The Great Heineken Cup Swindle

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…

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13 Comments

  1. P White

     /  May 9, 2012

    Assessing the problem may elude most of our journos but the solution is a difficult thing too. Scmidt is the obvious choice for next Ireland choice but would he have enough time with the players to implement the Leinster model at Ireland? Enough time to work on the basic skills like passing** (see R Kearney) that have improved Leinster so much?

    I was a big believer that the IRFU missed the boat in not getting Jake White after Fast Eddie. Anyone that has dealt with the racial/political minefield of South African rugby and taken them to a World Cup would have the ability to bring together the provinces. He is also a proper rugby coach rather than the amateur pyschologist that is Deccie (not having a go at Deccie, 2 HEC and a Grand Slam. i just don’t think he works in an international environment).

    There are not a lot of easy available choices to take over at Ireland.

    ** Note: Anyone know if Munster are signing a skills coach? Zebo, Hurley, Jones and the rest all looked like there basic handling skills and special awareness are behind the curve against Ulster. Look like they could really use a skills coach to work them hard. Zebo especially looks a real prospect but only if he works out the glaring deficiencies.

    • Steve

       /  May 9, 2012

      It’s not really an international coach’s job to work on basic skills. That’s the kind of thing that’s done week-in, week-out at club level. The international coach is there to take the best players and mold them into a team in the time he has them, which means working on a cohesive (and effective) game-plan.

  2. tony dies in the last scene… 😥

  3. El Greco

     /  May 9, 2012

    It is painfully obvious that his motivation techniques are substandard. What galls me is twofold – 1. the players twigged early-doors that he is/was a chancer and realised that they would have to win despite him, yet somehow he gets the credit, and
    2. (as you have alluded to earlier) the sycophancy of the press.
    As a statement of the blindingly obvious, the emperor Declan has no clothes.

  4. rossa

     /  May 9, 2012

    I have been thinking of late that it must be a coaching issue. How is it the clubs can perform and not the national team. With all the whinging from the British media and some coaches about HCup qualification and how the Irish do so well it got me thinking that if we had won a couple of championships in the last few years they would have no leg to stand on.

    When England won the RWC in 2001 the English clubs were dominating the HCup and post 2005 they have slumped down the pecking order (bar Leicester) just like the national side. Our progress in club and country fortunes mirrors our HCup form to some extent. Ireland were shite and started with a low base in the 90’s. We may not have won many championships in that time but we have improved hugely, from our low base of course (wooden spooners or one win nearly every year in the 90’s). But we must not forget that standing in our way to win a 6 nations were some exceptional French teams in the 00’s and the French clubs reached about 7 HCup finals (not winning them all of course ) in those 10 years, and not forgetting the Johnson/Delaglio England teams.With that in mind Ireland stuck a grand slam when it might be said most other teams were rebuilding following a RWC, not our fault perhaps but the only view I can see that we haven’t at least challenged more over the last 5 successful club years has to be the way the national side is being coached and in particular over the last 3 years….enough waffling.

  5. Rhubarbsticks

     /  May 9, 2012

    I recently watched the Munster Leinster semi final of 2006 and it was hard going as a Leinster fan. What struck me was that today’s Ireland team play a very similar game to that great Munster side. Both coached by Deccie.

    What has changed since then and doesn’t get a mention in your post is the rule changes that have had a significant effect on the breakdown and the tactics of teams. Upon hearing the theory of the rules I thought that they should suit Wales’ offloading game and Leinster who are always looking for space and the pass. So it has come to pass that teams like Wales have profited and Munster and Ireland can’t bully teams into submission any more. It seems from the outside that Ireland have been stuck in a kind of mind freeze with their tactics and have never been able to properly adapt to the new rules.

    All about timing? Is it only me or should Ireland have swapped the order of Deccie and EOS. Eddie’s structured game was based on moving the ball wide. I read that the Munster players fell out of love with EOS’s game plan because they felt they first needed to earn the right to go wide. Deccie’s conversative appraoch might have been better suited to the rules and the strengths of the squad back in the EOS era.

