New Zealand v B&I Lions: The Breakdown

An American tourist on holiday in Ireland one time, and he happened to find himself sort of lost in someplace in east County Cavan. He was driving around back roads for a good while and eventually saw some old fella leaning against a gate, so he pulled over and said “Howdy sir, would you mind awfully telling me how to get to Dublin city? I’d be much obliged”. So the auld fella took off his cap and scratched his head, and in a fairly slow Cavan drawl says “Well I can, but if I was you I wouldn’t start from here”.

Thousands of words have been written, interviews conducted and studies done about what makes the New Zealand rugby team different from everyone else. I’ve even written about them before myself Talent Development – from New Zealand to Kilkenny. On Saturday New Zealand demolished the Lions in the 1st Test. The Lions were outplayed from start to finish. When New Zealand had possession you felt the longer they held onto the ball and more phases they went through, the likelier they were to score. The Lions, well, the more they held the ball and more phases they went through, you felt they’d get turned over at ruck time or simply kick the ball away. This article will examine Saturday’s game and the difference in mindset of both sides in the context of one area, in my opinion they key area in the game of rugby today: the breakdown. Once first phase ball has been secured (and with two top quality teams like these one can assume they’ll win their fair share of lineouts and scrums), the majority of possession in a game will come from the breakdown. If a team goes through 20 phases- you can be fairly sure about 18 of those 20 will start from rucks. The ruck is where you start from.

It was noticeable on Saturday that New Zealand and the Lions had a very different approach to the ruck. The statistics show New Zealand had a much greater number of rucks, 131, winning 127 (96%). The Lions had 76 rucks, winning 72 (winning 94%). Of these 131 rucks, New Zealand created quick ruck ball 39 times, or 30% of the time. That’s an awful lot of pressure to put the Lions under. The Lions themselves managed to generate quick ball 22% of the time from their breakdowns, 17 times out of their 76 rucks. New Zealand frequently committed a player to Lions’ rucks to contest possession. The Lions rarely committed players to contest New Zealand rucks. These two facts framed the entire contest and the stats reflect this. New Zealand competed for the ball on Lions rucks 26 times of the Lions 76 rucks, 35% of the time. The Lions, on the other hand, competed at the breakdown on New Zealand ball 18 times out of New Zealand’s 131 rucks, just 14% of the time.

In possession, the two teams had differing approaches to their own rucks. New Zealand sent two or three players to clear out, these being close to the ball carrier and clearing the ball with huge aggression, speed and power, obviously aided by lack of competition from Lions players. The Lions sent (or had to send) more players to secure their own rucks. One statistic I’d love performance analysts to stop counting as a positive is “rucks hit” – New Zealand players I’m sure have low numbers on rucks hit, as when two New Zealanders go to clear a ruck, they bloody clear it. Their attitude is “why send four to half-arse clearing a ruck when we can make two do the job perfectly”; in contrast northern teams generally say the opposite: “two guys will struggle to clear that ruck unless they do it perfectly, so let’s send four to be sure”.

There are many differences between how northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere teams play the game. Most can’t put their finger on what makes New Zealand so different, so successful. The breakdown is certainly one clear area of difference. The impact of a ruck on attack and defence go hand-in-hand, so I’ll discuss both below. This graphic illustrates why the ruck is of such value.

 

The breakdown

Northern hemisphere teams value numbers in defence and attack over all else. Coaches in the northern hemisphere believe the overlap will come eventually, and finishing the overlap is the key to scoring tries. Conversely, in defence, preventing the opponent from gaining an overlap is the key aim. Northern hemisphere coaches believe that organised phase attack will lead to an overlap, and coaching players to identify overlaps and exploit those overlaps with tries is how you score. Players are conditioned to value creating a 2v1, 3v2 or even a 6v5 as the best scenario they can have. Go along to any training session from under-10 all the way up to adult rugby and watch how many drills or conditioned games are played with the aim of creating/preventing the overlap. The key problem with this? Really good teams rarely give you a situation where attackers outnumber defenders, and even if they do their defensive skills are that good that they can deal with it.

