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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Meath warmup & performance

On Sunday I attended the Leinster Senior Football championship semi-final between Kildare and Meath in Tullamore. It was a roasting hot Saturday evening and I headed down with my dad, eager to see what I thought would be an excellent match between two up-and-coming teams. Cian O’Neill had looked to be building a very good Kildare side and achieved promotion to National Football League 1. My dad and I had gone to watch Meath play Louth in their opening fixture in the Leinster championship, and as I had seen Louth a few times previous and know their level, we were very impressed with Meath that day. So we figured this semi-final would be a belter.

As in Parnell Park a couple of weeks ago, we arrived at the ground over 90 minutes before throw-in, with unrestricted seating in the stand it’s the only way to get good seats. For both games we got great seats and we saw everything (including a Kildare player who should have got the line!). As someone who works coaching, analysing and mentally preparing teams, I’m intrigued by all aspects of the game – warmup, manager body language, player body language, how the players communicate, substitutions, everything.

At 6:00pm on the dot out came Kildare to a big cheer from the supporters on the terrace on the far side. Their management had their cones and gear laid out well in advance, all organised and under control. They got into their warmup, doing a few different drills, all stuff they did without supervision. While Kildare were warming up, Meath backroom staff came out to set up their cones and equipment, and at 6:13 Meath came out to a massive pop from the crowd. When they came out all their gear was well organized and ready too. Meath worked away at their warmup, again the players knew what their routine was. I had been at Parnell Park a fortnight previous and recognised the drills they did, for example a wheel-shaped truck-and-trailer foot & hand passing drill that took up most of their half of the field, and a very good defense drill along the end line where they work to repel attackers. Meath, being traditionally old school, spend a lot of time in unstructured play in their warmup too, shooting for points or goals and passing amongst themselves. Paddy O’Rourke in the Meath goal spent a good period of time practicing his kickouts with the sub goalkeeper. During their warmup, Kildare left the field at around 6:23 and re-emerged at around 6:40. Meath stayed out on the field from 6:13 onwards. Kildare’s warmup was a little more structured than Meath’s.

IMG_7115

A lot has been said and written in the days since Meath were hammered by Kildare, for some reason a lot of this has focused on their warmup. It was a hell of a hot evening in Tullamore. Meath has a new manager this year in Andy McEntee and their warmup has changed considerably, I’m sure, from that of his predecessor. It wasn’t the telling factor in their loss of the game though, nor was it the reason they beat Louth well a few weeks back. Those who are pointing to the warmup as the reason behind the poor Meath performance are either deliberately or unconsciously deflecting attention away from the real reasons behind Meath’s loss. If Meath were tired after that warmup then they aren’t fit enough to stay with a team as well prepared as Kildare.

Here, in my opinion, are the reasons that Meath lost.

  • Meath cleared out their forward line, leaving two men inside, McMahon and Lenihan. These two had been well-used in the game against Louth (where Louth have had no sweeper since Derek Maguire headed to America). Meath played the ball in deep to these two against Louth, and then their pace men, particularly Graham Reilly and Cillian O’Sullivan, fed off them and caused Louth considerable damage taking the ball at pace heading for goal. Against Kildare, this couldn’t happen. Kildare used a sweeper, Eoin Doyle, in front of them. Meath tried for almost the whole first half to put the ball in and then chase it looking to feed- this fell down as Lenihan and McMahon could barely win a ball between them due to poor quality ball, poor quality runs, and the excellent positioning of the sweeper.
  • Meath have gone with one fielder and one runner at midfield, rather than two fielders. For their kickouts, Ronan Jones made runs to drag his man away from the centre of the field. If his man followed it would leave space for his partner Menton to be kicked the ball. If his man didn’t follow a shorter kickout to Jones could be made. This didn’t really work at all. Kildare put a few men around Menton and with his marker Kevin Feely just as good in the air, Kildare either won clean ball or had numbers on the breaks. Kickouts put Meath under severe pressure throughout the game, with Paddy O’Rourke eventually trying to find Cillian O’Sullivan, by no means a big man or noted fielder with long kickouts. Meath badly needed a second (and third and fourth) kickout option.
  • Meath refused to carry and pass to break the Kildare defence down. Only Cillian O’Sullivan and Bryan Menton did this with any real threat for Meath in the game. O’Sullivan worked his balls off throughout, and while his final ball let him down at times, mostly this was due to having no support. To hear the abuse he got from his own fans was shocking. Padraig Harnan and McEntee from wing back tried to support by making overlapping runs. The other Meath forwards were ineffective and seemed to not understand they needed to change their gameplan.
  • I’ve been to a lot of games in my life, and this was the first time I saw a player at county level not really make much effort at all. One Meath forward spent most of the game hovering around the centre-forward position, and made little to no effort to get involved in the play. If his man was passed the ball he’d jog over to him but in the entire match I would say he reached maximum effort only three or four times. Even with his teammates running closeby him, he never looked for a pass but twice. Up until he was substituted with about 15 mins left to play, Meath effectively had only 14 players. Clearly something was mentally or physically wrong with the player and I hope this can be remedied as he has serious talent.
  • Kildare are a more complete team than Meath right now. I couldn’t see any real weaknesses in their team. They look finally to have some quality forwards rather than their tradition of relying on one or two stars to fire the majority of scores. They are very shrewd. Several examples of this: Meath man marked Niall Kelly with Mickey Burke, a sensible option to be fair, but Kelly pulled Burke here, there and everywhere and left the centre-forward position empty for Kildare to run into. Another being the deployment of Doyle as sweeper. Another being the use of Ollie Lyons to provide the overlap in attack. They could think quicker on the line and play and think better on the field than Meath.

