact that Ireland have been successful in the recent past, when the provinces were even further apart tactically than they are now.
So let’s rewind a bit: from RWC 2003 to RWC 2007 the provinces won 1 HEC and 1 Celtic League – it would be reasonable to conclude that, at provincial level, our players were okay, but weren’t achieving consistently. But what’s this? Ireland won 3 Triple Crowns in the same period? And were a late Elvis Vermeulen touch down in the corner against Scotland away from a Championship? Shurely shome mishtake Mish Thornley?
No points for spotting that the period above corresponded with the most ferrous period of Eddie’s iron fist, and what Eddie did – and was much criticised for – was play a very structured game; a game far removed from the boot and bullock at Munster, the sparkling and flighty back play at Leinster, or the slightly sniffy 10 man dross in Ulster. Sod any ‘national philosophy’, Eddie had his own gameplan and micro-managed incessantly – in the end, it did for him, but it was very successful when it worked. To use Ger Loughnane’s words, Eddie felt he had to “drive the horse over the fence”. When the bunch of losers (in trophy terms) he took over needed a different approach to win the race once they had worked out how to get over the fence, Eddie couldn’t give it, and he paid the price.
So in came Deccie with his mind-bending cute hoor-ism and essentially let the lads work it out for themselves (to use a word beloved in Egg’s place of employment, Deccie “enabled” the players). Through Bob’s brave words in Enfield and Jamie Heaslip’s youthful endeavour to the grizzled leaders at 5, 10 and 13, Ireland’s players made it over the line. It was a genius plan really – feed off the bitterness and anger of the near misses and the venom in the press and harness the inter-provincial rivalry for that last push.
Problem is, it could only work for so long. The more Deccie is required to interact, and actually engage and work out a plan for his players, the less successful he has been. Ireland have fallen inexorably from the peak of November 2009 against the Boks in almost a straight line. There have been a few shining one-off performances in between, but they came against teams who were psychologically frail, and usually when Ireland were painted into a corner: a beaten-up England or a uniquely vulnerable Australia (that performance, while memorable, was steeped in good fortune and would not have sufficed against NZ, SA, France or Wales). Any team who plays Ireland with a belief they can beat them generally does.
And this is where the mystery deepens – Eddie got a huge amount of flak from the press for “only” winning 3 Triple Crowns, and for consistently challenging for the Championship, but not winning it. And look at his squad! Deccie, on the other hand, has presided over an initial burst followed by an energy-sapping descent into drudgery, with eight wins in the last three Six Nations – and has had a virtual free ride. Now, the obvious answer for this all-enveloping mystery of why Irish players appear so much better at provincial level is ignored. And it’s this: the coaches just aren’t doing very well. It’s the leg of lamb, dammit.
Ireland’s gameplan under Deccie has gone from puke rugby (2008-2010 vs Wales) to going wide and lateral at every opportunity (2010 vs Scotland – 2012 vs Wales) to a promising-looking hybrid featuring backline moves other than the Randwick Loop (2012 vs Italy onwards). The lack of a coherent gameplan post-Boks 2009 for 2.5 years is one thing, but then the complete lack of questioning of it is another. Meanwhile selection has become a dismally tiresome affair, with management handing out loyalty cards, but the same media apologists see it as their mission to defend every iota of team selection, even when it flies in the face of all available logic.
If Eddie had been presiding over such a series of duff results amid unimaginable provincial success, would the reaction have been any of the below:
Ireland did not lose the World Cup quarter-final to Wales because of overseas players, and particularly because Afoa was in Ulster and Botha in Munster. [Thornley]
You could call it the ‘Welsh way’, when talented players come together, are told to put their club issues behind and are then encouraged to express themselves in the name of their country. [Farrelly]
Someone has to finish fourth, and the margins between defeat and victory are tight at this level. [Thornley on Off the Ball]
I think Declan Kidney is a great coach. [Thornley, again on Off The Ball when McDevitt read a text from a viewer asking why Thornley felt the need to defend every selection]
Look, I still believe in Declan Kidney! [yep, Thorinho again on Off The Ball, when Emmet Byrne ran rings around him in a critique of Ireland's failings after the home defeat to Wales]
While Leinster, Ulster and Munster play to a style that does not have its origins in a national philosophy, the national team will not benefit to the degree it should from provincial success. [Williams]
Or might it be that the coaching, selection and tactics are crap, and the current ticket cannot get the best from the resources at its disposal? Just a thought…