As Schmidt has taught Ireland’s rugby team, so he can teach the rest of us
Diarmaid Ferriter: Grand-slam coach ended ‘glorious’ failures with proper organisation
Grand slam: Joe Schmidt gives Ireland a prematch talk at Twickenham. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty
When he was writing about his rugby career in The Battle, his autobiography, from 2016, the former Ireland captain Paul O’Connell reflected on how he became fixated on the mentality of champions. He learned from Joe Schmidt the need to have the right foundations in place and for players to become better thinkers rather than having an exhaustive new game plan every week.
For O’Connell, initially sceptical about “sports performance” gurus, motivational psychology provided the key to enjoying play: “I got much better at working on the process that went into winning rather than being distracted by thoughts of what winning or losing might feel like.”
The book also traces the transition from “old school” professional rugby to players knowing their jobs and the game plans backwards. Again, Schmidt pointed the way: after six months working with the coach “my way of thinking about playing and preparation had been turned on its head”. Schmidt is all about precision, effective visualisation, the need to “win the moment in front of your face” and, of course, not giving away stupid penalties.
A 1981 report said it was ‘the same old story, with Ireland taking an early lead, putting the opposition under pressure, but then appearing either to relax or be reluctant’
This transformation in psychology, for O’Connell and others, had significant ramifications; an Ireland rugby team could think of itself as world class and then match that with world-class performances, including beating New Zealand and winning grand slams.
The archive of the Irish Rugby Football Union underlines the way, historically, that the Ireland team was consistently characterised in terms of the intensity and dynamism of its players but also in terms of its big shortcoming: the “fiery Irish” who could rattle the opposition but ultimately fail to take advantage of the disruption they wrought on their opponents. The postwar British media made much of this: the Irish were a Celtic tribe who displayed their fighting qualities when the chips were down. But they were not winners.
A report of an IRFU committee in 1957 referred to players’ at that time having the “traditional fire of their forefathers”; another report from that era suggested the players possessed “fury and enthusiasm”. Twenty years later the IRFU noted, in relation to 1977-78, that there had been a decline since 1974, as the team “let the opposition off the hook with monotonous regularity”. A 1981 match report on a game against England suggested it was “a case of the same old story, with Ireland taking an early lead, putting the opposition under pressure, but then appearing either to relax or be reluctant”.
Of course there were still moments of great triumph over the decades, notably in the late 1940s and the 1980s, but the more recent, consistent successes were partly about banishing the notion of the plucky Irish losers. After the loss to France in the 1995 World Cup the Independent on Sunday assessment was that Ireland stuck to the plan of early onslaught and “piled in with determination and spirit only to successfully achieve glorious Irish failure”.
The current Ireland team thinks very differently, as do those playing against it and those watching. It has broken the pattern of stand-alone heroic wins or “glorious” failures. The team that played during the “golden years” of 1948-51 lost only a handful of matches; it had exuberant, hard, fast forwards but was also regarded as not always being sufficiently controlled. What we have now is exceptional efficiency – or what coaches and players refer to as “performance-based, process-driven” rugby – which might not lend itself to spontaneity but delivers consistent excellence, a measure of the transformation achieved.
It has involved, it seems, a combination of building team spirit and ruthlessly exposing mistakes by the coaching team; such errors are focused on in the aftermath of a less than satisfactory performance with what Schmidt calls brutal transparency. It has also been about eradicating weak links and over-reliance on individuals.
‘If all our young men played rugby,’ Éamon de Valera said, ‘not only would we beat England and Wales, but France and the whole lot of them together’
The idea that an Irish rugby team could provide a template for a confident, globalised, high-achieving, disciplined Ireland was perhaps somewhat uncomfortable for some of our forefathers. In 1957, as taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, long a believer that the Irish “temperament” was particularly suited to rugby, got into trouble for suggesting at a private dinner that “for Irish men there is no football game to match rugby, and if all our young men played rugby, not only would we beat England and Wales, but France and the whole lot of them together”. His remarks were reported in the media, and the GAA made its displeasure known.
We have long, of course, embraced our flawed sporting heroes. The great sports journalist Con Houlihan recalled that in the 1930s, in relation to tortured talents such as the boxer Jack Doyle, “people hungered for heroes, for a sign that there were some on whom the gods had not turned their backs . . . In this country we had our own heroes on the playing fields but we needed an icon of international status.”
Modern Ireland does not, as it looks on its current rugby team, have to rely as much on the gods not turning their backs, or just on sporting prowess, but on the power of proper organisation, confidence, patriotism and the right psychology. Is it, perhaps, a lesson that could be applied to approaching other challenges that face modern Ireland?