Sadly, the media has jumped on the warmup. Lads who weren’t in Tullamore on Saturday night talking about things they didn’t see. Lads who were in Tullamore talking about things they don’t know about. Meath management and analysts will, I hope, see what the real issues were and will remedy them. This is a good Meath team. They are going the right direction. A couple of changes to personnel such as moving Jones to wing forward and bringing in a fielder at midfield, dropping Wallace and Reilly and bringing in O’Coilean. I’d leave Burke in the corner and allow Keogan to hold the centre-back position too. Their problems in this game, as I outlined, are fixable. But lads whingeing about the warmup? Just lazy analysis, plain and simple.

No need to panic for Galway

There’s been a media storm of sorts since the Leinster final. Pundits saw Sunday’s game as a collapse for Galway. Ger Loughnane and Ollie Canning have taken pot-shots at each other. It would be understandable for a Galway hurler to be a bit demoralised after that defeat. I watched Sunday’s Kilkenny v Galway Leinster final with great interest. Galway had gone through a lot over the past year. What I was most interested in was the shape Galway’s new manager Michael Donoghue would put on the team. What style of hurling would they play? What way would they line out? In what was going to be the first really big game of his tenure, who was Donoghue going to place as the spine of his team?

Galway started the game well. The first half went well. There is no question about that. The move of Daithi Burke to full back to mark TJ Reid was a good one. John Hanbury was at centre back and although not a natural centre back, he was strong and held the middle well. Davy Glennon and David Burke were at midfield. Up front, once Cathal Mannion went in full forward and got decent ball he had Joey Holden in real trouble. The second half changed all that. Hanbury went into the full back line. Burke went out to left half-back to follow Reid. Glennon was taken off. Mannion got very little ball. Joseph Cooney struggled in the second half at centre forward and was also taken off.

I remember when I was small watching All-Ireland finals and semi-finals in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and that great Galway team were my favourite. Those Galway teams had a structure. Other players knew Malone/Mahon and Coleman would battle at midfield and could come out on top against any pairing. The famed half back line of Finnerty, Keady and McInerney was excellent. Joe Cooney was a genius and could be relied upon to win his fight at centre forward. With structure comes confidence and cohesion. Players up their game because they know the team is relying on them to produce.

The Galway team on Sunday did not have the luxury of a solid team structure. Players were swapped around here, there and everywhere. From my reckoning, only a few players started and finished the game in the positions they were selected in for Galway. Padraig Mannion, Conor Whelan, David Burke, Conor Cooney and goalkeeper Colm Callinan were, I think, the only players for Galway to stay in the same position for the duration of the game. Kilkenny, on the other hand left their goalkeeper, entire defence, midfield, Walter Walsh and JJ Farrell in the same spots for the entire game. When the going got tough, Kilkenny backed their team structure and personnel, and worked harder. When Galway’s ship looked like it was starting to sink, they moved around the deckchairs.

