Ireland’s Young Guns

Posted: November 12, 2016 in Uncategorized

Before the last Rugby World Cup, the New Zealand coaching staff had a huge decision to make. Nehe Milner-Skudder was tearing it up in Super Rugby, had earned two international caps, and Hansen had to decide whether he was worthy of selecting him over previous World Cup winner, Israel Dagg. The phrase “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” prevailed, and Dagg was omitted. Veteran Cory Jane also missed out.

Milner-Skudder went on to score four tries in the RWC before getting injured, and was also awarded World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year. The risk paid off.

In the same World Cup, Ireland reached the knockout stages. They suffered a few injuries, one player was suspended, and they lacked the strength in depth to overcome Argentina. Competition over.

The upshot is that Ireland coach Joe Schmidt took from that experience. There’s a saying, coined by Albert Einstein, that states “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Schmidt is far from insane.

On Saturday, the 5th of November, Schmidt coached an Irish team to arguably their biggest win in their history against New Zealand. They put 40 points on the scoreboard. An unbelievable performance that was hailed by Steve Hansen himself.

Ireland won that game without Sean O’Brien, Mike Ross, or Peter O’Mahony. Tadhg Furlong, 24, started at tighthead. Jordi Murphy, 25, started at seven, and, when he injured himself, was replaced by 23 year old Josh van der Flier. 21 year old Joey Carbery debuted from the bench.

Of the 23 man squad that made history, nine were 25 years of age or younger. To think that most of these players achieved something the likes of Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll, or Keith Wood could never achieve on their first try is amazing. Granted, Ringrose and Marmion didn’t make an appearance, but still, the future is bright.

The All Blacks will never instill the same fear in these players that they do others; these Irish players know the All Blacks are not untouchable. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll respect them. But fear won’t enter the equasion. As CJ Stander said:

I won’t say there has always been a mental block but now that barrier is broken, we have to start thinking about what we can achieve as a team, to put in a shift, make it two from two – that would be stuff you can write in your book one day.

A week later, 23 players were named to face Canada. Of these 23 players, 13 were 25 years old or younger. Not only that, but eight of the 23 man squad earned their first cap. Young Ultan Dillane earned Man of the Match. Ireland put 52 points on the scoreboard. Not too bad either.

Schmidt was often criticized for Ireland’s lack of running rugby and Heaslip’s try against Iraly in the Six Nations was probably the most exciting try Ireland scored for a while. Yet in their last two games, one of them being against back-to-back world champions, they scored a total of 92 points, scoring 13 tries.

On Saturday, Ireland will face the All Blacks again. Win or lose, it’s the performance that matters most. A win would be an awesome achievement, but you can guarantee Ireland will push themselves to the limit. But let’s look at some of the younger players, starting with the pack.

Jordi Murphy can deem himself extremely unlucky to be ruled out for an extended period. He was rewarded with the seven jersey by Joe Schmidt for a great summer tour. Although he has a lengthy spell ahead in rehab, he will come back swinging. 

Josh van der Flier has had a fantastic couple of seasons with Leinster, and when he replaced Murphy against the All Blacks, the red scrum cap could be seen all over the pitch as he tackled everything that moved. 

Ultan Dillane, who won the Pro 12 with Connacht last season, made an appearance off the bench against the All Blacks, and carried very well. The Kerryman went on to win Man of the Match against Canada the following week, putting his hand up for selection against the All Blacks. I’d select him.

Finlay Bealham, another Pro 12 winner, played 23 minutes against New Zealand, and was very impressive against Canada, offloading beautifully to set up a Tiernan O’Halloran try. Not to mention the hits he put in.

Tadhg Furlong became the master of the choke tackle and was praised nationally. Jack O’Donoghue, James Tracy, and Dan Leavy were all impressive against Canada. John Ryan is having a monster season for Munster and got his reward versus Canada. 

Moving on to the backs, and Robbie Henshaw scored the try that out the nail in the All Black coffin. He was also very impressive in the last World Cup. He is still only 23.

Joey Carbery had the debut one could only dream of, beating the All Blacks in his first international appearance. Nine games previous, he was playing for Clontarf RFC in the AIL. Quite a rise, but as Steve Hansen will tell you, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. And trust me, he’s good enough. 

We were forced to wait to see Garry Ringrose on the international stage, and I’m sure he was itching to get the opportunity. He played well against Canada, ghosting around defenders at times and certainly didn’t look out of place. I’m even willing to forgive him for the fact I bet on him to score twice. I’m sure the idea of moving Payne to 15 to open up a spot for him will cross Schmidt’s mind more than once this week.

All in all, these young players stepped up to the plate and performed. Creating history wasn’t a daunting prospect, and scoring fifty plus against Canada, although scrappy at times, was not out of their reach.

