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Memo to Andy Farrell: forget four-year plans, history has shown they don’t work

The Ireland coach should resist calls to ditch his experienced players.

Farrell should prioritise the Six Nations over a four-year-plan.
Farrell should prioritise the Six Nations over a four-year-plan.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

STEVE STAUNTON HAD a four-year plan. It’s worth remembering that. Across codes, across the channel, Philippe Saint-André typed ‘de gaffer’ into Google-translate and implemented a similar policy of his own.

Look how that turned out. France were just after controversially losing the 2011 World Cup final by a point when Saint-André arrived, promising stability, delivering chaos. Under his watch, France finished fourth, sixth, fourth and fourth in successive Six Nations championships, their worst run in the competition since the 1950s.

And yet it didn’t seem to bother him on the eve of the 2015 World Cup, when he bullishly stated his four-year rebuilding plan was coming to fruition. “I believe, I really, really believe that France can beat any team in the world,” he said. “Seriously, honestly, yes I do.” They lost 62-13 to New Zealand in the quarter-finals.

france-players-dejected-at-the-final-whistle Saint-André's four-year plan ended in disaster at the 2015 World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There’s a lesson there, not just for Andy Farrell, but every Irish fan obsessed with four-year cycles and sacrificing this year’s Six Nations championship for the long-term goal of building towards 2023. For some time, winning a World Cup quarter-final has been an obsession in this country; no one yet able to crack the code.

Plenty of comment-posters and tweeters are willing to advise Farrell how to do it, however, noting the 19 uncapped players’ in France’s squad for this year’s Six Nations, wondering whether this is the road Ireland should also travel.

Well, it’s not. Remember it’s just eight years since Saint-André looked at the star-studded squad who had turned on his predecessor, Marc Lièvremont, and decided it was time to invoke the spirit of 1789 by getting out an axe of his own.

By the time the 2015 World Cup had come around, there were only seven survivors from the previous tournament. But the radical manifesto failed.

It always does in rugby. You only have to trace your fingers through history’s notepad to realise this; a recurring theme running through each of the team-sheets from the last five World Cup finals.

From England in 2003 through to South Africa last year, every winning side has been led by grey-beards; Clive Woodward selecting six players aged 30 or over to start the 2003 final, the same number of thirtysomethings who lined out for the All Blacks in the 2015 decider. In 2011, New Zealand had five starters aged 30 or over; South Africa getting by with just two (Percy Montgomery and Os du Randt) for the 2007 final and just three (Willie le Roux, Duane Vermeulen and Tendai Mtawarira) in last year’s win over England.

Youth also featured in all those teams but not as prominently. Of the 75 winning players picked to start the last five World Cup finals, just 12 were aged 24 or younger, whereas 41 were in the 25-29 age bracket, with 22 players selected who had 30 or more candles on their birthday cakes. Memo to Farrell: don’t discard experience too quickly.

He hasn’t. The new coach’s squad is noteworthy for the disappearance of 12 names who Joe Schmidt brought to Japan but when you look a little closer at those who’ve been ditched, only one – Rob Kearney –  started the quarter-final. The rest were fringe players, or – in Rory Best’s case – have retired.

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the-ireland-team-during-the-anthems Most of the starting XV from the World Cup are still in Farrell's squad. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

You can’t predict the future and categorically state whether Farrell is doing the right thing. You can look to the recent past, though, and the templates used by the last five teams to win a World Cup. Each managed to get the right mix, Clive Woodward giving a third of his winning team their debuts in the four-year cycle leading up to the 2003 tournament.

Next came South Africa in 2007. Again, there was a blend of experience and youth; two-thirds of the starting XV capped prior to the previous World Cup, the remaining five players aged 24 or younger.

Onto New Zealand, 2011. Graham Henry started his planning for that tournament three years in advance, first capping Kieran Read, Richard Kahui and Cory Jane in 2008, Owen Franks a year later, Sam Whitelock, Israel Dagg and Aaron Cruden in 2010. All seven started the 2011 final.

Here is firm evidence of a four-year cycle working yet only when you concede that Henry made change and continuity rhyme – for alongside the seven new guys were eight experienced ones: Brad Thorn was 36-years-old when picked to start that 2011 final; Kevin Mealamu was 32; Richie McCaw 31; Conrad Smith and Tony Woodcock were 30; Ma’a Nonu 29; Piri Weepu and Jerome Kaino both 28.

Seven of that team – plus an injury-free Dan Carter – survived to start the next World Cup final, backed up by six guys who made their international debut in the intervening years. In 2019, South Africa didn’t have one player aged under 25 in their starting XV but a third of their side were brought into the squad in the aftermath of 2015.

richie-mccaw-and-dan-carter-lift-the-webb-ellis-cup Dan Carter lifts the 2015 World Cup with Richie McCaw. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The secret is going for a cocktail of new and old. You can’t have one or the other, particularly in Ireland’s case where there are only four professional sides – and, at most, a handful of players operating outside the country who could reach international standard.

Aside from anything else, another point has to be made, namely that with just three grand slams to our name and just four championships since 1985, we haven’t earned the right to be sniffy about a tournament as established as the Six Nations. And that’s before we mention how Irish rugby’s financial structure is practically dependent on the national team doing well in it.

So stand firm, Andy Farrell. You can listen to the accusations your predecessors were too conservative and respond by pointing out that James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Robbie Henshaw, Andrew Porter, Jacob Stockdale, Jordan Larmour, Keith Earls and Garry Ringrose were 21 or younger when first capped.

You could ditch Sexton, Earls and Conor Murray now on account of their age but could end up regretting it in four-weeks, never mind four-years-time. People were right to say Schmidt was too slow to promote Larmour and one of Sean Cronin/Niall Scannell ahead of Kearney and Best at the last World Cup. So, don’t repeat that type of mistake.

But when the revolutionary versus evolutionary debate ends in the theoretical chamber, there can be only one winner. Forget a four-year plan. Stick to an 80-minute one.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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