The fallout from Ireland’s disappointing 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign will continue between now and the 2020 Six Nations as IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora conducts a thorough review of the campaign by interviewing players and coaching staff.
There are multiple theories being submitted to explain Ireland’s decline in 2019; a stagnant gameplan, an over-the-top, all-encompassing focus on breaking the quarter-final barrier, the continued selection of out-of-form players, injuries or ‘niggles’ to key personnel – the list goes on.
Nucifora will likely hold a briefing with the media at the end of the year to explain what went wrong but such is the reality of international rugby, the wheel keeps turning – there’s little time to pause and reflect.
Ireland’s opening 2020 Six Nations clash with Scotland is a mere 13 weeks away and with a new head coach at the helm in Andy Farrell, in addition to some new faces among the assistants, the question on everyone’s lips is whether Ireland will play a different brand of rugby from the one we have become accustomed to in the Joe Schmidt era.
Farrell, of course, will take over head coaching duties but will still be in charge of defence while John Fogarty comes in from Leinster to take over the scrum from the departing Greg Feek.
Perhaps most interesting is the addition of Mike Catt as attack coach.
Catt worked with Farrell on the England coaching ticket in that infamous 2015 Rugby World Cup where the host nation failed to progress past the pool stages – the first time ever for a host nation.
That coaching ticket was axed as Stuart Lancaster’s replacement Eddie Jones wanted to start with a clean slate and Catt joined up with Conor O’Shea’s Italy, a role he has held up until the recent 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Catt has been coaching for over 10 years which began with a player/coach role with London Irish. He had some coaching responsibilities in the 2007/2008 season with the Exiles but the following season, when Toby Booth was appointed head coach and Director of Rugby following the departure of Brian Smith to England’s management team under Martin Johnson, Catt took on a more prominent coaching attacking role despite continuing to play at the age of 37.
“Obviously there was the practicality element of it because he was coming towards the end of his playing career and it was where he wanted to go,” Booth tells Pundit Arena.
“We could facilitate that. He had great connectivity with the players having been a player himself and the players enjoyed working with him so that was obviously really important, to get that continuity side of things. It’s not just one season. It’s about how much you embed the principles that you want overtime, you’ve got to have the courage of your convictions.”
Catt’s relationship with the players was a clear feather in the cap when it came to his coaching abilities but it was his high level of detail which Booth really admired. This contributed to London Irish reaching their first-ever Premiership final that season where they suffered heartbreak in a narrow one-point loss to the Leicester Tigers.
“From our point of view, we wanted to be a little bit more creative around what we did off set-plays in particular. Mike was actually one of the best to either execute that being on the pitch when he was playing and if not, he obviously understood all the nuances and details required to deliver it if he wasn’t.
“So he brought a high level of detail, he obviously had a high level of credibility as a player and obviously, a 60-cap international or whatever amount of caps he got, so with that amount of experience and he knew what it was like out there, so he could still do it better than anyone.”
Although Booth’s experience of Catt as a coach was over 10 years ago and a lot has transpired since then, he’s still able to offer an insight into the 48-year-old’s coaching philosophy in what he describes as a “good over evil” approach.
“We believed in an attack based game, we believed what we called, ‘good over evil’!
“We believed the game should be played in the same way. We had good alignment and good trust. So that was the first bit. The second bit was around how we went about that – how we encourage our players to take ownership for that and have an input into that. It wasn’t what we thought but that manifested…we would have robust conversations, Mike and myself, for hours about ‘we can do this, we can do that’ and actually two hours later, we would come back to the conclusion that we were right in the first place!
“I really enjoyed our relationship. We could quite happily talk rugby, we were rugby nauses in that respect. We’d challenge each other. He would have his thinkings to see whether we were robust and on the right lines. The majority of the time we were but it was good to have those sort of trusting conversations.”
Catt’s attention to detail, which was a significant characteristic of Schmidt’s coaching methods, means there should be a smooth transition when the former England international begins to implement his strategies as Booth explains:
“It’s probably a good fit for Ireland in relation to, I think Joe [Schmidt] did an unbelievable job. I’d challenge anyone to say that. What his teams have become renowned for were for outthinking people in relation to structured attacks so play from lineouts, play from scrums and bits and pieces.
“My impression and I don’t have the statistics, is that Ireland break people down in early phase count, phase one to three quite a lot. I think Mike will definitely complement the players in that, it might be slightly different, I’m not saying it will be the same, but they’re used to operating in that way and I think that’s a good fit because Mike believes in that level of detail in phase one to three.”
Although there could be similarities in the respective approaches of both Schmidt and Catt, Booth is keen to emphasise that his former colleague is a coach who likes to not only give ownership to the players in implementing attacking strategies but is also keen to receive input from the players to find a common middle ground.
“He won’t be a person that’s going to go, ‘right, we have to do it this way’. No way. He would be a person that will embrace everyone’s input and craft it around the input from the people that have got to do it. Both from the coaching staff and obviously the players themselves and involve everyone in that. He would craft it on that I’m sure.”
“But what I do I know, because obviously I catch up with him sporadically, is that he’s always probing and asking questions and wants to understand things and look at things in different ways. So, he’s always pushing to be the best version of himself he can.”
One of the strengths of the Irish rugby landscape is the synergy between the national team and the provinces.
At this moment, all of England’s 2015 coaching ticket are employed in Ireland – Andy Farrell as Ireland head coach, Stuart Lancaster as Leinster senior coach, Graham Rowntree as Munster forwards coach and now Catt as Ireland attack coach.
Booth smiles as he describes this as getting the band back together but it will also be a huge benefit to Catt who will be coming into a new system with people he knows well and that he trusts.
“Yeah, you’ve got a lot of the old band getting back together which is great. That’s a good thing. Coaching and pressure are hard enough so working with people that you trust is massively important. You see the transition in football about how many teams move as a team – the manager and his key staff follow.
“Ultimately, you need as much trust because with high trust you can challenge each other without feeling defensive. That’s how teams grow and how coaching teams grow.”
When Ireland kick off their 2020 Six Nations campaign in a few weeks’ time, Ireland supporters will be hoping to see evidence of that growth.