IF YOU CAN MEET WITH TRIUMPH AND DISASTER AND TREAT THOSE TWO IMPOSTERS JUST THE SAME…
Schmidt attributes Ireland’s World Cup demise to the pressure of expectation which, he says, became a “self-consuming monster”.
In the last couple of years Irish rugby has seen it all – the dizzying highs, the terrifying lows, the creamy middles.
Before the World Cup, I was convinced Joe Schmidt had a genius plan: turn in a series of poor performances in the 6 Nations then unleash the real Ireland (who had won the Grand Slam and beaten the All Blacks in Dublin only last year) on their unsuspecting opponents in the World Cup.
There was a growing anticipation towards the Quarter final – Ireland’s customary point of World Cup exit – to the point that many fans and pundits quietly believed we might just edge it against the All Blacks. *SPOILER* That didn’t happen.
It’s the hope that kills you.
Ireland’s World Cup defeat was embarrassingly emphatic. However, reports of the death of Irish rugby have been greatly exaggerated.
With the departure of Joe Schmidt, it is the end of an era of unprecedented success for Ireland. By the end of his tenure, however, it was obvious Ireland had peaked too early.
Arguably, however, the rugby infrastructure and players exist in Ireland to allow us to once again compete with the best teams in the world.
An overhaul is necessary, and it is worth reflecting on some of the things that went wrong for Ireland at this World Cup and, more importantly, what they can do to fix it.
1. Defending the Indefensible
In the sequel to the ‘Brighton Miracle’ – Japan’s dramatic win against South Africa at the last World Cup – Ireland’s ‘Shizuoka de-bagging’ at the hands of the Brave Blossoms is evidence of Ireland’s inability to adapt.
Ireland attempted to impose their rigid defensive structure on the hosts, but Japan stubbornly refused to follow the script.
Ireland like to defend the 12 channel. The Irish defensive line comes ‘up and in’, with the 13 generally coming up out of the line to funnel teams into a stacked midfield and limit the opposition’s width. That’s the theory.
Japan, however, insisted in throwing a spanner in the works. To open-up space, Japan’s first receiver would pass to an inside runner to punch holes and occupy Ireland’s back row. They would do this a couple of times to keep Ireland guessing and splinter the Irish defence. This, in combination with Japan’s unpredictable attack and ability to keep the ball alive, meant that Ireland’s rigid defensive structure had no chance.
South Africa had done their homework before facing Japan and deployed Faf de Klerk to follow the ball in defence and prevent the pesky inside pass from the Japanese first receiver, which he did to great effect.
In fairness to Ireland, the All Blacks were nearly impossible to defend against. The speed of their ruck ball was unbelievable. They would generally draw in defenders with three quick rucks, forcing Ireland’s defence to wrap around and then spread the ball into the wider channels. The only way to counteract this is to attempt to slow down their ruck ball which is, of course, easier said than done.
2. Dare you to move
What is the difference between Ireland’s attack now and when they were at their peak?
With Ireland’s attack it is always blindingly obvious who the ball is going to. It’s slow, deliberate and static. Presumably, this is to remove risk. The idea is to trundle the ball up the pitch, back and forth, never going too wide and never doing anything silly. Basically, recycle the ball through endless phases to wear teams down.
This only works if, 1) players can reliably catch the ball and, 2) Ireland are actually moving forward and creating point scoring opportunities.
At their peak, Ireland would have a ‘pod’ of three runners moving, ready to receive the ball. This makes it very difficult for the opposition to anticipate what’s happening and organize their defence accordingly.
Ireland would then either give the ball to a member of the pod or shift the ball in behind the pod and spread it out to the backs. Either way, it was less predictable, conservative and, somehow, less error ridden.
Now, the pods are static, it is obvious who the ball is going to, and the opposition line up to smash the ball carrier. Clearly, against good teams this doesn’t work. Cian Healy, for example, carried the ball a grand total of 0 metres against the All Blacks. At the very least, Ireland’s pods need to move and learn to shift the point of the attack to keep the opposition guessing. Ireland have no shortage of fantastic ball carriers – they must be allowed to operate with some degree of dynamism.
In terms of Ireland’s backline, Schmidt limits the level of creativity and invention allowed. With one exception – Jonny Sexton. When Sexton is not in form, Ireland do not play well. Sadly, there is no obvious candidate to take his place (Ulster’s Michael Lowry will not be ready for a couple of years).
