It started with a chance meeting of Ireland’s two head coaches. Philip Doyle crossed paths with Joe Schmidt at the IRFU offices before Christmas.
Schmidt was more than happy to have “Goose” join the men’s squad in Carton House for a pre-Six Nations session but only if he could return the gesture. Sure enough, Joe arrived into Johnstown House during the third of our four January weekend camps.
The girls were ecstatic but we are a suspicious gang at the best of times. Obviously, Joe’s reputation precedes him but any new coach meeting an established squad still has to make a first impression.
And you know what they say about the value of a first impression? Especially when one man is meeting 37 women!
Joe's unbridled enthusiasm quickly won us over.
I'm fairly certain he has a serious problem. I know a rugby addict when I see one. At least he found himself in a room full of fellow junkies, none of whom are in recovery. Or ever want to be.
The theme of Joe’s session was how to maximise individual technique when taking the ball into contact.
There are many aspects that make him an innovative coach but for me it is how he breaks everything into minute detail.
For rugby nerds, like us, it was the type of elite coaching sessions we crave.
Isa Nacewa was offered as the best example of how to take a tackle and deliver clean possession back to the scrumhalf.
It was such a valuable session as the ball-carrier fought contact, instead of simply going to ground, using her leg drive and upper-body strength, but most of all her attitude. You are not getting this ball off me!
I loved that Joe got carried away with the session, staying until the bitter end and offering constant positive feedback.
He did seem shocked when we went live in a full-contact game against each other. I think this holds too much risk of injury for the professionals.
Sometimes I wish we didn’t do so much contact, especially in a drill against Ailis Egan or Gillian Bourke, but I know perfect practice makes for a perfect performance.
That’s a sports science mantra I’ve followed since my BSc days at the University of Limerick from the legendary sports psychologist and lecturer Dr PJ Smyth. The man never forgets a student or a sporting fact yet spends his life looking for his specs (They’re on your head, PJ).
He drummed the idea into us: practising poor technique will only reinforce such actions within your muscle memory.
PJ’s best example of perfect practice comes out of a story about the 1991 World Cup semi-final at Lansdowne Road when Australia beat New Zealand, with Tim Horan’s try created by the seemingly off-the-cuff brilliance of David Campese.
Campo gathered a crossfield kick, stepped outside, then inside opposing winger John Timu, in the same movement drawing Graeme Bachop, while forcing Bernie McCahill to check his tracking run, before a no-look pass over his shoulder took out all three defenders to create the space for Horan to race over.
Afterwards it was put to Campese that such improvisation cannot be coached.
“Rubbish,” he replied, “there is nothing that I do in a match that has not been practised. I have performed that skill many times in practice. The movement may not have been exactly the same but I have performed many similar movements.”
“Repetition, repetition, repetition,” was how Stephen Cluxton described the coaching methods of Jim Gavin from the steps of the Hogan Stand last September. Cluxton so obviously follows this mantra, having altered the way Gaelic football is played with the accuracy of his kick-outs.
Really, I'm talking about Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 book Outliers, the theory being it requires 10,000 hours practising the correct skills to be a success in any walk of life.
One important variable though: in order to have perfect practice, you need to understand and learn the correct skill and that means good coaching during the embryonic stage.
I was blessed in this regard.
For me, and so many other future internationals, the guidance of Ian Costello at UL Bohemians got my career off to the best possible start in 2001.
Cossie is the single best coach I’ve ever encountered and is part of Rob Penney’s Munster backroom team nowadays.
For one, he taught me how to pass the ball! He showed so many of us – including Fiona Coghlan, Joy Neville and Niamh Briggs – the basic tools of this complicated game of ours. UL Bohs won four AIL titles on Ian’s watch. That, I believe, was where the seeds were planted for last year’s Grand Slam.
It was on those wet and windy nights in Annacotty that Briggsy honed that kicking technique of hers that ultimately carried us over the line on St Patrick’s Day against Italy last year.
In the women’s game in Ireland having access to this calibre of coaching is a rarity and something that certainly needs to be looked at if we are to strengthen our foundations. Otherwise, the success of 2013 will stand alone, not unlike how the men’s success of 1948 did until 2009.
I surpassed the 10,000 hour mark a while back now but it took longer than it should have because coaching women is not an attractive pursuit for the best male coaches in Ireland (which merely highlights the selflessness of Philip for over a decade now).
There isn’t much money in it, for a start. That didn’t hinder Cossie, who even integrated women into the men’s academy at UL Bohs.
Honourable mentions must also go to Simon Broughton, Fergal Campion and Greg McWilliams for the work they have done in recent times.
Hopefully, Joe becoming the first men’s national coach to take a women’s session will break down this perceived barrier.
Really, we’re not so bad! I think women challenge a coach more than men because we ask so many questions, not to be difficult, but because we want to understand everything. The boys just seem to do what they are told.
That’s just not how we work.