National Game Plans, Political Infighting and Corporate Days Out

Well, that just about wraps up our summer series.  Thanks for all the comments and interaction, we hope you enjoyed the trip down memory lane.  For us anyway, it wasn’t just an exercise in dewy-eyed nostalgia, but an attempt to put in a wider context where Irish rugby has found itself and how it got there.  Because, looking back, Irish rugby is in an entirely new place and experiencing something it’s never had to deal with before.

In 2012, Irish rugby is more fragmented than it’s ever been.   We’ve had spells of woeful inadequacy, but the rugby public suffered as one.  We’ve also had periods of greatness, and the joy was shared in by all.  In 2012, your view of the past season is almost certainly coloured by what province you come from.  Leinster fans had a great time.  They’ll be able to look past the national team’s failures and their memory banks will be dominated by the Heineken Cup win and great rugby their team played.  Ulster fans likewise had a memorable year.  But Munster fans had neither provincial nor international success to celebrate and probably took the national team’s ills harder  because they had little to compensate for it.

The rise of the provinces has been a key ingredient in the success of Irish rugby over the last decade – we hope this came out clearly in the eight game series.  They have pooled talent into an appropriate number of teams to ensure competitiveness, brought new fans into rugby grounds and – most importantly – given us historic days out that won’t be forgotten any time soon.  And they’ve won shedloads of silver.  The IRFU has been rightly praised for getting its structures right in that the provinces exist as entities within their own right, but ultimately feed the national team.  The idea that provincial success is now detrimental to the national team – peddled by certain journalists looking to justify a pre-conveiced opinion – is simply ridiculous.  It is nonsensical to suggest that if Leinster, Ulster and Munster were struggling to get out of their pools that Team Ireland would somehow be better off.  We reject it utterly.

The IRFU and Kidney need to make sure they don’t allow themselves to go down this path.  Indications are that they are already doing so.  It looks as if the provinces have grown to the stage where the IRFU does not know what to do with them.  In the last twelve months we’ve had the new player succession rules, some pretty spotty low-budget recruiting, and from Kidney, sounds about the provinces not generating enough match-time for certain players and how he’d ideally have the players in camp rather than competing in Cup finals.  They need to be very careful here.  French rugby is currently marooned in a club vs. country wasteland.  In the last Six Nations they won two of five games and the Top 14 was unwatchable this year.  If France – with its huge player pool, wonderful history, passionate supporter base and superb youth sports programs – can be brought so low by political in-fighting, what chance does a small country like Ireland have?

So much commentary (including our own) is fixated on Kidney’s selection and tactics, but there is a bigger picture: if Deccie is going to see the provinces as a nuisance to be battled with, then he has no chance of succeeding.  Our understanding is that his relationship with the provincial coaches is close to negligible.  This is a road doomed to failure.  The coach who does succeed will be the one who can harness what the provinces are doing for his own gain.

It is tempting at this point to rush towards Muddy Williams’ touted concept of the ‘national game plan’, apparently the approach taken in New Zealand.  But such notions appear fanciful, in the medium term at least.  The Irish talent pool just isn’t deep enough.  The coaches at Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht each have to cut their cloth according to what’s available.  For example, Ireland has just two top-grade fly-halves, and they play and see the game very differently.  Each is good enough to have the team’s style of play built around their talents.  But it would be bizarre to tell Rob Penney to make Munster play more like Leinster, or to ask Schmidt to get Sexton to kick the corners a bit more.   Their jobs are tough enough as it is.  And who decides what the national game plan is anyway?  Presumably the national team coach.  So, Kidney telling Schmidt how to play rugby?  It sounds like a practical joke.  It just doesn’t seem workable on any level.

There’s no obvious solution, but it’s hard to escape the thought that Kidney could do more to embrace what’s happening in provinces, especially Leinster.  But just as Eddie O’Sullivan was unwilling to follow a Munster-based approach in spite of picking so many of their number, Kidney seems to be trying to get players who clearly so enjoy what they do at provincial level to play a very different way.  Throw in his mantra-like repetition of the venerated status of test rugby, and you’re looking at a coach that’s increasingly stubborn and embattled.  It’s no platform for success.  Kidney needs help from the IRFU here, too.  It would help if the provinces didn’t feel they were being dictated to in terms of who they can play and when.  All that said, both Joe Schmidt is on record as having welcomed the ‘increased dialogue’ between national and provincial coaches last week, while Rob Penney enjoyed a ‘robust talk’ with Kidney on arriving at Munster.  Maybe the tide is turning, slowly.

