Gordon D’Arcy: Time for bonus point system in Six Nations

Innovation would help bridge the gap to Southern Hemisphere elite

Jared Payne: The Ireland centre demonstrates the decision-making skills honed in New Zealand. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Jared Payne: The Ireland centre demonstrates the decision-making skills honed in New Zealand. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

I was talking to Ronan O’Gara about working with Dan Carter at Racing 92. Rog says Carter doesn’t do stress on the pitch. He gets up to peak performance and just exists in that mode. Always.

By remaining in that realm of calm he always has time in possession to play what’s unfolding in front of him. This does require a high level of rugby intellect and vision.

But one individual being able to identify space is not much use on a rugby field. New Zealand, forever the benchmark, nearly always have 15 players who instinctively make the correct decision under pressure.That’s because they have being doing so since infancy.

We see this in Jared Payne.

That has always been Ireland’s flaw and it’s not so much a deficiency in skills but more a lack of decision-makers. It’s what keeps us from World Cup semi-finals and being Six Nations contenders in campaigns like the one just past.

Now, there were some quality examples of skills executed under pressure last Saturday at the Aviva Stadium. Jamie Heaslip’s offload for Devin Toner’s try or Duncan Taylor’s flick pass despite Simon Zebo hitting him for Scotland’s last try.

Yet these occurrences have been exceptions rather than the norm in this Six Nations.

Right decisions

Payne made a try-saving tackle on Duncan Weir when he shot out of the defensive line. That wasn’t so much good decision -making by Jared as it was a poor decision by the Scottish forward, John Barclay, who threw the pass out the back. Weir appeared to call for the ball but by playing heads-up rugby the man in possession would see Payne. The best players in the best teams make the right decisions.

That’s all it takes – heads up rugby. Sounds easy but if you haven’t been doing it from the first time you picked up an oval ball, a hurley and sliotar or whatever, under pressure it will always feel like alien behaviour.

In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow the author, a psychologist, writes about subconscious decisions.

If you are thinking ‘I need to be over there’ in the heat of a Test match it is already too late.

Stuart Hogg is constantly scanning for an opportunity. It’s why Ireland’s kicking game had to be superb last Saturday. Besides one ill-advised clearance by Conor Murray leading to seven points, Hogg was transformed into a peripheral figure.

In my career I eventually started seeing where the space would be without consciously having to tell myself. But I had the advantage of playing alongside a guy who innately knew where to go. The fact he ended up with so many tries was no coincidence. You can’t be that lucky.

I would become aware where Brian was moving and, lo and behold, that’s where the space would be. It became my job to connect the ball from our outhalf to Brian as quickly as possible (which would sometimes mean skipping me). I realised there was something in his brain saying, ‘It’s going to be on out here’. After a while my brain would simply ask: ‘Where is the space, where is my outside centre?’ It happens automatically after a while and crucially before the defence has a clue.

This can be developed, to a lesser extent, but it’s awfully hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Teams are shortening up their defensive lines so the opportunities have been there during the Six Nations but Irish players haven’t been overcalling plays when there was an opportunity to attack elsewhere. It doesn’t matter where we are on the field or what is happening. Demand the ball. But all this requires three or four players on the same wavelength so the ball is moved rapidly into the identified space. Before it no longer exists.

Make decisions

That’s hurting Ireland more than anything else at the moment.

But if we are not teaching our 14-year-olds how to make decisions under pressure we can’t start complaining when they are unable to grasp it in their late 20s.

Second Captains

And while so many improvements are evident watching Leinster schoolboys up into the academies – forwards have better ball skills and everyone is more physically developed – I am not seeing enough natural decision-making under pressure at, say, Ireland under-20s level to convince me that Irish rugby can alter the current status quo over the next two World Cup cycles.

The problem remains an old one. The academies are recruiting big fish from small ponds who are used to being the central figure. It requires a rewiring of naturally honed instincts to just run. There are encouraging exceptions to all of this coming from more traditional rugby schools but a lack of fully-rounded decision-makers appears to be the norm in Irish rugby.

I already wrote about this after the World Cup. One immediate solution that will take a long time to manifest itself is to involve Joe Schmidt, make it part of his lasting legacy, in writing a coaching manual for all underage players in Ireland to follow. Target our 12- and 13-year-olds. Or earlier.