    Just a thought…

    • @Rhubarbsticks – yeah, we weren’t really getting into the cause of our ills in the argument – it was more focused on the media response than the problems themselves. Interesting thoughts though. I’m not sure Eddie would be the man for the job right now. Not convinced the overly structured game would be the best thing for the likes of Sexton, Earls, Sean O’Brien etc. He was conservative too, but maybe a different kind of conservative – and certainly conservative in terms of team selection and squad development too.

  6. I endorse this post 100%.

    It up everything I believe, and everything I have been saying for the past 18 months…but does so in a more detailed and eloquent way than I could.

    I have found the whole debate and the appalling journalism that surrounds it so depressing that I have stopped caring though.

    Irish rugby is in a great place (with the exception of national side and, sadly at the moment, Munster) and I am enjoying every minute of it. Long may it last.

    Kidney will get the sack after next year’s 6 Nations – hopefully – and I will then be able to enjoy international rugby again…hopefully. Until then, there’s Leinster, Ulster, Connacht and – hopefully – Munster.

    The real question is who takes over as coach in September 2013. Schmidt would be brilliant but I doubt he would take Ireland as his first international job. Lets see where we stand in April of next year though.

    @rhubarbsticks agree that Ireland would have done better with EOS and Declan Kidney swapping tenures. Eddie would be a great coach with the right team right now – surprised nobody has signed him up.

  7. Snackbox

     /  May 9, 2012

    Good piece. It’s what the fans have been saying for a while now and it’s good to see it articulated so well. The fact that Thornley is so at odds with the clear facts of Kidney’s reign has ruined his credibility imo. Although he has always been a Kidney defender – remember when there were less than overjoyed responses to Deccie’s appointment at the time, GT’s defense was “Well who else is there”… Farrelly has always been a joke, he has recently resorted to simply goading his readers instead of even pretending to be a serious hack.

  8. clitbox

     /  May 9, 2012

    great piece and I agree 100% with the points made.I might add though that the IRFU have a role to play in all of this,I heard EOS talking recently about his time as Ireland coach and how autocratic the IRFU are.For example the “blooding” of young players into the team or changing the game plan was always considered tentatively because the IRFU insisted on certain goals being achieved each year and although the current players or system (at the time) might not have been what was needed it was safer to attempt to achieve the goals with the tried and tested rather than risk failing with a new set up and some new talent.

  9. Gareth

     /  May 9, 2012

    Lads the situation cannot surely be that straightforward.

    Deccie has succeeded right the way through his coaching career and guided Munster to their 2006 and 2008 HEC victories.

    Notwithstanding that Irish performances have been disappointing, particularly in the last 12 months, you cannot maintain the following positions simultaneously:

    – observe that during 2005 to 2008 Munster players were regularly criticised for playing better in red than they did in green

    and

    – observe that from 2009 onwards players throughout the provinces played better in red, blue or white than they did in green

    and

    – blame the same coach

    There’s no doubt that Deccie has some tough questions to ask, but surely this post poses an easy answer to some difficult questions, dare I say it, in an almost Hook-esque manner. (Just get a 7 and Ireland’s woes will be over.)

    • @Gareth – it’s not straightforward by any means. We’re not saying Deccie is a rubbish coach full stop. He’s had huge success in the past, and you don’t win two Heineken Cups and a long overdue grand slam without being a good coach. We’re not even saying the blame for our current ills should definitely be laid at his door. The point of we’re making is that the media are overly reticent to question or criticise him. Surely it has to be at least considered as a possibility that the coach isn’t getting the best out of the resources available to him?

      As you say, Deccie has questions to answer – all we’re asking is that people in the lofty position of national journalists ask those questions. We’re not asking for his head or anything like it.

  10. HB

     /  May 10, 2012

    The solution at National level comes down to selecting the best players who play well in a scheme and not just picking the best individual 15 players.

    If DK has a plan at national level he should identify the best players to play to that plan. That may cause massive arguments if ‘star’ players are left out because they don’t fit the scheme but clearly he’s either too loyal or doesn’t have the bottle for that.

    For examples sake if he wanted to play tactical kicking, bosh 12 rugby and the Munster 9, 10, 12 group were better suited despite the Ulster 9, 10, 12 having better all around skill sets he should pick them not try and fit square pegs into round holes.

    the fact that players play together regularly should be used to a national coaches advantage not as excuse when you can’t get the pieces together.

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