Sport Rugby

Monday 27 March 2017

Back to the drawing board

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

While the game has changed dramatically in recent times, not least in terms of skill development and physical conditioning, I'm not too sure it is any more exciting now than in times past.

I am not of the 'ah but in our day' generation -- far from it; I respect and appreciate scientific advancement, particularly in a sporting context.

My one fear, and I do witness it first-hand at under-age level, is the robotic adherence to preordained strategies in the dreaded 'game plan'.

After the best part of half a century's involvement, I cannot tell you what a 'game plan' is. The only objective (game plan) I can recall with any degree of accuracy was setting out to win!

Of course, we analysed the opposition in advance, pinpointed what we believed to be potential weaknesses and set out to exploit them as best we could. If that qualifies as a 'game plan', then I guess we had one.

But what gets up my nose is the simplicity -- and we in the media are more guilty than most -- with which we trot out the line (particularly in the aftermath of defeat) 'where was Plan B'?

You can be the most meticulously prepared team in the business but unless you play the opposition as it presents itself, you are facing mid-match meltdown.

Coaches win minds in the build-up but players win matches. To attempt to box Plan A as kicking or Plan B as running is unadulterated nonsense. The nature of the game dictates a combination of both.

The only meaningful game plan I have ever known is that of playing the opposition, the game, the conditions and indeed the referee, as things arise. In modern parlance, they call it heads-up rugby and it's heads-up rugby every time for me.

So please, may we be spared the notion of the out-half with Plan A on a crumpled piece of paper in one pocket and Plan B in the other -- if, that is, they have pockets in their playing shorts any more!

The mantra that 'forwards win games and backs determine by how much' is as true today as ever, and don't let anyone kid you otherwise. It is why rugby remains the consummate team game and why the ridiculous man- of-the-match notion applies less than in any other sporting endeavour.

With all-conquering England Aviva-bound in a fortnight's time, what a timely reminder we received from the Irish cricket team on the importance of the collective over the individual in Bangalore.

It was like Irish rugby of old, drawing on values of old in search of a win supposedly against all odds. Now we're talking game plan -- the plan whereby every player gives of his all in support of every team-mate. The Welsh in Cardiff is the be-all and end-all to our season for now -- and the DVD of that cricket match will be set for repetitive use out Killiney way.

The key to any successful side in rugby is in having an adaptable player in the playmaking role, and here again the nature of the game dictates that to be the out-half position.

Here, we are well served by two No 10s much more similar in make-up than many self-serving analysts would have you believe.

Ronan O'Gara can set a backline loose as well as Jonathan Sexton can play for territory by way of the boot. Sexton's tactical kicking prowess is as under-rated as is O'Gara's exceptional ability to put his midfield backs into space through deftness of pass. The stereotyping of Sexton the runner versus O'Gara the kicker is unfair, lazy and untrue.

Nor is who to start at No 10 a uniquely Irish problem. Indeed, were a Lions squad being picked right now there would be a dilemma, given the fluidity of the out-half situation in all four countries.

Whether it will be O'Gara or Sexton (and I suspect it will be the Corkman) running the show in Cardiff, there is an equally passionate debate in the Principality as to whether it will be Stephen Jones, James Hook or perhaps even Rhys Priestland (Jones' understudy at Llanelli) wearing the red No 10 shirt.

And in Scotland, Dan Parks' O'Gara-type show off the bench at Murrayfield should have put him back in pole position to replace Ruaridh Jackson against the English in the Calcutta Cup match next up.

Even Martin Johnson, despite Toby Flood's exceptional recent form, cannot but have been impressed with Jonny Wilkinson's final quarter against the French. There you have nine out-halves in four countries competing for one position were a Lions selection being put together now.

Kidney is safe in the knowledge that whichever way he turns, he will have the type of game manager he demands and not the free spirit versus string-puller some would have you believe.

It is for that fundamental reason I have no issue with whatever way the head coach decides. The wider issue in terms of the World Cup is being addressed, with both out-halves getting a starting run in the championship.

That is of very real significance in keeping both talented players happy. Sexton has done little wrong in his two games and while obviously disappointed at missing out on a starting slot in Scotland, he is sensible and sensitive enough to internalise the rationale behind the coach's call.

Irish Independent

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