Secondly, the players, Kidney and the IRFU need to make an investment to win back an increasingly disillusioned support base.  If the IRFU is wondering why the provinces have such pulling power, they might just take a look at the product they provide: cheap, accessible tickets to tightly packed grounds, family-friendly set-ups, a strong bond with the players, away trips to the South of France and great rugby towns like Bath and Northampton.  Little wonder that the more corporate, expensive and often dull Six Nations is not terribly attractive.  Casting one’s mind back over the last few years, you have to go back to 2007 to recall the last genuinely thrilling Six Nations.  Sure, the 2009 Grand Slam was incredible, but looking at it objectively, it wasn’t a classic series by any means.

Supporting Ireland is no craic at all these days.  Tom Fox wrote in a recent piece for Setanta that nobody really ‘owns’ the national team.  Fans will never allow their provincial team to be slagged by another team’s mob (go onto any of the fans’ forums for proof), but everyone is happy to dump on the national team.  There are easy scapegoats for all.  Leinster and Ulster fans blame the coach no matter what, while Munster fans see a Leinster-dominated team and blame the players.  It’s tiresome.  Some effort needs to be made to bring a bit of fun, a bit of excitement into the national team.

When you watch YouTube videos of Shaggy’s try in Twickenham or BOD’s hat-trick in Paris, there’s a sense that they were more innocent times and that something’s been lost.  It’s a sad day when suporters see the Six Nations, such a great old tournament with such rich history, as something to be got over.  In 2008, after Munster almost beat the Kiwis, ROG said that ‘maybe we need to buy into the green shirt a bit more’.  And maybe the same applies to the fans today.  We could all do with falling in love with the national team again.  But the powers that be have to make it easier for us.

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9 Comments

  1. doughballs

     /  August 14, 2012

    Great series lads. Yourselves and the Mole got me through the summer alright. Lots of memories and a couple of good discussions. Looking forward to the upcoming season.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Elsmido

     /  August 14, 2012

    Amen to that Doughballs. I was going seriously cold turkey for a while.

    For me the problem at international level is unity, amongst the players, management, adminstrators and fans. I never fully appreciated the depth of animosty between Leinster and Munster fans until I went to the ’09 HC final in Edinburgh. There were Munster fans in force wearing their red jerseys as if in protest, and the ones I came across were not in the least bit supportive. No doubt Leinster has their fair share of Munster-baiters.

    I have never played interporvincial rugby but was always aware of the historical animosity. There is an element of the civil war to it. While it is great for the annual match ups and general interest, among other factors, it detracts from the international cause and is parochial and self destructive. But with its rise in popularity, domestic rugby has opened itself up to this new brand of tribalism amongst the fans.

    Its true what you say about the difference in crowds at provincial versus international matches. Only the well heeled can afford to go to internationals these days, meaning the older generation who were relatively unscathed in the economic collapse.

    With all the accusations of provincial bias leveled at Kidney, whether well founded or not, there is no doubt that between he and EOS there was a certain amount of baggage brought into the national job which Ireland could have done without. While they both showed promise, they faltered in the eye of the storm that is the international game. They were probably the correct choices at the time(although I would strongly debate that in EOS’s case), but the game overtook them swiftly.

    In the players case, they are professionals who should, and probably would, row in with any system that takes account of their relative strengths and has, at least, got a cohesion that has been sadly lacking throughout Kidney’s tenure.

    Dictats from on high neglecting the pressures on provincial coaches need to be more carefully considered and, at least, delegated in a more diplomatic manner then has been the case of late.

    The IRFU deserve praise and condemnation in equal measure for getting it right from the beginning but failing to maintain the momentum.

    Where to from here? who knows?

  3. Dave

     /  August 15, 2012

    Great end to a great series lads, thanks for getting us through the off season unscathed. I have to say I am looking forward to the Ooooooooh Rugby Championship this weekend. It will be interesting especially to see how the Pumas tuck into the Wallaby scrum in weeks to come!

    On the Muddy Wulliams “National Game Plan”. I feel it has some merit, as you said it appears to be the direction taken in New Zealand and they know a thing or two. That said our quality player pool is comparatively small. Having thought about it for a bit now I realise that developing a national game plan with only three and a bit teams feeding into the national team seems outrageous. Perhaps what we could aspire to, is developing a skillset that enables us to play a number of game plans, an emphasis on the basic skills that seem to be taken for granted. I remember watching the second test in Christchurch and thinking McCaw had a very average game. He knocked on three times at a guess, which is unthinkable for him. Contrast that to the level of schoolboy errors in tests 1 and 3 from Ireland. Looking back on it, it is easy to forget that McCaw was playing out of position.

