Gordon D’Arcy: Evolve or die – why Seán O’Brien had to speak out

The Lions should benefit on the South Africa tour in 2021 from what he had to say

The radio was on in the car but I’d no idea what station it was or who was speaking. Noise filtering through my ears, only registering because of the sporting narrative.

“. . . most influential Gaelic footballer in the past decade . . .”

I presumed it was Gooch Cooper or Diarmuid Connolly, but the discussion centred around Stephen Cluxton and why Dublin's goalkeeper is almost solely responsible for innovating the modern game, which has become possession-based football directed by Cluxton's kick outs.

“. . . like Phil Taylor throwing a dart . . .”


(Turns out it was John O’Leary and Tomás Ó Sé on Newstalk.)

That line reignited old spark-plugs in my brain, transporting me to the innovative moments when I laced up boots – growing dust two years this month! – every day.

Hearing about Cluxton’s accuracy up to 50 metres, into a five-metre circumference, allied to the speed of his delivery, provided a clear visual of Ronan O’Gara on a soggy night in Thomond Park.

The parallel being Dublin struggle whenever Cluxton’s targets are tightly marked, much like Munster having to win with brutality whenever Ronan’s rhythm was disrupted.

I have enormous respect for a self-made sportsman like Cluxton. When we see highly paid professionals regularly failing to clear the first man from a corner kick, it’s remarkable to realise how Dublin built their three-in-a-row of All-Irelands on his reliability.

I also find it fascinating that a goalkeeper can alter the way an entire team sport is played. The last defender flicking an attacking switch the same way the kick and chase in rugby was transformed into an attacking ploy. Flicking the same switch.

Rob Kearney performed a fullback’s most basic skill better than everybody else. Soon the comparative advantage disappeared as teams sent their leaping salmon up the middle to reclaim restarts or exploit smaller wingers.

The game evolved. Israel Folau arrived from League.

The counties able to live with Dublin – just Mayo and Kerry, right? – know that forcing Cluxton to kick long levels the playing field. So, Dublin will need a new innovation to reach four-in-a-row. I'm sure they figured this before everyone else. They knew what happened in the All-Ireland final, when Cluxton's options were narrowed, was as inevitable as night following day.

Any great sporting team lives off Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Cutting edge

For a brief moment in time I existed at the cutting edge of rugby union. A low centre of gravity in a world of giants provided an advantage so long as my tackling technique remained flawless. Hit the man low from the side, then spin up and around to snaffle the ball.

Eventually the breakdown became a mess so the rules changed and the advantage disappeared. But, in around 2005-07, my now extinct race of miniature opensides were kings of the rapid poach.

Rugby has since descended into a homogenised, process driven state. It’s ripe for innovation, for a coach to splash some artistry on an increasingly dull canvass.

The All Blacks are the likeliest source. At the core of their philosophy lies a desire for continual improvement, for small advantages like not being heavy legged entering a Test match!

A great opportunity has passed and Seanie O’Brien ensured we all know the reasons why. The Lions tour exposed New Zealand at the low water mark in their recycling of greatness. While shifting from one generation to the next they also suffered a heavy injury toll that left them susceptible to the unthinkable: defeat on home soil.

Seanie and others like him looked into the whites of their eyes and recognised a wounded animal. He saw the opportunity to win the series “3-0” and who are we to question a man climbing from the trenches? He was out there, along with Maro Itoje, driving the knife in.

Seanie feels the Lions were short-changed by those tasked with moulding their game plan. So much so, the officer class felt compelled to take over tactical manoeuvres.

I think more context supporting O’Brien’s comments will arrive in due course. But if a player genuinely feels they could have been better prepared surely there’s an onus on him to say so. I can picture myself in Seanie’s skin. ‘We just drew a Test series in New Zealand and I was tired going into two Test matches because of a flawed training load’.

That needed to come out.

When I heard the squad were heading to Queenstown on the Monday and Tuesday before the third Test I presumed all the preparation was done and that the rest of the week would be little more than a walk through. Hearing him talk about triple sessions two days before the first Test and overloading of plans a fortnight later sounds like madness. I don’t think I’d be able to play a game in that state.

