Sunday 16 December 2018

Brendan Fanning: We’ve climbed a mountain but will need a new plan to scale next one

17 March 2018; Ireland players, from left, Jordi Murphy, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jonathan Sexton, Dan Leavy and Conor Murray celebrate following the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium in London, England. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
17 March 2018; Ireland players, from left, Jordi Murphy, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jonathan Sexton, Dan Leavy and Conor Murray celebrate following the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium in London, England. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It will be pushing things for the IRFU to have their next Strategic Plan printed and bound in time for the AGM in June.

They’ll be lighting fires under a few folks to get it over the line though. By way of introduction, you can imagine CEO Philip Browne pausing for effect and quoting from the last document in the mini-series, which covered 2013-17.

"Winning a Six Nations Championship once every four years, and finishing runner-up in two of the other years," was how that report set out the key objective.

"Pursue a model of best practice to allow provincial academies continue to meet the player needs of the professional game."

Two titles, and a runner-up spot in that period. Bit of a bullseye that first bit. At which point Browne will apologise for the delay in getting the 2018-23 version into print, and then quickly remind us to square away 2018 as a Six Nations season to remember. With a week to go Ireland had been installed as champions. And on its last day, an arctic St Patrick’s Day no less, they went to Twickenham for the Grand Slam and had it all wrapped up as England came in wave after wave in the final few minutes.

What an achievement. From the opener in Paris to the closer in London there was a leadership corps who kept the show on the road when it was seconds from being closed. The key however was in the infusion of fresh talent that lightened the load. And that doesn’t happen by accident.

We were slow in this country to buy a ticket on the professional train when it was pulling out of the station almost 23 years ago. Nowadays, however, we slip comfortably into first class for the occasional journey.

How? Because our system is highly functional: we’re developing a good stream of talent for the professional game; we’re keeping the vast bulk of that talent on this island where they can best be monitored and controlled; and at last we’re effecting a policy of player placement around the four provinces that makes sense.

That last bit has been a long time coming. When Ireland were winning their Grand Slam in 2009 — remarkably with the same 22 across the five games — Tommy Bowe was an Osprey, Geordan Murphy a Tiger, and all the rest were tucked up in their native provinces, if you can include Tom Court at Ulster. Of the current squad only those based on the island need apply. And of that bunch Robbie Henshaw, Chris Farrell and Jordi Murphy have moved, or are moving, province within the system. Others will follow.

For Farrell and Murphy, it’s with a view to making the squad for the 2019 World Cup in Japan. When Murphy arrives in Ulster he will find Marty Moore there for the same reason, plus a handful of other Leinster men who moved north to further their careers.

According to that same 2013-17 strategic plan, the reviews from the World Cups in 2011 and 2015 had flagged the need for greater alignment between the national side and the provinces.

Nothing illustrated better the struggle for that alignment than the whingeing and moaning in Ulster over Ruan Pienaar. Encouraged by populist journalism, acres of space were devoted to the human rights outrage that was the forced separation of Pienaar from the folks he had come to love so much. Jaysus.

No sooner had Pienaar’s plane taken off but John Cooney already was doing a passable impression of a decent scrumhalf. Overnight everyone thought it was a great idea. Now Ulster’s doors are wide open, such is their struggle to fill their squad with home-growns.

This is both good and bad. Bad for Ulster, whose state of awfulness was beautifully illustrated by the timing, production and content of a message last weekend from chief executive Shane Logan, reassuring the faithful that what feels like a tidal wave is no more than an underwater fart. It bubbled up on the Ulster website as we were preparing for the Scotland game. There was raucous laughter around the press room in Lansdowne Road when it was spotted.

The good bit for Ulster is that help is coming. And good for Ireland because the flow of traffic means players are getting to play instead of watch.

The next stage is to keep them in the system. When ERC was gazumped by EPCR in 2014, a dystopian picture presented itself. With clubs wiping the eye of unions it became a world of cash is king. It was hard to see how Ireland could compete with these telephone numbers. In 2015, the knockout stages of the Champions Cup had only Leinster from this country. A year later it was solely an Anglo-French affair. Doom and gloom.