    As a Munster fan I am inevitably a Kidney fan but he seems to have run out of ideas for the national team. I feel for him though. It is difficult to marry different teams together to form a national side, especially when the style of play of each team is fairly different. I remember Gatland picking something like 13 Ospreys a few years ago and it nearly did the job. It just shows how important it is to have everybody singing from the same hymn sheet. It worked in ’09. The whole squad bought into the Munsteresque game plan and hey presto Grand Slam. Since then it doesn’t feel like that sort of clarity has been there. Even Uncle Joe had trouble when he first arrived at Leinster losing three out of four league games. It takes time for a team to get into a game plan, that time just isn’t available at International level. If that is the case should the game plan be very simple. For instance the game plan against Australia in the WC. Muller their scrum, pick up Will Genia when he has the ball, Fla hand out jerseys and get psyched to the nines. Simples!

    As far as falling in love with the national team again, the blazers have a fair amount of work to do after the debacle of ticket pricing at the Palindrome and various other gaffes. As far as we are concerned it is absolutely no craic at all to support Ireland at the moment especially the way the team are performing. There is only so much supporters can do from the stands and it is generally a reflection of what is happening on the pitch, which for the past three years was like licking ice-cream off a nettle.

    • Lots of good points Dave. That ticketing fiasco certainly deserves a mention in its own right. They fudged the opening of their sparkling new stadium, and it hasn’t felt like home yet. Weirdly, it feels Leinster have made it more of a home than Ireland and the best game there for both quality of rugger and atmosphere was Leinster vs. Toulouse in the 2011 semi-final.

      Wales’ success is also testimony to your ‘simple gameplan’ idea. The ‘Welsh way’ has been put on the back burner and the gameplan revolves around big ball carriers running hard, straight and intelligent lines. All conducted by their brilliant scrum half. Simples indeed!

  4. Xyz

     /  August 15, 2012

    Interestingly ST Hack-in-Chief has been rabbiting on on Twitter today about picking players solely based on talent (it is in the context of the Pieterson txt message nonsense but he extended it to Cipriani). This seems kind of close to how Kidney picks a team – put your best 15 individuals forward and pray. But it does seem at odds with the team game that rugby is. Surely you look at your opponents, develop a strategy for beating them then look to your set of qualified players and choose the team, collectively, that can execute this plan.

    I know Ireland has a limited player base and so there will be a limited number of strategic styles that we can choose between but it does seem a more sensible approach to this ill-informed internet loonie. And obviously you can point to Leinster where Uncy Joe puts something like this into effect with his home and away selections. (As a Leinster fan I have to say that Leinster get deserved praise for playing an exciting brand of ruby but only really at home – the stuff served up abroad can be mucky indeed.)

    The series has been a very well executed discussion of how we got here. The points about the inter provincial rivalries and the tension between province and national side are well made. I’ve always taken it as granted that we could rely on everyone (fans and players) pulling together when Ireland are playing but there has been a trend of this happening less. These days when watching Ireland play I find it very easy to get frustrated with an other province’s player messing up where a few years ago I would have been frustrated only by a guy in green. Wouldn’t consider myself as being particularly antagonistic towards provincial rivals so it makes me stop and think.

    Going back to Deccie, I think he has painted himself into a corner and can’t change tack without admitting he was wrong for the past three years. Were we looking at another three years of him I’d say we need a way for him to change tactics in a way that spares his blushes. But with one season left it probably doesn’t matter. As obviously he is gone at the end of this contract. Right?

  5. Here’s one for you plural – would Eddie “The Dagger” O’Sullivan have had more success with the national squad of today and Blessed Deccie “The Sharper Dagger” Kidney more with EOS’s squad?

  6. Redhanded

     /  August 15, 2012

    I think it would be interesting to have an objective “product comparison” between the provincial product and the Ireland product. There would be a number of tangible items such as cost and availability of tickets and the cost of the overall match day experience as well as some items where it may be able to come up with some sort of tangible measure to try and quanitfy the entertainment value of the rugby (importance of game, win rate, tries scored…?)

    Obviously a lot of sport is about the intangibles, such as loyalty to a particular team or province, but even then, sometimes this can be quantified by user surveys, although this may be beyond the scope of WoC!

    The IRFU continually comes up with the line that the international team is important because it supports the rest of the game… but then governments say that it is important to pay taxes because it supports vital services…

    IMO they both need to make the international product more attractive as the article says, or accept that for many, the provincial product will simply be more attractive, but then exploit this rather than fight against it.

    Again from a business perspective, there is limited scope to grow the international game. They could put the ticket prices up (hmm… tried that…), play more games (against who?) or demand more money from broadcasters and sponsors (in today’s economic climate?)

    If the IRFU do want to grow their “business” then it will come from the provinces.

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