To my mind, Galway are not getting the full value from the individuals in their team. I think it’s unfair to brand the team as “gutless” as more than one pundit has. They need structure. They need a spine in their team. I’m not saying they need a fully settled side, as there is no evidence either way on whether a settled team is better or worse off. But in this case, for Galway, I think they need to be decisive rather than making so many changed. Most players will tell you that it is hard to build confidence if you are moved out of position after under-performing for 20 mins. Likewise, it is hard to have confidence in the rest of your team if everyone else is similarly moved if they are not immediately performing. So, what structure? Here is what I’d do.

I’d concentrate on getting the spine of the team set. Daithi Burke at full back, David Burke and Andy Smith at midfield, Joseph Cooney at centre forward and Cathal Mannion at full forward. Centre back has been a problem position for Galway for a long time. Personally, I think it’s amazing nobody has ever tried Joe Canning there (his array of skills, reading of the game, and Galway’s inability to get the best from him in the forwards), but that would be very short notice for this year. Joseph Cooney perhaps could be placed there. I would pick these guys in these positions, leave them there, and fill in guys around them. Hanbury and Coen or Killeen in the full back line, McInerney and Harte at wing back, Canning and Donnellan at wing forward and Whelan and Flynn at corner forward. The important thing, I believe, is to pick those central positions and back the players to perform there even in adversity.

Galway’s hurlers look leaderless at times, and while off-field factors such as personalities, relationships and so on are important, on field they struggle to build leaders because guys are always looking over their shoulder, whether that be a positional move or substitution. Going back the years, successful teams have always had a somewhat settled look, particularly the spine of the team. Joe Canning is a leader, but the team has looked to him too many times in the past, and now opponents know if they stop him, it’s unlikely anyone else is going to don the cape and spandex to rescue the team. New guys need to step up, and management need to help them to lead by showing faith in them to win their battles.

Kilkenny don’t do tactics, right?

Kilkenny were good yesterday. That second-half performance was top drawer, played at an intensity Galway just couldn’t handle. Who can live with that pace – we’ll have to wait until September to see if anyone can. Galway didn’t handle it well, and that game was there for the taking for them.

All my life I’ve been watching games with my Dad. Even though nowadays I live in Dublin and he lives back home in Wexford, we still, sort of, watch them together. The match will be on in both our houses. Most days we’ll have a chat before to see who’ll win, a chat at half-time to see what changes each of us would make, and a chat after briefly about what actually happened.

Yesterday, we had a chat at half-time just. It’s always easy to say “I told you so”, but yesterday I was in actually prophetic form. “Brian Cody”, I said, “will pull TJ Reid way out the field in the second half. Galway clearly have put Daithi Burke as a man-marker to follow Reid anywhere he goes. Daithi Burke was the best player on the field for Galway in the first half. Cody is going to pull TJ Reid out the field and see if Burke follows. If he does, Kilkenny are going to try to blitz the Galway full-back line who will be short their best player. No doubt.”

So it came to pass. Daithi Burke was ineffectual in the second half, Reid playing between the 65’s on the right wing for Kilkenny. Without Burke at full-back, Richie Hogan had a half of dreams. He was just unstoppable and should have been handed Man of the Match at the finish. As I tweeted last night, he did more in one half than anyone else had done in two halves.

To me, the best chance you have is to blitz Kilkenny in the first half. Cody tends, as far as I’m concerned, to weigh things up for the first half hour. That’s the time to get them. Before the game he was non-committal on what Kilkenny would do to counter Galway. “We’ll concentrate on our own game” is his usual mantra and yesterday it was the same. But while that may be true for the first half to some extent, the second half of games is where Cody’s analytical brain shines. Yesterday is a great example. He forced Michael Donoghue to choose- leave Burke with Reid or keep the Galway structure intact. Donoghue chose wrong and Richie Hogan and JJ Farrell destroyed them.

That, of course, wasn’t the only change in the game. Even the most casual observer could see that in both halves there was a lot of space for the forwards at the Canal End (Davin Stand). To begin, Galway managed to get numbers back to their own half-back line and midfield- and leave room at the other end where Joey Holden was in trouble with Cathal Mannion. Second half, Kilkenny reversed things- Reid and Walter Walsh retreated, their men followed and space appeared in abundance for Farrell and Hogan. One point in the second half illustrated this perfectly: TJ Reid won the ball around midfield, and instead of having a shot, arrowed a pass inside to Farrell who was one-on-one with acres of space. It was a simple catch, shuffle to the left and tap over for the latest in Kilkenny’s conveyor belt of forwards.