Carbery is improving with every passing week, and is now the third choice 10 behind Sexton and Jackson. Henshaw is one of the first names on the teamsheet, and Ringrose will continue to knock on the door. Nine remains a problem, as there is still too big a gap between Murray and Marmion, but give it time. I’m especially excited to see Niyi Adeolokun, another Pro 12 champion, get more game time. He’s electric, and a fantastic finisher.

The depth in the Irish pack is impressive. To quote Neil Treacy, Ireland have so many quality looseheads you could probably find one down the side of your couch. The ever present Mike Ross is now third choice tighthead. We have a plethora of second row and back row players, so many that Joe Schmidt will have a serious headache selecting a seven to join Stander and Heaslip in the backrow.

The game against Argentina in the last World Cup was a step too far because Ireland lacked the strength in depth needed. That weakness is now being assessed with every passing Test, with players stepping up when asked to.

Schmidt isn’t doing the same thing over and over again, hoping something will change. He’s ensuring that history doesn’t repeat itself. 

A special shout out has to go to Billy Holland. He may not be a young man, but he worked tirelessly to achieve his dream. Congratulations, Billy. It’s well earned. Enjoy it.


Before this weekend’s Champions Cup fixtures kick off, we remember what the competition brought us last week, thanks to @RugbyScribbler.

You may remember me writing an article at the tail end of the last season about how it was a record season in Europe for the Pro12- the first time that not one team from the competition has qualifi…

Source: A good start for the Pro12 in Europe

Zebre kicked off their Champions Cup campaign against Wasps the past weekend in the Ricoh Arena, Coventry. The Champions Cup is a competition in which the best clubs in Europe get to compete against each other for the ultimate prize in northern hemisphere club rugby. Yet it includes a team that has struggled to compete in its own league since joining.

Zebre scored two tries against Wasps: a driving maul when they had a forward in the bin (which is slightly worrying for Wasps when they face a higher calibre of opposition) and an interception. But they also conceded twelve.

History in the competition proves that a group containing an Italian side usually produces the best runner up for the knockout phases of the competition. This is a very polite way of saying the Italian teams are the whipping boys of the competition. 

Many people took to Twitter saying these teams shouldn’t be involved in the competition, which proves it’s not just an afterthought on a Saturday afternoon. It’s a genuine problem.

I asked earlier in the day if having one centralised team would improve the situation, such as the Jaguares in Argentina. Most agreed, few didn’t.

One argument was that many said the same of Connacht for years; they were once the whipping boys of the Celtic and Magners league, but look at them now. Surely Zebre and Treviso could come alive in the same manner as Connacht? I agree; maybe one of them could. But not both. Another argued that a number of weeks ago, Zebre very nearly beat the current Pro 12 champions in Italy. Which is also true. But unfortunately for them, the game was called off, and all the history books will say is that the game was called off to be replayed. Nothing more.

Zebre will have learned a couple of lessons on Saturday: their defence needs work, they need to be fitter, they have to work harder than their opposition to have any sort of chance. All very glaringly obvious lessons. But these lessons they learn week in, week out, in the Pro 12. What happened was that Wasps simply embarrassed them. Considering they also have Connacht and Toulouse in their group, it’s not like they’ll be reaching the knockout stages this year.

Before anyone jumps on me for counting unhatched chickens, I know European miracles happen. I was at the Munster Gloucester Miracle Match. I’ll never forget the second-half comeback by Leinster in their final against Northampton. Even Saracens win away to Toulon on Saturday could be chalked up. But we’re not comparing like with like.

Munster, at that stage, were a team well versed in grinding out victories. Leinster were a team peppered with Grand Slam winners and international stars. Saracens did the double last year. Zebre? They almost beat Connacht.

I understand the necessity of having an Italian team in the competition; it is a European cup; it has to include them. But the Challenge Cup is also European.

The winners of last year’s Challenge Cup, Montpellier, narrowly lost out to Northampton on Saturday. The other finalists from last year, Harlequins, hammered Stade Francais on Friday night in the Challenge Cup (to add to the argument, Stade were the French Top 14 champions just a couple of years ago).

In my eyes and the eyes countless others, there’s no way Wasps would have put 12 tries past either Harlequins or Montpellier, no matter how good or bad a day either team were having.

Maybe I’m being tough focusing on Zebre alone, so a quick mention on Treviso this weekend-they conceded 41 points to La Rochelle in the Challenge Cup. Hardly inspiring either.

I want to point out that I am not laying the blame at all on Zebre or Treviso. Their players, coaching staff, and backroom staff, do their very best every weekend, and of course they’re going to take the opportunity to play amongst Europe’s elite when offered. Why wouldn’t they?

But it simply isn’t fair to them or to teams not drawn in their group. Wasps against Zebre and Gloucester (who hammered Bayonne) against Treviso just shouts “5 points! Get your five points here!”, with other clubs fighting on a weekly basis to qualify.

