Gordon D'Arcy: Coaching players younger must become priority

Too many 18 and 19-year olds are learning passing skills they should have by 14 or 15

Ireland's rugby squad was welcomed home to Dublin airport after the teams disappointing loss to Argentina. The head coach, Joe Schmidt, thanked the fans and looked towards the next challenge, retaining the six nations.

 

In the movie Moneyball Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, turns on the old baseball scouts and says: “If we try to play like the Yankees in here, we will lose to the Yankees out there.”

Ireland have endeavoured to play rugby like the All Blacks without being as big or as skilful. Also, we don’t have anywhere near their playing numbers, so why should we expect a different result than last Sunday?

Argentina are not trying to play like New Zealand; they are playing like New Zealand. To do that we have to change the way we coach rugby in this country. Like they did.

The size issue will always have to be taken into consideration. There isn’t another second row in Ireland like Dev Toner and when he is gone we will probably never have another.

Having watched Brodie Retallick as New Zealand put over 60 points on France it is not hard to understand why he was named world player of the year. He’s 6ft 9ins tall. New Zealand produces a Brodie Retallick every three to four years.

The point is a player of the ability and influence of Paul O’Connell comes through their system in every generation. O’Connell, in many ways, is a once-off for Irish rugby.

A different way of facing this problem is for the IRFU to make Joe Schmidt’s next role to assess and analyse Irish rugby from the ground up. He has already delivered two Six Nations titles and got us to a World Cup quarter-final, which leaves him ideally placed to put in place structures where the next wave of players are better coached from a younger age. It would mean overhauling how we mould rugby players in Ireland from the bottom up.

Better passers

All we need are better passers, better kickers and better decision-makers. We know how to turn them into athletes, but there are too many 18- and 19-year olds learning passing techniques they need to have in their locker by 14 or 15.

They may say I’m a dreamer, but it would be the best money the IRFU ever spent. It would be about raising the standards of coaching in every club in Ireland by lowering the age that teenagers are exposed to genuine coaching expertise.

I do mean every club. Tullow has given us Seán O’Brien while Tadhg Furlong is from New Ross. Maybe Enniscorthy can provide the next professional flanker or prop. It’s about ensuring the talent that will come through is more comfortable with the ball and tactically smarter without it.

Now the problem with rugby players is some start growing at 14, others at 16 while some don’t fill out until they are 20. But habits are formed earlier. Highly skilled coaching investment needs to focus on 12- to 14-year-olds. Certainly by under 15, a future international needs to know how to pass and catch to a proficient level.

In Clongowes one afternoon Vinnie Murray invited a Kiwi coach to take a session. He tried to teach us how not to pass with swinging legs, the old JPR Williams hip drop that we saw on television and all copied, but half the lads couldn’t get it. We were fourth years and it was already too late. It was like watching people run through quicksand. They couldn’t understand that getting the ball early, running straight and passing was the way forward.

See a 12-year-old from any hurling county hitting a sliotar. It starts as soon as he can wield a hurley.

Unless you are Sonny Bill Williams you must pass just at the point of contact – Quade Cooper is the master of this – and then it is about being able to gather an offload as Noel Reid did for Isa Nacewa’s try in Llanelli on Friday.

Juan Imhoff’s second try on Sunday had Graham Henry’s influence all over it. The line he ran off Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe’s break would not be natural to most Irish players. If I was there I wouldn’t have been looking for Lobbe’s offload, but to clean the ruck when he was tackled. That’s the difference unfortunately: Imhoff had no eyes for rucking and Lobbe had no eyes for his winger, but expected someone to be there.

Second Captains

That’s All Black rugby.

Argentina won because they executed catching and passing while holding their runs under pressure before converting their two on ones.

Sounds simple. Dave Holwell, Leinster’s former Kiwi outhalf, used to always say rugby becomes pretty easy once you get quick ball. But it is easier for a player who knows what to do with a ball by the time they are 13.

We have always fought an unfair battle. Rugby is the national sport in New Zealand and South Africa. It is fourth in Ireland behind soccer, Gaelic football and hurling. Even Australia get the fall-off from their other sports, particularly Rugby League and Aussie Rules (see Israel Folau).

