Tony Ward: Ten-point plan for future
The popular analysis as to why Wales won last Saturday's World Cup quarter-final is that Warren Gatland had some master strategy with which he outfoxed Declan Kidney and tactically outplayed his former charges.
It is, of course, overly simplistic, although not for a minute do I begrudge Gatland his success -- on the contrary, the Welsh have been a credit to this competition, enlightening it in every way.
But aside from tackling Ireland's dynamic ball-carriers lower down -- hardly rocket science -- there was precious little that was different in Wales' plan of action at the Cake Tin.
Yes, the Welsh were up for it and definitely set the tempo, but in the final analysis, it came down to Irish lapses in concentration, leading to vital missed tackles -- which culminated in both Wales' second-half tries -- allied to crass stupidity for failing to take goal-kicking opportunities when they arose.
By general consensus Ronan O'Gara was picked ahead of Jonathan Sexton on the basis of percentage goalkicking return. And then we go for the corner. The logic escapes me.
Of greater concern, though, was the inability, yet again, to create anything meaningful in an attacking context, particularly in the midfield area, where we have been consistently so strong for the best part of a decade.
Midfield was one of many units that failed to deliver remotely close to the level required if we were to go where no Irish team had gone before.
In the end, the Welsh beat us every bit as convincingly as the 12-point margin suggests and our best ever chance of making it through to the last four at least was blown away in the Wellington wind.
Quite whether we will get that chance again no one knows, but there are things we can do and improvements we can make to keep us in the frame in the only event in world rugby that really matters.
Winning Grand Slams and Six Nations championships in the interim is still important, but much less than ever before. Professionalism has seen to that. So, where to from here?
In no particular order, here are various issues in need of address -- some practical, others administrative -- but all geared towards making Ireland Rugby Inc a far more effective unit come England 2015 and Japan 2019.
1Give head coach FOUR-YEAR CONTRACT BETWEEN WORLD CUP COMPETITIONs
Not for a minute do I begrudge Declan Kidney his two-year extension -- given the same situation myself, I would have gobbled it up -- but why give him a contract that ends it midway between World Cups?
It has been suggested that two years -- assuming a change in management come 2013 -- would still give a new coach enough time ahead of RWC 2015.
The World Cup is now the shop window to the professional game and no stone must be left unturned in working towards that primary goal.
Four years would seem the optimum time and if there is a mutual willingness to go beyond that, then let it be for the same time span again.
2attach less importance to SIX NATIONS success
The head coach and his management team are accountable to the IRFU rugby committee on the basis of a yearly review.
I know it inhibited Eddie O'Sullivan greatly, whereby immediate gratification -- as in bums on seats -- came way ahead of any longer-term plans.
I accept it is an extremely difficult balancing act between instant success (the nature of the professional game) and longer-term needs, but here, if there is to be total trust between employer (union) and employee (coach), then security of tenure must be attached to performance (player development) beyond results.
Put simply, Kidney must be given the scope to experiment and give youth its fling in the competitive sphere of the Six Nations without his own position being immediately under threat.
3 GREATER EMPHASIS ON THE SUMMER TOUR
As things stand, the May/June tour Down Under is a pure money-making venture to put fuel in the tank of the professional game.
Players from the southern hemisphere's 'big three' view their November trek north in the same negative light.
For many reasons -- not least that of taking rugby touring back to the people and to grassroots -- we need a three-week tour embracing midweek games as well as the money-spinning Tests.
If that means some top players, say because of a Heineken Cup or Super 15 final, missing out for an early portion, then so be it.
Here is the ideal opportunity to blood emerging talent. As of now, tours are about playing two Tests pretty much at full strength and getting back on the bus ASAP.
4 IRB WORLD SEVENS INVOLVEMENT
The IRFU stands indicted for Sevens posturing. What we are witnessing, as Sevens hits the global stage via the Olympic Games, is tokenism on the part of the governing body.
There is no real will to see Sevens established and Ireland becoming part of the IRB World Sevens circuit.
It would cost upwards of €2m to run, but it would be money well spent, given the on-field benefit in terms of spatial awareness and individual skill development.
Add the very real probability of a major Sevens tournament being held here annually, and you can see the benefits that would accrue to the national and local economy, whether Dublin, Limerick, Belfast or wherever.
5 FRONT-ROW TASK FORCE AND SCHOOLS' SCRUMS REVIEW
We have seen the difference Mike Ross has made to this Irish side since coming on board.