Is there a way around it?

The Italian federation could amalgamate both teams, with a central base in Rome. With money invested the correct way, and guidance from a Graham Henry type figure (much like was done in Argentina) on the structures that should be in place academy wise, they’d become a much stronger force. There is bound to be a ground in Rome willing to share a venue, and the gate would probably take in a substantial amount. But that’s a pipe dream.

Another idea, presented by @TheBlack_n_Red, and I’m sure shared by others, suggested that all Champions Cup spots be down to league position and not preassigned spots to include every country. This would mean teams are qualifying off their own success every time. I don’t think many would be too happy with that system, as four Irish teams finished in the top six last year, which would have left only two places for Wales, Scotland, and Italy.

But how about having Zebre and Treviso compete in the Challenge Cup until such a time that they can compete with the big boys. I know the Champions Cup wouldn’t have an Italian representative, but it would make it more what it’s meant to be, which is a competition of Europe’s elite. And the Italian teams would still be competing in a European competition.

To fill the void of the missing team, both finalists of the Challenge Cup should qualify (or have the opportunity to qualify) for the Champions Cup, rather than just the one.

It would make the Champions Cup more competitive, eliminate the “easy points” in certain groups, and both Italian teams would be learning more, rather than being embarrassed by teams like Wasps.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe a miracle will happen and I’ll be forced to admit defeat. But as they say, David and Goliath was a once off; the smart money is always on the giant.

Ag breathnú ar Nua-Shéalainn ag an deireadh seachtaine a bhí mé agus thosaigh mé ag ceistiú cén fáth a bhíonn an bua acu níos minice ná aon fhoireann eile. Fiú in aghaidh An Aifric Theas ar an Satharn; níor imir siad go hiontach, ach fós scóráil siad breis is daithead pointe. An bhféadfadh aon fhoireann eile é sin a dhéanamh? 

Seo liosta gearr a bhreathnaíonn ar na scileanna ‘is na tréithe is fearr atá acu.

1. Scileanna na dTosaithe

Is feidir tosaithe ar bith a n-imríonn rugbaí idirnáisiúnta breith ar an liathróid, ach an féidir leo pas a chaitheamh tríocha slat agus iad ag rith gan stad? Rinne Dane Coles é seo agus fós tá ionadh ar dhaoine gur tharla sé. Ach sula bhfuair Coles an liathróid, ba nascaire a chaith an pas chuige. Ba chuma le Ryan Crotty gurb tosaithe a bhí sa líne chúlaithe; bhí fios aige go raibh siad in ann an jab a dhéanamh.

Breathnú ar an bpas anseo. 

2. Foighne

Níl aon bhrú ar na himreoirí agus iad ag imirt; fanann siad go dtí go gcruthaíonn siad spás nó go dtí go ndéanann an fhoireann eile botúin. Is cuma leo má thógann sé nóimeád amháin nó trí nóimeád, tá siad breá sásta fanacht agus breá compórdach le seilbh na peile. 

3. An Cic

Dúirt Cory Jane ina leabhar nach raibh cúlaithe Nua-Shéalainne sásta an liathróid a chiceál muna raibh siad in ann seilbh na peile a fháil ar ais go luath théis nó muna raibh buntáiste éagsúil mar thoradh. Agus maireann an stíl imeartha sin fós inniu. Níl an fhoireann sásta an liathróid a thabhairt don fhoireann eile muna tharlaíonn sé ar a dtearmaí, is níos minice ná a chéile, faigheann siad úd nó fearann as.

4. An Taobh Caoch

Is breá le hAaron Smith an taobh seo, agus bíonn sé i gcónaí ag faire ar seans chun é a shaothrú. Imreoir thar a bheith cliste é, agus má aithníonn sé go bhfuil spás ann, athraíonn sé an ionsaí ar an bpointe boise agus ar aghaidh leis, fiú más rud é nach bhfuil ach tosaithe lasmuigh dó  (ag teacht ar as go scileanna na dtosaithe).

5. Beauden Barrett

Céard is féidir linn rá faoin lad seo. Sár-imreoir ab ea é do na Hurricanes i mbliana, agus thóg sé é sin leis go dtí an Croabhchomórtas Rugbaí. Tá sé sciopthai agus is féidir leis dul tríd bearna ar bith gan rabhadh ar bith. Gan dabht, an t-imreoir is fearr ar domhan ag an nóimeád in aice le Coles.


Billy Holland

How’s the squad and atmosphere, Rassie in 8 weeks, is it building up, everybody ready to go?