No matter what way you look at it, rugby is about passing and offloads. That’s the main skill. Wales tried to find a way around that by picking bigger men. Their strength in depth is they have carbon copies, at least three players deep, to come into their team. All 6ft 2in and 100kg players. Jamie Roberts knows he is going into contact and will probably win that space. But that wasn’t enough to reach a World Cup semi-final.

Look at the outstanding range of passing by Nicolas Sanchez and Juan Martin Hernandez in Cardiff. The best passer in Ireland at the moment is Noel Reid, but he didn’t make it to the World Cup.

Wasted endeavour

Even when I was playing consistently for Ireland, I realised I needed to become a better passer so I went away and worked on it. Now you can practice a skill badly and never improve. If you throw 100 passes five times a week and they are not the right pass or of the correct quality, it’s largely a wasted endeavour.

So it’s about the right coaching.

The specialist skills coach for the All Blacks, Mick Byrne, has been there for three unbroken years. That’s only a recent addition to teams I was involved in. Mick was brought into Leinster by Matty Williams for a season, but when he left he wasn’t replaced.

Going into Ireland camp these past two years Joe did place a premium on skills, but that should come naturally to fledgling professionals if they have been at it since under-12s. That’s the ideal goal for the next generation.

Now there have been massive strides in the skill-set of younger players with the establishment of the professional game, but clearly not enough for this Ireland side to make an impact once their squad was decimated by injuries – something we knew could happen at this tournament.

Look at the northern versus southern hemisphere stats. The number of carries and possession are quite similar, but the southern hemisphere teams have almost a third more metres with the ball in hand and over double the amount of offloads.

We don’t have an offloading culture in Irish rugby. We go to ground and ruck it. That’s not such a bad thing. We won the Six Nations this and last year, we beat France at the World Cup for the first time.

We have a population of about 110 professional players playing consistently who are Irish-qualified. At some point we have to go, you know what, it’s pretty impressive what we are doing.

I think come Saturday week we will see what the world champions had to do to lift the trophy over three knockout games.

The gap between New Zealand, Australia and South Africa and Ireland has widened substantially in my mind. The tier two nations have undoubtedly improved, but the gap between Argentina and us exposed our worst fears, while showing the benefits of their 22 Test matches since 2012 against the former Tri-Nations.

Trouble

It was established from the outset that if we lost any of six key players we were in trouble. We lost five of them and paid dearly.

Looking at the way Argentina beat us, would even one from Seán O’Brien, Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony and Paul O’Connell have made a difference?

Definitely, yes.

We were not as competitive at the breakdown, so Seán would have made a difference. The calm head of Paulie, or one of the other three saying the right thing at the right time could have mattered. If Sexton was on the pitch it would have been different.

Australia, without David Pocock and Folau, only just managed to squeeze past Scotland. No team can be the same when their world-class players are unavailable. Paulie left a massive leadership chasm that proved so hard to fill when Johnny and Peter were also gone.

I don’t know if any nation could lose five guaranteed starters, but we can’t even swap like for like in the physical stakes. Not for O’Connell or O’Brien anyway.

Still, we were second best in a lot of areas. It wasn’t that we were defensively passive but Argentina played so deep and so wide that either one of two things had to happen. Scotland got two intercept tries against Australia because they kept coming, pushing up field (the flip side is an almost certain try if Australia get their passes away), or the defence can sit off and drift towards the sideline. We got caught doing neither. The first Argentinean distributor – Sanchez or Hernandez – would throw a really wide pass. You have to come up or sit off. If you get stuck in that middle road and a pass beats you there is no way back. For the first two tries we were about to come up but stood still for a second or two and the pass beat the defender.

I still felt we would come back from 17-0, and we did, but Argentina had another kick in them that we lacked. That surprised me. I presumed we would be fresher in the last 20 minutes. We weren’t.

Maybe we over-targeted the French game or that victory provided us with a false sense of achievement and Argentina just caught us unawares.

If that is the case the Argentinians need to be careful not to fall into the same trap. They went around the Millennium stadium, hugging and kissing friends, family and supporters afterwards. It’s a great moment but not ideal if you want to be ready for a shook-up Australia seven days later. Such scenes are always more advisable when there are medals around necks and a trophy in tow.

It comes back to skills. If Ireland are to compete with the top four nations – which Argentina have just become – we must produce players of superior ability. Argentina have done it. They had to suffer 18 defeats in 21 rugby championship matches, but it’s working.

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