Irish must face down fears for year ahead
After a glorious 2009, Hugh Farrelly puts a western revival and a first victory over the mighty All Blacks top of his wish-list for 2010
LAST year's wish-list didn't work out too badly. That compilation centred around the abandonment of the most heinous of the ELV laws and once that wish was granted, everything else was a bonus.
The game is still riddled with enough kick-backs to satisfy the most corrupt politician but is still far better than its horrendous ELV incarnation.
There has been a welcome return to basics and a re-emphasis on rugby's core values, notably up front, and to the Aussie-driven, TV revenue-hunting ELV conspirators the message could be (in Eamon Dunphy vernacular): "The maul is back baby, deal with it."
Other wishes to be granted were Rob Kearney receiving due recognition as one of the top full-backs in the world, rather than being repeatedly plonked on the left wing (a no-brainer that was confirmed by his superb showings on the Lions tour) and a more expansive approach to Ireland's back play which materialised during the encouraging November series.
There were other 2009 desires that remain unfulfilled and thus have become part of our 2010 list which goes a little something like this...
Connacht in the Heineken Cup
One of the better films shown over the holiday season revolved around the mantra "if you build it, they will come" -- a classic baseball drama chronicling Kevin Costner's attempts to fulfil his filial dreams. The Galway Sportsground, complete with encircling greyhound track, may be rather too rough and ready to be described as a 'Field of Dreams' but in terms of development aspirations out west, the moniker fits snugly.
For Irish rugby's fourth, forgotten province, qualification for the Heineken Cup is essential to break the status quo of basement existence in the Magners League and Challenge Cup disappointment. It has been a chicken and egg scenario for Connacht -- if they do not achieve on the pitch, quality players will not move out west and without quality players they cannot hope to achieve. Michael Bradley has been on silk purse/sow's ear duties as Connacht head coach since 2003 and deserves credit for the work he has put in with nowhere near the same resources or pulling power as his counterparts in Munster, Leinster and Ulster. After seven years, it was probably a good time to move on and it is encouraging that it's likely to be another Irish coach who will succeed him (current assistant Eric Elwood).
However, it would be a bitter irony if Bradley's stage exit coincided with Connacht's debut in the Heineken Cup -- as could well happen next season. If Munster or Leinster win this season's Heineken, Connacht qualify automatically and they have another avenue should an Irish province drop down and win the Challenge Cup having failed to qualify for Heineken Cup knock-out stages.
Of course, Connacht could still get there off their own bat and Bradley's men have scorched through their Challenge Cup pool games thus far, but that is a big ask. Connacht's Heineken Cup qualification would inevitably see talented youngsters lured to Galway by the big-game exposure with Sean Cronin, Ian Keatley and Fionn Carr convincing evidence of the wisdom of such a move.
There is an array of Irish talent on the fringes of the main Irish provinces, players who are frustrated by minimal game time, and if they could be accommodated in Connacht it could only be good for Irish rugby and Declan Kidney. Of course, there would be logistical, geographical and contractual obstacles but how about this for a Connacht dream team post-Heineken Cup qualification?
G Duffy; F Carr, T Gleeson, F McFadden, D Kearney; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, B Young; T Hogan, D Toner; J Muldoon (capt), J O'Connor, J Coughlan. Reps: D Varley, J Hagan, I Nagle, Dominic Ryan, D Williams, S Deasy, A Conway.
A win in Paris
Following last season's Grand Slam, it's all about the World Cup and this year's back-to-back bid is couched in those terms. Thus, it is safe to expect tyros to be tested in the home clashes with Italy, Wales and Scotland. However, the trip to Paris should see Ireland produce the full monty as coach Kidney will rightly view victory in the Stade De France as an important psychological hurdle to be cleared on the road to New Zealand 2011. It is 10 years since Ireland's last win there (when Brian O'Driscoll did his three-try thing) and quality players have wilted in the face of furious French onslaughts over that period. Winning there on February 13 would strengthen the belief in the squad that Ireland can achieve something meaningful for the first time at a World Cup.
