Sunday 27 May 2018

Neil Francis: We need an original thinker

Ireland's tendency to ape what other teams do is not very clever, writes Neil Francis

It is important to have someone who can — and I hate using this term — think outside the box. Someone who can think further than conventional rugby logic
It is important to have someone who can — and I hate using this term — think outside the box. Someone who can think further than conventional rugby logic
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I watched with interest last week a documentary series called The Brain – A Secret History. American psychologist Albert Bandura conducted a series of tests way back in 1961 trying to determine how much of what we do and feel is learned from others.

In his empirical investigation he used 24 children between the ages of three and five. Each child was put into a playroom. An inflatable doll – a bo-bo – was introduced into the room. Quite unexpectedly, the adult produced a number of weapons and aggressively beat the bo-bo doll. Minutes later, the adult left the child in the room on his own. He picked up a stick and started to do to the doll exactly what the adult had done five minutes earlier. It was quite disturbing to see these small children repeat exactly what they had seen.

The other half of the children in the group observed an adult being introduced who hugged and gently played with the bo-bo doll and they also imitated the behaviour of that adult.

There are wide-ranging conclusions to be drawn from such studies. The one I drew is that people imitate what they observe from others or from people of influence.

After three rounds of the Six Nations, a very promising start and a slow descent into the mire, the conclusion I draw is that there are quite a few bo-bo dolls in charge of the teams playing in the championship. Philippe Saint-André and Scott Johnson in the bargain basement and Jacques Brunel out on his own as the best coach in the championship.

He made Perpignan very competitive in the Top 14 when he was coaching them and they played a beautiful brand of the game. They were successful too. Italy, although they have lost their last two matches, have improved exponentially in terms of skill levels and strategy.

In American football, Bill Belichick is universally seen as the smartest coach in the NFL. A unique blend of simplicity, pragmatism and practicality brought great success to the New England Patriots.

Belichick brought about 30 innovations or new concepts to the game and these pretty soon became standard procedure and were adopted by every team in the league, with every coach thinking "Duhh – why didn't I think of that first?"

There is without question an intellectual deficit in coaching standards, not just in the Six Nations but in SANZA as well with New Zealand the honourable exception.

Every team should have a deep thinker or an ideas person on the coaching roster, but not as Head Coach because quite often these people are hopelessly incapable of the simple amalgam of what makes up a rugby team. Things like motivation, implementing basic strategy, reinforcement of policy, managing egos, selection or dealing with the media is just beyond them. It is important to have someone who can – and I hate using this term – think outside the box. Someone who can think further than conventional rugby logic.

We learn things from other people and we don't always have the wit to change or challenge them.

In the 20th minute of the Welsh game, second row Andrew Coombs, one metre from his own goal line, committed about six infringements all at the same time. Romain Poite stuck his hand in the air to signal penalty advantage. Ireland had an unmissable penalty to the right of the posts, the referee was inviting Ireland to score a try because they already had a cast-iron three points in the bag.

Jonny Sexton eventually got the ball from the ruck and with a line of outside players with him, attempted a drop-goal. He missed. You don't have to be Jimmy the Greek to understand that Sexton played the odds badly. Why go for three when you already have a guaranteed three? Sexton is an honours graduate from UCD, did he not think this through? Did he do it because that is what other outhalves in the Six Nations do or is it just policy?

Roll on to the 61st minute of the England game. Rory Best is harshly penalised by Jerome Garles at a ruck two metres from Ireland's line. The French referee's hand goes out to indicate penalty advantage. Where is Owen Farrell? What is he thinking? A drop-goal? Not on your nelly! Ben Youngs arcs outside of the pillar tacklers and dinks a ball over the Irish defensive line into the in goal area. Owen Farrell knows what is going on and chases the ball. Manu Tuilagi has the ball literally clutched in his hands before Keith Earls flicks his hand away and an almost certain seven points is gone. England knew they had three and Farrell went back to the place of the infringement and calmly slotted a three-pointer. Why in the world would he have called for the ball and considered attempting a drop-goal?

Roll it on to the 63rd minute of the grand larceny international in Murrayfield. Ireland have infringed at the breakdown close to their own line and Wayne Barnes indicates penalty advantage.

The Scots had watched the England game, saw what Youngs and Tuilagi did, thought it was a reasonably smart idea and copied it. Greig Laidlaw, eager to get his advantage immediately dinked a ball over the Irish line again. Dougie Hall, Duncan Weir and Kelly Brown went after it like dam-busters. There were three people chasing and three people waiting – any one of them could have caught it, it was a 50-50 chance. Brown touched down but only after Weir had knocked forward. Scotland went back for their three points. Even the lamentable Scots can learn. Will we?

In another ploy that would leave Jimmy the Greek scratching his head, Ireland in the sixth minute of the Scotland game after Marshall's break, were awarded a penalty three metres from the Scottish line. Jackson kicks the ball in touch which means Ireland must go back two metres. They must then engage in a contestable line-out meaning that Scotland have the opportunity to win the ball back. They do just that as Jim Hamilton paws a badly-thrown ball and Scotland clean it up and, agony on top of agonies, they win a penalty, clear their line and have the put-in to the next line-out.

I am fairly certain that Ireland wanted to set up a line-out maul and try to barge over. Why give your opponents the chance to contest for the ball when you already have

it in your possession? Why that close to the line would you walk back two metres? Why that close to the line would you not just set up a maul from a secure tap if that is what you want to do in the first place? Who is thinking the odds through on these plays? What are the stats on successful line-out mauls close to the line? Can someone not say 'well 25 per cent of the time we get picked off, 10 per cent of the time it's crooked in, 10 per cent of the time it's slapped back, 10 per cent of the time we can't control it well enough to set up a maul'.

Why can't one of the coaches just say 'let's tap it and set up an unhurried and perfectly formed eight-man maul, move forward slowly, take the hit and move it around the side quickly and aggressively'.

New Zealand will start doing something like that in about two years and we will follow in three.

This team needs original thought and needs to stop slavishly following what others are doing. Each game played in the championship is different to the last. Ireland, though, could make 20 to 30 fundamental changes to the way they operate and think in the field to improve – I have highlighted just two possibilities.

Whoever the new coach is, he must think of more of the angles. Meanwhile, there were calls in Scotland for Scott Johnson, the bo-bo doll in chief, to have his position made permanent. There is no justice.

Irish Independent

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