Straight-talking Shane Horgan has high hopes for Schmidt’s Ireland
Popular pundit sees no comparisons between 2015 and World Cup 2007
Brian O’Driscoll and Shane Horgan show their disappointment after the defeat by France at the 2007 World Cup. Morgan Treacy/Inpho
A legal practice and the Irish rugby team may have a lot in common but they probably don’t call him Shaggy in the London offices of Lee and Thompson LLP. These days Shane Horgan’s career sound track plays out where the law meets the entertainment/sport industry and along the corridors of Sky and RTÉ.
Who knows where it will all lead but from his early foray into television analysis, life on the bench in front of camera seems to be working out just fine. Naturally articulate, Horgan’s fresh perceptions and willingness to participate cuts deeply into explaining what rugby teams are trying to do.
The authenticity and projection to viewers that he has read Joe Schmidt’s playbook and also run the lines has been convincingly peddled and the former winger is comfortable doing it. He’s jumped the fence from player to pundit and the authority holds. That’s harder than it seems.
Horgan remains part of rugby but not in rugby like today where he is part of a World Cup Trophy tour hosted by DHL.
What used to be his life is now a companion to something bigger. Suit, tie and sharp shoes, he’s a London city boy. And one who is not forlornly peering over his shoulder for a glorious lost past.
“No, my whole career I was aware rugby was finite,” he says. “I was aware it was for a limited amount of time and not for your entire life. I was prepared for that and didn’t have an issue doing something else.
“The fact I still have my toe in the water and I’m still exposed to rugby and derive enjoyment from the game...it’s not my primary job anymore so playing rugby isn’t an issue at all to be honest with you. I don’t miss getting beaten up!”
These days people want him to crystal ball gaze, tell them how Ireland will do in the World Cup, whether they will blow up as they did in 2007 after an encouraging Six Nations. Horgan was at the epicentre of the Bordeaux experience.
But simple comparisons, he believes are invalid. Joe Schmidt, the players and the Scotland match on that last epic day of this year’s championship successfully join the dots to make a bigger whole than the team of Eddie O’Sullivan could. He has reason to be hopeful.
“They learned some fundamental truths about themselves in the game; the capacity to play at a high level and the reward for playing that way. They will recognise that. It’s with that sort of bravery and level of testing themselves at the margin of things not going well... that’s now an option.
“They could have gone through the Six Nations and won a Grand Slam and never really found out how good they can be. After Scotland it’s clearer. Ireland are a successful group of rugby players that can play to a really high level.”
Schmidt’s strength, Horgan believes is that he has grabbed player’s attention and hasn’t let go. His intensity is to be followed or lost. He did it with Leinster and it has seamlessly transferred it to Ireland. He inculcates the team collectively and the players individually that if they do what he tells them they will win.
But like all apparently simple equations, when they are broken down there a massive construct in the foundation.
“What Joe has and all the best coaches have this is the trust of their players,” says Horgan. “If the coach says before a game if you do x, y, and z and do it correctly then a, b and c will happen and it actually happens, it builds trust very quickly.
“That’s what the players have recognised. In Leinster we used to see it. That happens over and over and over with Joe. Once it has happened a couple of times it becomes symbiotic. Coaches and players start thinking together.
“That manifests itself in the Joe and Johnny Sexton relationship. I think you can see Johnny directing a game, managing a game, playing a game...it is the same way that Joe would play it if he was in that position.”
If Ireland don’t beat themselves, it begs the question of who in their World Cup pool will. Canada? Romania? On strike Italy? A French team flapping in the wind as only the French can?
It’s difficult not to bask in the light of Ireland’s good fortune there. With that rubbing of the hands and smug satisfaction comes heightened expectation and if 2007 can be remembered people were high-fiving in Bordeaux and diving onto the Irish glory bandwagon and Medoc in equal measure.
Overcooked? Undercooked? Mad expectations that laid low an Irish team unused to such burden and now Schmidt maybe lining up for a similar fall. Yes? Well, actually no.
“There is a clear path to the semi-final where you are going to have one huge group game,” says Horgan. “Italy realistically are not going to beat Ireland.
“You’ve a game there against France. France have consistently beaten Ireland over the years. But there’s less fear now than any other time in the history of Irish rugby. If they win that game you couldn’t bet against them getting to a World Cup semi-final. But you can’t reverse what has gone on in the last 10-15 years in Irish rugby and can’t reverse what’s gone on in the last two years. And we shouldn’t try to. And we shouldn’t worry about it.
“But we can’t not have expectation. This team is different. It has won stuff. It’s won back-to-back Six Nations. A lot of players have won in Europe, won PRO12. That team I played in hadn’t won as much.”
There are fine players who will be left behind, he says. He points to the quality in the back three. He rips out names Bowe, McFadden, Kearney, Kearney, Zebo, Trimble. And there are others. Gilroy, Earls, Fitzgerald. There will be two or three injured players before the flight to London, he says. Factor it in.
The probability of Paul O’Connell playing against France, where he will take up employment after the tournament, will be spun to death . But that, says Horgan, is meaningless for the player.
“Look at the motivations for Paul O’Connell and his team -mates at a World Cup. Look at what’s going on. There is so much. But is it a motivating factor for him? I don’t think it will cross his mind.”
“Once you take your eye off the ball and start thinking about giving someone a big performance because of who they are or what they’ve done, I think it’s a risky business.”
A straight-talking lawyer then. The thing is that the jury are usually listening.