Saturday, December 07, 2019

Keego on...the Nucifora Narrative




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So the IRFU are trying to do the exact same thing that we are. That being get the ghost of RWC 2019 put away before we all sit down for Christmas dinner, a valiant idea and one that is probably correct. The actual findings on the other hand, may take longer to wash the stink out of. 
Firstly, no one is more disappointed (as much as we would like to think we are more disappointed) than the players and coaching staff. No one went into 2019 wanting to play badly. BUT, the answer to the post tournament findings have blown up in our faces when in reality, the answer is, execution of play dropped massively and the coaching staff (of which our next coach was part) failed to reorganize to counter act this. All of this is very easy to say from the couch (me being The Couch Pundit and all), the bar stool or from behind a keyboard. However, these players/coaches were in the eye of the hurricane, this was THE team that was going to break through the glass ceiling of a quarterfinal. I understand that this is all part of the coaches job and they should be able to handle it, but it is all easier said than done. 
So let’s look at the findings and the changes that may have interacted badly with the ‘winning formula’ of 2018.
Coming into the 2019 season, Ireland had out worked every other team. There were not many new or magical plays or skills that where implemented. In fact, on a few occasions during that year Joe would mention plays that where from the 80’s. So the narrative of being found out does not work, because it was quite simple. Out work the opposition and execute better than they expect. The Tyson analogy works here, in that everyone knew he would throw a right hook to the body followed by a right uppercut. A lethal combo, but one we all knew was coming. Tyson would pick his spots to throw it and during his prime, he hit is more often than not. That is what Ireland did; they picked their spots and executed with precision a massive amount of the time, which would put added pressure on the opposition. The wet blanket / rugby-jitzu game. 
So what was happening around the team in 2018? To break it down it appeared that a plan was hatched early in the week, implemented in training and then once it got to the captains run the night before a game, the players took ownership. I think that is the psychological key of the mental strength in 2018. The players felt that they owned a lot of what was happening; they were given responsibility and reacted like leaders to that. 
In 2019, it appeared that that responsibility was taken (strong word) from the players at times. The leadership within the team where undermined. In 2018 when the pressure mounted, there was a trusted leader on the pitch. Not just from the player’s point of view, but also from the management. That builds massive confidence in the leaders. During the closing moments of the France match in the 2018 6 Nations, there was no panic, even in the lucky bar where I watched it there was no panic, just manic excitement. We believed in the leaders on the pitch, as did the players. They executed a precise (but not complicated) game plan and put Sexton in position to sick a long-range drop goal. 
I know I keep bouncing around here, but it is important for comparison. 
So we roll into 2019, England arrive and demolish Ireland. A massive performance from England, but their consistency was weak during the tournament. Ireland where rattled by the result. The player control on the week began to slip slightly. All the way through to the warm up games where the players lost complete control of how the week went. More team meetings, more information, more specific instructions in a chaotic game came from the management. 
So if we look at this strictly from a psychological point of view. The players are seeing results go the wrong way and seeing that the leadership group are being minimized. Subconsciously, that means that they are not to be trusted. Completely deleting the work done the previous year which was to build trust in that leadership. The logical conclusion from there is that the management team see the leadership team as the issue and not the game plan/evolving of it. When this happens, nothing ever improves and nothing can change. Once trust is lost then the entire thing falls over. 
Anytime the players are under pressure, they look to a leadership group on the pitch who are not trusted by the coaches. If the coaches do not trust them then why should the players? 
Now that is only one side of the coin. As we know, in any situation there is their side, your side and the truth which is always somewhere in the middle. 
While the players may not have dealt with the Japan game as they should have, again subconsciously assuming a win after the Scotland game and that led to the ship sinking on the pitch and behind the scenes. The coaches also missed many warning signs along the way. 
That includes his royal highness, David Nucifora. The one person not interviewed as he was the one producing the findings, but I digress. 
The coaches had a few assumptions ahead of the 2019 season. Top players would be in form when it counts, all mindsets would be aligned and that the execution of play would still be where it was the previous year. This means that adding a few tricks to that would not be hard with the team being confident in game plans etc. 
None of this happened. Players went to the RWC injured (Carberry, Conan, Henshaw big examples) and with the players being 1 year older (100 in rugby years) that ability to turn on the class is not there. Conor Murray is one of the best in the world, but they operated on his neck last year and while he may have been passed fit, he did not pass the eyeball test. One side of his body had not come back to full functionality. I am no doctor, but when 1 side is trying to rebuild after atrophy and surgery, that is not the time to throw him back into the lion’s den. He was expected to find form, was not going to happen. Sexton is player of the year, WORLD player of the year. A man who has brought Ireland and Leinster back from the brink many times, Joe et al assumed this was still in him. On occasion it will be and in his mind it always is, but in the last 18 months he has been hit more times that the previous 20. This all catches up along with niggling injuries that come with time in the game. 
This is not me blaming any of the two players above. Both are at the top of the game when fit. The last two words are key. 
So in picking players who may be carrying a knock you are ignoring the form players. Yes, they may have fewer caps, but they have the form and have played top-level rugby for their provinces. Again, from a psychological point of view, if you see a player tearing it up in training, but not picked in favor of someone who is not in form it sends a mixed signal to the brain. All of these things add up to what happened in RWC.
On top of this, bringing Kleyne over Toner is the cherry on top. 
So is it all doom and gloom? Not at all. Look at the start from the provinces in Europe. Strong. Ulster have hit the ground running after losing their captain, Leinster are dominating even with their conveyor belt of kids (on form but without caps), Munster will always grind like a Nicki minaj video and Connacht should have 2 wins if it wasn’t for their discipline. 
The game is in fine fettle. 
We have said that before. But this is different; we have also said that before. Let’s go one game at a time for a couple of years, get the oil back in the system and the confidence back in the green jersey. Can Farrell do it? Well he was supposed to be a defensive mastermind, that wasn’t the case. 
The old adage always remains; we were never as good as our best result and never as bad as our worst
Remember to tune into The Couch Pundit Podcast – www.thecouchpunditireland.com
Keego (@nkeegan): Blogger, professional wrestler, sometime attempted rugby player (@TheThirsty3rds), professional procrastinator and attempted musician with a fondness for long walks on the bar, tea and the couch. Opinionated Leinster fan and constant gardener.

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019