There is a lack of effective strike runners in the Ireland squad – players who are capable of picking a really good line and taking the ball off the first receiver at pace. Tommy Bowe in his prime, for example. Stockdale is undoubtedly talented, but he appears to be limited to attacking in the outside channels. Larmour and/or Carberry must now be given license to attack from deep and give Ireland the attacking flair they have been lacking.
3. The Rise of the Offload
The tackle rules have, and will continue to, fundamentally change the game of rugby.
For better or worse, it seems inevitable that World Rugby will limit tackles to waist-height. The way the game is refereed we are already moving in that direction.
Choke tackles – wrapping the player and the ball – and will become increasingly difficult. The type of bone-crunching tackles that feature in YouTube compilations will become a thing of the past.
Offloading will become an increasingly important core skill. Ireland have among the lowest number of offloads of any team in World Rugby and they must get used to playing the ball out of a tackle.
In contrast, Japan demonstrated that the offload can be used to unlock defences to great effect.
Schmidt picked his team based on players who would carry out his instructions to the letter. This meant there was no room for the likes of Stu McCloskey who – for all of his perceived failings – is a master of the half-break offload.
Is McCloskey Ireland’s answer at centre? No, probably not. However, Ireland will have to adapt and find players who have the necessary skill-set for the rapidly changing modern game in which the off-load will be king. With no shortage of blatant Ulster bias, I would humbly suggest that Ulster’s James Hume will fit the bill in the next couple of seasons.
4. Loyalty Over Royalty
It’s hard to argue with Schmidt’s unwavering loyalty to his trusted lieutenants. It’s a good quality in a person, but whether it’s appropriate in the ruthless world of professional sport is another question.
Schmidt sends a clear directive to his players and, understandably, he picks the ones who carry out his instructions to the letter. Indeed, this extends to selecting players who are out of form or are not entirely fit. This type of loyalty ultimately cost Ireland.
For example, Peter O’Mahoney was nowhere near his best at this tournament. The in-form Rhys Ruddock was perhaps a better option but was overlooked in favour of O’Mahoney’s ‘big-game experience’. Kilcoyne, Conway and Farrell will also feel they were not given enough of a chance.
Before Ireland faced the All-Blacks the narrative had revolved around a seasoned Irish team seeking to expose the youth and possible vulnerability of New Zealand’s young brigade of George Bridge, Anton Lienert Brown and Jack Goodhue.
“Experience is a funny thing, isn’t it?” Hansen said with a small smile after they had just dismantled Ireland.
“I’m not being disrespectful here in saying that, but Ireland’s experience was not to win. And we have the guys who actually had experience of winning. And that’s why you’ve got to be careful when you start talking about experience.”
Hansen demonstrates ruthlessness and pragmatism. For example, leaving Owen Franks at home, shifting Beauden Barrett to full-back, dropping Sonny-Bill Williams from the starting team and leaving Sam Cane out against England. There were blips for the All Blacks in this World Cup cycle as they tested their combinations. Hansen has never been afraid to get worse before getting better.
Ireland could learn from this ruthless pragmatism going forward.
5. Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
Schmidt did not allow much room for Ireland to play what was in front of them.
Granted, every top team has some degree of structure, even if it’s controlled chaos. However, as much as Schmidt argues that he allows room for creativity in his Ireland team, there was no evidence of this at the World Cup. World class players must be allowed to play ‘in the moment’.
There were a number of instances where Ireland faithfully carried out pre-ordained attack moves, failing to look up and see, for example, that there was oceans of space in front of them. Ireland have players who are more than capable of exploiting such opportunities.
Ireland appeared to be playing with a debilitating anxiety against New Zealand and, to some extent, Japan.
When faced with an attacking structure they hadn’t seen before, Ireland didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t adapt to the unexpected.
Ireland need to focus on developing players who are creative, adaptable and resilient. It is now Andy Farrell’s job to create this environment and encourage a new generation of confident, self-organised Ireland players, capable of adapting to what’s happening in front of them. This will take Ireland to the next level.