‘There’s been a really good vibe abound the place last two months. We all trained together in Limerick for the first time ever so between that and Rassie and Jaq coming on board and Felix coming back in, there’s been a really good buzz around the place you know a positive vibe around the place which has been exciting so we’re just really looking forward to getting stuck into the games. We played Zebre the other night in horrendous conditions so that wasn’t the most enjoyable of preseason games but, we’re all really looking forward to getting stuck into the season.

A limerick training base, all together, how has that been?

‘We’re moving into our one centre I think next week or the week after but for preseason we’ve all been training together in Limerick for the first time ever, as I said which, has been really good because, not alone do you get more face time with the coaches and more time on the pitch with the coaches, things like Dave Foley had myself and a few of the Cork lads over for a BBQ last week, I’ve played with Dave Foley for years and it’s the first time I’ve ever been in his house so things like that a really important for squad morale and getting to know guys better.’

‘People use the whole Cork/Limerick split as an excuse but it can’t be an excuse over the years because Munster have won 2 European cups in that set up. But as the game has progressed and become more professional it is more important for us to spend more time together like every other club so it’s a really exciting time. It’s a huge commitment, 12 lads have moved from Cork to Limerick with their families, young fellas, old fellas like Thomas O’Leary has moved his wife and child up and then there a few guys who are still remaining in Cork but spend a few nights a week in Limerick, they have kids and families and wives who have jobs in Cork so it’s been a really positive step for Munster rugby’

How much has the pressure ramped up this season after last year’s struggles?

‘The last two games of the season last year where we played Scarlets and Edinburgh were two of the hardest games I’ve and other lads have played in pressure wise because you were in a situation where if you lose you’re not in Europe and “Shame Munster Rugby” and if you win you come 6th and “Shame Munster Rugby” but I think it was a real no win situation but I think we learned a lot about ourselves. We scored 10 tries and got 10 points in those two games, we sold out Musgrave Park, Thomond Park was nearly full, and they were really positive events for us despite where we finished up. I think guys like Johnny Holland and Rory Scannell came through as being really important for us. They came of age in those games, for two young fellas, they were outstanding.

‘In terms of training this year we’ve tried to look back on last season and see where “where and why” we were poor and take confidence that we can be really good when we had to be at the end of the season and for us it’s just being able to do that more consistently at home.’

From inside the group are you noticing a big change in the approach to maybe the wider game plan that Rassie is trying to implement?

‘Yeah he [Rassie] has made a few changes to our attack structure and how we’re trying to attack. Rugby is quite a simple game at the end of the day so you can’t try and reinvent the wheel but he’s making few subtle changes that will hopefully benefit players that we have. We have a lot of really exciting backs that we want to give good ball to and I think the pack have to take a lot of responsibility. [The] scrum, line out, mall last year at times weren’t up to scratch and you’ve got guys like Keith Earls and Simon Zebo, some of the best back three players in the world, you get them the ball with time and space and they’ll do the job for you so, yes, he has brought in a few changes, we haven’t reinvented the wheel. That’s why having Axel staying on board was so important because Rassie has learned a huge amount off him. Axel is one of the most passionate and intelligent, knowledgeable rugby people you will ever meet, so as head coach he’s now getting a lot more face time with guys, with players, he’s spending a lot more time reviewing trainings, reviewing games with fellas. For example Gavin Coombes, he’s 18, he was training with us for the preseason, he’s first cousins with the O’Dovavan brothers, the rowers. He has had a lot of work with Axel in preseason which he wouldn’t have had last year because Axel was off dealing with you lot and other bits a pieces so it frees up him to do more coaching and as you can see Rassie deals with the media really well, he’s like a duck to water with it and he’s looking after the bigger picture things with Munster Rugby so yeah, so far so good but we haven’t played many games yet.”

First up this year, Scarlets, what are your thoughts on that?

‘Scarlets is one of the hardest places to go, we were in a position at the end of last season, where thankfully we were playing them at home and we got the win but it was a very difficult game. We haven’t had many results over in Scarlets over the last few years so is a tough one first up. With a new coaching group, we’re trying to change a few things which will take a while to get right so Rassie and Jaq have done this multiple times with other teams so they’re not expecting miracles, we are still hoping to go over to Scarlets and get a win but for us it’s more about our performance and how we put ourselves across. Look it’s a results based business and we need to get results but we focus on that side of it massively.

Is there a sense that sides don’t know what to expect from Munster this year?

‘Yeah, that can be of benefit but you play one or two games and the analysis is at such a level that people will figure it out. We’ve Cardiff on the second week and I’m pretty sure they’ll have half an idea of how we’re trying to attack, unless it’s like the conditions we had against Zebre the other night where it doesn’t matter what the hell you’re trying to play, it’s just scrum and mall. But what we’re trying to play isn’t where we want to be in 12 months’ time, it’s a profession. Connacht as an example, their third year under Pat Lambe last year, they were outstanding, it took them 3 years to get there, so it will take us a while to get to where we want to get to but baby steps.’



