IRFU’s internal review unlikely to unearth uncomfortable truths
Post-World Cup analysis should have been carried out by independent experts
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt watches his team from the sideline. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Transparency. Optics. Now there is a set of vocabulary that can make sports federation people howl. Ensuring the dynasty has no alternative agenda is sometimes toxic stuff, especially to the dynasty.
Independent. External. More words that have sports organisations behaving like Nosferatu discovering garlic shavings in his carbonara.
The world has turned. Public perception now means something because the great unwashed are stake holders in most sports; they turn the stiles, oil the machine, keep everything running.
The IRFU review is one such exercise that takes place after every significant tournament or series of international matches. On the face of it, it’s a good idea that everything done by the Irish team from the organisation and preparation to the performance, is reviewed so that any errors or misunderstandings or gripes can be aired in a controlled environment.
That the review is also confidential isn’t a bad thing either, although that’s debatable as the whole point is to effect positive change. How do we know attempts at change happen if we don’t know anything?
After 2011 Rugby World Cup, leaks to the media about aspects of the England rugby squad’s disappointment caused players this time to take a more cautious view. It was reported then that some of the England players were old school and cliquish, liked a drink and didn’t contribute much to the overall harmony of a nation hoping to be on the right path towards winning the World Cup for a second time.
Pages of this year’s England campaign dribbling into the public domain could make for a decent passion play; Burgess, the Farrell and Ford families and a flaming Bagshot training facility in the background.
But despite being agreeable to the idea of a review being a good idea, the execution of it and its ‘in house’ feel seems steeped in ancient IRFU history.
The structure of the review suggests that it’s no more than a glorified team meeting, a giant huddle with little or no external eyes. Input is only from those with things to gain or lose, relationships that can hinder or progress careers. The optics of the IRFU review, notwithstanding the unquestionable integrity of those involved, doesn’t stack up.
Joe Schmidt sits down with Dave Kearney or Seán Cronin or Johnny Sexton or the analysts or the strength and fitness coach or Rala and talks to them about their experiences at the World Cup, what was good or bad, how things can improve, what can Ireland learn.
David Nucifora, an intelligent, professional man, sits down with Joe Schmidt and speaks to him about how he believed the tournament progressed and what he thinks should be done to progress the Irish team in future events and what went wrong, what was good, bad or indifferent.
This sequence is based on presumption and some anecdotal information from players because the IRFU are schtum on the details of the post-World Cup review.
Nucifora, the IRFU performance director, then gets together an overview and presents that to a committee in the IRFU led by Gordon Hamilton.
The problem is that the players are employees of the IRFU either directly through central contracts or contracts through the provinces. Joe Schmidt is under contract to the IRFU, as is Nucifora, and the committee are a group of officials that have come through the ranks of the organisation and are dyed-in-the-wool IRFU men.
It is a case of the IRFU reviewing its own employees, then asking another employee to report to them, the employer, about his findings. In this world of Russian athletics, world football and cycling, the very thing that is missing is an external, independent eye.
Could the IRFU not have asked a small group of independent people, ex-players, business men, psychologists, international coaches of some experience, none on IRFU payroll, who might come back and say something radical, fundamental, frightening?
What is Seán Cronin going to say to Joe Schmidt after the coach preferred Richardt Strauss as the back-up hooker in the final few World Cup matches? What possible uncomfortable truths could Ian Madigan lay at the feet of the coach or his team-mates?
Does Madigan or Robbie Henshaw or Jamie Heaslip or Seán O’Brien really believe that it’s an all-cards-on-the-table, balls-out, no-consequences, brutal and honest review?
What could any player other than maybe the retired Paul O’Connell offer that might twist a knife into the spleen of the system or the IRFU or the coach, who will soon be selecting the extended squad for Ireland’s campaign in the Six Nations Championship.
Can Schmidt opine to Nucifora that he’s unhappy with the way rugby is coached in Ireland, with the quality of players he has to work with, with their style of play, their athletic qualities. Maybe.
The question of governing bodies reviewing themselves has become a quaint historic artefact in modern sport with little credibility, something that presents no threat to an established system. At least the wives of the committee men can be sure in the knowledge that the report is unlikely to be a bodice-ripper of a read because history shows that it rarely is.
Self-review cannot hold itself up to the sort of scrutiny and standards that large organisations demand. Players may not have anything different to say to a strange, neutral face who guarantees their anonymity. But they may do.
However, with things set up the way they are, they will never get a chance.