Sunday 17 November 2019

David Kelly: 'World Cup a reminder that beauty is in the eye of the beholder'

Andy Farrell will know that as long as his Ireland team are succeeding, few will be overly concerned if they are winning ugly. Photo: Sportsfile
Andy Farrell will know that as long as his Ireland team are succeeding, few will be overly concerned if they are winning ugly. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

"I am not going to go to a kick-and-defend game. Call me naive but that's not the way we do it. I'd rather win it our way or no way."

These are words that stir the soul of the sports fan. But they are also the words of a loser.

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Outgoing Australian Michael Cheika is their author, emitting his plaintive plea following a last-eight defeat to an England side who thumped their old enemy 40-16 despite possessing the ball for a mere 10 minutes and 34 seconds.

Australia's World Cup departure has prompted much soul-searching since that quarter-final weekend.

So, too, a chastened Ireland has also wallowed in the speciality subject of the loser, a prolonged navel-gazing which has filled felled forests of newspaper pages with retribution and recrimination.

A common theme has been the familiar, age-old debate of style versus substance.

The Irish version, elaborated again by Brian O'Driscoll this week, has it that the limited game-plan adopted by Joe Schmidt should have evolved before his side received their lesson in knock-out rugby from the All Blacks.

Schmidt was either unconvinced that a more enterprising game-plan would suit his side or else was not entirely convinced that he had the players to implement one if he wanted to.

As he dithered, the clock ran down on another World Cup tilt. So now, it seems, Ireland must re-shape their entire approach to the game.

But what about the knock-out rugby lesson sustained by the All Blacks this month?

Should that not also inform how Ireland advance the "learnings" we shall hear intoned incessantly in the weeks and months ahead?

For, in the land of the now suddenly long, dark cloud, Kiwis have been bemoaning the side's reliance on the exciting youth and inexperience that a week earlier had seemingly installed them as unbackable favourites for a third successive title.

Time for them to rip up their script too, perhaps!

Certainly, aside from England's stunning opening 90 seconds against the All Blacks, it would seem that the forces of defensive darkness have triumphed against the romantic ideals of those who like to see rugby played the 'right way'.

But is the only 'right way' to play the one that wins the match?

As that renowned sporting philosopher Vinny Jones once opined, winning doesn't really matter as long as you win.

Hence, Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus has issued little apology in advancing his requirements for success at all costs.

He accepts criticism that his side are boring with the stunningly simple riposte that his is also a side who are playing for a World Cup title.

And only two can play that particular game.

England will have to mirror the Boks first before they can master them, as their Kiwi defence coach John Mitchell avers.

"What we like to do is that we feel we are very adaptable," says Mitchell.

"We don't just play one way, so that's one of our strengths."

Warren Gatland's Wales might have thought something similar of themselves but instead were snared within a Springbok web.

It seems highly unlikely the risk-averse policy of the Boks will thrive for a second successive week, particularly against an opposition of higher calibre and one who are themselves just as adept at applying suffocating pressure.

England may appear to have embraced an all-round game that equips them with the tools for winning a World Cup but until a few days ago, it was assumed that Steve Hansen was in charge of such a team too.

And if England could thwart the supposedly indomitable Blacks, who cannot say they themselves might in turn be undone by the seemingly heartless, ruthless Boks?

Victory is more likely for the team that dares not to make a mistake, rather than the one who does. It may not please the dreamers amongst us but then we are not charged with leading a team into battle.

As he discovered during his time with Munster, where rightly few quibble at a limited game-plan that produces regular play-offs, perhaps an over-reliance on defence will only take Erasmus so far.

But if does manage to win, and win ugly, then who can complain? After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And the holders of the Webb Ellis.

An early lesson too, perhaps, for Andy Farrell, as he wonders just how much he can deviate from his predecessor's limited faith in expansive rugby, as well as the trust in those who might want to play it.

Irish Independent

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