Rassie, looking ahead, is there any update on the possible replacement for Francis, are you guys looking for a few options? Have you heard from the IRFU?

‘We are working closely with the IRFU, with David and Joe on most of the stuff so we are talking on a weekly, daily about other stuff  as well not just replacements, it’s the internationals players in camps it’s the 7’s squad, the movement of players, those kind of things. Francis was definitely a surprise for us we didn’t expect his injury to take him out for another 3-4 months but as I said last week to some of the guys, we have to give some of the younger guys a proper chance and some guys had an opportunity last Friday, which they took well and there’s great potential there. But we also have to be realistic, we did lose a lot of experience with Francis, so we’re looking at, everybody is talking about Jaco Taute, he is one go the guys that we are trying to talk to the IRFU about and they are definitely supportive to try and help us but it that experience. So we are looking for a short-term backup to have experience in that position without neglecting the young talent that is coming through. There is a lot of things to sort out there, a short term loans from another province, players have got families, work permit, there is a lot of things that must happen so that is why at this stage there is a little bit of speculation out there but there’s nothing signed sealed and organised of yet’

You guys are obviously looking for someone like Jaco to come in, but you haven’t heard that it might be a thing where the IRFU are trying to push somebody from another province onto you guys, would that be the case?

‘The discussion so far have been “we’re trying to replace what we had” [NIQ?] we have to have this role experience wise and for only that period of time so we’re looking for a fit into that. It’s been positive from the IRFU, common sense has prevailed, so I’m happy. Nobody is pushing anything.

In terms of the new captain, are you looking for a week 3 return for POM?

‘Yes, at week 3. He’s on track with his rehab, he had a setback about 3 months ago. He was at one stage looking close so going on the Irish tour of SA and then he had  little bit of a setback but since then he’s been on track so hopefully he [will be] ready for the third game.’

Was it an easy decision to pick Peter, as the existing captain when you arrived, to give him that job again?

‘Yes, without a doubt, it wasn’t tough. The seniors players, obviously we involved the team in that, it wasn’t just me and Axel and the other coaches saying “listen Peter you’re the captain” it was a collective from the group, we had all input and yes other leaders, senior players supported 100% and that makes it an easy choice.

What’s the one thing that people are saying to you ahead of the new season?

‘There’s a lot of work to get done from my side, our first priority is now to try and get into the winning ways with the senior side. But obviously being around in the community and playing in Waterford, see in the normal fan on the street and talking to everybody, there’s expectations, I think people see it as a daunting task and it’s a long road ahead, we seem to think there’s so much potential and if we can maximize potential from the coaches to the players fully, we can reassess in December and see where we’re going with this but what I’ve seen and I’ve haven’t worked with the players on the level of stress in match situations, the half time talk of a player and see how he reacts when its wet, you there’s different things. But [what I’ve] seen in the training sessions, mentally and physically and talent wise, I think we’re up there with some of the best teams I’ve coached but there can be other failures that I might not see now, so people see it as daunting but I see it as a massive challenge and an opportunity.’

Looking at the fixtures, for the European Cup, you guys gave better times, a lot more Saturday games at Thomond, so is that a big thing of bringing back that Thomond Park factor, have you watched games at Thomond in the past and thought this is what I wasn’t to recreate?

‘That’s one of the reasons I wanted to coach here. When I was playing and watching and coaching in SA before the games were televised, you would know about Munster. Everybody now knows about Connacht and Leinster and the other teams but everybody new about Munster. It’s obviously special what we saw on TV, so it’s special. I would love to experience that, so yes, without a doubt.

Is Tyler getting back to full fitness?

‘Tyler will be in the mix for this weekend for the practice match against Worcester on Friday.

On Thomond, how do you go about building that fervor, because I think there was a dip in ticket sales from the Limerick area especially?

‘I’ve coached in the freestate where when we started out there with the Cheetahs, there were 5,000 and when we were winning Currie Cups it was 45,000 every game. The same with the Stormers, I think they may be the exception where people keep on supporting through the bad times but I think  currently [there are] so many negative and financial problems for some families that maybe they want to be associated with a winning team, you know, you want to have a feel good feeling when you go to that match, you want to walk away feeling as a winner. The brand [of rugby] is important, unfortunately the nuts and bolts is if you win you’ll get crowds in. That’s our responsibility from playing and coaching and everybody’s point of side, the brand would be important but I’ve seen teams who win ugly and still get great crowds, so I think crowd numbers goes with winning and as Axel right said, sometimes it’s the bounce of a ball and you miss out on a payoff and there a hell of a negative attitude towards the team. Sometimes that a decision makes you win a game and there’s a nice vibe. You look at Australia/Scotland last year, the last kick of the game, that’s the margin and Michael Cheika was the coach of the year last year because of that, the kick was kicked over. This year he’s got a tough record, but that’s unfortunately what professional sport is.’