Southern hemisphere teams value quick ball over all else. The attack’s job is to generate quick ball and the defence’s job is to prevent the opponent from generating quick ball. When you watch them play, attacking weak shoulders or defenders who aren’t set is their main aim. And in defence, slowing the ball long enough to allow the defence set up is what they’re after. They believe tries are scored by generating ruck ball so quick the opposing defence is disoriented, defenders make mistakes, and the opposing defensive line cannot be set up quickly enough to effectively shut down the opposition. New Zealand in particular expect the opposition defence to be organised, and very rarely expect there to be an overlap. They go through teams, rather than around them, better than anyone else. They look to create situations where they run at weak shoulders, and situations where the defender can maybe make a tackle, but never a dominant hit (which is where offloads come from). The key to all of this is quick ruck ball. Don’t get me wrong, the New Zealanders can kill you if an overlap develops, but first things first.

The breakdown is where these cultures clash. On Saturday, the Lions stood off rucks, allowing New Zealand win their own ruck ball easily, and ensuring their defensive line couldn’t be outflanked by superior numbers. New Zealand were pretty delighted with this, launching phase after phase of attacks with this super quick ball. On the other side of the ball, New Zealand went after each Lions ruck whenever possible. On occasion, New Zealand managed to win a turnover on the ground or penalty at the breakdown, but the main reason they did this was to prevent the Lions from having quick ball. Contesting the ruck slows the ball down. Slowing the ball down does two key things: makes the Lions commit extra players to the ruck which takes away players from their attack, and most importantly gives the New Zealand defence an extra second or two to set their defence and number up.

Ruck after Dagg&Barrett scramble
Straight from a turnover, the Lions kick ahead where Barrett and Dagg have to scramble. Even with 6 of the Lions pack in the frame and New Zealand on the back foot, the Lions don’t compete.

 

The selection of scrumhalves is a very telling example of the difference in philosophies. The New Zealand team selected Aaron Smith at 9, probably the quickest 9 in world rugby at present. The ruck ball was quick, but his passes were like a machine gun, sprayed here there and everywhere. As soon as he saw a bit of white in a ruck, the ball was gone. It hugely helped the attack gain momentum. On the Lions side, Conor Murray is far more methodical. He is selected for a range of attributes- he is a very good tackler, his box-kicks are the best in the world, he is strong around the ruck, he rarely makes mistakes. His delivery and ability to build tempo in his team’s attack is not the strongest facet of his play.

Changes for Saturday’s 2nd Test? The Lions need to up their speed of attack and to compete at ruck time in defence. So personally, I’d make a couple of changes to the side. There was a noticeable improvement in the Lions tempo when Rhys Webb came in, albeit with the game already decided. Whether the Lions decide to bring Webb in to start on Saturday depends on if they value his energy and tempo over the range of skills Murray has, and that will come down to whether they want to play a quicker game or not. Likewise, unpopular as this will make me sound as an Irishman, I’d bring in Warburton for O’Mahony, and Itoje for Kruis, both changes designed to make the Lions more competitive at ruck time. O’Mahony has been excellent on tour, but the game the Lions need to play would fit Warburton perfectly. He’s a ball poacher and turnover getter, and if they go after New Zealand he can make some huge plays. Itoje has to start. There’s no point bringing on an impact sub with the team already fighting a losing cause. Use his energy from the start.

The Lions can win the remaining two tests. I could speak further on other aspects of the game like the set piece, the kicking game, each team’s defence systems. But all of these all stem from the breakdown battle. The Lions need to focus on winning the ruck contests first and foremost. Win that battle and everything else will follow.

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Mistakes in Irish rugby?

Two words I’ve noticed take prominence in the interviews of players and coaches from Leinster, Munster and the Irish national team are “mistakes” and “experience”. In general, there seems to be a belief among the players and coaching staff that games are won by the teams making the fewest “mistakes” and by the teams with the most “experience”. Is this true? Common sense suggests that these guys are correct, but when you scratch the surface and think about it a little more deeply, the logic is flawed.

In any learning environment, mistakes are to be encouraged, not eliminated. We learn through our mistakes. Probably the only way to prevent all mistakes is to never try anything. How many times did each of us fall down before we mastered the art of walking, how many dropped balls before we learned to catch? So too in rugby we have to accept that we will make errors in our pursuit of improvement.

When one watches the games of Leinster, Munster and Ireland, it is noticeable that the game plans revolve around mistake-prevention. One out runners, an abundance of box-kicks and garryowen’s, and a total reluctance to offload the ball are features of all three teams. Even the highly successful “power-plays” designed by Joe Schmidt and implemented to good success by Leinster and Ireland are prescriptive and remove the potential for mistakes by removing almost all decision-making by individual players from the equation.

