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Gordon D’Arcy: The Ireland camp in 2019 became a difficult place to operate

A power struggle between coach and captain is an essential dynamic for a successful team

I have sat quietly in team meetings when Paul O'Connell strongly disagreed with Joe Schmidt. It felt extremely awkward, as neither man gave an inch, but proved the catalyst for Ireland winning two Six Nations under their coach and captain dynamic.

I have challenged Michael Cheika in the Leinster environment. Suffice to say this ended badly for me and many others, but Cheika softened his cough whenever Leo Cullen interjected. You sensed the respect between our on and off field leaders.

Cullen’s words mattered. They still do. Under Stuart Lancaster and Leo, Leinster put plenty of stock in encouraging young players to express themselves. That really matters.

Nobody knows with certainty how quickly Ireland can recover from the darkness of Tokyo

The Ireland captaincy of Rory Best should have a strong influence on his successor. Maybe, if we all just step back for a second, we will see that nobody has been “thrown under the bus” of blame that almost every conclusion about Irish rugby in 2019 seems to be landing upon.


Turn on Joe. Blame Rory. No, wait, it must be Nucifora’s fault.

It cannot be that simple.

What needs to be understood is everyone involved in the Ireland set-up this year – from the top down – is culpable for the failure.

Except Devin Toner. Dev – a living martyr – is fully exonerated.

Seriously though, one place the fallout from Japan has not been evident is on the pitch. Especially Leinster's victory in Northampton last Saturday. Munster keep threatening to evolve, Ulster are being progressively shaped by Dan McFarland and Connacht keep rising above perceived limitations.

But the Six Nations is coming up fast. Andy Farrell holds his first camp as head coach next week and nobody knows with certainty how quickly Ireland can recover from the darkness of Tokyo.

We must trust that those centrally responsible can figure it out. Best and Schmidt are gone but everyone else remains.

Next captain

What we do know is Farrell has an immediate decision. James Ryan has to be the next captain as it allows Ireland to invest in the long term future while equally focusing on 2020.

Now, how can we ensure that Ryan is protected from the issues faced by Rory Best, and even his predecessors as national captains, Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll and temporarily Jamie Heaslip?

There is a wealth of knowledge inside the system. It’s all about making sure this gets clearly communicated to the current generation of players. Otherwise Ryan’s career will also end in glorious, or worse ignominious, failure at World Cups.

The Grand Slam leadership group – essentially Best, Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony – worked a treat until a singular voice was needed.

This is not a criticism of Rory – history will remember him as one of the great Irish captains – but that’s not what this group’s success was built upon. The collective soared in 2018 as much as they collapsed in 2019.

The IRFU report on the World Cup – well, the cliff notes David Nucifora presented to the media – has only managed to create more questions, and increase concerns about how the past year played out behind the scenes.

Nobody can be faulted for effort but many mistakes were made

The Nucifora Report had too many sound bites and not enough meat on the bones. This only invites conjecture. Without detail people read between the lines and conclude that Nucifora is apportioning blame at the doors of Joe Schmidt and Enda McNulty.

Most people who have worked with both of these men know their true worth. I know I do.

Independent process

A published report – with sensitive information redacted – would allow everyone to move on before the Six Nations, and not because of the Six Nations.

This needed to be an independent process. Not a Nucifora process.

As I said, there’s enough blame going around at the moment for everyone to be culpable. Obviously that includes the coaching ticket, the leadership group, other players and the performance director.

The chain of command was Nucifora to Schmidt to Best. None of them can avoid some level of responsibility for what happened.

We also need to blame the All Blacks. Never mind their relentless quarter-final performance, we learned a brand new lesson during the groundbreaking Schmidt era about coping with New Zealand when they are seeking revenge. Twice.

But without The Schmidt Decade, Irish rugby wouldn’t be where it is right now, which is still a very healthy state.

Nobody can be faulted for effort but many mistakes were made.

Nucifora revealed that the review was similar to 2015 and that a “series of surveys” occurred before the squad went to Japan because such surveys “not tainted by results tend to be pretty valuable because they are done without emotion.”

I am sorry for veering down a negative alley, but that sounds ridiculous. Ireland had just come off a poor Six Nations and shipped 57 points at Twickenham. No emotion on the eve of the biggest tournament of their careers. Please.

How can this (unseen) review not be littered with bias?

