Vincent Hogan: Bigger, Faster, Stronger
From ‘roulettewheel’ rugby to masters of the north, Vincent Hogan charts the glorious rise and sees a bright future
You have to be of a certain vintage to remember how Irish rugby once swung on a wing and a prayer. The game here had the consistency of a roulette wheel, little tricks of chance woven into the fabric of its personality. Achievement came from flat-out exertion, victories tending to be random, isolated, unexplainable.
In a sense, few stories captured the quirkiness of Irish rugby quite like Ciaran Fitzgerald's. Imagine, today, a future Lions captain only taking up structured rugby a year before his Leaving Cert? That was 'Fitzy's' path to the summit. His childhood in Loughrea was a tangle of boxing and hurling, one discipline sometimes indistinguishable from the other.
He was in his second last year at Garbally Park when, having seen Ireland play Wales in the then Five Nations at Lansdowne Road, Fitzgerald took up the game that would make him famous. Rugby found him by mere fluke. That was how we were.
Fitzgerald would, of course, captain the Triple Crown teams of '82 and '85 and, years later (1990) when appointed Irish coach, he described the former victory as a triumph for senior players "fed up to the gills being told they were w*****s by everybody in the country."
Ireland had lost seven consecutive Championship matches prior to that Triple Crown and, though a younger Irish side triumphed again three years later, the achievement prefaced nothing in terms of lineage or organic growth. We remained ever-faithful to a tradition of glove-puppet rugby.
The Punch and Judy Show of the Northern Hemisphere.
Fitzgerald did not win a single Championship game in two seasons as Irish rugby coach between '90 and '92, yet he still saw something to be mined from the game here that seemed to escape so many others. We had a tradition of following in this country, of simply aping what others did.
This frustrated him. He looked at great, cumbersome English forwards, their rugby lives programmed to almost robotic levels. There was nothing natural in their relationship with a football because little in their genetic background had invested anything beyond the rudiments of 'jump and shove'.
Fitzgerald was animated in a belief at the time that, as IRFU Development Officers took up full-time roles within the provinces, Ireland should step outside the traditionally rigid enslavement to set-piece and develop a more fluid and confident rugby self.
"This thing of programming people for certain roles is not the way to win," he observed two long decades ago now.
"There are so many fixed positions in rugby, scrums and line-outs, which seldom allow you to penetrate the other team. Broken play is the only way, you need a player on the spot who is prepared to do something. And that's where we have lots of natural talent in this country, Gaelic footballers and athletes, who know how to grab a ball and run with it."
You think now of Rob Kearney or Tommy Bowe, Tomas O'Leary or Marcus Horan and you see Fitzgerald's vision gloriously manifest.
Ireland, today, has a team identifiably different from the opposition, yet purposefully successful too. Four Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam in six seasons would have been unimaginable at the time Fitzgerald was crying out for Irish rugby to acquire a personality of its own.
Likewise, the notion that our provinces could become standard-bearers on the European stage. The vibe in the game here is uniformly positive now. Yet, what lies immediately beneath the surface?
When the so-called 'Golden Generation' of O'Driscoll and O'Connell, O'Gara and O'Callaghan slip out of the international frame, what is the calibre of replacement now being nurtured within the Union system?
Gary Longwell, Ulster's High Performance Manager, is unequivocal.
The former Irish second-row points to a recent meeting he had with Ireland U-20 manager, Allen Clarke, and the IRFU's Eddie Wigglesworth as an illustration of the long-term planning now de rigueur within the game here. The meeting concerned Ireland's participation at RWC 2019!
"That is the level of planning now involved, nothing is left to chance," says Longwell. "Ireland is an unbelievably well-run Union. You can never guarantee success. Things can happen outside your control. But Ireland has done everything right, put everything in place to give us a serious chance of continuing the current success."
There is, for example, now a clear pathway running between the different age levels, all academies working off the same blueprint. Players begin the process of physical preparation for senior rugby whilst still at school. This has become essential because the professional era has simply taken rugby to another place.
Longwell explains: "When you look at professional rugby now, there are monsters about. Guys who are benching 180kg. You don't do that unless you've great technique and you put in hours and hours. That's the big benefit of the academy system. We're getting these guys stronger, younger.
"Basically, it's a different game now to when I played. Everything now is collision-based. When I was learning to tackle, you were encouraged almost to let the player go past you and let his weight bring you down. Now you have to put him on his backside.
"So it's a much more ferocious game now. I mean I wouldn't have begun to know how to tackle Stephen Ferris. You know Jonah Lomu was a freak. Now every team has Jonah Lomus, people of that pace and power. Like, what he did in '95 is now commonplace.
