Club success not paying off at national level


FRENCH NOTES:While the Irish provinces play to a style that does not have its origins in a national philosophy, the national team will not benefit from their success to the degree it should, writes MATT WILLIAMS

THIS IS a time in which Irish rugby is celebrating the overwhelming joy of European club dominance. I hate to rain on the parade, but the success of Irish clubs means little if it is not making the national team stronger.

Two Irish teams in the European final is not harming the national cause, but without clear leadership in defining an Irish rugby philosophy, it will not help the national team.

Let me pose a simple question: What is the rugby philosophy and style of the Irish national team? If there is a national philosophy it is not being communicated by the coaches and it is not being exhibited by the international players. The provinces are playing out separate Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht philosophies. These styles are not driven by any national requirements.

Herein lies the problem with the Ireland team; the tail is wagging the dog.

I am unsure of the national style because currently in Ireland we have the clubs setting their individual styles and philosophies and the national team floundering to their approach to adopt provincial styles into the Test arena.

The national team should set the agenda and the provinces should follow and develop.

In a few weeks we will have Kiwi head coaches in our three major provinces.

In New Zealand the philosophy is set by the national team coaches and the super franchises follow the national agenda. I have spoken with Wayne Smith on this issue. When he was national coach of New Zealand, at an annual meeting of the national team and Super team coaches, the national coach would present his philosophy and vision of how he planned his team to play.

Each Super team coach would then be asked to explain to the group an area of coaching from their team that season.

For example if Canterbury excelled at counter-attack, the Canterbury coach would explain the coaching processes he used to produce excellent counter-attack. This enriched the entire national coaching body. There were no secrets. No “province over country”. Any new process or tactic was shared and discussed. This meant all the teams improved.

Over several seasons New Zealand provinces developed a philosophy that was focused on the style required by their national team to win. This is tough for me to say, but at times, those bloody New Zealanders can be annoyingly smart.

Like New Zealand, all the Irish provincial coaches are contracted to the national body. In Ireland there is much goodwill from the provincial coaches to the national team. There are regular meetings between all the provincial and national coaches.

In the six seasons I attended those meetings covering the times of Warren Gatland, Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan, we never discussed any aspect of how the national team wanted us to play. Likewise, we were never asked to discuss any area of our coaching with the national staff. Despite all the provincial coaches being on IRFU contracts, the technical leaders can not define what is the “Irish way” of playing.

For example, if there was a common philosophy on attack and the focus was on off-loading in the tackle, the skills required to pass to support runners after contact would revolutionise Ireland’s attacking game. Off-loading destroys defensive systems.

After watching this season’s Super Rugby, passing out of contact is the outstanding feature of attacking play from the New Zealand teams.

Enter Tim Sheens, West Tigers NRL and Australian Rugby League national coach. Over the years I have had regular meetings with Tim. He is a great coach. Tim told me back in 2003 that he was coaching footwork to his players.

However, he did not expect to see the benefit of his coaching in games for two or three years because that was the time it took to transfer the skills from the practice pitch to match day. Fast forward two and half seasons to the 2005 NRL Grand Final. Sheens’s brilliant outhalf, Benji Marshall, produced an incredible side step to break the defensive line and set up a match winning try.

Do you know who came calling on Tim Sheens’s to learn his ways? The then coach of the Canterbury Crusaders, Robby Deans.

Why would the Crusaders ask an Australian NRL franchise anything? Because, like all great coaching organisations, the Crusaders are always looking for an edge. They are hungry to learn. They are not arrogant and think they have all the answers. Robby Deans transferred Sheens’s methods to the Crusaders attack. Years later, much of New Zealand’s success in off loading had its origins in Australian rugby league.

The solution to drive Ireland into developing a national philosophy may lie in the actions of another sport. National European soccer associations, like Italy and Spain, constantly produce players of technical excellence.

At the peak of their coaching pyramid they have a national technical director. This person is not involved in contracts, sponsorship or player negotiations. The technical director is responsible for defining the national playing philosophy and then setting up systems to produce the cutting edge coaching for developing the required skills in the developing elite players.

This is the technical and tactical philosophy that is missing from Irish rugby and is exactly what the national team programme requires.

Winning 10 Heineken Cups will not fill this void for the national team.

While Leinster, Ulster and Munster play to a style that does not have its origins in a national philosophy the national team will not benefit to the degree it should from provincial success. Irish rugby needs a statement that simply and clearly defines the Irish way of playing rugby.

The IRFU needs to empower a technical director to give focus to the tactical aspects of the game and develop a national style of play to harness the wonderful performances of the provinces.