Monday 18 December 2017

Video: Beating Wales out the gate won’t make up for the World Cup

Ireland’s success at European club level is not matched by our international side, says Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

THE day after the Wales win over Ireland in the World Cup we were back at the Cake Tin, as the Wellingtonians call their stadium, for the South Africa versus Australia match.

For some of us, it felt like a long trek across town, lengthened by the events of the day before. Up until kick-off we had been chasing flights and remortgaging to cover accommodation in Auckland for the semifinal.

Long before the final whistle we were in home mode. As we entered the media centre, there was a gaggle of Welsh hacks gathered around a table, deep in conversation about the previous afternoon and how they would cover what happened next. There were lots of angles to measure, and fields of quotes to be harvested. They looked well pleased.

In these circumstances, we swap notes as if we were actually involved. It becomes ‘our lot’ and ‘your lot’ and where it all went wrong or right. The Welsh crowd were being very magnanimous about it all. Of course it would have been a different game, they agreed, had a wheel not fallen off the Irish bus somewhere between the hotel and the stadium.

In truth, we had half expected that Ireland bus to come down the ramp at the Cake Tin and drive over the top of the red shirts. If you are old enough to remember the 1970s, when we went through eight games in a row without a win over Wales, then the dramatic swing in that relationship sometimes leaves you underestimating them. We had one foot in the semi-final.

We bang on in this country about the success of our provincial system and how its high tide has relaunched the national ship. Evidently, it’s a model of productivity with five European titles spread across three teams, and six Celtic League titles shared among the same winners. In the same period Wales have contested just one European Cup final — Cardiff made it to finals day in the first season when it was a 12-team operation with no Scottish or English involvement. They lost to Toulouse. And between ‘You have to remember that there will always be 20/25 very good players in Wales anyway’ Ospreys and Llanelli they have picked up four Celtic titles. Hardly the stats of an acquisitive rugby nation.

When the game went open in 1995 and the European Cup was rushed in to fill the gap that had just opened up, the Welsh clubs would have been rated a cut above Ireland’s provinces. Leinster squeezed past Pontypridd in their pool that season and contested the semi-final with Cardiff. Beating Ponty, complete with the metronomic Neil Jenkins, was a feather in Leinster’s cap. We don’t remember expectations being too high against Cardiff, nor disappointment being especially acute when those expectations were founded.

Why was this? Because Wales were much closer to being professional than we were, in so far as there was a history there of pay for play, a clear relationship between performance and reward. As a kid, you would head over to Donnybrook to watch Bective playing Cardiff for the stars they had in their ranks. Cardiff’s ranks. The Welsh clubs were accustomed to a fiercely contested national club set-up, augmented by crossborder fixtures with English clubs that drew huge crowds.

It would be a while before the Irish system would compensate by getting into bed with professionalism having first tried hard to ignore it. By 2003/’04, the IRFU’s national academy was farmed out, and while this put the cart before the horse in so far as the skills weren’t in place in the four provinces to run those academies, the aspiration was sound. And in time they caught on — well, Munster are still catching up.

Wales went regional in 2003, forcing clubs into bed with each other who previously had been at each other’s throats. We’ve all heard the joke about the cherished wartime memory of the Swansea boy being taken by his mother up to the highest point in the town to watch the Germans bombing Neath. Well, his ma never thought they would be fighting on the same side, until the WRU made that fundamental and controversial shift from clubs to regions.

For the first few seasons these new families were so busy trying to get used to each other and paper over their differences that they forgot to sort out their succession stakes. “Initially the Welsh academies would have been under-funded and when I went to the Dragons in 2003/’04 we finished third in the Celtic League but we didn’t have an academy,” says Mike Ruddock, who is now looking after Ireland’s under 20s. “By then, the IRFU provincial academies were up and running and producing players. But you’d have to think that the quality of young players coming through now from the Welsh academies, the Toby Faletaus and Rhys Priestlands, will go on to provide the sort of feeder system that Ireland have had for three or four years longer — the likes of Jonny Sexton and Seán O’Brien and Luke Fitzgerald. And Jamie Heaslip has come through that as well.”

