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Irish Rugby: Reconfiguring The Rolling Bar Of Expectation

It is time for Irish rugby to strike a balance between realistic and deluded? Maurice Brosnan examines expectations ahead of the 2016 Six Nations campaign.

There’s a famous story of a high jumper at the 1968 Olympics. Dick Fosbury was an American athlete who throughout his childhood and teenage years was simply hopeless at sports. Despite all the enthusiasm and endeavour, he got nowhere.

He took up athletics and was similarly incapable. Rather than preserve with the ideal, flawless technique that high jumpers used, he developed his own method and emerged as one of the best jumpers in America. It was not as pretty as the scissors method or the straddle, but it worked.

Quickly Fosbury qualified for the Olympics, yet more was expected. He managed to make the final three, spurred on by entertained fans.

Fosbury infuriated the connoisseurs and coaches of the sport with his flopping technique. The Los Angeles Times even said he“goes over the bar like a guy being pushed out of a 30-storey window”. However, the Oregon native won gold and broke the American record.

The bar was raised higher for Fosbury (literally) and he was encouraged to go for the world record of 2.29 m. He never came close to clearing it.

Rather than be knocked back by this set-back, the public hoped he could recover and march on to the 1972 Olympics. His technique was still criticised in some places, although at the next games 28 of 40 athletes utilised the ‘Fosbury Flop’. There were still hopes that he would soon succeed in breaking the world record.

One is often reminded of the Irish Rugby team when thinking of Fosbury’s trajectory. The beginning was casual and incompetent. It progressed, gradually, to relative success. But focus on the possible destination eroded the humble origin and the ever-rolling bar of expectation soon encompassed the public.

In the typically conceited genre of punditry, pointing out expectations of a World Cup trophy for a nation who have never progressed beyond a quarter final would irk many, but it must be done. That was an unrealistic expectation.

It is time to strike a balance between realistic and deluded, a balance so difficult for us inherent optimists, hopers and dreamers. Yet current trends suggest this is a balance that will once again elude our blissful nation.

In various articles over the last few weeks, George Hook has called Joe Schmidt “a conservative selector, a rigid disciplinarian and an inflexible tactician”. He suggested that the provinces performances are also Schmidt’s responsibility, explaining that the “success or failure” of the current and previous Leinster coach relies on the “whims of the national coach”.

Hook bemoans the current conservative game-plan of kick chase and unsophisticated carries. He, like many, has called for the inclusion of Jared Payne at fullback, Garry Ringrose in the centre and CJ Staunder at number eight. In case you’re wondering, that is the same Jared Payne who was dismissed as a “second-rate foreign player” by an astute and ever consistent RTE pundit last year.

Jared Payne crosses the line against Canada at last year's World Cup
Jared Payne crosses the line against Canada at last year’s World Cup

While any attempt to portray Hook as a representative of the people would be comically wayward, many of these points have been raised elsewhere. Ireland need a more expansive game-plan and to blood more players whilst also taking care of the minor matter of securing a Six Nations, a task given much priority by the administrative powers in the IRFU.

As if this job wasn’t enough of a challenge, Schmidt needs to do all of this whilst recovering from Paul O’Connell’s retirement, Peter O’Mahony, Ian Henderson and Tommy Bowe’s absence and Les Kiss’s departure.

Suddenly Schmidt’s list of expectations looks like it was proceeded in the school of Fliorenta Perez.

What the World Cup loss illustrated is the result when defensive systems malfunction and the breakdown is consistently conquered. An Irish team decimated from their four most important players did not organise second phase defensive lines well enough, their line speed and kick-chase was sluggish, covering defence was abysmal and the backrow were error-strewn in the loose and suicidal at the breakdown, ensuring Ireland found it tediously difficult to build phases.

If you were to correct these areas, preferably by changing personal but alternatively additional coaching, Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final could have been an entirely different affair. Effective coaching lies in the ability to micro-manage the various aspects in constructing a cohesive and operative side, in turn providing success.

What Schmidt correctly expects of his Irish team is that they are adaptable. Whether that means playing up the jumper rugby against England or ball in hand, flowing rugby against Australia (March 2015, November 2014 respectively) he has suggested he wants a team capable of adapting to their circumstance. The only constants should be the set-piece, the defensive solidity and the result.

As it happens, the weight of expectation took its brunt on Fosbury and he failed to even qualify for the following Olympics. The devastating combination of the previously touted issues, plus the provincial performances- bar Connacht, who are underrepresented in the current squad- as well as both the most populous rugby nation’s upgrades in coaching personal, would ensure fear of a similar faith for this Irish side.

Yet, on the other side and in typical enthusiastic Irish fashion, if this side were to secure a third Six Nations in a row, in any manner possible, it would certainly be the greatest sporting achievement by any rugby team this land has seen.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.