Is Irish rugby rediscovering a joie de vivre?

I REMEMBER visiting my late grandmother in the hospital once when I was about 12 years old. I saw a sign taped to the wall of the nurses’ station that said “Smiles are contagious” and featured a funny monkey grinning from ear to ear. This message has stayed with me throughout my life and although I don’t always remember to do it, it is something I remember as often as possible. If you smile at someone, you will often get one back. It’s human nature.

The same principle applies to certain things in sports. Some actions are contagious. The more you see your teammates doing them, the more likely you are to do them yourself. If you never see anyone doing something a little out of the ordinary, you’re less likely to try it yourself. The clearest example in rugby is when it comes to moving the ball and especially offloading it.

When you see your teammates being ambitious in trying to move the ball before and after contact, it gives you a psychological signal that you have a license to do the same. It’s good, because other people do it. For most teams, the extent to which they kick the ball will be dictated by the staff they have in their ranks or the coach they have at any given time.

For others, like France or Fiji for example, it’s so ingrained in their DNA that it’s still there.

In fact, it has been the bane of life for many French and Fijian coaches over the years. When I first came to
Grenoble on a short-term contract as injury cover in 2018, I was joined soon after by Ropate Rinakama, a tight Fijian who was playing for the national team at the time. He explained to me that one of the big problems they had was staying in their structure for 80 minutes.

They would do everything to the letter of the game plan for half an hour and then someone would shoot something
ridiculous out of the bag and chaos would ensue.
Second rows would try tokens over the top, props would throw offloads into the back; the game plan would go out the window and they would start playing rugby sevens, all triggered by a moment of magic. That was how contagious it was for Fijians.

French rugby has suffered from a similar problem over the years. I saw him many times in Grenoble, both in my team and in the teams against which we were aligned in the Top 14
and ProD2.

French rugby has always been associated with
excitement, flair and attractive attacking rugby. It’s great when done right. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

If you kick off any Top 14 game in the depths of winter, you’re likely to see balls being thrown onto the deck left, right and center as players ignore the miserable conditions and act as if they were playing in bright sunshine and 25 degrees.

Players who lack the skills to attempt the high pass or offload still try to do so, particularly if the throwing fever that is so prevalent in France sets in during a game.

This was reflected in the French national team for many years. In fact, a big weakness of the French approach under previous coaching posts was a somewhat arrogant belief that the fundamentals didn’t need as much attention because their attack was so unpredictable and deadly that they could open the opposition at any time. It was unpredictable, but it was unpredictably bad more often than unpredictably good.

They clung to a philosophy that had served them well in the past but was totally unsuitable for the modern game. Like almost every other facet of the French approach, Fabien Galthié has modernized the fluid rugby so dear to them, taking the existing dice-throwing approach and making it tighter, more sophisticated and more clinical. The instinct is still there, but instead of the wild, frantic execution that had become the norm, it’s cool, calm, and deliberate.

There were plenty of examples of this in Saturday’s game against Scotland, the most notable being France’s second try in the 13th minute. Alldritt carries the back of a maul down the left wing. Dupont carries briefly and four seconds later the ball passed between the hands of Fickou, Danty, Ntamack and Jalibert to reach Penaud six meters from the opposite wing. It’s worth watching this test several times on YouTube to appreciate the speed and precision with which the ball was moved through the field.

Penaud tries to beat Darcy Graham on the outside and when he realizes he is going to be knocked out, turns around and sends the ball back inside to support Cyril Baille. Baille loses the collision himself but manages to free his hands and throw it on the ground to Moefana who notes it. Seven
passes — including two
offloads – in one phase of play to move from sideline to sideline and score. All the French backs touched the ball in stride.

There are few teams in the world – even at the Test level – that can execute a move like this. That’s the essence of a ‘toss the ball’ approach, done the best way possible. The French can achieve this because they know that everyone is on the same wavelength. Everyone is waiting for the speculative pass, the unloading or whatever. The team is full of people happy to do it, so everyone feels confident to do it too.

IDoes the Irishman attack from a place where you have to expect finishes like that? At the moment, probably not. Someone probably would have made contact rather than drop by at some point in the same scenario, as that would have been the safest thing to do. It takes a level of adventure that isn’t there yet. But things are moving in the right direction.

Thing is, just as Galthié had to reign in compulsion to keep the ball alive, Andy Farrell and company had to coax a little more ambition to do the same from Irish players.

Irish rugby does not have a tradition of kicking the ball like the French do. Irish success in the professional era is built on excellent basics, organization, aggression and discipline. When you have a coach like Joe Schmidt at the helm for almost seven years who was notorious for inflicting biblical anger on guys for throwing speculative offloads or passes that didn’t go through, he’s not surprising that a reluctance to do anything risky took hold.

If no one is willing to roll that high-risk/high-reward pass or offload because they’re afraid they’ll be wrong, the contagion I talked about earlier has no chance of happening. Similarly, players are more likely to try something if they see their teammates leading by example, they’ll be less likely to do it if no one else is.

Fortunately, we’re starting to see a more ambitious attacking style of rugby take hold. As I’ve written before, this is largely led from the front, with players like Tadhg Beirne, Caelan Doris and Jack Conan equally comfortable passing before and after contact as they drop their heads and carry strong.

Farrell’s draft calls over the weekend, particularly those of Michael Lowry and Ryan Baird, showed us that he’s willing to try things out and take a more holistic view of the types of players who could play a role. important in the future.

If a player can offer something different, they will not be excluded if they are perceived as too small, light or otherwise. This is not a given in professional rugby these days. When you combine that with the overall trajectory of the Irish attack, Andy Farrell gives all the right signals that his tenure could be very fruitful in the years to come.

About Timothy Ball

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