Sometimes it’s perfectly acceptable or reasonable to stop and enjoy a moment in time without trying to find a place for it in the context of future tasks. Ireland’s outstanding 2-1 Test series win in New Zealand should be celebrated for what it is, rather than what it could mean 14 months from now.
Andy Farrell took an Irish squad to New Zealand in what many thought was a ridiculously tough five-game itinerary and returned home with three wins, including a first win on New Zealand soil, a win over the New Zealand Maori and the award-winning Scalp of the All Blacks in a test series. Ireland climbed to number one in the world.
The green fields of France 2023 can wait. As you get older you know the importance of acknowledging achievements, pausing to breathe in the joy that comes with that sense of accomplishment, fleeting as it may be, one that could help you as a coach or player, the continue journey.
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Ireland have achieved what no other country has achieved in the professional era and only a handful of teams (South Africa, Lions, Australia and France) have previously managed to win a Test series in New Zealand.
I have no doubt that players enjoy the here and now. This will be followed by a tremendous emotional and physical decompression in the coming weeks and months.
I loved Shane Lowry’s quote when he won the Claret Jug: “Nobody tells you how to get down the hill”. In the past, the Irish rugby team has struggled not only with relegation but also with trying to recover to its peak quickly thereafter.
The most recent example was in 2018 when Ireland beat New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium. With the euphoria fading, cracks began to appear at the 2019 Six Nations Championship as Joe Schmidt’s side struggled to cope and those problems manifested themselves at the World Cup in Japan later that same year.
Some were physical, but most were mental; that burnout sucked the oxygen out of Ireland’s challenge. In order to avoid repetition, it is important to learn from the mistakes. The first is to understand that not everyone carries the same burden within the squad. There is a massive mental toll on a few players. For Ireland to be future-proof, it needs to be spread across a larger number.
The development of the game plan under Farrell started this process, but there is still a long way to go. Ireland have been treated kindly by the injury gods in this series and have fielded almost the same team in the three Tests.
When Ireland have attained their peak in recent history this has usually been the case, an example of this being series wins in Australia (2018) under Joe Schmidt and in recent performances under Andy Farrell.
I have previously advocated the notion that the Irish team’s success rests in the present and that we don’t have the luxury that France and England offer in the superior numbers and quality to be able to rotate the starting team without relegation. off in standard or result. It’s this consistency in picking that has allowed the team to win games.
Can the Test series win in New Zealand be considered an achievement in its own right or will it be used to raise unrealistic expectations ahead of France 2023?
Steve Hansen’s warning to wait and see how Ireland fared after briefly being world number one still rings like a warning bell. That didn’t end well.
The system that supports the national team remains constrained by several issues, one of which is over-reliance on schools, and players who have not yet proven themselves at this level come through based on reasonably extensive work and not up a cameo here and there.
Ireland have a world class front line with incredible riches in some positions but others where we are just one injury away from a very different perspective for the collective.
Our World Cup fixation has produced nothing but heartbreak and an impenetrable blanket of the tournament’s quarter-final stage. But be careful what you wish for. Wales and Argentina made it to the semis but at what cost to the sport in their respective countries?
In 2007 and 2015 Argentina focused solely on the World Cup and reached the penultimate round of the tournament but had little to celebrate in between and after.
Wales, fueled by one of the modern game’s most accomplished coaches in Warren Gatland, played ‘Warrenball’ which, while not a treat for the senses, was very effective in winning clutch matches.
That success was fueled by some exceptional players as well, including Alyn Wyn Jones, a string of excellent halfbacks, Jamie Roberts as the gain line king, and hard-shooting kickers to keep the scoreboard ticking. However, the compromise was significant and largely upset Welsh club play.
It’s been a while since the Scarlets won the league, while the Welsh clubs just don’t appear as serious contenders in the Heineken Champions Cup. From the outside it seems that playing is the be-all and end-all for Wales, but there is little loyalty to the franchises and many of the top players happily chase success and a more secure financial future on the other side of the Severn Bridge.
URC attendances in Wales are modest enough that club rugby funding is relied entirely on the success of the national team. While they do rely on each other to a degree, in the case of the club, judging it strictly on success and money-making ability seems more parasitic than symbiotic.
Compare that to Ireland and see which system resonates better with supporters. The success of the provinces is important to the fans and for some arguably more important or at least on an equal footing with the national team. Success came in waves, Ulster in the late 1990s, Munster in the 2000s, with Leinster taking over in 2009 and Connacht winning a league title in 2016.
Ireland’s landmark victories included a win at Twickenham in 2004, the national team came close to winning the Six Nations in 2007 before winning a Grand Slam in 2009 and the ensuing successes. There have been ups and downs for the provinces and the national team, but enough good times to make the lean times bearable.
The World Cup quarter-finals cap remains a final taboo to be scrapped and until then will continue to be used as a stick to denounce Ireland’s failure at the global tournament. I have often pointed out one of the structural problems that undermines such expectations, which is the total reliance on the schools’ rugby system to support the national team.
This has never been addressed and probably never will be. The smallest player population represents over 80 percent of the national team. There are many things the IRFU can be criticized for, but sensibly they have not sacrificed everything financially to pursue World Cup success. That would be a silly thing.
In 2015 Ireland had arguably the best chance of breaking the glass ceiling of the World Cup, but the game against France showed a weakness that still exists, losing key players we just couldn’t afford. The gap between starters and finishers was illustrated in the subsequent loss to Argentina.
I think we need to appreciate success more when it comes and understand that trying to win at a World Cup might require sacrifices that we would not be able to bear and that it would come at the expense of the rest of professional football in this country.
We should have sacrificed the Test series we just won in New Zealand and the Six Nations that just left to give players playing time, whether they deserve it or not. France started bleeding young talent two years ago and now only use form players around this framework of fearless excellence.
Ireland doesn’t have that luxury. Key players remain and without them Ireland have struggled. As it stands today, the Ireland squad is made up of 18/20 world-class players and that won’t be enough to efficiently win seven games and win a World Cup.
The Irish system is not designed to deliver World Cup success in its current format. It can? Absolutely, but it will take investment in club play to develop new streams of talent.
If Ireland never reach a semi-final but maintain that consistently high level of performance across different club and country cycles, I’m happy to accept that.
You can’t choose when you’re at your best as a player, as a team, or as a coach. All you can do is ride this wave for as long as possible. Players need to catch their breath, and for some, the extra time away from the game will be the best thing that can happen to them.
The trainers think and plan. They created the problem that every coach wants to solve, but not everyone can measure up to. We are the best at this moment. How do we get better? It’s a nice place to sit while trying to figure out the answer. For now, let’s just enjoy what we have.
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