Galway’s players have gotten a lot of stick in the media since the game. How long will they blame others and shoulder no responsibility for defeats. But to me, the game was just as much about the sideline battle. There is no question Cody won. The tactical changes, positional changes and personnel changes he made were top class. You knew it was inevitable.

My father rings back. “Well, you were spot on. Fair play”.

“Da”, I say, “you have to remember this one thing: The real greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world Kilkenny aren’t into tactics!”.

 

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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.

NFL Division 4 2016

This Spring I spent my Sundays travelling around Ireland watching mainly Division 4 football. I’m a Performance Analyst and worked for some teams in Division 4, scouting and preparing reports on their upcoming opponents. It was a most enjoyable experience I must say, made most enjoyable by the quality of football played. I would guess I may be the only person in the country who saw each team play, most teams more than once, apart from supporters who loyally followed their own team throughout the league.

Earlier this year the GAA tried to remove the 8 teams from Division 4 of the National Football League from the Championship. Their proposal was that if any of the 8 teams failed to reach their provincial final, they would be removed to compete in a knockout ‘B’ Championship. In my opinion, it was a pretty poor proposal, and I was glad when it failed to gain much support at Annual Congress.

There are some excellent footballers playing in Division 4. Below I have selected my “Team of the Season” from the 8 counties. I was surprised when I looked back at it to see that all 8 teams are represented. I saw just one match per weekend, as for some reason the GAA scheduled almost all the games at the same time, so the selection is based on what I saw at the games I attended. This selection of 15 I believe would be well capable of being an asset to any Division 1 side. To think of demeaning them, the work they put in, and most importantly the skills they have, by removing them from competing in the All-Ireland Championship is frankly scandalous.

  1. Craig Lynch (Louth) – good shot stopper, good kickout, comfortable in possession
  2. Tadhg O hUllachain (Waterford) – lightning fast man marker
  3. Sean McVeigh (Antrim) – strong in the air, tough as nails, old school full back
  4. Stephen Kelly (Wicklow) – pacy, good man marker, all round footballer
  5. Derek Maguire (Louth) – best sweeper I’ve seen, gets forward to great effect
  6. Gary Reynolds (Leitrim) – leader, marker and covers for his teammates
  7. David McGreevy (London) – leader of a London side unlucky to pick up only one win
  8. James Stewart (Louth) – fielder, processes a lot of ball and attacked well
  9. Daithi Waters (Wexford) – leader, linked play well and excellent on opposition kickouts
  10. Darren Hayden (Wicklow) – very quick and caused problems carrying ball towards goal
  11. Michael McCann (Antrim) – accurate, playmaker and very clever off the ball running
  12. Emlyn Mulligan (Leitrim) – playmaker and leader of attack. Excellent penalty taker
  13. Donal Shanley (Wexford) – accurate from play and frees, moves off the ball cleverly
  14. Darragh Foley (Carlow) – strong in the air, mobile, accurate
  15. Paul Whyte (Waterford) – strong, very accurate and good in the air

Very close to making this XV are Chris Kerr (Antrim), Tomas McCann (Antrim), James Califf (Louth), Declan Byrne (Louth), Colm Kehoe (Wexford), Gary Kelly (Carlow), Sean Gannon (Carlow), Mark Gottsche (London), Conor Prunty (Waterford), Barry Prior (Leitrim) and Mark Kenny (Wicklow) who were all excellent in the games I saw.

These guys, and their teammates, are deserving of respect. Pundits and the media are quick to give plaudits based on the training and hard work these players put in, but to ignore the skills and craft of these players does them a disservice. These guys wouldn’t be out of place in any company.