The recovery since then has been rapid and impressive. It has been helped by a mix of retention and repatriation. The former is where Joe Schmidt waves the big stick that is Test rugby, and perversely he is assisted by what’s been happening in England and France. The RFU have so much money they can throw it at clubs to produce players for use by HQ. If clubs play their cards right they can actually turn a profit on a player who they’ve raised themselves.

The French federation don’t have the same financial clout, largely because they don’t own Stade de France and have to pay through the nose for using it. So Test rugby is not the cash cow it should be. Still, they have managed to tweak the club system to the point where next season 16 of the 23 in a Top 14 match-day squad have to be France-qualified.

So if both of those countries are more inclined towards local talent it means they are less likely to invade our space, carrying off our young, kicking and screaming. Of course there will be lads who leave, but not the exodus feared when television money transformed the buying power of clubs in England and France.

Then there is the production line itself. The extraordinary bounty coming through Leinster’s youth and schools system, and Munster’s mix of good recruitment to supplement home-growns, has meant Ireland are competitive at provincial level again. The amount of work to be done out west — where the lack of weather-friendly pitches is a scandal — and up north, should keep everyone on their toes.

Ireland’s success this season has been predicated on a few elements. There was good fortune on top of skill in the endgame in Paris to survive all the things that could have gone wrong; and the same against Wales when Gareth Anscombe could have unravelled everything with a better choice of pass on the last play.

But the flight would never have taken off without the back-up staff being up to the job when others were ringing in sick. The contributions of Chris Farrell and Andrew Porter make the case.

Until Connacht and Ulster are producing more quality, we are in danger of running low on supplies, for relying too heavily on Leinster and Munster makes no sense. This becomes an issue when the IRFU is drawing up that next strategic plan which, again, will have a semi-final spot in a World Cup on its to-do list.

Getting there will involve Ireland developing their attack. Go back to the Wales game and a sequence that started at just under 32 minutes. From a set-piece on the east side of the ground Ireland went through almost 40 pairs of hands without Wales turning the ball over, clocking up 17 phases. This was not an endgame where one team is on a penalty roll and the other is on its knees. It was at the height of the contest.

It was a patchwork quilt that reflected all that is good with Schmidt: a beautiful starter that drags opponents into places they regret going; followed by lots of good little things that combine into unbearable pressure on the opposition. Yet Ireland had to be satisfied with a 60-metre drive that ended in a heap on the line — for three points.

Maybe the lesson is in rewinding to the 12th phase when it was clear the ball had to go wide, for five points, and maybe seven, instead of battering away for three. Think of the reduced carbon footprint, the positive environmental impact of saving all that grunt?

It has implications too for how Ireland defend. Andy Farrell, who will likely succeed Schmidt as head coach in 2019, trades in defenders who get off the line very quickly and in high numbers. Doing it over and over again makes life very difficult for the opposition. But repeating those rushes is not unrelated to how hard the team has to work in attack. So if you’re in the business of breaking down every door going forward, instead of picking a few locks, you’re going to be short on gas for the defensive duties.

In the run-up to the last World Cup Schmidt got a modest amount of flak for Ireland’s virtually zero-risk policy when it came to offloading. Then when Argentina ended our campaign with a brilliant mix of width and aggression it was clear we needed something extra.

Yesterday in Twickenham it was the quality of Ireland’s set-piece and defence that got them over the line. And despite the drain of having to carry so much ball into contact — England’s defence was very good — they somehow had the reserves to make 155 complete tackles. 

Between Leinster and Ireland, Schmidt’s time in Ireland already has been stellar, a phenomenal return of eight titles in eight years. Unless of course he goes and wins the World Cup, to make it nine in nine — he might go higher by boarding the flight to Japan having retained the Championship. It’s about the World Cup now, however, and given that we have never been in the last four of that competition in eight attempts, success there would be a Hollywoodesque sign-off for the coach and an open door to the All Blacks job.

But it will involve some recalibration. When the dust settles and the stats are totted, he will reflect on how his squad have climbed this mountain. And he’ll know that to scale the next peak will require a different game. We have the players; we have the coach. Now we need a strategic plan to broaden our horizons.

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