What style can we expect from Munster this year?

‘I’m nervous to tell people this, this forward orientated kicking game mindset that a lot of people talk about, the pass being most successful and then people are asking are you going to run into people. We sat together as a coaching/players and said “guys let’s look at the different facet of the game, kicking, passing, breakdown and why do we have as players, what can we do well” and we worked out a philosophy which we’ve been coaching and trying now for 8 weeks. A little bit of a game on Friday night and hopefully this Friday. I’m nervous to say, “This is what you’re going to see” because I don’t this is uniquely like those guys or these guys, and I think it’s unique to Munster. Hopefully it will come through in the games and we’ll say “This is the Munster way” but it’s not molded onto somebody it’s molded in our group I’ll put it that way.

The opening game, Scarlets away?

‘I don’t have the history, in a positive way, I don’t have the baggage of what goes on there, but the players tell me how daunting it is and the coaches know. They’ve got great coaching staff and I’ve went through their squad, they have a great squad, so it will be a challenge but [there is] a lot of tough games to come. I go a little bit blind for those games with the talent we have. Obviously its nerve racking next week to go into it but I’d be lying if I’m not because it will be a first experience, I’m used to Super Rugby Tri-Nations and those things, not so much to this. That’s why I came here.


Massive thanks and credit to Larry Power, Maedhbh Lewis, and #RugbyUnited.

Photo credit to #RugbyIreland.

In Dunedin, June 19th, 2010, New Zealand played against Wales. The All Black players and coaches went through their pre-game rituals: walks, naps, conversations, visualisations. They received their jerseys, and thought about what it meant to them. One word comes to mind: everything. Kick-off time finally arrived.

They absolutely hammer them. Dan Carter scores 27 points. Richie McCaw becomes the most successful All Black captain in history. After the game, and after the press meetings, the players sit in the dressing room. These are giants of the game. Some are the best players of their positions in the world-others are some of the best players in the history of the game.

Mils Muliaina, the off-field captain, gives his two cents. Then the backroom staff. Graham Henry comes last, telling his team this needs work and that needs tweaking. Finally, he congratulations McCaw on his achievement, and the team echo their coach’s sentiments.

But that’s where it stops. A scoreline of 42-7 doesn’t mean a reward of a night out, or a piss up. It means a reward of knowing the team reached their potential.

And then the unexpected occurs. As James Kerr wrote in Legacy, “two of the senior players-one an international player of the year, twice-each pick up a long-handled broom and begin to sweep the sheds. They brush the mud and the gauze into small piles in the corner”.

Why are they tidying up? These are world-class players, who play with a team that leads the way in rugby.
“The All Blacks are tidying up after themselves.
Sweeping the sheds.
Doing it properly.
So no one else has to.
Because no one looks after the All Blacks.
The All Blacks look after themselves.”

Creating a team like the All Blacks is no mean feat; only a number of coaches in history have ever acheived it. It takes years, it takes work, it takes effort and time beyond all belief. It also takes players with extremely strong character.

The All Blacks have a very simple mantra. It’s not very long, and doesn’t take time to learn off. It’s to the point-simple and direct. It’s so simple, in fact, it consists of two words, stolen from the Sydney Swans: “No Dickheads”.

Basically, it means no player is bigger than the team. In the past, players who were good enough to play for the All Blacks have never been selected. Some players who have been selected have never been asked back. This is simply because they don’t believe in the mantra. They believe themselves to be bigger than the team. All Blacks don’t do that. All Blacks are never bigger than the team.

If a ruck needs hitting, it’s hit. If a player needs to be stopped, a tackle is made. If an offload needs to be made, the position of the player doesn’t matter. They work until they do it all. They measure themselves only against themselves. But not every coach is lucky to have the All Blacks at their disposal.

Coaching is not an easy job. You have egotistical superstars, humble work horses, players with skills beyond anyone else’s and players who struggle with a left-handed pass. The lower the leagues you go, the lower the skill-sets, but, sometimes, the higher the number of egos. It’s always the way.

But selection should not be based on talent alone. If a player can kick a goal from 50 yards, but is quick to berate a teammate who makes a mistake, should he be selected? If a player can glide through players, but refuses to ruck over and blame a forward for being slow, should he be on the pitch? To both cases, absolutely not.

The players who continuously look to better themselves and their team should take preference. You see these players at every club: outhalves who are at the training field an hour before training practising their kicking, hookers who show up 30 minutes early with a bag of balls and a throwing target, fullbacks who show up early to field garryowens. These are the players you want. In other words: No Dickheads.

