Progress built on hard yards
Ireland's women are an overnight success after 10 tough years, writes John O'Brien
THIS is how it is. Shortly after eight on the morning after Ireland had beaten Scotland to seal an historic Triple Crown, Greg McWilliams walked through the door of the team room in their Edinburgh hotel. Len Brown, the video analyst, had been at work since six and Philip 'Goose' Doyle, Ireland head coach, was already busy sifting through the details of the game. Brown looked solemnly in McWilliams' direction. "You're going to be pissed off," he said.
Going to be? McWilliams already was. As the seconds had counted down towards history the previous evening, he had tried to summon a sense of elation, but it felt too strained to be real. Ireland had scored three tries in the last 20 minutes, amassed 30 points in all, but for the Ireland attack coach, the figures held little joy. They had been sloppy going forward, lacked a clinical edge and he knew the statistics would be there in the morning to prove it: cold and incriminating.
"I felt like a pile of shit," he says now. "The stats were telling me I wasn't good enough. We scored 30 points, but our success rate wasn't good. I won't give figures, but let's say they weren't what we expect. So I had the video analyst giving me shit and quite rightly too. I was fuming. And Goose's defence stats were really high. That rubbed it in my face even more."
Not that Goose was happy either. Never happy. On the following Tuesday when the players had returned to their real lives, he had emailed them a link to a video of the game and listed five defensive issues that were troubling him. "Please come back to me with your thoughts," he signed off. They had conceded a miserly three points, but Goose still wasn't happy. Can't afford to be happy.
"The way I see it," he says, "there's another coach looking at that game, trying to work out where Ireland are vulnerable and the less points they see the better. It's not me being hard on the players for no reason. It's because someone else is looking for weaknesses and we have to be able to see them first. We don't want other teams to be in a position to break us down."
The players don't mind Doyle being hard, though, because they are equally tough on themselves. When they turned a relentless tide against England last month, reversing a 17-game losing streak with a thumping 25-0 victory, Doyle told them they'd earned the right to enjoy themselves but "98 per cent" said no. The victory would mean nothing, they told him, if they didn't push on and beat Scotland.
In Edinburgh, it finally struck Doyle how far they'd come. After the game they had dinner together and then fetched up in the pub where the Irish rugby fraternity congregated on Six Nations weekends in the capital. And just as the atmosphere was building to a climax, Doyle and McWilliams watched in astonishment as the girls began to trickle away in groups until the last of them had disappeared. By eight the next morning, they were in the pool ready to begin their recovery session.
It dawned on Doyle that after all the years he'd spent imposing high standards, gently coaxing the players to be more disciplined and ambitious, the wheel had turned almost full circle. They were now setting the standards as much as imposing them. "It's self-driven," he says with an unmistakeable air of satisfaction. "We're really just monitors now."
* * * * *
THIS is how it was. Twenty years ago, Doyle was a curious spectator in Raeburn Place as Ireland took on Scotland in their maiden voyage in women's international rugby. His
stand-out recollections are that the Irish players wore oversized kits – men's kits to be brutally frank – and that the standard of play was shocking. If that was the base they were building from, it could hardly have been lower.
He had dabbled in coaching with the Rockettes, the female team in Blackrock, where his wife Nicola played. Nicola had helped establish the Irish women's union the same year they played Scotland and, gradually, Doyle found himself sucked in until he had effectively been pigeonholed as a woman's rugby coach, entirely comfortable with the tag. "I'm a woman's coach. So be it. I enjoy it."
In 1998, he travelled to the World Cup in Amsterdam as Ireland forwards' coach where, still in its infancy, the organisation was shambolic and primitive. Five years later, he was back on board as head coach with a mind full of dreams and notions about how to drag things forward. Locating a starting point was easy. Over two years had passed since Ireland had scored a try. The skills base was non-existent. In Doyle's first year they scored 14. Baby steps.
He spent three years initially, banging his head against walls, helping to raise the €60,000 they needed to travel to the 2006 World Cup in Edmonton, proud of his team and happy with his own contribution to finish eighth having been ranked 13th. But he felt worn down by the struggle, burned out and ready to move on. "Knackered," he says. "Simple as that. I'd put so much into it I felt I'd nothing more to offer."
So he took a few years away from it. Coached a few All-Ireland League teams, helped out with the Leinster women's team before, inevitably, the national team drew him back again. Unfinished business, you see. Good coaches had come in after he'd left, but none of them stayed long enough to effect lasting change. In 2009, with the IRFU ready to come on board, he hopped on again, the itch he'd had since 2003 still not fully scratched.
With the Union willing to invest, Doyle could think about building a team of experts around him. McWilliams arrived as skills coach in 2010 and was soon upgraded to attack and assistant coach. In all, Doyle estimates his back-room team numbers 11 people, not including those they consult on a regular basis such as physios and nutritionists. As little would be left to chance as possible.
