Occasionally I wonder about the thought process behind a game plan when watching a team underperform on a grand scale. Is it the blueprint? Is it the execution? Is it player error? Does the fault line lie with the coaches, or does it contain a little bit of all those flaws?
Watching Leinster’s victory over Cardiff at the RDS, I started to drift into that headspace to try and reconcile how a team with 13 internationals could perform so badly and be thoroughly outplayed by a side containing eight academy players. As I went through my mental checklist I stopped at the coaching issue.
It got me thinking about a time a Richard Cockerill coached Edinburgh team rocked up to the RDS and basically box-kicked the living daylights out of the ball irrespective of where they were on the pitch. It represented Plan A, B, C, D etc and as an approach was so demoralising because it was out of touch with how the games were being played at the time.
Cardiff head coach Dai Young must shoulder some blame for his team’s poor performance. The visitors were poor in every aspect of game, lumbering and one dimensional for the most part in unsuccessfully trying to run over the top of their hosts.
[ Leinster put six tries past Cardiff in another dominant URC win ]
I could feel for the players on the field, having to deliver a game plan that nobody had any real faith in. Did they ever believe that winning was a possibility? Their body language said otherwise.
It wasn’t until a raft of Leinster changes made the home side less cohesive in defence and attack that Cardiff belatedly got some traction in the match. The Welsh side strung a few phases together, made some good decisions, passes began to stick, the upshot of which was that they were able to stress the Leinster defence, which coughed up two tries.
It begs the question as to why Cardiff set up as they did from the opening whistle, and it was only in that less pressurised end game that they put some space and width onto the ball. Were they limited by ambition or imagination, or both?
I have been lucky in my career that in almost every season we were in the hunt for silverware and having something to play for is crucial as a professional sportsperson. I cannot comprehend what it is like to be a player in a team that is confined to the bottom half of the table whose season is effectively decided by January, with no possibility of challenging for honours.
What motivates players to show up every week because on that performance it wasn’t for the love of the game? There is little wonder why Welsh club rugby is in the doldrums if there is a joyless element to what they are trying to do on the pitch.
Perhaps it is naive of me, but I would have thought there should have been a freedom to play in a match like this, no pressure or expectation, just a mandate to go and play. That approach needs a great deal of trust between coach and players, backing them to play regardless of the result and I would suggest that isn’t the case.
Money can’t compensate for everything. There appears to be no quick fix, and rather than the clubs being in step with the national team, they merely act as a mechanism for Welsh national team selection. It’s been the elephant in the room, everyone knows it’s there, but no one has yet figured out how to successfully manage it.
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Once the national team performs it seems that the Welsh Rugby Union tolerates the continued underperformance of the clubs. It’s gone on for too long to argue otherwise. There seems to be no plan. The WRU’s decision to remove Wayne Pivac as national team head coach followed a prolonged period in which Wales struggled in the Test arena.
It’s one thing where their clubs were underperforming but from a financial and practical perspective, they could ill afford to wear that in the international arena. It was time to put out an APB for Warren Gatland and pave the way for their most successful coach of the professional era to return; a 12-year veteran who had delivered some spectacular triumphs.
Successful coaches know their worth, understand what it takes to extract the most out of players and translate it into results. It’s all about percentages and shaving the odds in terms of putting a person in charge who has a fundamental understanding of the challenge. You look at what Pat Lam delivered with Connacht; it is not always about having oodles of talent at your disposal.
As soon as Warren Gatland was announced as the returning Welsh coach it changed the way I look at Ireland’s opening game of the Six Nations at the Principality stadium on Saturday. Amongst his many strengths is the capacity to leave sentiment at the door in pursuit of a practical solution.
He changed the captaincy and opted to select some new young and untested players at this level. There is enough change within the squad to keep people on their toes and in a young six-foot, six-inch, centre called Mason Grady, a nod to nostalgia in terms of the type of game plan he will pursue.
[ Forget the acrimony, Irish rugby owes Warren Gatland a belated ‘thanks’ ]
Wales under Gatland have been beautifully simplistic in their approach to playing a style of rugby that drew the moniker ‘Warren-ball.’ They have always been a team that prioritised winning the collisions on the gain-line and then entrusting the players to make good decisions from that point.
It would be surprising if Gatland strays from this approach in the short term but may rely on a couple of form players to add the unpredictably that they traditionally thrive on, such as Justin Tipuric who scored one of the best tries in the Champions Cup two weeks ago.
It involved a speculative kick through, but possession was retained on the bounce of a ball and the openside was on hand to finish a move he started.
Any team that is trying to turn things around will always focus on defence as it is the easiest thing to fix. Attack shapes rely on good decisions and execution; mistakes can unmask deep rooted confidence issues. You can be sure that one of the first targets for the newly appointed Welsh assistant coaches Alex King and Mike Forshaw this week will be about not turning the ball over against the Irish.
Forshaw, thrown in the deep end, will be charged with trying to stymie the Irish attack. In the past the Welsh have been innovative in their defensive mindset, whether that was with a roaming scrumhalf or in the days when flanker and captain Sam Warburton lurked behind the defensive line, ready to pounce for a turnover at an under-resourced ruck.
Ireland enter the game in a position with which they are recently familiar, number one in the world, heading into a Six Nations with a World Cup looming later in the year. It went horribly wrong the last time. Players were burnt out and therefore lacked the mental and emotional strength to mount any sort of credible challenge in both tournaments in 2019.
The Ireland of four years ago tried to double down on a possession-based game that was overly attritional with opposition defences primed to frustrate us. It became a slow death spiral, individual players’ confidence ebbed away, team patterns disintegrated with predictable results.
[ Ireland v Wales buildup: Farrell welcomes back Stockdale and Larmour ahead of Six Nations opener ]
However, at the risk of uttering those immortal words ‘it’ll be different this time’, it does feel like things are genuinely different. The area in which they fell down before has been addressed, with players, unprompted, regularly saying how much they are enjoying Ireland camp and the rugby facilitated by Andy Farrell and his coaches.
Ireland’s focus going into the Six Nations will be to ensure a solid set piece, aggressive, connected defence and variety in attack, both in passing and kicking. Wales know that the best way to get after their opponents is to slow down ruck ball.
Teams attack each other in familiar ways, get after the set-piece and be aggressive in line speed to win the gain-line and collisions. South Africa and Fiji achieved some joy at the Aviva stadium in November.
The Fijians conceded the set-piece but were excellent in the collisions before running out of gas. The Springboks were poor with the ball, but at the breakdown and in defence they made it physically tough, albeit that Ireland found a way to win. It was only in Paris last year and the first Test in New Zealand that Ireland couldn’t find a solution.
[ Six Nations: Reviving Wales is Warren Gatland’s greatest challenge yet ]
Wales are going to challenge Farrell’s side differently to other teams and I’m excited to see how the Irish players deal with it on the field. So much will have changed for Wales that Ireland can’t really plan for them, so the focus will need to be on themselves and to think on their feet. I expect Wales to stay with Ireland longer than most but the visitors should be able to create a winning position.
For me there is little between Ireland, England and France this year and as the competition progresses Ireland should not fear defeat as long as they learn from it and that there is a positive response to any setback.
It’s about viewing the Six Nations as a separate entity and trying to win it, The same as last summer’s Test series in New Zealand and the November internationals: same focus, same desire.