Sunday 22 September 2019

Dick Clerkin: 'All Blacks and Dublin share much more than a shirt sponsor'

The Boys In Blue are heading towards GAA immortality and emulating the total rugby dominance of the Kiwis

Pat Gilroy initiated a change to Dublin’s attitude and culture after the ‘startled earwigs’ performance against Kerry in 2009, a transition that draws many parrallels with the All Blacks’ evolution. Photo: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE
Pat Gilroy initiated a change to Dublin’s attitude and culture after the ‘startled earwigs’ performance against Kerry in 2009, a transition that draws many parrallels with the All Blacks’ evolution. Photo: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

Dick Clerkin

The Dubs and the All Blacks. Same sponsor, different code, shared values. Much had been made of the advantages, financial and otherwise, that Dublin are afforded. Some things cannot simply be bought however, especially when it comes to sport. In his 2018 book 'The Jersey' author Peter Bills attempts to unravel the key factors behind the New Zealand All Blacks' enduring success, which has risen to stratospheric heights this decade. Reading Bills' fascinating insights, many parallels can be drawn between the Kiwis and the current Dublin football team.

'No Dickheads' is the now famous All Blacks' mantra that Bills dissects, and one which goes to the very core of their values and team ethos. In short, the individual must take second place to the team.

Origins

Its origins can be traced back to Johannesburg 2004, now recognised as a pivotal moment in the history of All Blacks' rugby. Following a comprehensive defeat to the Springbox, the new management team of Graham Henry and Steve Hansen knew change was needed. Too often, New Zealand were found wanting in major competitions when the going got tough. Heightened egos were weakening the collective.

After that watershed moment in South Africa, Henry and Hansen methodically went to work imbedding a team-focussed culture, which over the next decade would see the All Blacks go on to become arguably the greatest sporting team in history. This Sunday Jim Gavin's Dublin team stand on the brink of being labelled the greatest Gaelic football team in history. Both teams have more in common than the logo on their jerseys.

Dublin's change in fortunes can similarly be traced back to a milestone moment in their recent history. In 2009, Pat Gilroy was faced with a similar dilemma to Henry, following Dublin's humiliating All-Ireland quarter final against Kerry. Overhyped, and too individualistic his "startled earwigs" performance was a seminal moment in the story of Dublin's rise to dominance. Gilroy knew, just like Henry did back in 2004, that the culture and attitude of Dublin football had to change. The hill-clapping, fist-pumping, swashbuckling underachievers, were gradually replaced with steely, focussed competitors.

New Zealand captain Kieran Read and Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton were brought together
at a sponsorship event in Dublin in 2018. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
New Zealand captain Kieran Read and Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton were brought together at a sponsorship event in Dublin in 2018. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

They developed a team-focussed ethos to wrap around their undoubted skill and flair. When Stephen Cluxton landed the last minute winner in 2011 it marked the end of the beginning for Dublin football. Gilroy laid the foundations that day for the monument Gavin has since built. Henry and Hansen's All Blacks reached the peak of their powers in the first half of this decade, bookended by their 2011 and 2015 World Cup triumphs. On the field of play, Bills writes at length about how the All Blacks prioritise perfecting the basic skills of the game over anything else. From when they can first lift a ball, their techniques are honed like a sixth sense. When we watch their 18-stone props pass and offload like world class centres it is because they have been practising it all their lives.

On the side-line watching Dublin's warm up ahead of the throw in against Mayo a few weeks back I noted how simple it all was. No needlessly complex drills or tackle grids, just the basics executed well. Not surprising then that both teams show similar levels of composure and efficiency even in the most tense match conditions. When the temperature rises, their instincts don't let them down.

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Back in 2004 Henry realised that to change the fortunes of the national side, he was going to have to change the culture, which required a focus on building strong leaders within the team. Leaders who would commit to fostering a set of values and culture within the group that would endure longer than any single player.

Where Graham Henry had Richie McCaw, Conrad Smith and Kieran Reid, Jim Gavin found Stephen Cluxton, James McCarthy and Brian Fenton. Men of character and resilience.

In Bills' book, Hansen calls double World Cup-winning captain Richie McCaw 'the greatest All Black ever'. Cluxton can look forward to receiving similar plaudits should he go on to lift his and Dublin's fifth consecutive All Ireland next Sunday.

Lost in much of this rhetoric around Dublin's resources, is the undeniable work that Gavin and Gilroy before him put into changing the culture within Dublin football. By shaping men of character who commit unreservedly to a journey of self-improvement and a team-first mentality, they have built a team the standard of which the game has never witnessed. Much of this cost little to instil but becomes priceless when it endures.

But here is the rub. As we sit here today, the All Blacks have slipped from the top of the world rankings for the first time in ten years, having been replaced by Wales no less. This came about by recently relinquishing their rugby championship to South Africa, in a campaign that also saw them concede 47 points in a rare defeat to Australia. As sport continues to teach us, you can only stay on top for so long. Dublin, like the All Blacks, are not immune to this fact of life.

South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus was honing his craft in Munster rugby at the same time Kerry's Peter Keane was down the road developing a group of young Kerry players that have now become Dublin's greatest challenger. Is Keane the Rassie Erasmus of Gaelic football, and the man to end Dublin's dominance?

He may well turn out to be, but unfortunately for Peter, the current Dublin team of "no dickheads" is not ready to hand over the torch just yet.

Irish Independent

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