Foley role already reaping rewards for Ireland
Published 06/02/2013 | 04:00
BRIAN O'DRISCOLL focused the spotlight on the unique situation in the Irish rugby senior team's set-up when, in November, he revealed there was genuine confusion among the players as regards what coaches were doing what.
Les Kiss was double-jobbing as attack and defence coach, with kicking coach Mark Tainton helping out.
The players were, according to O'Driscoll at the time, receiving mixed messages. Wales' coach Warren Gatland had also commented as much after the 2012 Six Nations meeting between the teams. While enjoying a post-match drink, Gatland expressed his incredulity that Kiss was filling both roles.
It wasn't a reflection on Kiss' abilities whatsoever. As a defensive coach Kiss is renowned worldwide. His is the brain that came up with the 'choke-tackle' that the Ireland players used to such devastating effect against Australia in the World Cup.
And as an offensive coach he is just as highly regarded. The problem, as Gatland opined, is that the two jobs are so polarised it is impossible to be successful at both. Kiss' double-jobbing was adversely affecting Ireland's performances and results.
"They each require a distinctive set of skills. It's impossible to serve both masters," was the kernel of Gatland's point.
As has invariably been the case over the last 10 years, it was only when O'Driscoll drew attention to the unique set-up that the public took notice. Just as the players did on Sunday when he ordered Jonathan Sexton to kick to the corner in the last few seconds of the first half – when O'Driscoll speaks people listen.
Declan Kidney listened. After initially showing a reluctance to change – the head coach originally maintained he was happy with the make-up of the coaching team – he relented and obviously recognised the need to add a new member to, as much as anything else, free up Kiss to concentrate on one job.
And when looking to bolster and revamp his coaching squad, it took no-one by surprise he looked to his former Munster citadel and co-opted Anthony Foley to serve as defence coach for the November internationals.
Foley and Kidney were very close as player/captain and coach with Munster and the word on his transition from player to assistant coach with Munster has been good. He was also well got by the Ireland squad from his time deputising for Gert Smal during last year's Six Nations.
If Kidney does win a contract extension at the end of the Six Nations, it is very likely he will appoint Foley to a full-time role within the Irish set-up.
"Anthony has a massive advantage in his coaching, because he played the game at such a high level and knows the game inside out," said former Ireland second-row Mick O'Driscoll.
"It's all well and good for a defensive coach to learn his trade from books and coaching from that platform. There is no substitute, though, for knowing the game from a playing perspective. That's experience you can't learn from a book.
"Anthony has that experience and I believe he's a better coach as a result."
Foley's credentials as a defence coach are plentiful. Under his stewardship, the Munster defence is the meanest in the Heineken Cup this season. In their six Pool games they and Toulouse have conceded just four tries each.
And in the Pro12 only Ospreys have a better record. They have conceded 10 tries as opposed to Munster's 17 in their 13 games. When disseminating those statistics it's easy to see why Kidney decided to co-opt Foley.
The separation of powers between the coaches is something the players have welcomed and are benefiting from, according to scrum-half Conor Murray.
"Yes, separating the two roles has been good I think," said Murray.
"You saw quite clearly in the first half we were mainly attacking and we were able to build up quite a lead. And in the second half, once Wales got into our faces, we showed great determination to hold them out.
"It's also of benefit to be able to go to a coach and have a specific chat about something. If you're unclear, that's his specific role and you'll get a clear answer. Our attack and defence are both in good positions, which I think you can put down to the separation of powers. That, and the players taking things on board."
Mick O'Driscoll spent a career playing alongside Foley with Munster and spent three years under his tutelage before he retired at the end of last season. He has seen Foley's evolution as a coach first hand.
"Defending is as much mental ability as anything else. You can be a good tackler, but a terrible defender. Some players might have no problem when presented with a one-on-one situation, but find it impossible to work within a system," added O'Driscoll.
"Defending is as much about knowing when and where to commit as it is about tackling, about knowing who is around you and using that split second to make the right decision.
"Anthony's strength is that he knows how to get the best from players and is very good on educating players about how – and when – to commit."
Foley's appointment was, it is only correct to emphasise, absolutely not a reflection on Kiss' abilities as a defence or attack coach. More, it was an acknowledgement that to do either one properly would absorb all of the coach's time.
During last season's Six Nations, for example, Ireland had the best offensive record. They scored 13 tries and 121 points. Their nearest rivals were Grand Slam champions Wales and yet they only managed 10 tries and 109 points.
Ireland, however, conceded more points than France, England and Wales.
There was a noticeable shift in the dynamic following the World Cup when Alan Gaffney didn't extend his contract as attack coach and Kiss added those duties to his original brief of defence coach. In 2009/10, for example, only France, as Grand Slam champions, scored more tries, while in 2010/11 Ireland's try count was only bettered by the champions England.
This is what Gatland was highlighting last season when he expressed his belief that the same person could not carry out the two jobs as they require two separate and distinct approaches, which is why Foley now has been co-opted. The Munster legend's expertise as a forwards' coach has also been put to good use and he has been working hard with Gert Smal in improving Ireland's play at the breakdown and his involvement also affords Kiss more leeway in running the on-field sessions, as he does under Kidney's direction.
That it took Brian O'Driscoll's less than subtle assertion that more clarity was needed in the Ireland set-up is, to a large extent, immaterial. The change has happened and the team is reaping the benefits.
Wales had 79pc of the possession in the second half last Saturday. Ireland made over 100 tackles and had a 92pc average return in their tackle count. They were able to repel the Welsh hordes in what was a phenomenally impressive defensive display.
That they did this when down to 14 men for nearly 20 minutes of the half makes the achievement all the more creditable.
It is even more impressive that with less possession (55pc) in the first half than Wales had in the second, Ireland were able to score 23 points. Wales managed 18 points with 24pc more possession and a numerical advantage.
The case for the defence rests.