Irish rugby is in a crisis so the IRFU must develop a new culture from top down

Defeat in Rome should not signal the end of Kidney but the culture that put us there should


A wagon with spoked wheels carries not only grain from place to place; it also carries the brilliant idea of a wagon with spoked wheels from mind to mind.

We have long been guilty of becoming mesmerised by foreign coaches, firstly by their rugby grain (brain) and secondly by their spoked (speaking) wheels. Professional rugby has long since banished the hidden cultures of foreign coaches, primarily because Irish players are far more educated in what it takes to become a European or Grand Slam winner. Hence the massive challenge Rob Penney has with Munster to convince them his way is right. Declan Kidney, likewise.

The mind is a powerful tool and tricks can be played in it. In a crisis the mind must remain increasingly strong. I learned this week how adversity can affect my judgment and sport is no different. Kidney’s judgment has been poor for too long.

Mark Allen highlights in his book Arabs how anthropologists show us that culture is developed, strengthened and, to some extent, defined during adversity. Cyprus, and ourselves are experiencing adversity which will define our people and our culture in years to come. The IRFU no doubt wonder where it all went wrong over the recent past.

The Irish team, drawn from a provincial system, our pride and joy and envy of European rugby is currently stuttering under old age, defection, retirement, injury and an incessant demand for success. A new culture can be developed – Joe Schmidt proved it in his passing game alone; ditto Michael Cheika.

Across the water, Wales have confounded the Six Nations by turning the tide on an awful autumn, managing injuries and a coach’s defection into the Lions to come out on top. Is this culture? I recently bumped into a respected and interesting rugby man where we discussed the Irish capitulation in Twickenham and he forwarded the concept, Virus of the Mind.

Genes are the building blocks of bodies where memes are the building blocks of cultures. Why did it unravel on the pitch in Rome or in Twickenham? Is there a lack of belief in the system? Irish players are very hungry for success as Tommy Bowe’s Bodycheck displayed. Coaches are expected to live ahead of players on the curve and if not the curve will flatline as the Irish one has with Kidney.

Some weeks back with moments left in the game there was much furore when Keith Earls was knocked over by Vincent Debaty right in the French corner. A penalty could have been enough for Ireland. The previous week Earls could have carried the ball in both hands and released Brian O’Driscoll for a certain score, but didn’t and a Scottish team were not killed off when vulnerable. In such margins Test matches are won and lost.

In such margins coaches, culture and meme are very telling. Did Debaty hinder Earls or not? Immaterial, as the real story goes much deeper. A Lions winger struggled to get past a loosehead prop, weighing in at over 17 stone. The key lesson is not Earls but Debaty who, off the bench, was full of energy and pace.

I don’t accept the message that we simply don’t have such players. Conservatism has ensured that result. Adding to that, England get Mako Vunipola we get Michael Bent. These props do afford a contrast and compare opportunity. Part of the Tongan rugby dynasty, Vunipola has bounced off the bench when England struggled to huge effect. Meantime Bent has not. Hardly his fault but why is it so that England source a powerful bench player to augment their system?

The hallmark of sporting management is managing transition or adversity. Kidney has delivered untold success and like O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara deserves huge respect. Had O’Driscoll not existed I fancy O’Gara would be heralded as the greatest rugby player to have graced these shores, having been selected as the best player of the opening 15 years of the Heineken Cup in 2010. That’s less than three years ago. He deserves better from Kidney; ditto Donncha O’Callaghan and others who have fallen foul of the meme.

I give you this meme – is one Grand Slam from this group a good enough return? I think not, hence I want the absolute best coach available which may be external or a promotion from within. But of crucial importance is are the IRFU board set to answer that question and the culture therein? For instance why has Eddie O’Sullivan been avoided over lesser lights at provincial level? Does he frighten the committees as he’s hardly substandard? What lessons has he learned from his very successful time at the helm and is he better now for it? Ditto Mike Ruddock.

Defeat in Rome should not signal the end of Kidney but the culture that put us there should. There is an opportunity for the men on the IRFU board to add to their ranks a consultant who has experienced professional rugby. He can enlighten them on the modern player’s perspective and what’s expected from a coach who creates the culture and the meme.

For instance if Conor O’Shea is not the current answer to the head coach position I urge the IRFU to invite him in (or Keith Wood et al) to encourage, educate and ensure the selection board of a greater culture and to identify the right man to deliver; without an O’Shea aiding we may get a wagon with flat wheels.