D’Arcy: Schmidt’s good habits lead to big rewards

Ireland might not take South Africa series but one-off Test win is possible

Andrew Trimble’s try against France in 2014:  a prime example of everybody doing their job automatically, with trust in the outcome. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.

Andrew Trimble’s try against France in 2014: a prime example of everybody doing their job automatically, with trust in the outcome. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.

 

Not many Irish people will have heard the name Tony Dungy. For a very long time not many people outside the NFL had either.

Until the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took a punt in 1996, Dungy’s fate, seemingly, was to be a career defensive coordinator. His first head coaching job only came after being interviewed, yet passed over, by four other teams.

“Part of the problem was Dungy’s coaching philosophy,” wrote Charles Duhigg in ‘The Power of Habit.’ “In his job interviews, he would patiently explain his belief that the key to winning was changing players’ habits. He wanted to get players to stop making so many decisions during a game, he said. He wanted them to react automatically, habitually. If he could instil the right habits, his team would win. Period.”

When Dungy was fired by Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer, supposedly due to an overly conservative offensive strategy, despite reaching the play-offs four out of six seasons, he was the first coach to depart the franchise with a winning record.

The very next season the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won its first and only Super Bowl.

In 2007 Dungy took the Indianapolis Colts to its first Super Bowl where they beat the Chicago Bears 29-17 (he also happened to be the first African-American coach to do so).

That success came in the wake of tragedy as Dungy’s son, James, had taken his own life little over a year before Super Bowl XLI.

All of this was achieved by Dungy remaining true to his core philosophy of getting players to stop making decisions in games and to start reacting automatically. They were able to do that, they were able to believe anything was possible, because the right habits were instilled from day one of Dungy’s reign.

Anyone ever coached by Joe Schmidt should be able to relate.

Joe’s first day at Leinster began with a handshake. Every single day thereafter, today even, every member of the squad and staff shakes everyone else’s hand.

A habit was formed. It became part of Leinster’s internal culture.

Sounds simple but Paul O’Connell recently noted how such a simple start to the day would have been useful when Munster were struggling during his last season with the province.

It became a keystone habit with Ireland, a small but definitive change which opened the door to other ways of approaching training, preparation, and everything really. It created a domino effect for the many tools Schmidt provides for his players to ensure success.

Because under pressure, like in the last 20 minutes of a Test match in Newlands against a Springbok team that believes they are invincible on home soil, automatic actions are the only way Ireland will have banked the three, maybe four, tries needed to win.

“Champions don’t do extraordinary things,” Dungy says. “They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”

Second Captains

We had a small playbook under Schmidt at Leinster and Ireland as the development of essential habits made it very difficult for opponents to counteract what they knew we were going to do.

When that cycle was broken, and the way we did things began to falter, very quickly we looked like a lumbering, ordinary team.

Hence, the way Ireland plays under Schmidt was heavily criticised as defeats started to mount up this season. But the way of playing is the same, the habits instilled have not changed, merely evolved, since Joe took Leinster to back to back European titles before doing the same with Ireland in the 2014 and 2015 Six Nations. What has changed, dramatically, is the number of leaders in this Ireland squad.

Dungy and Schmidt have a similar coaching philosophy: It is not about creating new habits for players, it is about changing old ones. Habits are a three-step loop – the cue, the routine, and the reward – but Joe, like Dungy, made it primarily about changing routine.

Change the approach to alter bad or ineffective habits. Demand an intellectual approach. The players who understand it, those with sufficient discipline and mental strength will be selected. Those without, as we have seen, do not make a Schmidt team.

That’s all the so-called Joe Schmidt type of player is really.

There still needs to be a unifying third pillar in all of this. For the Colts it was the tragic death of Dungy’s son. That had a galvanising effect as the players wanted to win for their coach.

Nothing like that happened in Leinster but by following the step by step process preached by Schmidt we saw a chain of events leading to the rewards. Once we clicked on the road in big European games the belief in how we went about our business was cemented.

Belief in the process came from belief in the man.

With Ireland it was when non-Leinster players like Paul O’Connell and Rory Best quickly embraced the philosophy.

This all began with a handshake – a good habit that broke down any unseen individual barriers – before the practicing of routines until they were automatic.

Andrew Trimble’s try against France in 2014 is a prime example of everybody doing their job automatically, with trust in the outcome.

Another example is that Japanese try against South Africa in Brighton last year.

Now, crucially, the playing personnel in the Ireland squad has changed dramatically from the side Schmidt fielded against New Zealand in 2013. No O’Connell, O’Driscoll, Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, Seanie O’Brien, Rob Kearney, Cian Healy, Tommy Bowe. That’s an unprecedented turnover.

Schmidt will have told the current squad they are what they do every day. If they truly believe this we will see it in the performance.

Presuming the Schmidt habits are adhered to then Ireland can win on Saturday. Not the Series, I don’t think, but a one-off game is there for the taking.

Because there are so many new faces in the squad a new level of trust must also be formed.

During my final few days with the national team before the World Cup last August Joe was emphasising the importance of every squad member, especially those on the periphery, to ensure whoever came in their actions would be automatic.

Come the quarter-final against Argentina that idea came under too much strain due to the loss of so many leaders. But the collective performance theory remains central to Ireland beating any major rugby nations.

This being his first major southern hemisphere tour as Ireland coach, the Joe Schmidt way of coaching comes under scrutiny yet again. He already mentioned how long it took New Zealand to win a Test series in South Africa and the drained look on Sean Fitzpatrick’s face at the full-time whistle in 1996.

I never won a Test match on tour. We were always denied by a brilliant New Zealand performance or shattered by the time we reached Australia.

There are loads of reasons Ireland will not win on Saturday: history and injuries being two obvious excuses. The alternative perspective is one of the best tacticians in world rugby is fielding a team against a Springbok side in clear transition under a new coach.

The opposite of the traditional Springbok approach of we are bigger, stronger, faster, must be employed. It is about carrying over the gain line, recycling in a two second ruck, with as few men committed to the breakdown as humanly possible in order to expose their defence elsewhere. Ireland, to stand any chance, must play at a high tempo all afternoon. Do what Japan did by forcing Jesse Kriel and Damian de Allende, if they make up the centre partnership, to make lots of decisions.

Heap constant pressure on whoever wears their 10 jersey.

Willie le Roux is a fantastic attacking, broken field fullback but you can be sure Joe has shown Paddy Jackson where Le Roux hates to be and why. Put him into the right corner and deny him any distance off his left boot.

Jackson could get three valuable Test matches under his belt this month. Either way there is healthy pressure on him to perform as if any part of his game management or place-kicking falters Ian Madigan will immediately replace him.

Good habits can guide him and Ireland to a historic victory. All the tiny details will have been covered to ensure the minimum decision-making is required come kick-off.

The Leaving Cert kept me off the 1998 tour when Ireland got dragged into a bloodbath in Pretoria (2004 came a season too soon in our collective development for us to win down there). Guerrilla warfare would be the more advisable approach. Get in and out of the collisions as quick as possible. Believe in the game plan. Rely on habit.

Do ordinary things, but do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. That is how this game can be won. We will hopefully see it in Ireland’s play early on and especially for last 20 minutes. Or we will know they are thinking too much.

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