Connacht triumphed because Pat Lam created a learning environment where trying things and learning mistakes were not just tolerated but were actively encouraged. A passing and running style has prevailed, while simultaneously every rugby pundit in the Irish media has watched in horror as Connacht preferred to keep the ball alive than kick it into the stand. After the Grenoble game, Alan Quinlan and Trevor Hogan on Newstalk, among several others slated Connacht’s lack of an exit strategy. Lam however backed his players for sticking to their style, empowering them further to make their own decisions.

Experience as a buzz-word is inextricably linked to the desire to limit mistakes. Selecting players who have been there and done it all before means the potential for mistakes to be made is limited. These guys know what to do and when to do it. The recent Ireland national squad announcement further cemented experience as the main factor in selection – the Kearney brothers and Keith Earls included in the squad to the exclusion of Matt Healy, Tiernan O’Halloran and Craig Gilroy cannot make sense under any other selection criteria. Although the cynic in me believes that Schmidt is compelled for financial reasons to pick every player currently with an IRFU contract- the Kearneys and Earls come under this heading.

Giving such a heavy weighting to experience as a selection factor means you are limiting current form as a factor. Keeping the same players around until they retire is a negative for a few reasons. They don’t have to prove themselves to the same extent as others because their place is safe. There is no competition between players. The group dynamic never develops, as there is rarely any freshness. Eventually a team runs out of real, natural leaders- the leadership group evolves to include the next most senior players rather than those who have natural leadership skills.

If experience and a lack of mistakes are what it takes to win, Leinster would have comfortably beaten Connacht in the Pro 12 final. They didn’t, managing a single try when Connacht had 14 players. Leinster concentrated on the wrong things, their conservative game plan augmented savvy tweaks to their game such as garryowens into the sun, and running the same back move a dozen times in the second half in an attempt to get space down the Connacht flanks. Working towards a modern, ambitious game plan where players are empowered to make decisions and are not constantly looking for perfection must be the goal of Ireland’s five teams. Connacht have done this. Let’s all hope Leinster, Munster, Ulster and most of all Ireland follow suit.

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Don’t make Keatley scapegoat

First, let me say I don’t know Ian Keatley. I’ve never met him, didn’t play any club he was at and didn’t go to his school. I just want to put my feelings down on paper about what I feel is unfairly happening to him with Munster right now.

Ian Keatley is being made a scapegoat right now. He is being blamed for Munster defeats and I believe it’s very unfair on him. Keatley has been booed several times by his own fans this year, been publicly criticised by his head coach and has been slaughtered online on the forums.

Last night Connacht destroyed Munster in the Pro12. Pissed all over them being honest about it. The comments this morning on RTE Sport – “Foley should grow a pair and resign and take Keatley with him”, “‘Uncharacteristic errors from … replacement Keatley’ – LOL”, “Foley Keatley and all the Shannon boys out” and so on. It’s shocking. Keatley came onto the field with 13 mins left. The game was long over. It was a similar story a few weeks back when Leinster hosted Munster- he didn’t cause the loss yet was singled out as the main reason Munster lost in many quarters.

Keatley started his career at Leinster, moving to Connacht where he had three good years. Munster signed him to replace the departing Paul Warrick and he has been there since 2011. He was back-up to O’Gara and became the starting outhalf when he retired. Five years now he has been with Munster, has been capped by Ireland in that time and in my opinion he is due a hell of a lot more respect than he is getting. Why you ask?

Munster are not a good rugby side at present. The coaching ticket of Foley and a band of former players have not improved the side. Spectators have said this for a while, and it was confirmed almost as fact by Munster Rugby deciding to bring in a Director of Rugby from next season, basically replacing Foley as Munster head honcho. Their problems run deeper than who plays outhalf- the team has not improved as a whole, play a poor brand of rugby and haven’t looked at any stage like they will turn things around. Most of Munster’s problems can be traced back to poor leadership. There are other players who fingers could or should be pointed at ahead of Keatley. Stander is consistently excellent, and Murray and Zebo usually have good games. But where has Keith Earls leadership been? The Mark Chisholm signing has been a flop. Tomas O’Leary has returned to zero impact.

Last night against Connacht, the Munster scrum was destroyed. Pretenders to the Irish team, Cronin and Archer, were demolished by Buckley and Bealham. Donncha Ryan and Billy Holland were outclassed by Muldowney and Dillane. John Muldoon was the standout back row on the field. Murray was outshone by Marmion. Bundee Aki was the classiest player on the field, not his opposite number Saili (who in fairness has little help in the Munster three-quarter line). There are far more who should be shouldering the blame than the Munster back-up outhalf Keatley.