Wayne Smith said that “talent was irrelevant” when he talks about the Chiefs. “We picked guys with high work rate, strong body movers, guys that were unselfish and sacrificial mindset”.
This is extremely important because, as ex-NFL coach Vince Lombardi once said, “the question is usually not how well the person performs, but how well they perform together”.

To borrow another example from a different sport, Michael Jordan was the top scorer in his first five NBA seasons. He didn’t win a single championship. It’s when he developed his game to help the team that championship titles arrived. No one is bigger than the team.

Dealing with egos is never easy, but it’s necessary. The All Blacks deal with it themselves. One famous story that emerged from a past World Cup camp was of Israel Dagg and Cory Jane enjoying a night out. Tabloids went to town on them. What did management do about it? They sat them in front of a number of senior players, and left them off. I imagine Dagg and Jane have never felt worse than having to explain their actions to someone like Richie McCaw, a person to whom the All Black way of life is everything.

But, again, not every team have these players at their disposal. In my experience, I’ve witnessed a player leave the warm-up and drive home because he found out he wasn’t in the starting XV. The next training session, he was welcomed back with no repercussions. I’ve played with a player who stopped attending training as he wasn’t starting matches; as a result, the coach started him in the next game to entice him back. In both cases, these players should have been cut loose. No one is bigger than the team.

A team should want to play together. Mistakes are inevitable in games, and a player who cares about the team will rue his or her mistakes after the game. But what is important is that they know their teammates don’t mind; in fact, they’re willing to work twice as hard to rectify that player’s mistake. That’s teamwork.

As I said earlier, coaching is never easy. But there are a number of methods that can be introduced to help build a team.

  • Encourage players to get together for coffee, lunch, or an activity at least once a week, but try to ensure they go in different weekly groups as much as possible. 
  • While travelling to games, have players of the same position travel together (for example, second rows together so as they can talk about lineouts, scrumhalf and outhalf so as they can talk about their patterns and game plan). However, when returning from games, have backs sit with forwards.
  • A player who hasn’t been selected should be appointed the off-field captain for the day. Their duties should include noting their thoughts on the game, and being invited to speak to the team after the game about the positives and negatives. This should be a respected position, and appointed to different players every week.(Thoughts could be run past the coach first, and should be kept as positive as possible.)
  • Mistakes will happen. Encourage a policy of “no problem, next phase”.  
  • When teams score against you, encourage your team to gather under the posts and introduce a policy of “Regroup, Regather, Reclaim Restart”. Always focus on the next job.
  • Encourage positivity as much as possible, and adopt the All Blacks practice that no one is bigger than the team. Egos may be bruised, but it’s not an individual sport. 
  • Give players a chance to take over leadership early in the season, be it a warm-up or a drill. Every player should look to be a leader on and off the pitch. 
  • At training, perform a two minute fitness drill. At the end of the drill, have a non-kicker (usually a prop or a front five forward) kick at goal. If he/she misses, do another two minute drill. Then have a player throw a ball to the tail of the lineout (again, a player who you know can’t throw). Again, if he/she misses, perform another two minute drill. Repeat once more with a different player performing another player’s role. At the end of the drill, make the point people groaned and moaned when players failed, rather than choosing to say “no problem, next phase”. Also point out that, under fatigue and pressure, no player’s job is easy, so no other player should complain if they fail.
  • Question players about what they would do in certain situations, and constantly keep asking why. Swap players around in set piece moves and see how they react. You never know when they may need to slot in. Practising match situations is the best way to prepare. Defend with 14 players to prepare for a sinbin, or attack with five backs to see who steps up in case of an injury on the pitch. You’ll find out a lot about your players and their character.
  • Back yourself, and back your decisions. If you drop a player, or decide to do something different, make sure you’re able to explain why, and back your call. On the other hand, if you’re wrong, don’t be afraid to apologise. You expect players to put their hands up for something like a missed tackle, so you should lead from the front on that front. But don’t give in to one player’s complaints.

At the end of the day, there are two questions you need to ask your players: what can they offer the team, and what are they prepared to sacrifice. Their answers will tell you what you want to hear, but it’s their actions and character that will back them up.

These tips are designed to aid coaches, and all may not work for the team you coach. However, the search for improvement never stops, and rugby is a game of character. Feel free to try them out and let us know how it goes. Pre-season is upon us, and there’s no better time to put a stamp on your season.

Finally, best of luck to everyone with the upcoming season. Enjoy it.

The Loose Head

Looking back at New Zealand v Wales, Australia v England, and South Africa v Ireland, The Loose Head takes a quick look at what we learned:

1. Wales can turn it on when they want. When the Welsh boys kept ball in hand, the All Blacks found it hard to live with them for an hour. Williams and North, most noticeably, made hay when offered a chance to run. Perhaps a tactic that should be kept for the series?

