Santa Baby

We’re going to look at the forthcoming season for each of the provinces  in the next couple of weeks, but hot on the heels of our summer series and particularly the conclusions, we thought we’d put together a wish-list of sorts for Ireland – what we would like to see from the national team this year.

The Irish team to find a direction and a purpose

We’ve talked about this a bit already – the Ireland team is fragmented and aimless at present. The relationship with the provinces is fraught and the team suffers from a lack of vision at all levels. Lets hope that next year we see this begin to change. We won’t re-hash our arguments of earlier in the week, but you can read all about it here.

The death of the phrase “honesty of effort”

The idea that trying really really hard is something aspirational for Ireland is something that just refuses to go away. For us, it smacks of the kind of give-it-a-lash-sure-we’ll-drink-them-under-the-table-anyway attitude that prevailed for so long. We hate to state the obvious, but the players who play for Ireland are professional – it’s their job to play rugby. If they find they can’t be bothered, they will lose their jobs. Most are ambitious, and thus doing their best is a starting point.

As it should be. If this Ireland team are to have an ethos, it should be the pursuit of excellence and winning. We want the Irish rugby squad to have an ethos of being the best and asking how they achieve that. The identity and drive should be similar to the All Blacks – the aim should be to be the best. At present, playing skillful, intelligent and heads-up rugby is the way to achieve  that – so let’s do it.

This misty-eyed vision of Irish rugby possessing something special just because we try hard belongs in the amateur era, and should be challenged at all times. In fact, we’re sure the wooden spoon-accumulating teams of the 1990s also tried really hard, but they weren’t successful because they weren’t very good. Let us forget the guff and concentrate, eyes open, on winning.

A decline in inter-provincial bickering

One of the most marked features of the last decade, and particularly the last three years, has been the rise is embittered rants directed between the provinces. Friendly rivalry but collective purpose has taken a back seat to partisan and destructive thoughtlines, which are having a progressively corrosive effect on the national team.

Consider the “Jamie Heaslip needs a kick up the hole” meme which did the rounds among non-Leinster fans for much of last season – the value of Heaslip was seen in his absence in Hamilton, and the purpose of the inital argument was merely to push forward lesser players of other provinces (note this section is being written by Egg, our resident Ulsterman, and should thus be exempt from Leinster-centric criticism). Any kind of objective assessment could conclude nothing but Jamie Heslip is Ireland’s best number 8 by a stretch. If we want to rotate and get other players test experience, great, let’s do it. But let’s do it for that reason, not because Heaslip is personally not your cup of tea.

So besides “think of the children” type hand-wringing, what can be done? Loads actually – and much of it by the IRFU and national setup. One might cringe at the “Team England” setup they have in Twickers, but the English team have an identity – they aren’t merely the best of Leicester, Sarries and Saints (or whoever), unlike Ireland. Why can’t the IRFU make its employees take part in accessible family days? Or rotate the Carton House sessions around the country – bring in Adare Manor, Inchydoney or Galgorm Manor? Bringing the players to the fans might sound corny, but it works. And imagine the reaction to the Sexton/O’Gara debate to see the pair of them posing together for pics with children, and having the craic – its tempers some bitterness already, and makes the Irish setup something more than a vehicle for provincial box-ticking.

Some way of making the Six Nations less Hooray Henry would be good as well – we understand there are bills to be paid, but is there a reason why Six Nations tickets are virtually hereditary? The Irish team are distant from the fans, and thus it’s easy for a provincial identity to dominate. Why can Fan Zones not be set up in (say) Georges Dock, the Titanic Quarter or other public areas to show games on big screens and provide a family-friendly access point?

The IRFU to embrace social media

This is easy, and embarrassingly obvious. Compared to the provinces, the use of modern media by the IRFU is laughably poor. They are virtually never on Twitter and Facebook for example. The Supporters Club is a joke – for your €50 you get a fridge magnet and a drum, then nothing – not even an e-mail to say your membership is ready for renewal. If there are returned tickets, you might get a communication, but you usually don’t. Its pretty easy to communicate events, results (of teams at all levels), messages etc – the fusty image of the IRFU is well-deserved, and moving into the 21st century might dispel some of the cigar smoke.

When we see (and be certain, we will) swathes of empty seats at the November internationals, we should ask why haven’t the IRFU shifted them? Price is a factor, but some of the answer certainly lies in fans not knowing they are there – paying money for a SC subscription and not being told tickets are available is frankly Stone Age. And even if people don’t want to pay to see the Pumas, run competitions for free tickets on social media sites, radio, internet – its a no-brainer. Fill the stadium already!

Caps for Connacht

Consider Fionn Carr (2009-11) or Gavin Duffy and Mike McCarthy this year. What do they have in common? That they haven’t picked up as many caps as their form deserved, and that they played for Connacht.

Now, let’s say you are younger player and are behind an established player in your province. You can expect start 6-8 Pro12 games a year, but are essentially waiting on an injury to stake a claim to the jersey. You are offered the chance to join Connacht – what do you say? Right now you say no. But what if you knew you could go for a pre-defined period (12 or 24 months, not a permanent move) and play 14-16 Pro12 games and 2-4 HEC/Amlin games, and would be in Ireland contention?

You might re-consider. It might benefit the likes of Luke Marshall, Paddy Butler or Jack Cooney to spend some time in Connacht, but it would amount to career suicide at present. If you could earn Ireland call-ups by playing well, then return to your home province as a genuine contender to start, it changes the dynamic – it widens the player pool, gives players experience, and broadens the national teams appeal. Connacht’s current squad is thin, and is padded out by Pacific Islanders in any case – we’re pretty sure they would welcome the cream of other provinces developing youngsters for a season or two.

Luke Fitzgerald

This is a player who peaked three years ago and has been bedevilled by uncertainty and injury ever since. Yet he is also the most naturally talented of his generation. It would be a crying shame if his boundless potential was not completely realised, and he is talented enough to be the recipient of some special project plan – the national setup and Leinster need to work out how best to utilise his ability in the long term, and plan accordingly.

Obviously, Fitzgerald himself needs to be on board too – he has spoken out before about wanting to be a fullback, but he needs to be informed that, at present, he is 3rd choice (at best) and is behind the last two ERC players of the year – a career at full-back is not going to happen. Whether it’s at 12, 13 or 11, the natural talent that he has needs to be nurtured … assuming he comes back from injuries the same player.