The cynic in me wonders why Anthony Foley is putting Keatley on the field. Is it to deflect blame? He clearly has no confidence in his outhalf, criticising him in the media and creating an impression Keatley is his last resort. Yet why not leave Johnny Holland on the field then? Why bring on a player whose confidence has been eroded and his role undermined, when the game is over? Whether he does anything or not in a game like last night, he’s coming out of it badly either way. All bringing him on does is provide a focal point for all the negative comments about the team. A scapegoat when things go wrong. It’s unfair and I feel bad for the guy to be getting this level of criticism when it is the team as a whole, the guys with multiple caps, his coach, the coaching team as a whole and the organisation as a whole who have recruited very poorly who are just as much, if not more so, to blame.

Winning?

Every team in every competition in every sport wants to win. That’s what they’d say if you asked them. They go out to play their best, play hard, play well and get the result at the end of the game. Show me a player who walks out onto a field, court or gym and doesn’t do their best. Genuinely, show me, because I don’t know any.

Motivation is easy once you’re out there togged out and the whistle goes. It’s natural. You’re already on the battlefield, it’s sink or swim time. Motivation to prepare to your best ability to give you and your team the best chance of winning, well that’s a bit more difficult.

If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. In sports preparation, that’s a phrase to live by. The preparation phase is when you really find out if a team or player wants to win. The team that prepares best to win is the team that’s most likely to win. If you’re better physically, technically, tactically and mentally prepared than your opponent, you are more likely to win. There’s no getting away from that fact.

Many teams, coaches and players out there don’t want to win. What an outrageous statement that is! Let me qualify it a bit. There are many teams, coaches and players who’d LIKE to win, but aren’t willing to PREPARE to win. That’s a bit better. They would like to win, but not if it means they have to change. If you ever hear a sportsperson utter a phrase like “on our day we’re as good as any of them”, you can put your last euro on them not winning the championship they’re in that year. These performers would like to win, but only on their own terms.

There can be a multitude of reasons for that. Pride. Greed. All the deadliest sins are behind an unwillingness to change. Usually, in my experience, it’s not deliberate, but is an unconscious desire on their part to want to win ONLY if they can be coach, captain, leader, star player, whatever. A pride that “this is the way we do things here”. Yet, what good is it to you if you go out year after year to lose.

A wise lecturer recently remarked to me that for many managers in their sport, “losing is acceptable if you make the same mistakes anyone else would have made”. For example, it’s acceptable to pick the injured star player and lose, but not acceptable to drop a star player because he doesn’t fit the tactics needed in the game. There is a great example in the film Moneyball, where coach Art Howe says “I need to pick the team in a way I can explain in job interviews next year” when General Manager Billy Beane wants to make radical changes.

One way managers and coaches try to insure their careers against criticism is to copy what more successful teams do. “If we do what (insert successful team/athlete here) did, then we’ll win”. First, by the time you copy what the winner did, the innovators will have evolved past that so you still won’t win. Second, if all you do is copy others, you ignore the rule of individual difference: what works for one won’t necessarily work for another. Bringing in a Sport Psychologist because Kerry have one or having the team do pilates because Liverpool do it, is unlikely to improve the team unless there is know-how behind it, understanding of what it entails, and belief in it’s efficacy.

To be successful you must take risks. Innovate. Try things. Open your mind to possibilities. Good coaches explore sport science for help to prepare.  Sport&Performance Psychologists, Performance Analysts, Physiotherapists, Nutritionists, Physical Trainers can all offer help to prepare a team. The key is to open your mind, meet with them or try using them with the team or athlete. At worst, they give no help. At best, they improve the team by whatever percent.

Is there an acceptable way to lose? To me, there is. If you have prepared to do one’s best, to have gone out with pride to play the game hard, fair, with skill and to the best of one’s ability, then it is OK to lose. When you can look yourself in the mirror and honestly say “there is nothing more I could have done”, then there is no shame in losing to a superior opponent. That’s what any coach or player wants. To be able to look themselves and one another in the eye and know they gave it everything. No bullshit.

 

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What’s that ref meant to be doing anyway?!

Whatever the game we watch and whatever the result, what we can be certain of is that we will hear on television, in the newspaper or from the coaches themselves about the performance of the referee in that game. The position of referee must be, in some ways at least, the most stressful position on the field in rugby, soccer, gaelic football and rugby. The concentration levels, attention to detail, decision making and the communication skills needed by a referee are enormous. The referees  interpretations of the rules can alter how teams can play, and their decisions can change the outcome of a game. It is essential that they have these mental skills, and are free to be neutral and as pressure-free as possible in order to make the best decisions on the field.