The safety rationale behind allowing just a metre and a half at scrum time in underage rugby is understandable, but the clear knock-on effect is that it is hitting prop development badly.
There is no longer equality of opportunity (or incentive) for the more rotund and generally stronger young lads (on which rugby always prided itself) when, instead, you can effectively play at least two more mobile (back-row) forwards in the front-row.
It is significant that John Hayes, Reggie Corrigan, Tony Buckley and Peter Bracken -- to name just four of recent vintage -- were all players who converted from the second-row or back-row to the front-row after age grade.
6 INVEST IN CREATIVE OVERSEAS BACKS COACH
I want to see indigenous coaching develop, but we need a creative attacking coach in succession to Alan Gaffney from outside these shores, and specifically from France.
For me, the French epitomise everything good about attacking and creative rugby.
No individual players sense space, come from depth, fix opponents or maximise narrow channels by way of clever running and soft hands better than the French.
Surely, there are enough contacts between the IRFU and FFR to unearth the right man?
7 INITIATE POSITIONAL AND PERSONNEL CHANGE
We are not and will never be in a position to wipe the slate clean and replace one World Cup cohort en bloc, but much like Liverpool in the '70s and '80s and more recently Manchester United, we can introduce new players with foresight by degrees.
To give but one very relevant example ... the immediate role of Brian O'Driscoll, who will be 33 in January.
I accept that age is but a number, but the great man knows that time and mileage on the clock are taking their toll.
That said, providing his mind is right, he has a very real role to play in the transition from this 'golden generation' to the next.
If ever the time was right to switch from outside-centre to inside, it is now. He would be the ideal play-maker and foil for Fergus McFadden/ Keith Earls/Luke Fitzgerald to develop in the wider, more pace-oriented channel alongside.
8 TRANSITION IN CAPTAINCY AND LEADERSHIP
For the good of the team and his own Test career, the time is right for O'Driscoll to hand on the captain's armband.
Paul O'Connell may be less than a year younger than O'Driscoll, but the shift would be seamless, benefiting both men as well as the team.
It's time, too, for passing on responsibility to the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy (it might just rein in the loose-cannon element to that temperament), Sexton and Rob Kearney. These are the tomorrow men with clearly evident leadership qualities.
9 TAP INTO WORLD-WIDE GOODWILL FOR GAME
For so long the game has been run here, by general agreement, parallel to the Scots, with the SRU and IRFU operating very much like Siamese twins.
That must change. We would do better to try to follow the Australian model, despite their greater playing numbers and one more elite professional club (the recently formed Melbourne franchise).
Where they score in a big way is the beautiful climate which lends itself to field activity and, by extension, skill development.
On and off the field, the ARU and Wallabies are recognised for the cerebral element to their modus operandi.
It would be well worth sending Kidney on a fact-finding mission, even at this experienced stage of his coaching career.
The union should also invest in the best of emerging coaching talent (particularly former professional players with the interest and desire) by sending them abroad to the Antipodean countries, South Africa, France -- wherever, whatever it takes.
As with Sevens investment, it would be money well spent.
10 IMPROVED RELATIONS BETWEEN HEAD COACH AND PROVINCES
This has long been a hot potato, certainly since the professional game came into being and the Heineken Cup (in particular) became the monster it now is.
Don't let anyone kid you that the Ireland set-up and provincial four are singing off the same sheet -- they are not.
How could they, when their goals, involving many of the same players, are oft times diametrically opposed?
There is a dire need for better player management and better player (positional) utilisation.
If the national coach knows he could be stuck in a certain position (as at full-back, with both Kearney and Geordan Murphy long-term casualties ahead of the last Six Nations), then his request must be acceded to at provincial level, even though it might not fit in with the provincial coach's agenda.
To that end, a very definite split in IRFU management, whereby two separate bodies come into being -- one with sole responsibility for the professional game and the other for the amateur side -- would be big step in the right direction.
The club/provincial issue is still a festering sore in need of lancing -- we lose club rugby at our peril.
There is, too, the sometimes rocky relationship between head coach and governing body and here I would urge restraint on both sides.
Starting with the clubs, the game is bigger than every one of us.
Today and tomorrow on the North Island in New Zealand, the four best footballing sides in world rugby take centre stage.
We have come a long way since the Paris Accord of '95, but with the right will and the appropriate support for gradual change, everything is possible.
To borrow from the band 'Journey,' the message from RWC 2011 is quite simply 'Don't Stop Believing.' That, we must never do.