A Reading from the Acts of the Coaches.
Last summer Ireland's head coach, Andy Farrell was walking along rugby's road to Damascus, when a bolt of lightning vaporised the ground at his feet. As the smoke slowly cleared and the ringing in his ears dimmed, absurdly Andy could hear voices.
“Andy, Andy, Andy,” boomed a stern but not unfriendly voice, “Why have you forsaken all that is beautiful about the attack in our game?”
The unhappy camper who was talking in Andy’s brain was the rugby god of attack.
"Why are you coaching Ireland to play such rubbish rugby?" cried the voice. "Endless box kicks, players standing still when they are catching the ball. It's blasphemy."
Now you can’t blame Andy for being a little bit rattled. After all, a bolt of lightning had just melted his new runners and the rugby god of attack was speaking directly to his brain. This was even weirder than being part of the English coaching team at the 2015 World Cup.
"Well," Andy started, "I played Rugby League in the north and then I came to rugby late in my career. I played for England before becoming a defensive coach. This is my first gig as a head coach."
“Oh,” said the attack god, a little taken aback. There was a pause and Andy could have sworn he heard the rustling of papers. Eventually, the attack god replied, “Err . . . umm . . . apologies Andy. Seems there’s been a bit of a stuff up at our end. Rugby administration sucks, even in rugby heaven. That information about league and England was not on your file. But it does explain few things.”
“Wow,” sighed the attack god, “Rugby league, then English rugby, then defence coach! You had a rough start.
"Listen Andy. Sorry about the lightning and your runners but here's the truth, with no sugar coating. If you don't change how Ireland are attacking and change it fast, you will be back to Rugby League at Wigan, because you won't survive in Ireland.
“Mate, let’s be honest, 2019 was an absolute shocker and since you got the keys to the executive bathroom at Lansdowne Road . . . well, as we rugby gods say up here, ‘Baby, it ain’t been pretty.’
No one had been that directly blunt with Andy for quite some time. Yet deep in his heart he knew that there had been almost no progress with Ireland’s attack since he took over from the final dark days of ‘Chez Joe.’
“Listen Andy, you are a nice guy. The players rate you, the people like you, so I am going to cut you some slack. After all, I am just a simple rugby god and it’s only a game. It’s not like this is life and death. That’s the gig of the big fella up on the top floor. Way above my pay grade.
“So here’s the hint . . . gain line theory . . . go and study it. You said you’re from England and so is your attack coach Mike Catt?” Andy nodded. “Well, brother you both have a lot to learn because English rugby has never had a rashers on how to attack the gain line.
"Here's another tip - Leinster. "
Andy raised his eyebrows confused as to what Leinster had to do with getting Ireland to play with great attack. “Andy, Leinster are playing winning gain line theory rugby.”
The rugby god of attack whispered conspiratorially inside Andys head. “Listen, I am not supposed to tell you this. If the defensive god gets a whiff, the moron that he is, he might send down another plague like that horrid rushing defence. Let’s just put this down to me being a merciful god. Simply copy how Leinster attacks, pick a lot of Leinster players and you will be sweet as a nut. Now, mum’s is the word. Keep that last bit to yourself.
“One final thing.”
Andy looked up towards rugby heaven, listening to the god of attack, “Stop bloody box kicking. It’s so unbearably boring.”
Then faster than you can say 'William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it' the rugby god of attack was gone.
That night Andy fired up his laptop and searched “Gain line theory.”
"Created by the 1927 Waratahs . . . Johnny Wallace and Cyril Towers were the rugby intellectuals that conceived it . . . ball carrier takes the ball at pace . . . surrounded by an arrowhead of support . . . one on the inside, one on the outside and a 'tail gunner' behind . . . the attacker takes the ball flat and sprints at the defensive line.
“The attacker makes the decision to pass or run in the millisecond before contact which places massive pressure on the defenders . . . counter intuitively, the faster the attack runs at the defensive line the slower the defence moves forward.”
Andy's phone rang. It was Mike Catt. "Andy, you are not going to believe this, but I just had a dream. There was some weirdo rugby god of the attack who spoke about gain theory and Leinster. What the hell is gain line theory?"
“Catty, I just had my runners melted but I think I have been converted.”
After Andy’s conversion on the rugby road to Damascus and Mike’s vivid dream, they started to coach gain line theory attack to the Irish team and instantaneously rugby miracles began to occur.
Ireland ran the ball with astonishing success. Accepting the ball at pace and so flat that the individual tacklers could not make decisions fast enough. Line breaks began to fall onto Andy’s players like manna from rugby heaven. It was fun, entertaining, sexy and most importantly it won big matches.
The Irish people were astonished. The dreaded black of New Zealand was not only vanquished, but this new fangled gain line theory thing tore them to shreds. Then last week in the opening round of the Six Nations against Wales, the forwards and backs interlinked their attack with seemingly impossible results.
Performed on the holy ground of Lansdowne Road, Ireland’s attacking style was a revelation. The miraculous transformation of the Irish attack was there for all to witness.
Here we must recognise the first glorious mystery of rugby. It is the game they play in heaven but the rugby gods are both non-denominational and multicultural.
Last week the god of rugby attack visited the French coach, Fabien Galthie in a dream.
As Fabien snored away in Covid isolation, the god of attack pointed out that the Irish wingers 'jam' in. That is they rush up and in, attempting to shut down the attack before the ball gets to the extremities. The opportunity for France is that the Irish wingers have not been doing it very well. They are leaving large tracks of space out wide for the attack. Fabien recalled the vision of how France cut Ireland to shreds on the flanks last year and how last week even Wales, who were as dull as dishwater, got some joy out wide.
Fabien was not sure exactly what dull as dishwater meant, but he saw that he had a pack with extreme power. With Melvyn Jaminet kicking at 90 per cent plus success rate, along with the individual brilliance of Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Damian Penaud, and Gael Fickou.
Galthie saw 75,000 French flags waving in the Parisian sunshine, almost two years to the day since Ireland last played in front of a foreign crowd away from the security of the Aviva. As the dream ended Fabien smiled, rolled over and said a prayer of thanks to the rugby god of attack. He then fell into a deep and contented sleep.
That same night the rugby god of attack entered into Joey Carbery’s dream and told him he was going to start against France. A dream too far-fetched for Joey to hope for.
All of this draws us to the conclusion that the outcome of Saturday’s match at the Stade de France sits very much in the mischievous hands of the rugby gods.