Communication breakdown

Rory Best has highlighted a major communication breakdown between players and coaches. Now, Rory is being slaughtered in some quarters for giving his opinion and whether you agree with how he delivered it or not, it is his truth.

We should not be learning more from the retired Ireland captain on his book tour than the IRFU Performance Director’s report. That is enormously problematic. This really happened. We must not ignore it.

Not that I think Best’s revelation about extra tension being heaped upon players by coaches before games was solely responsible for World Cup defeats to Japan and New Zealand. Sure, this must have contributed but it appears to be one of many failings evident in retrospect.

So, as a jumping off point, Ireland’s leaders struggled to get their views accepted by the head coach. That’s not to be taken as a slight on Rory, Johnny and Peter but they did lose influence in the decision making process.

No matter what the future holds, each man will be seen as heroic servants to Irish rugby.

You question Schmidt in a team or private environment at your peril because he will have thought out almost every angle. Not many have tried it

But I have been in intense team rooms when O’Connell and Schmidt were arguing about relatively small day to day issues. For what seemed an eternity, neither coach nor captain was willing to back down about the immediate direction of the squad, while the rest of us examined intricate designs on the carpet.

Both men were travelling towards the same destination but Paul regularly questioned Joe’s methodology. He wanted to know why we were covering so many bases. 99 per cent of established internationals do not possess the gravitas to do this.

Paul did.

I realise now it was an essential power struggle for any successful team.

Joe tended to prevail in these exchanges – simply by pulling rank on his captain without any agreement being reached – but he would leave the room with plenty of food for thought.

Fearless leadership

It was never a static hierarchy. Joe was clearly the boss but Paul retained the respect of his men. You question Schmidt in a team or private environment at your peril because he will have thought out almost every angle. Not many have tried it.

Paulie was fearless.

O’Connell was a truly unique leader of people. Remember, by the time Schmidt appointed him as Ireland captain in 2013, he had harnessed mental scars gained fronting the 2009 Lions through South Africa into wisdom. He studied at the Gallimh and Claw school of leadership. We would follow him anywhere and Joe knew this.

The gift of influence is a priceless skill. Cheika was even more intimidating when it came to almost any sort of interaction, but Leo had a very clever way of controlling his more extreme moments. Cheika knew Cullen wasn’t talking because he liked the sound of his own voice. These were rare but powerful exchanges.

Tension between the on field and off field leader should be inevitable. Harnessing such exchanges is how a team ultimately measures its success.

A lot comes down to the type of person you are. This is team culture 101: you can take criticism from someone you respect.

Perhaps Best’s need to find form and fitness this year hampered his interactions with the coach. Same possibly goes for Sexton. Without being the primary cause of failure, the captain and coach relationship definitely impacted negatively on the group.


Clearly, the Ireland camp in 2019 became a difficult place to operate.

When it began to go wrong the overriding approach was to work harder than ever before. When performances continued to regress the players became deeply disillusioned.

Dealing with the loss of form while planning for a World Cup became too much for them. But that’s only my view from gathering up scraps of information.

Nucifora's presentation last week should not be acceptable to the rugby paying public. The lack of detail means it is Andy Farrell who must turn the page

Two layers of anxiety appeared to exist in the group. The first was a coaching worry about not being fully prepared and this clashed, quite significantly says Best, with the players’ need to build gradually up to kick-off without being overwhelmed with information.

Both arguments are legitimate. Yet that’s not where the war was lost.

Ireland in 2019 suffered due to incremental failings. It began pretty much from that November night in 2018 when Steve Hansen warned everyone in Dublin about the difficulties of staying on top of the mountain.

Ireland, led by Joe and Rory, were unable to cope with the reality of being number one.

No one is disputing that this became an unhappy camp – winning dictates mood – but the IRFU review should provide a deep, cathartic study into how a team goes from performing at the highest possible level to the collapse against Japan in Shizuoka.

This cannot be achieved without external expertise. Nucifora’s presentation last week should not be acceptable to the rugby paying public. The lack of detail means it is Andy Farrell who must turn the page.

James Ryan witnessed the coach and captain dynamic, and that should prove hugely beneficial to him in the years ahead. He already possesses the traits needed to lead a rugby team: he has experience of doing so at underage, he’s universally respected, durable and the best player. Ryan also has presence and intellect but there are bumps in the road that only the past can teach him to avoid.

If anyone can learn on the job it is the 23-year-old lock. This is already happening. Farrell can make it official. Now is as good a time as any.