World Rugby to introduce contact training restrictions
World Rugby and International Rugby Players (IRP) have published new contact training load guidance aimed at reducing injury risk and supporting short and long-term player welfare. The guidance is being supported by national players’ associations, national unions, international and domestic competitions, top coaches and clubs.
Earlier this year, World Rugby unveiled a transformational six-point plan aiming to cement rugby as the most progressive sport on player welfare. These new best-practice guidelines focus on the intensity and frequency of contact training to which professional rugby players should be exposed and have been shaped by consultation with players and coaches as well as leading medical, conditioning and scientific experts.
While the incidence of training injuries is low relative to that of matches, the volume of training performed means that a relatively high proportion (35-40 per cent) of all injuries during a season occur during training, with the majority of these being soft tissue injuries. Since the training environment is highly controllable, the guidelines have been developed to reduce injury risk and cumulative contact load to the lowest possible levels that still allow for adequate player conditioning and technical preparation.
The guidelines are based on a global study undertaken by IRP of almost 600 players participating across 18 elite men’s and women’s competitions, and a comprehensive review of the latest injury data. This reveals that training patterns vary across competitions, with an average of 21 minutes per week of full contact training and an average total contact load of 118 minutes per week. A more measured and consistent approach to training will help manage the contact load for players, especially those moving between club and national training environments. The research supports minimising contact load in training, in order that players can be prepared to perform but avoid an elevated injury risk at the same time. The guidelines aim to help strike that balance.
New ‘best practice’ training contact guidelines
World Rugby and International Rugby Players’ new framework [https://www.world.rugby/the-game/player-welfare/medical/contact-load] sets out clear and acceptable contact guidelines for training sessions, aiming to further inform coaches – and players – of best practice for reducing injury risk and optimising match preparation in season. The guidance covers the whole spectrum of contact training types, considering volume, intensity, frequency and predictability of contact, as well as the optimal structure of sessions across the typical training week, including crucial recovery and rest periods.
Recommended contact training limits for the professional game are:
- Full contact training: maximum of 15 minutes per week across a maximum of two days per week with Mondays and Fridays comprising zero full contact training to allow for recovery and preparation
- Controlled contact training: maximum of 40 minutes per week
- Live set piece training: maximum of 30 minutes set piece training per week is advised
The guidelines, which also consider reducing the overall load for players of particular age, maturity and injury profile (in line with the risk factors and load guidance published in 2019), will feature in the men’s and women’s Rugby World Cup player welfare standards.
Instrumented mouthguard research programme to inform effectiveness
World Rugby is partnering with elite teams to measure the ‘real life’ effect of these guidelines (in training and matches) and assess the mechanism, incidence and intensity of head impact events using the Prevent Biometics market-leading instrumented mouthguard technology and video analysis to monitor implementation and measure outcomes.
The technology, the same employed in the ground-breaking Otago Rugby Head Impact Detection Study, will deliver the biggest ever comparable bank of head impact data in the sport with more than 1,000 participants across the men’s and women’s elite, community and age-grade levels. The teams that have signed up so far are multiple Champions Cup winners Leinster, French powerhouse Clermont Auvergne and Benetton Treviso while discussions are ongoing with several other men’s and women’s teams across a range of competitions.
World Rugby Chief Executive Alan Gilpin said: “This important body of work reflects our ambition to advance welfare for players at all levels of the game. Designed by experts, these guidelines are based on the largest study of contact training in the sport, developed by some of the best rugby, performance and medical minds in the game. We believe that by moderating overall training load on an individualised basis, including contact in season, it is possible to enhance both injury-prevention and performance outcomes, which is good for players, coaches and fans.”
World Rugby Director of Rugby and High Performance and former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt added: “Training has increasingly played an important role in injury-prevention as well as performance. While there is a lot less full contact training than many people might imagine, it is our hope that having a central set of guidelines will further inform players and coaches of key considerations for any contact that is done during training.
“These new guidelines, developed by leading experts and supported by the game, are by necessity a work in progress and will be monitored and further researched to understand the positive impact on player welfare. We are encouraged by the response that we have received so far.
“We recognise that community level rugby can be an almost entirely different sport in terms of fitness levels, resources and how players can be expected to train, but the guidelines can be applied at many levels, especially the planning, purpose and monitoring of any contact in training.”