Something which has concerned me for a number of years now is the role many former professionals and coaches believe the referee should play. When we hear of coaches asking for the referee to “let the game flow”, or that the referee “ruined the game as a spectacle”, I believe we are in very difficult and dangerous territory. This attitude has crept into many sports, and I believe it is detrimental to each sport. Just yesterday I watched the England v New Zealand rugby league test on BBC. Jon Wilkin and Jamie Peacock at half-time both criticised the match referee for awarding 9 penalties in the first half for offences by both sides at slowing down the play of the ball. Both sides had clearly set out to slow the tempo of the opposition’s attack by being slow at ruck time. The half-time scoreline of 2-2 (one penalty each) was testiment to the intent of both sides to prevent tries and preventing the opponent to build attacks where their defence wouldn’t have time to be organised. Wilkin and Peacock made the point that the game as a spectacle was badly damaged by the referees decisions to award penalties. This sentiment can be heard all the time in gaelic football and hurling particularly, where a game full of fouling and negative tactics is generally blamed on the referee in question.

One could say that the job of a referee is to enforce the rules of the game and to impose sanctions on individuals who breach these rules. I think that would be a fair definition of a referee in any of the sports I’ve named. The rules of the game are key. I would sincerely doubt if the rulebooks for any of the sports from rugby to soccer to GAA state anywhere that a responsibility of a referee is to ensure that the game is entertaining to those who watch it, that there are lots of scores or lots of nice passes. The purpose of the referee in a sport is to know the rules, enforce those rules by giving frees (or cards) when appropriate, and to be neutral in applying those rules. A key point is that the referee should be neutral and enforce the rules, rather than being even. Even is not neutral or fair- you see this regularly where a team has a man sent off and the referee stops giving frees against them, or conversely where something happens and the referee tries to “even things up”. If we could have referees enforce the rules properly, everyone would know where they stand. Players would not be frustrated at having a decision go against them. We would not have conversations every Saturday and Sunday about consistency. Giving the free to one guy and not the other for the same offence. These things drive people mad.

Here’s a unique concept I’d love more people to embrace. Even to just try it out for a while, see how it feels:

The game as a spectacle is the responsibility of the players and management of each team, not the responsibility of the referee.

The players are the ones on the field who commit fouls. They are the ones who push the referee, seeing where he will draw a line. They will pull jerseys, push opponents, slow the ball down, neglect to retreat the required distance from free-kick, start rows and tactically foul where it is difficult to score from. It is the responsibility of a referee to punish all of these things when they happen without any pressure on them not to. If these fouls were punished each and every time they happen, and the appropriate sanctions taken for those who persist, teams would see very quickly that they would not be able to win through negative tactics as they’d be conceding scores and playing with fewer players on their team. When we see what we consider to be a “good referee”, it is easy to tell who he is. Not because he created a spectacle, but because he got his decisions correct almost all of the time. Guys like soccer’s Pierluigi Collina or rugby’s Andre Watson got the calls right, and didn’t bottle making difficult decisions or punishing serial offenders. Alain Rolland, Nigel Owens, Dickie Murphy, John Bannon and Pat McAneaney were also guys who just played the rules and let the game sort itself out.

The pressure levels on a referee at any level are huge. I don’t think many go out to favour one team and in general referees are neutral. But they are hampered or confused in many situations by issues which should be external to their performance. Deciding not to give a free or penalty because of it’s impact on the scoreboard, because you penalised that team 10 times already, because there have been 20 frees in ten minutes, because that player said or did something previously in the game make for a bad game. Good referees are the ones who ignore those things and give the decisions anyway. The game in general, we as supporters, coaches and players, and the respective organisations can help referees to do great jobs by taking the pressure off them to do anything other than blow the whistle when the rules say you should.