The Championship prospects for each team are outlined briefly below. There is cause for optimism for most teams in my opinion:

  • Antrim won’t be out of their depth against Fermanagh in the Preliminary Round in Ulster and could grab a victory if they can be confident in their system and don’t retreat into themselves on the day.
  • Carlow and Louth will be an excellent game in the Preliminary Round in Leinster and I’m sure it won’t be a one-sided affair as their league fixture was- whichever team comes out on top will give Meath a good rattle the next game out.
  • Wicklow have had an up and down league but if their management can settle on a team and resist making wholesale changes when the team is behind, can cause some damage against Laois in the Preliminary Round in Leinster.
  • Wexford, if they can pick their best team and get them all on the field, can beat Kildare in the First Round of Leinster. They have a good system of play, good forwards and some quality midfielders. Whichever team wins, I believe, will beat whichever midland team they face in the Semi-Final.
  • Waterford face Tipperary in the Munster Quarter-Final. Again, Waterford, dependent on getting their best team on the field and keeping their key players fit, can grab a win.
  • Leitrim will face, in all likelihood, Roscommon in the Connacht Quarter-Final. Despite having some quality players, I do think this will be a step too far for Leitrim. On the other hand, they are capable of raising their game as they showed in a quality win against Louth in the league.
  • London have been dealt the worst hand of all, with a Connacht Quarter-Final against Mayo. It’s a big ask, but London have performed well in Division 4. Close defeats have followed them all year, narrowly losing to Carlow, Leitrim and Wicklow in games they could have won. If they lose to Mayo, it would be great to see them get a favourable draw in the qualifiers as they really could go on a good run.

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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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Happiness on a Cold January Sunday

After just over an hour’s drive, I roll down the window and shout to a fella that looks like a GAA man: “Are ya parkin’ there for the match?”. Yes he says in a thick accent. I follow his lead and park halfway across a footpath facing the right way for home. A 5 minute walk and I’m inside the ground, a tenner in but a free programme so I take two. More space for writing notes. I find myself a good seat, roughly on the halfway line under the stand, a low concrete wall with a length of timber nailed to it and painted in the county colours. It’s about 3 degrees, mid January and little at stake between two counties neither of which I’m from. But this feels like home.

I have my supplies ready. Two apples (one before each half), a bottle of water, about 4 biros (just in case), my wee notebook and several sheets of printouts all are stashed in a lovely jacket a rugby club I coached at once gave me. Triple lined and plenty of pockets. Lovely. The announcer calls out the teams, I make the necessary adjustments in both programmes and stand for a minute’s silence and what I assume is a gramophone recording of the national anthem. A bit of pushing and shoving at midfield, the ball is in and the game is on.

The first ten minutes are busiest for me. What positions are the players playing, who is marking who. What are each teams attack systems and defence systems. Gaelic football has changed a lot in the last twenty years and every team is playing with all kinds of innovations. Sweepers. Double sweepers. Third midfielders. Defensive wing-forwards. Target men. Primary target men. Secondary inside forwards. Attacking corner backs. It’s all here. Goalkeepers are still goalkeepers.

I love it. Watching the game but learning from it too. I’m here to prepare a Scout Report on one team, but you can only do it if you watch both. I’m prepared- a programme and a tiny notebook take in kickout strategies, positioning and tactics. One eye on the game, one eye on what I’m writing so I don’t go past the edge of the notebook and write on my hand (again).

The best part of a GAA match is the atmosphere. Rugby matches I’ve been to the last few years can’t compare, not any more. Too many people there to be there, too few to understand what’s happening at the professional games. Not enough people to have a good atmosphere at club games. The 17 year old girl with full makeup, bad hair extensions and a club GAA tracksuit top knows what’s what here though. Especially when the hint of a row starts in front of the stand. GAA fans know their stuff. “God you’re a good one ref” one shouts when a yellow is flashed a bit harshly. “That ref’ll be grand with a few more years of experience” shouts another further down.

Analysis is great, and I love this kind of stuff. It’s good, hard, open football. The moment I crack the code on how to beat the team’s kickout plan is a good personal moment in the game. But a dirty ball right in front of me where there are three good shoulders, a huge hit which misses, 3 men from each side willing to kill for that ball until the fullback emerges, dodges one and finally is fouled to a huge roar of approval from his side, that’s when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You can’t beat GAA for atmosphere.

I watch the last minute of the game standing at the end of the stand next to a gate. A childhood of missing the last two minutes of games so we’d beat the traffic means I don’t leave before the final whistle. Too many missed last minute goals you’d hear about on the radio on the way home. But still close enough to the gate that I’m one of the first to leave, and after a wee jog to the car I’m in and on my way. A few hours re-thinking the game writing up a detailed Scout Report this evening. And local radio analysis on the game for the drive home. Love it.

Only 7 days til the next one. Lovely.