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Matt Williams: If Ireland stick to new philosophy then a big 2022 awaits

At long last there’s a clear pattern of play that comes from provinces into national team

The coming year is one that will offer extraordinary opportunities for the Irish rugby team.

Last November Ireland played brilliant, ball in hand, running rugby. Their play was the exact opposite of the mind-numbing tactics from previous years. In the past, endless box kicks and forwards standing still while catching the ball bored the socks off every Irish supporter. During the autumn internationals Ireland produced powerful running, offloading and multiple pass attacking plays. It was simply wonderful rugby.

For more than two decades I have been calling for Ireland to adopt a national philosophy of play that comes from the schools, through the clubs to the provinces so that the national team can embody a style of play that reflects many of the positive aspects of the national character - such as creativity, enthusiasm and optimism.

During November, for the first time in the professional era, Ireland executed a game plan that was based on such a philosophy. A philosophy that started in the Leinster schools, moved through the Leinster professional team and at long, long last, was finally adopted by the national team.

Ireland executed a superior game plan that was a carbon copy of how Leinster play. There is no criticism in that observation. It was a highly intelligent and brave decision from coach Andy Farrell, who has seen this philosophy-based approach work in other countries.

The New Zealand game plan is based around the play of the Canterbury Crusaders and, under Fabien Galthié, France have taken the bulk of their play from the Toulouse philosophy. The Crusaders, Toulouse and Leinster are powerful clubs that execute highly detailed, skill-based game plans that have produced successful rugby performances over many years.

For decades Ireland played with a philosophy and systems that had almost no relationship with the provincial teams. It was a system driven from the top and forced downward. That structure has never succeeded in rugby and it never will. Short term plans for national teams fail because, for success, philosophies of play have to influence multiple generations of players.

National philospohy

In other words, kids should start playing the style of rugby of their national team from about 14 years of age, which is exactly what the Kiwis do. It is only when the talented players mature and reach the senior ranks that the benefits of a national philosophy can be seen.

The French are currently reaping the rewards of long term planning that commenced eight years ago, with a huge focus on talent identification and skills coaching at under-16, under-18 and under-20 levels. Romain Ntamack, Gregory Alldritt, Antoine Dupont and many more are products of that multi-generational plan.

In November the Irish team simply tapped into Leinster’s successful system.

The intelligence of changing to use a system of play that comes from Ireland’s most successful player pathway programme and then selecting the national team with players predominately from that club, who have been immersed in those systems for many years, was undoubtedly correct. The proof could be seen in how quickly Ireland gelled, entertained and won.

The restart formations of Leinster and Ireland are identical. Backline plays, multiple phase plays and attacking options from set pieces, are all exact replicas of Leinster.

That is smart and courageous coaching from Farrell who is to be praised for having the wisdom to radically change from the stodgy, unimaginative rugby Ireland have played for far too many years. Ireland’s recent matches have been a joy to watch.

However (and you all knew there always was going to be a “however” in here somewhere), November was just one month. Both Argentina and New Zealand had been inside the emotionally and physically draining demands of a Covid biosecurity bubble for almost four months without any chance to recover. It was clear that both of those teams were mentally and emotionally exhausted.

That does not diminish the quality of Ireland’s tactics, execution or mindset, but it must be mixed with the cautionary tale of the last time Ireland defeated New Zealand.

After beating the Kiwis in the November of 2018, the following season saw all the Irish players, coaches and the entire country thinking: “We’ve just beaten the BNZers! (Bloody New Zealanders). We now have the game plan for success.” It is a historical fact that the successful Irish game plan lasted exactly zero games into the future, as England pumped Ireland in the first game of the 2019 Six Nations.

We all need to remember that the excellence we witnessed from Ireland during November does not guarantee success in the future. As 2022 dawns, coaches across New Zealand, England, Wales, Scotland, Italy and France are searching for ways to stop Ireland’s running game. If Ireland do not evolve, opposition coaches will find a way to break the Irish game plan as Eddie Jones did at the Aviva in 2019.

To stand still is to go backward. Endless evolution is the price of long-term success.

The opportunities that 2022 will provide can empower Ireland to prove to the world that beating New Zealand was no fluke. If Ireland continue to play with the philosophy we witnessed in November and continue to develop their match plan, then 2022 can become an outstanding year of success.

Ultimate rugby challenge

In February a massive Six Nations awaits with the wonderful chance of facing England at Twickenham and then taking on France, who are the best team in the north, in Paris. Then during the summer, the ultimate rugby challenge outside of winning a World Cup, a three test tour of the ‘land of the long white cloud’ - Aotearoa, New Zealand. Taking on the BNZers at home is as tough as it gets.

In the face of these great challenges, along with difficult home games against Wales, Scotland and Italy, Ireland must hold their nerve and stick to their new attacking philosophy.

As the old sports adage goes: “Teams and players don’t decide their future, they decide their habits. Those habits will determine their future.”

If Ireland backslide and revert to old habits of box kicking and forwards running straight into defenders, not only is failure guaranteed, obliteration from both France and New Zealand is likely.

This year provides Ireland with the chance of redemption for the failures of 2019. That redemption must be based on the firm resolution to determinedly continue to develop their attacking, ball in hand game plan. A plan based on a philosophy that believes creatively using possession is far more powerful than kicking it away.

If Ireland can maintain an unswerving belief in their running game, 2022 will produce success that many Irish teams from the past have only dreamed of.