"Everybody's got bigger and stronger and faster. Ferris is as powerful as he is because he's been training like that for years. That's the difference. Whereas in the amateur days, nobody could lift even in the lineouts."
The randomness of recruitment is gone now. The sense of dipping into a lucky-bag. Longwell recites the names of three young fly-halves coming through in Ulster that all have the basic equipment to be 'superstars'. One of them, Paddy Jackson, is still playing schools this year with Methody.
The entire rainbow of talents can be identified in a trawl through the different academies. Ian Sherwin, Munster's academy manager, believes a guarded optimism is certainly well founded. "I would be very confident for the future, even though it's quite difficult to rate players at under-age," he says. "Fellas mature at different rates. Someone who may not make the national U-20 side, can be right up there by the time he's 21 or 22.
"So you kind of throw a blanket over four or five years. No question, there is a good deal of talent coming through. But you've got to be careful. Look at front rows for example. Take (Cian) Healy out of the equation and everybody else starts to appear around 25 and they're only really blossoming by the time they're 28 or 29.
"Even look at John Hayes. He didn't really start making any moves until he got his first cap in 2000. He would have been 26 and that's about the age for it. Remember, these guys don't scrummage in school anymore. There's no competition. So where do they learn to scrummage? They're only learning at 18 or 19. Healy is a freak. He's exceptional and it's great to see it. But he's not the norm."
Already, the potential blue-chips of the next generation are making themselves visible in the different academies. Blackrock quartet Andrew Conway, Brendan Macken, Dave Moore and Kyle Tonetti have long been drawing giddy glances in Leinster. In Munster, academy players like Ian Nagle, Conor Murray, Scott Deasy and Andrew Burke have already been blooded with the province's senior team. And the dynamic Felix Jones was a star of Ireland's Churchill Cup win in America last summer.
In Ulster, Jackson could -- in time -- be vying for the out-half slot with academy players James McKinney and Luke Marshall. The progress of young hooker Niall Annett is another source of excitement. And Connacht, too, has its share of seemingly special young talent bubbling up. Maybe the pick for now is young Galwegians winger Tiernan O'Halloran. Academy manager Nigel Carolan also draws attention to two guys on the current Irish schools panel, No7 Aaron Conneely and the versatile back-five forward, Danny Qualter.
Conneely was one of a clutch of U-18s to feature in the U-19 international against Australia last November, a game in which yet another Connacht academy back-rower, Eoin McKeown, excelled. The province also recently blooded a 17-year-old full-back, Calum Boland, in an 'A' game against Munster.
Carolan explains: "Trying to get the players exposed to a higher level of rugby is the big challenge. I know Allen Clarke has aligned all the age grade international teams now where there is a pathway for players from entry-level at U-18 to U-20. But I still think there's a little bit of a gap between international U-20 and Magners League. It's probably an IRB issue rather than an IRFU matter.
"But for the young fellas when they're coming through, to get more rugby at a higher level now, I don't think the AIL is competitive enough for the very ambitious few. I mean it's a good competition, but you still have this social aspect to it. So just to get another layer of rugby there that would seriously challenge their ability would be a good thing."
That said, Irish rugby today belongs in an entirely different galaxy from the virtual game of bluff that so frustrated marquee talents of the past.
It is quite sobering to recall now the international career of someone like Simon Geoghegan, a shooting star of a wing forever destined to freeze on the periphery of game-plans designed, essentially, for damage limitation.
Geoghegan once ran a wind-assisted 10.5 seconds for the 100 metres on grass and was, in his day, a stunningly aggressive winger. He made his international debut against France in the '91 Five Nations, but soon found himself dragged down by the docility around him. Geoghegan barely got a single pass in the '92 Championship, Ireland losing every game.
And, when the ritual back-biting recommenced during the '93 campaign, he was temporarily suspended from the national squad, having divested himself of a characteristically robust opinion on why they kept on losing.
It all seems another world now. As Ireland prepares to defend the Grand Slam and, beyond, Leinster and Munster prepare for April Heineken Cup quarter-finals on their home patches, the game here has never looked in finer fettle.
What was once all noise and energy, but little planning, is now calm, logical and -- on all appearances -- dependable. As Longwell puts it: "We've had a golden generation, but we've looked after them very well.
"And there's a consistency in what we're doing now. People are singing off the one hymn sheet. In other countries, there's often large turnovers in staff. But in Ireland there's continuity. You can see the talent coming through again, but we're not over-playing them, we're not wrecking them. Obviously, things can always happen outside your control. But, all things being equal, the future should be good."
Ciaran Fitzgerald may never have won a Championship game as Irish coach. But he had the vision to understand what potential lay dormant in the soil. That was his letter of credit to a doubting world.
It has stood the test of time.