The All Blacks downed
If winning in Paris constitutes a significant psychological obstacle, it is nothing to that represented by the statistic showing that Ireland have never beaten New Zealand over the course of 22 meetings and 105 years. Kidney has a record of planting his flag on previously unscaled summits and he has two tilts at the All Blacks in 2010. The June 12 clash in New Plymouth against undercooked opposition could be a famous day for Irish rugby -- and a significant one with 2011 in mind.
There is a lot of southern hemisphere-driven coaching jargon in the modern game as every aspect of play is broken down with microscopic analysis. It can lead to robotic, choreographed rugby as players cling to their pre-match scripts rather than trust natural instincts. But, however scientific the game has gone, there are elements of effective attacking play which remain unaltered: knowing when to kick and, more importantly, when not to kick, having an awareness of space, knowing when to pass and who to pass to and the adage that dates back to the time of William Webb Ellis -- knowing that hitting the ball from depth maximises your chances of ground gain.
Donnacha Ryan takes on ball from deep for Munster, Sean O'Brien and Devin Toner do it for Leinster and Sean Cronin for Connacht but too many front-line players persist in standing flat and trying to generate momentum from a standing start. The conservative coaching fear is that you can become isolated from your support by breaking through but that, as Webb Ellis might have put it, is poppycock. Run from deep and you increase the chances of front-foot ball, the easiest to clean out and the best for a backline to use. Maybe this year the penny will drop.
It happens in every game. A team camps on the opposition try-line and repeatedly ties to batter its way over the line through pick-and-goes (or 'pick-and-jams' as they are now known) or close-in pops to static forwards. It's neanderthal stuff and frequently futile -- as was the case when Ireland tried this route one approach for five minutes against South Africa in November. It would be wonderful to see professional coaches and players to come up with a plan for this scenario, something that required a bit of innovation and intelligence. With possession secured, players could be pulled out for a maul, or even a dummy maul with the scrum-half hitting a runner on the blindside.
Or, what about the old-fashioned 'cavalry charge' where, responding to a set call, three or four players fall back, fan out and launch a run simultaneously with the scrum-half choosing which man to hit at the last moment -- incredibly hard to defend. It would be great to see something outside the box in this scenario. However, in keeping with the existing practices in this regard, such a wish is probably just an exercise in banging your head against the wall.
Time was a hooker had to strike for the ball in the scrum and would practise assiduously on timing, strength of strike and direction. These days the scrum-half merely shoots the ball straight into the second row while the referee turns a blind eye in the interests of keeping the game flowing. Either legalise the crooked feed or referee it properly.
There is no doubt the redeveloped Lansdowne Road is going to be an impressive stadium with car parks, restaurants, bars and hospitality suites housed within an imposing design. However, while receiving the guided tour recently, it was impossible to ignore the 30,000 elephants in each of the many rooms. With timing, planning and sponsorship hurdles to negotiate, the stadium issue was always going to be a complex one for the IRFU, who are victims of rugby's startling explosion in popularity.
The capacity should not be a major issue for the lower profile matches, but when the southern hemisphere giants and England or France come calling, Joe Duffy's radio show is likely to be besieged with punters giving out about the lack of tickets for the 50,000 stadium while more than 80,000 places are available in Croke Park a few miles up the road. Ground sponsors Aviva could pull the plug if matches are moved to Croke Park but if they could be catered for with extensive branding and financial compensation for certain 'Aviva internationals' in Croke Park, it may be doable. Those costs could make such a move prohibitive but the indications are that the GAA seem more than willing to accommodate rugby for special occasions and exploring the practicality of such a deal would make sense because this one is a PR disaster waiting to happen.
There is a Niall
Niall O'Donovan is a quality forwards coach without a meaningful gig at present, it would be good to see that situation rectified in 2010.