The key, Doyle always believed, was conditioning. Over the years he had seen his teams suffer harrowing defeats. Some of them, like the 79-0 mauling by England in 2002 or the 51-0 slaughter in Twickenham two years later, had no redeeming context. Other times, though, he would see Ireland offer spiky resistance for two-thirds of a game before capitulating late on. Time and again it came back to the same thing: conditioning.
Not now, though. Sammy Dowling was introduced as strength and conditioning coach in 2009 and that kick-started the process. Ross Callaghan is now the man in charge. Outside of tournaments, Doyle only gets four weekends each year with his players, but each of the provinces has a regional centre where the players train together in groups, organised and co-ordinated by Callaghan. For Doyle, the benefits have been incalculable.
Truth be told, he expected a rapid spike in performance but thought it might come at next year's World Cup rather than this year's Six Nations. Not that it's shocked him, though. The celebrated cameo at the end of the England game when they withstood a late barrage of 29 phases to keep their vaunted opponents scoreless was, he thinks, the perfect illustration of how strong and mentally resilient they'd become.
"It was actually 39 phases," he smiles, offering a gentle correction. "I watched with my kids and we counted them. Four-and-a-half minutes of all-out defence, 39 phases. And they didn't even get inside our 22. That's quite powerful."
You wonder, perhaps, whether we are dealing with a special group of players, a one-off golden generation, but Doyle sees no reason why future generations can't be even better.
In Gorey, his home town, he sees a girls' mini-section with close to 50 involved, numbers that suggest an explosion in interest around the country. "The last I heard there were 94 clubs with female teams in the country," he says. "That astonished me."
As things stand he reckons he has roughly a pick of 75 senior players to pick a squad of 30 and it's growing by the year.. "We're watching more and more games," he says, "and clubs are sending videos. Sometimes a girl will come up to me and say I want to play for Ireland. That's great I say, but you ain't fit enough. I love your positivity but go and get fit and come back in two years' time. People still don't understand the huge fitness requirements."
The message is sinking in, though. At all levels. For the team a seminal moment arrived last year when they had to travel to Pau to play France in the Six Nations, undertaking a gruelling overnight journey that saw them reach their destination at eight on the morning of the game, less than seven hours before kick-off.
They lost a hard-fought contest 8-7 and, while reluctant to use their rough passage as an excuse, Doyle knew a line in the sand had been reached.
"In a way it gelled us that bit more together as a group," he says. "We probably enjoyed ourselves in a funny kind of way. I mean don't get me wrong, it was truly horrific. We got from Dublin to Paris, missed a train connection and got stuck all over the place. But we got through it. We always did."
In a sense, although he dare not admit it, that nightmare trip was a blessing for the team. It led directly to the introduction of a 30-hour rule whereby the team has to be at their hotel a minimum of 30 hours before a game.
The stories of harrowing overnight journeys and players sleeping on floors have all but been consigned to the past now. The IRFU realises it cannot afford that shame anymore.
In a way that is how Doyle measures his time in charge. A series of mini-battles; stinging defeats interspersed with modest gains that
have inched the game ever so stealthily forward. And winning, unquestionably, carries superior clout.
On Wednesday morning, he asked the Union to bring in the players a day earlier before they meet France in Ashbourne on Friday. By that afternoon, the request had been granted. Another little victory in the bag. "Time to break open the champagne," smiles McWilliams.
The journey is only half-complete, but it has been some trip all the same. From the 19 IRFU committee members who attended the game in Scotland to the elderly couple who chanced upon the England game while driving through Ashbourne and were so smitten that they followed the team to Scotland and have their tickets already booked for Italy. The more fellow-travellers they can take on board, the better.
Doyle can't imagine a group of players more worthy. From the veterans like Fiona Coghlan – "a special player," he says, "a special person" – Lynn Cantwell and Joy Neville to younger members like Ailis Egan and Lauren Day and the exiles like Leigh Dargan, a teak-tough mother of two from the north of England, they speak of a squad with no rampant egos, underpinned by a core ethic of honesty and hard work.
He doesn't know if they'll beat France, it will require another immense effort, but defeat won't derail their season. They've come too far now for that.
"If we lose to France, we lose," he says philosophically. "We'll move on. We'll still go to Italy with the chance to win the Championship. We'll take that."
Before he signs off, he tells a little story about Declan Kidney. Back in 2009, when the IRFU came on board, Doyle and McWilliams were invited to share a room with five other national coaches, including Kidney who had just overseen a Grand Slam.
"I'll never forget it," says Doyle. "Declan spoke and he said, 'lads the only difference between you and me is I got lucky'. He was saying I'm no better than you. We're all the same. That really spurred us on and I was sorry he couldn't get the result he wanted last week."
This year, perhaps, it is Doyle's turn to get lucky. For all he has done, a decade of relentless toil and inspiration, it is surely the least he has earned.