Thursday 27 April 2017

Conor O'Shea: Short-term aims crucial to deliver long-term gains

Six Nations coaches can set template for next four years by making the right decisions straight away

With a coach like Joe Schmidt, we have someone who won’t bow to popular opinion Photo: Sportsfile
With a coach like Joe Schmidt, we have someone who won’t bow to popular opinion Photo: Sportsfile

Conor O'Shea

I have always loved this time of the year, purely because no matter how you try to position various competitions, the Six Nations is special. Every year each country goes in with fresh hope and new faces and the story unfolds to its endgame, which last season was a scarcely believable finale where Ireland watched and won as England came agonisingly close to winning on Super Saturday.

This year I have read and heard a lot of talk from people, not coaches, about the next cycle to the Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019, but anyone who thinks like that is devaluing the tournament in itself but also missing the point that for players, supporters and coaches alike it is about thinking long term but winning in the short term. As a coach you are looking at how you marry both your short- and long-term objectives whilst putting your imprint on your team.

My fascination in this year's Six Nations actually revolves around the coaching side. Some new coaching teams are setting about implementing their own philosophies and styles whilst the settled coaching teams in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy are asking themselves how they can evolve their style to ask different questions.

From a personal point of view, I have enjoyed the statements that Guy Noves and Eddie Jones have made about where they are going to take their teams, just through their selections.

Take France. We have spent years complaining about the tinkering of Marc Lievremont and Philippe Saint-André, yet Guy Noves just in his squad selection has told us where he will bring France - how quickly is another matter. In time we will see the old France, the one that excites and probably exasperates. By selecting Jules Plisson and François Trinh-Duc (who is not fully fit yet) as his flyhalves in his initial 31-man squad, in picking a sevens specialist in Virimi Vakatawa and in choosing Jonathan Danty ahead of Mathieu Bastareaud, Guy Noves has told the world how he intends his France to look, but more importantly he has also told his squad just through selection where he is headed.

The change may not happen overnight, but he has set his stall out. The next thing he must find out is whether his players have the fitness levels to play the game the way he wants it played. It is an exciting prospect.

England's new man at the helm, Eddie Jones, has also by selection alone put his stamp on things. He has changed captain and gone for Dylan Hartley. He has backed Chris Robshaw, which on a personal level I am delighted with, but he has made the change in captaincy to say 'this is my squad and I want to show everyone that England are going back to their traditional strengths'. They may have exciting backs but England will be hard and uncompromising and their captain epitomises that. A coach must trust his captain and Eddie Jones has placed huge faith in Hartley.

These two coaches have the chance to change and the knowledge that they will be given time to allow their changes to bear fruit. The other coaches in the Six Nations will be asking different questions and may not be afforded the same time.

For Joe Schmidt and Ireland, all the questions since the Argentina game in the RWC have revolved around whether we can adapt our game plan. Has it become too predictable, has everyone worked us out? I would answer for him and say of course not.

Schmidt will be nervous about the confidence of some players who for once are not coming from winning environments, but he will also know that with his best players on the pitch he can win and he will not over-react to popular opinion. He will pick Garry Ringrose when he is ready to do so. He will make a change at flyhalf or No 8 when he is ready and when he knows the team are ready.

Coaches can't follow popular opinion because they understand the value of loyalty in engaging with a team, the value of giving a last opportunity to great players who have yet to let him down. Coaches can lose as well as win their dressing room by how they select their team. As a massive fan of Joe Schmidt, I see him changing and adapting while his players are given the opportunity to deliver. He doesn't lose them because when they are dropped, they understand they have had the opportunity.

The last few months have seen a typical over-reaction since the RWC, yet there has been no need for it. If winning was straightforward then no one would have to coach, there would be a formula we would all follow. It is not an exact science, it is why we are drawn to sport, it is why we love it. True, things have to change, but thankfully with a coach like Schmidt we have someone who won't bow to popular opinion, he will follow to his own judgement. If successful he will be lauded; if not he will be called stubborn.

Warren Gatland has always had his critics about how Wales play but his players believe in him because he does not deviate from his beliefs; they know their style and what they need to deliver for him. Vern Cotter with Scotland has a group that were whitewashed in last year's Six Nations but go into this tournament on the back of a World Cup where they overachieved in the eyes of many - but now their country expects.

Cotter, like Schmidt, will have to temper this expectations because he knows they have a long way to go; with the added burden of expectation, failure is not an option. So will they play with the freedom that we have seen or will they go into themselves? The coach will give them that freedom in how he speaks to them and sets them up.

It is a fascinating time ahead for us. Short-term aspirations have to be met to allow long-term plans to be constructed and each coach, whether coming back for more or starting afresh, will have to win his dressing room first, not the outside world. If they believe in him, then the team are halfway there.

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