So Ireland stole a march here, and getting ahead with the academy system is sustaining the current success in this country below international level. In fact, we are miles ahead of Wales in the provincial game, drawing comparatively huge crowds while the regions can sell out only for local derbies at Christmas. And yet there are two Grand Slam pennants from the last seven seasons hanging on the wall in the WRU office in Cardiff. And in World Cups they have twice gone where Ireland have yet to tread: a semifinal.

Ruddock was at the helm when they won the first of those recent Grand Slams, in 2005. If their regions were lagging behind, how did their national team pull off those tricks?

“It’s more difficult to put your finger on,” he says. “Both times you had new coaches coming in and you’ll get players trying to prove themselves in that situation, and if you get some momentum then all can go well despite what’s happening elsewhere. You have to remember though that there will always be 20/25 very good players in Wales anyway, capable of delivering on the day. A lot of good young players got lost but there are so many young players involved there and for them there’s no conflict with other sports.”

Their drop off is nothing like Ireland’s however. According to IRB figures, there are nearly 58,000 teenagers playing the game here — more than four times the Welsh figure — but only 25,400 are still involved as adults (22,500 in Wales). So we should be the dominant Celtic nation across all levels. Jamie Heaslip wouldn’t be a man to over-analyse anything when it comes to rugby, preferring to live in the moment and approach every game believing he will win, but last week in the course of previewing today he popped up with the following.

“I saw a really interesting thing rating how well the home Celtic nations have done with regards to players they have, the number of players who play adult rugby and how well the country has done and the ratios of how well they did with regards to the budget, all this sort of thing,” he says. “It was somewhere on Twitter, that’s why I saw it. It’s pretty interesting. Ireland, for the number of adult players we have, we have done unbelievably well. If you think about it, we have five European Cups, I don’t know how many Celtic Leagues. We have a Grand Slam, we’ve Tri Nations (sic), the A team have done really well. I think we have performed really well. Granted we haven’t had as much success internationally as the clubs have done but I think we’re always there.

We set a high standard, we’re consistently performing at the top level and it’s just getting better at consistently performing every game. I think we’re getting better and better and better and I always think we can win everything.” ‘We’ve just got to focus on the detail of our job and everything else will follow’ Yes, but while Ireland are wiping Wales off the map at provincial level, and more consistent on the Six Nations table, Wales’ international record is better, ie they have won more. “It’s not for the want of trying,” Heaslip says. “I don’t know what you’re getting at but . . . we’re very ambitious. You do what you can, like, and we’d be the first ones to admit at times we’ve made our own mistakes and were punished and some games I feel we have lost rather than being beaten, if you know what I mean. We’ve just got to focus on the detail of our job and everything else will follow.”

This afternoon the detail will be defined by what happened in Wellington. The review of that game was the first subsequent sight of it for a fair number of the players. A few things came out of it. First, they were reassured by the fact that the media and public reaction had managed to gloss over, or miss entirely, the number of chances Ireland actually created on the day. Second, that was sobered by the poor conversion rate of those chances.

There was another and more worrying finding however. When you re-run that match you’ll see that straight from the kick-off Wales used a simple enough ploy which took out virtually all of Ireland’s midfield, allowing them to play out the back and develop the momentum that brought them the Shane Williams try. Ireland weren’t exactly rooted to the spot but for the rest of the day there was an inability to think on their feet, to play out the back themselves for example when their primary ball carriers were being cut down.

Nobody, inside or outside the camp, has been able to explain how such an experienced group of players could find themselves powerless to change the way they were playing. This extended not just to trying something different and failing, rather to keep doing the same thing and hope for a different result. For sure you will see a backlash today. There is a real urgency in this group, no matter how much they claim in public that it’s just another game, to prove that what happened that day was a dip in the graph, an aberration if you like.

Problem is it was a dip you’d have swapped happily with a few Six Nations wins over this opposition, in return for a World Cup semifinal. Beating them out the gate won’t change that.

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