2. Liam Williams will no longer be a back-up to Leigh Halfpenny. The Toulon player is going to find it very difficult to get a starting berth ahead of Williams who put his stamp on the game yesterday. He made a couple of mistakes, but a shining light for Wales. Easily their Man of the Match.

3. Taulupe Faletau is dining at the same table as Read, Pocock and Vunipola. He was incredible yesterday. His work rate was second to none and was up there with Williams as Wales’ top performer. Special mention to Gethin Jenkins who was also immense.

4. A New Zealand team in transition is still the best team in the world. They couldn’t get into the game in the first half and lacked structure, with Julian Savea having a game to forget. But in the second half, they found their composure and blew Wales away. Slow to start, but still quick to put the opposition away.

5. Aaron Smith is the best 9 in world rugby. He ran support lines, kept his forwards moving, and was his all-round brilliant self. The honour of leading the haka was well deserved. He seems to love his team more than anyone, and dropped to his knees to celebrate when Naholo crossed the whitewash.

6. Julian Savea and Dane Coles are mortals. Although Savea scored, it was a day to forget for the winger, and Coles made uncharacteristic mistakes throughout the game too. Not saying they won’t bounce back, but rare to see them suffer poor performances.

7. England are probably the second best team in the world right now. Australia blew them away in the opening 20 minutes, but England held on and took their points when they were on offer. The English pack eventually got into the game and spoiled breakdowns, scrums, and mauls, scrums against a pack who demolished them in the World Cup last year.

8. Eddie Jones is not afraid to admit to his mistakes. Luther Burrell was shipped off in the first half to make way for George Ford, and that made a huge difference to England’s playmaking and backline. Farrell is well versed in the 12 role, and England continued to grow more dominant.

9. We still don’t know what Eddie Jones is thinking. A number of people, myself included, find it hard to understand why Alex Goode wasn’t in the starting XV, let alone the squad. Also, the selection of Yarde ahead of Nowell is also difficult to understand. But then again, England won, Yarde scored, and Mike Brown had a solid game bar a couple of mistakes. His thinking is justified.

10. Samu Kerevi was born for Test rugby. The Fijian born had a fantastic debut, and didn’t look uncomfortable in the Test arena. A star for the future.

11. Michael Hooper is the best number 7 in the world. He scored two tries, with one highlighting his pace down the wing and composure to finish. He took the captain’s armband in the 57th minute, and scored in the 58th. He is a leader, and it’s amazing to think he’s still only 24.

12. Micheal Cheika will have a lot of work to do before Australia’s next meeting with England. The Wallabies went 10-0 ahead after 17 minutes, but slowly faded out of the game. Pocock suffered a fractured eye-socket, and will be a big loss to the Australians.

13. Based on yesterday’s performance, South Africa are not the force they once were. The Boks weren’t helped with the early loss of Pat Lambie, but bar Mvovo and flashes from Le Roux, their backline showed little creativity. At one stage, before making way for Jesse Kriel, Lionel Mapoe looked perplexed at the lack of line breaks the Boks’ backs were making.

14. Jesse Kriel needs to start the next test. The Bulls man is a big, physical, dynamic player and offers a better attacking option than the centres of De Allende or Mapoe. Whatever the reasons for benching him for the first Test, he needs to start.

15. Eben Etzebeth relishes the physicality of the Springboks. Early in the game, he dove across a ruck to get to Stander. Later, he entered a ruck and blasted Jamie Heaslip. He constantly winds up his opposition, and holds no fear for his own safety. Made a number of mistakes late in the game, but one of the Springboks’ best assets.

16. Paddy Jackson showed the world what he is capable of. I campaigned for the Six Nations tournament for Jackson to be involved, and feel totally vindicated due to his performance. He was cool under pressure, and when the points were on offer, he told his captain he wanted to kick for goal. Ireland’s effort can be epitomised through Jackson, when in the 78th minute, he ripped the ball from Springbok number 8, Duane Vermeulen, in the tackle.

17. Andy Farrell has clearly made an impact on the Ireland team. Defence wins matches, and the first Test was a prime example. South Africa failed to score before half-time when Ireland were down to 13 men. Additionally, their first try should have been disallowed and their second came from an Irish lapse in concentration. The Irish defence will only continue to improve throughout the series. Henderson, Mike Ross, et al, were fantastic.

18. Jared Payne should continue to play at fullback for club and country. He only had to make two tackles but he aligned and marshalled his troops, and was sublime in attack, picking superb lines and making superb offloads. He is the best 15 in Ireland.

19. Mathieu Raynal is not an international standard referee. He awarded a red card which nearly spoiled the game, went to the TMO every second occasion, and made poor calls for both sides throughout the game.

20. Special mention to the Ireland U20 team who beat New Zealand U20 yesterday in what was a thrilling game.