High standard

You can be sure when most 10-year-old hurlers in Kilkenny go training the coach has played at a fairly high standard. It’s the same in New Zealand. It’s not the same at every rugby club’s mini rugby on a Sunday morning. So we need to break down coaching into units of particular skills – this is how the IRFU wants to coach tackling, this is how kids pass and so on. Heads up, always.

Now that would be a virtuous circle.

But what to do in the short term? Introducing a bonus point system to the Six Nations would require a significant change in the Northern Hemisphere club fixtures and the Six Nations itself but it would prove of enormous value in closing the gap on the Southern Hemisphere.

It would change the way every team approached the game. It would bring the Argentinian blueprint to this part of the world.

Bonus points, especially in the case of Italy, would give clear reward for continuing to put the same effort into the Six Nations after one or two defeats.

Ireland did remarkably well to refocus on finishing third after losing in Twickenham. I’ve seen us capitulate in other seasons. Not this year.

I was very calm going into the Six Nations thinking if we finished somewhere around third or fourth it would be a respectable return. If we had beaten Wales we would have finished second.

Slow starts are accepted in the Six Nations. It’s the only major sporting tournament I can think of where you go in cold.

New Zealand have a three-Test series against Wales in June, Australia have England, South Africa have Ireland and France go to Argentina all before the Rugby Championship (granted, the Top 14 final is the day before the second Test).

So even outside a World Cup year the Southern Hemisphere sides are geared up for optimum performance come their major tournament (which, of course, has bonus points).

We shouldn’t really be wondering why there is such a gap in standards.

The Six Nations only ever, really, gets going in rounds three, four and five. It remains a compelling competition that is nonetheless detrimental to the progress of Northern Hemisphere rugby.

There is an opportunity to expose Georgia and Spain to Six Nations opposition in warm-up games. Treat them like the Southern Hemisphere nations treat us.

The driving force behind such a move is simple: the national game is more important than the club game. The IRFU recognise that and would presumably be open to the profitability of it all. They could fill Thomond Park or Ravenhill with a pre-Six Nations Test match against Georgia.

Obvious flaw

Now this means taking on the might of English and French clubs so, regardless of how logical this all sounds, it remains highly unlikely to happen.

The obvious flaw in bringing bonus points into the current framework is that every second season a team has three away games and only two at home. So that would have to be addressed by either adding another nation or home and away fixtures. Again, we are creeping into the all-consuming club fixture schedule.

But to fail to learn from last year’s World Cup would be to accept the same four nations will be back in the semi-finals come Japan in 2019.

The gap is there and the bonus point system won’t close it entirely in just three years, but it would help.

I don’t think bonus points would change the way Ireland are playing at this present moment in time because this is the most effective way for this group of players to get results.

Ireland wore Scotland down on Saturday for most of the early points.

That sounds negative but why seek to match Scotland with end-to-end plays which we probably would have lost as they are more accustomed to that approach?

Instead, we won with a few scores to spare. Now, which result do you want? Which result keeps the whole business model on a profitable track? Nothing sells like success.

Enormous credit goes to Ireland for finishing stronger than they began their Six Nations campaign. The tight five delivered, the game management was spot on, the backrow balance looked excellent. Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne paired up as well as they ever have.

I’m trying to figure out a different approach we could have taken and I’m at a loss. Scotland came on a six-day turnaround. Wear them down, like France did to us, knowing that chances would come. South Africa will seek to do something similar to us in June.

Heavy artillery

South Africa will be very good, and powerful, come the second and third Tests this summer. Johnny Sexton igniting the backline and the makings of a settled pack, with some heavy artillery to return, gives us a real chance in the first Test in Cape Town on June 11th. The variety of ball carriers to take the emphasis off CJ Stander – who will have a point to prove – will hopefully be evident with Iain Henderson, Seán O’Brien, Ultan Dillane and Cian Healy all available.

That means five world-class ball carriers up against about 10 Springboks with similar abilities. And another five to come off their bench.

I’ve been on tours to New Zealand, like 2006 when we almost had them but couldn’t quite finish it off. We then had to fly to Perth where we had the beating of Australia only to fade badly in the last 15 minutes. We played some brilliant rugby but were emotionally and physically shattered by the end of a desperately long season.

Irish execution improved game-on-game this Spring. Improve the decision-making and we will always be in with a shout. Sounds easy. I wish it was.

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