It’s now been almost three weeks since Ireland crashed out of the Rugby World Cup in Japan, and I’ve been racking my brain to understand why things went so poorly.
Recently, I sat down with Ryle Nugent and we debated the reasons floating around the public domain; is this team too old? Were we short of ideas? Did we get our preparation wrong?
Neither of us felt comfortable pointing to any of those as the true reason for our Quarter-Final exit, and after much discussion, the conversation kept coming back to one thing: player welfare.
The player welfare system in Ireland is one of the best in the world, but could it also be the reason why we fail to deliver on rugby’s biggest stage?
During the last four-year cycle, Wales broke their record for the most wins in a row, Ireland hit number one in the world, England nearly broke the record for the most wins in a row ever, and Scotland reached fifth in the world rankings. The margins between most of the top teams are actually quite small.
It is my opinion that the reason Ireland have been so successful and competitive over the past number of years is that our point of difference is our magnificent player welfare system and access to players outside in the build-up to 6 Nations time.
When it comes to the 6 Nations, our players are the best-prepared players in the tournament. The IRFU control the provinces and as such, the international players are well looked after. Physically, they have played the optimal amount of rugby. They’ve played good Heineken Champions Cup rugby but they haven’t played too much.
They’ve completed conditioning blocks and from a physical point of view, we are the best team on that front.
In terms of preparation, our national management has the best access to players. An Irish player might have a down-week around Christmas where they complete a few days of conditioning and rest, and then the next week they might have a three-day mini-camp. When our players arrive for the 6 Nations, we are the best prepared physically and tactically because we have done the most preparation.
The other teams simply cannot prepare to the same level as Ireland. Eddie Jones has probably seen his players more in the last three months leading up to the World Cup than he did in the previous three years. Teams like England arrive at the World Cup, and for the first time in the four-year cycle, it’s a level playing field. The England players are not overplayed, they’re as optimally prepared both physically and tactically as we are, and maybe the World Cup is a true reflection on where we, Ireland, sit in terms of the world standings.
Perhaps the reason we have been so dominant in the 6 Nations is actually due to our player welfare system and our access to players, two factors in which we excel. As I explained above, the margins are small and that carries a lot of weight. I’d say we’ve been relatively dominant in the four-year cycles, but perhaps the notion of us peaking too early is off the mark? Maybe we’re just as good as we are throughout the cycle, but other teams are coming up to our level in terms of their preparation and performances.
Is our player welfare system too good?
How many players in the World Cup were from Leinster?
Roughly half our international squad live in Dublin and can go home every other night in training camp. The fact that Leinster have the luxury of such a massive squad with a talent pool of great depth means their international players are never asked to play week-on-week-on-week. Ask them to go to Japan for seven-plus weeks to win a World Cup? It is such a different experience to a 6 Nations campaign where the longest our players are away from home is two nights in Italy. On the other days, half our team are actually sleeping comfortably in their own beds with little adversity.
It’s a brilliant advantage for us, but it’s not what happens at a World Cup. You generally have to play seven games to win a Rugby World Cup, how many of our top players ever play three weeks in a row?
The Premiership is completely different: the clubs pay the salaries of the players. While there is some management, it is not to the same extent as we have here in Ireland. If you are the owner of Leicester, and you’re paying Manu Tuilagi £500,000 a year to play rugby, you’re going to make sure he’s togging out and not getting weeks off left, right, and centre to rest for the England national team.
Additionally, the Premiership is more competitive than Pro14. Leinster, missing half a squad of internationals, are five-from-five, highlighting just how easy it is for them to rotate players.
Successive Big Games
Was the one thing missing for Ireland at this World Cup the fact that our best players were asked to play big games three, four, five weekends in a row and win? It is simply not a common experience for the top internationals in this country.
Our players are looked after incredibly well throughout a four-year cycle, but heading off to a completely different experience in Japan, where the familiarity they are so used to is non-existent undoubtedly has an effect on performance. How can we expect them to play seven weeks in a row and win games when it’s not something they’ve ever done?
Our trump card is access to players, strong preparation and excellent player welfare. When it comes to Rugby World Cups, it’s a card that everyone can play and therein lies the problem for Ireland at Rugby World Cups.
We beat Russia 35-0 at the Rugby World Cup. I have no doubt if that game took place in a Summer Tour or in a November Series, we would put sixty-plus points on them. Their squad would be thrown together at the last minute, unlikely to have met in Russia before travelling and would be littered with amateur rugby players. However, in the build-up to the World Cup, they likely had 2-3 months together under the same management building towards this one moment and suddenly, the gap between themselves and Ireland just wasn’t as big as before.
Is the gap between us and the other teams not as big at a World Cup as it is throughout the rest of the four-year cycle because they’ve had far better preparation than they’re used to, and ultimately negates our main point of difference?
There’s no doubt Ireland at their best under Schmidt compared to most of their opponents looked fast, sharp, incisive, energetic, well-organised, innovative, tactically superior and an absolute joy to watch. Unfortunately, few of those adjectives could be used to describe our play at RWC 2019.
Does our player welfare system mean that our team are not used to playing big matches in three to four successive weeks, and as such, struggle to deal with the most turbulent event in the rugby calendar every four years?
It certainly makes a lot more sense than the lazy argument that our team is too old, not talented enough, or that Joe Schmidt got his preparation wrong.