Innovation once again
Irish U-20s boss Noel McNamara has returned from a 'tremendous' stint in New Zealand fresh and ready to go for another campaign, writes Cian Tracey
There was a time when rugby in New Zealand was such a closed-off inner sanctum that anyone who wasn't a Kiwi would be doing well to breach the barriers. The All Blacks model is such a machine that the union have always wanted to keep as much information as possible on their way of doing things inside their own four walls.
It's one of the main reasons why they have been so successful, but in more recent years that closed-off attitude has slowly started to change.
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The respect with which the Kiwis hold Irish rugby has ratcheted up again since Ireland beat the All Blacks for a second time in November.
Ronan O'Gara got an opportunity to work with the best team in the country with the Crusaders, while more recently Noel McNamara, the Ireland U-20s head coach, spent three months in New Zealand coaching in the Mitre 10 Cup.
While Super Rugby dominates the agenda in the southern hemisphere, the Mitre 10 Cup, which sits just below it, is a hugely well-regarded competition in New Zealand.
To the IRFU's credit, and in particular David Nucifora, the strings that the performance director and Joe Schmidt pulled to get McNamara a coaching gig with North Harbour should be hugely beneficial for this country's young talent.
"The main link was David, who coached Dave Gibson with the Blues - Joe did as well," McNamara says, explaining how the move first came about.
"Dave Gibson is the general manager in North Harbour. They (IRFU) originally met with him and said to me, 'Listen, if this was a possibility, would you be interested?' Joe knew Tom Coventry (North Harbour head coach) from his time in New Zealand as well. That was the initial link.
"David mentioned it to me and there was a pretty short window to make a decision. I spoke to Sinéad (his wife) and we agreed to do it.
"I spoke to Tom Coventry about what the role would look like. It didn't take long to realise that it was going to be a good fit. It all happened pretty quickly after that. It was a placement, a coaching development programme essentially. It was a tremendous opportunity, which was driven by David."
McNamara, who also works with the Leinster Academy and as the province's 'A' coach, moved to New Zealand with his wife and two young kids, where the family very much stepped out of their comfort zone.
The Clare native, whose focus with the Ireland U-20s is on attack, was suddenly parachuted into a defensive position that saw him coaching All Blacks and other Super Rugby players.
"It's a great competition," he enthuses. "In the Mitre 10 Cup, there are 14 professional teams. It's easy to see how they have developed. A lot of coaches have developed a lot of players through that system.
"Sitting above that you have Super Rugby but as well as that, either you play Mitre 10 or you play international rugby.
"In the team in North Harbour, we had three All Blacks playing and 13 Super Rugby players. The rest are supplemented by the club game. You have got a huge mix of ability sometimes and that's a little bit of a challenge.
"You pack so much into those 10 weeks - we played 11 games. It's certainly an intense environment."
It wasn't long before the Kiwi players were picking McNamara's brain as to how things are run in Ireland.
That inquisitive nature helped the former Clongowes teacher slot in, and he thrived in the environment.
"Listen, you have to have conviction in what you are doing, you have got to believe in what you are doing," he says.
"Coming from an environment like Leinster where... okay, I would only be coaching the 'A's, but a number of internationals regularly play for us. Coming from a high-performing environment was something I tried to bring to New Zealand.
"From the start, they were very open-minded. The culture around defence over there is slightly different. That was something I certainly tried to challenge.
"It was a little bit of a case of, you attack and we'll attack and let's see how that finishes up. But I found the players to be very open and keen to embrace new ideas.
"There is a respect for Irish rugby. There were questions like, 'What would Leinster do? What would Ireland do?' That was certainly a theme. I think they recognise that there has been some innovation up here.
"They still try and portray that attitude a little bit by asking who X was or who Y was. But you could certainly see that there was a shift and there was a lot more of an inquisitive nature around what we were doing.
"Respect is the word and I think the only way you can get that is by beating them. It's been backed up by Ireland, so the challenge now is to keep doing it consistently."
That 'respect' is largely why McNamara was given a rare chance for a young Irish coach to work in New Zealand at such a high level.
"I'm not sure if this would have been a viable opportunity five or 10 years ago," he says. "But I certainly found them very open to me coming in.
"There are differences, there is no doubt about it. We are pretty lucky here because we have got some fantastic coaches working in Ireland with the national team, with the provincial teams.
"One of the key learnings for me was around the process and the mindset that they have.
"We as Irish people are very good at telling you what players can't do. I think sometimes we miss what they can do - what they are really good at. We can see the work-ons but can we see their weapons?
"From a rugby perspective, nothing surprised me. If anything, I think there is a bit more innovation up here.
"Doing the basics well and doing the basics well at pace is a core mantra. They're fit and they train hard."
McNamara's challenge now is to take those learnings back to the Ireland U-20s set-up as they kick off their Six Nations campaign against England this evening.