Talent Development- from New Zealand to Kilkenny

Isa Nacewa recently wrote an article about the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team before the Rugby World Cup final against Australia. Mental edge sets All Blacks apart from the rest. In the article he talks about several of the mental characteristics which distinguish the All Blacks as the world’s most dominant team. The one area which I’m going to talk about is the age at which several All Blacks finished their career. In the article, Nacewa points out that Christian Cullen played his last game for New Zealand when he was 26. Joe Rokocoko was 27, Josh Kronfeld and Dougie Howlett were 29. To many, especially here in Ireland, that sounds a little amazing. In Ireland we hold onto quality players for as long as they are fit and able. On first reading, one would imagine that the reason New Zealand were able to dispense with these players is down to the sheer numbers of excellent players their rugby system produces. For example, Josh Kronfeld was edged out of the New Zealand team by the emergence of one Richie McCaw. I believe that it is a combination of producing quality players, but even more so, the decision to dispense with players in their late 20’s rather than mid 30’s is down to an understanding of talent development by those within the All Black selection structure.

The “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) is a term which refers to the optimal learning environment for an individual. It’s a term which was developed by a Russian psychologist called Vygotsky and can be basically defined as an area of learning where a person is assisted by a teacher or peer with a higher skill set. It is usually a term used in relation to education, but it transfers very well to the development of talented sportspeople. In sports terms, it relates to a period of learning where a sportsperson develops from exposure to coaching from excellent coaches and performing alongside and against peers who are more skilled at that point in time. An understanding from those coaches and peers that the learner will make mistakes but will improve, further strengthens the benefits of placing a talented young performer in their ZPD.

What New Zealand do, as far as I’m concerned, is have a good eye for watching for players who have reached their peak. You can imagine one’s peak as a bell curve, where players are learning and developing until they reach their peak (the highest point on the bell curve). They may stay at that peak level for a period of time, maintaining their excellent standards. However, for all performers, they will eventually begin to wane and can be said to be, even slightly, past their peak. When this happens, New Zealand act. They find a developing player in that position, and usually act quickly by replacing the player who is past his peak with the younger player. At this point is the young player better than the experienced, multi-capped international? Usually no. But the key point is, he is on his way up. He will improve. He will make mistakes, learn from them, get excellent coaching and perform alongside outstanding players. The experienced guy who is just past his peak will not recover his powers and if retained, he will contribute to standards within the squad dropping. The only exceptions to the practice should really be those once or twice a generation superstar, like a McCaw or Dan Carter (or for Ireland Brian O’Driscoll or Paul O’Connell), whose potential peak is so high that they can continue to perform at an outstanding level, and their skills can continue to aid the development of others, well into their 30’s.

To summarise, New Zealand place a young player into his ZPD with a view towards creating another world class player. They know they have a guy who soon won’t be world class so they take action. A stitch in time saves nine, as the old saying goes. And here’s the key point. If they did not take this action, that young player would never reach as high an eventual peak. By not getting that top level coaching and exposure young to the kind of competitive environment that could not be created elsewhere, they would have lost vital years in their development. Their growth would be stunted. By taking early action and giving them early exposure, New Zealand are giving their young players the best possible chance to become multi-capped, world class international players.

It’s a model that’s followed by champion teams in all kinds of sports. Looking at Irish sport, I immediately think of Kilkenny. People for 15 years now have been looking at Brian Cody every year wondering why he dropped this player and that player when they were still young enough to have 3 or 4 seasons left in them. James ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick was gone at 26. Willie O’Dwyer at 25. John Tennyson at 27. If you’re old enough you’ll remember the furore over the dropping of reigning All Star Charlie Carter. Kilkenny keep winning and people wonder over and over how unbelievable they are at producing top players. How they can dispense with so much talent, confident there are others coming through. Cody, to me, has an innate knowledge of ZPD. He, just like the All Blacks, can see when a guy just might not get any better. Or that a young guy has the potential to become even better. Rather than wait on the young guy to improve on his own, like so many failed coaches do, he gives them a chance, bringing them into the squad to train with top players and top coaches so that they will be outstanding when they do make that Kilkenny team. Again, like New Zealand, Cody recognises the once or twice a generation superstar player (like Henry Shefflin and JJ Delaney) and holds onto them longer, using their huge array of skills to keep standards high and aid the development of others.

You could look at other examples. Teams like Liverpool in the 70’s and 80’s, or Manchester United under Alex Ferguson seemed to have an endless stream of talent coming through. Kerry footballers in recent times have brought in guys in the same way. Quality coaching at underage level plays a huge part, as does tradition and the number of good standard young guys coming through. But an understanding of how players develop and how to increase their potential ensures the medium- and long-term success of any team. Even those who are currently not successful. It frustrates me sometimes to see teams hold onto players well past their prime and at the same time complain there is nothing coming through. Success will come if you recognise how to develop the talent. Or if you don’t know how, bring in someone who does know.