Obvious benefit

I remember in the early 2000s with Ireland our Friday Captain’s Run was too long. This should never be a full session. It’s a chance to roam the pitch 24 hours before a game. It’s important for kickers – especially on foreign soil so they get a feel for how the wind is swirling around the stadium. Senior players pulled the coaches aside. Problem sorted.

Such lessons filter down from Ireland to the provinces. That should be an obvious benefit from any Lions tours. Seanie noted the benefit of working with England forwards coach Steve Borthwick. That’s important.

The Lions took a Welsh approach. That’s how it appears, what with a Welsh head coach, attack coach and captain. So I suspect the Welsh players on tour will come out in defence of the methodology – they have to really – in the same way the Irish and English return to Carton House and Pennyhill happily embracing the ways of Joe and Eddie. Especially after seeing the alternative.

Seanie’s frustration, he was saving this up for two months, comes from an ingrained pursuit of perfection. A triple session on a Thursday sounds like an awful idea. Now the message has been delivered I’d say he’s already moved on. And if others are unable to do likewise, he is well able to articulately defend his fact-based opinion.

The widely held belief that this great Lions achievement – and drawing a Test series in New Zealand is just that – was masterminded by Warren Gatland and Rob Howley will always have the Tullow Tank asterisk beside it. That's right and proper because it appears like the players needed to take control in key areas when messaging from above was unclear.

There will always remain a 'what if Eddie Jones or Joe Schmidt were at the helm?'

Players on any successful team I’ve played with were empowered to take control of the game plan, to mould it to the scenarios that happen before us.

The rigorous process-based approach presented by Schmidt means players barely need to think, most actions become automatic. Do this here, that there and the end result will be an overlap on the short side seven metres from the opposition’s try line. Then it comes down to execution or the intellect under pressure to make the right decision depending on how the last defender shapes up.

The Lions only put their most tactically astute men, Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell, on the field together after losing the first Test.

Schmidt is not an autocrat. He has exceptionally strong views on the game so to question him means you better be armed with a PhD level of rugby research. If a player is unable to explain why a precise area should be attacked at an exact moment, if he or she is unable to stay afloat in that conversation, Joe won’t entertain them, and that player should stay quiet.

Unforgivable management

Camps with Ireland since 2013, and I strongly presume the same with Eddie Jones’s England, are the equivalent of tutorials from the MIT of rugby.

Seanie O’Brien comes from that environment. Along with seven other forwards, 48 hours before a Test match he knew he was on his feet too long. That something similar reoccurred a fortnight later is unforgivable management of resources in his mind.

So he said as much.

In Carton House a lot of players keep quiet and breathe in the knowledge (there is a lot of it). Those who can put the equations into practice the quickest compile multiple caps.

Remember, O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony failed to make Schmidt’s bench in Chicago last November. The day Ireland beat New Zealand they were both at home, which is enormous credit to Josh van der Flier and Jordi Murphy, yet six months later Pete was captaining the Lions in the first Test and Seanie was a nailed-on starter.

Everything Seanie said to the media last week he said to Warren Gatland at the time. In Ireland camp he would speak up but the desire or need is rarely as strong.

I tried to keep quiet as there was always plenty of voices in the room. Eventually I realised I could inspire young players not by saying the right thing but by being technically excellent, by being early to training, by working on my flaws in our spare time. No team gets near greatness without a majority of silent leaders.

Seanie is a talker. Always has been, even since he was a young lad understudying to Rocky Elsom. It’s his nature. He questions things, it motivates him. He used to miss the dart board a few times but now he knows precisely who he is and how little time is remaining.

Let’s look at this another way: did he raise some important questions?

I would contend he did. At the very least it deserves debate. A solution can be whatever the individual coach or player perceives it to be but the Lions should benefit on the South Africa tour in 2021.

This team was on the cusp of one of the great achievements in the history of sport. They fell short partly because the players were tired when they should have been as fresh as circumstances allowed. That would drive me insane.

Rugby’s new innovation may well have occurred on this Lions tour if guided by Joe or Eddie. What will it be? If I knew I’d be coaching some backline somewhere. Whatever it is should be clear during the Six Nations if not sooner. I know where it won’t be coming from.