International Rugby Players Chief Executive Omar Hassanein said the guidelines are being welcomed by players: “From an International Rugby Players’ perspective, this project represents a significant and very relevant piece of work relating to contact load. We’ve worked closely with our member bodies in gathering approximately 600 responses from across the globe, allowing us to have sufficient data to then be assessed by industry experts. The processing of this data has led to some quite specific recommendations which are designed to protect our players from injuries relating to excessive contact load. We will continue to work with World Rugby as we monitor the progress of these recommendations and undertake further research in this area.”
Leinster coach Stuart Lancaster, who was involved in reviewing the study and advising the development of the guidelines, said: “We have a responsibility to make the game as safe as possible for all our players. For coaches, optimising training plays a significant role in achieving that objective. It is important that we do not overdo contact load across the week in order that players are fresh, injury-free and ready for match days. These guidelines provide a practical and impactful approach to this central area of player preparation and management.”
Ireland international and IRP Head of Strategic Projects and Research Sene Naoupu said: “While this is the first step of the implementation and monitoring process, it is an incredible outcome that shows just how much players care about this area. It also provides a foundation to review and determine future direction of implementation across the game, within an evidence-based injury-prevention programme for performance and welfare.”
World Rugby is also progressing a wide-ranging study of the impact of replacements on injury risk in the sport with the University of Bath in England, a ground-breaking study into the frequency and nature of head impacts in community rugby in partnership with the Otago Rugby Union, University of Otago and New Zealand Rugby, and further research specific to the professional women’s game. All of these priority activities will inform the decisions the sport makes to advance welfare for players at all levels and stages.
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Match schedule and match officials confirmed for Rugby World Cup 2021 Europe Qualifier
World Rugby has confirmed the match schedule and match officials for the Rugby World Cup 2021 Europe qualifier, which will be hosted in Parma’s Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi on 13, 19 and 25 September, 2021.
Scotland kick-off their qualification campaign against Italy on Monday 13 September (kick-off 2pm BST / 3pm local time), before facing Spain on Sunday 19 September (kick-off 5pm BST / 6pm local time). Scotland’s final match of the tournament will see them take on Ireland on Saturday 25 September (kick-off 5pm BST / 6pm local time).
The top team will secure a spot in Pool B at Rugby World Cup 2021, playing in 2022, and the runner-up will enter the Final Qualification Tournament.
An experienced team of match officials have been appointed for the tournament, including Aurelie Groizeleau (FFR), Nikki O´Donnell (RFU), Hollie Davidson (SRU), Clara Munarini (FIR), Maria Beatrice Benvenuti (FIR) and Maria Pacifico (FIR), alongside Television Match Officials Andrea Piardi, Gianluca Gnecchi and Stefano Penne (all FIR).
The opening match day will see Aurelie Groizeleau take charge of Scotland’s meeting with hosts Italy at 15:00 local time, before Nikki O´Donnell oversees Spain against Ireland at 18:00, the first test match between the sides since May 2008.
Hollie Davidson and Aurelie Groizeleau will take charge of day two matches when Italy face Ireland at 15:00, followed by Spain against Scotland at 18:00, respectively. Italy’s only victory in their last 18 meetings with Ireland came at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi in February 2019, winning their last meeting on Italian soil 29-27.
While, Hollie Davidson and Clara Munarini will oversee the final match day when hosts Italy face Spain at 15:00, followed by Ireland v Scotland at 18:00 in their first meeting since February 2020. Italy and Spain have not met since Rugby World Cup 2017, Las Leonas winning their pool encounter 22-8 before the Azzurre avenged that defeat by winning their ninth place play-off 20-15.
Nine teams have already confirmed their place at Rugby World Cup 2021, including New Zealand, England, France, Canada, USA, Australia and Wales via their final ranking at Ireland 2017, and South Africa and Fiji who came through the Africa and Oceania regional qualification tournaments respectively.
Rugby World Cup 2021 Tournament Director Alison Hughes said: “We are delighted to confirm the match schedule and a highly qualified team of match officials for what promises to be three exciting and hotly contested matchdays in the Europe Qualifier as all four participating teams will be aiming to claim the prize of a place at Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand alongside the best women’s 15s teams in the world. We continue to work in close partnership with the hosts and all participating unions to ensure we deliver a safe and secure event and give the players the opportunity to showcase their talents on the pitch.”
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