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Ajax, total football, Joe Schmidt, Mr Miyagi and Andy Farrell

Ireland’s new head coach believes it is time to take the stabilisers off and trust the players to cycle their own path.

Bridging the gap between eras.
Bridging the gap between eras.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Updated Feb 5th 2020, 8:35 AM

STEFAN KOVÁCS, IT is fair to say, isn’t a name too many Irish rugby fans will know much about. We’ll put that another way. Ștefan Kovács, it’s fair to say, isn’t a name spoken by too many people outside the Kovacs family circle.

So let’s do the introductions. The golden era of Dutch soccer is indelibly linked to Rinus Michels, a hard-nosed disciplinarian who – to cut to the chase – transformed Ajax from a bunch of jokers into European champions. Saturday after Saturday his team would win. Then Monday after Monday, Michels would sternly tell them how to improve. Remind you of anyone yet?

Let’s just say history has been kind to Michels, World Soccer naming him the second greatest manager in the game’s history. Better yet, his philosophy was even given its own name: total football – which, in all likelihood, was said with a lot more affection and respect than Warrenball.

Yet there’s a point about the Ajax years under Michels that is often overlooked. From 1971 to 1973, they won the European Cup three times – but Michels was their manager for just the first of those victories, the bould Kovács guiding them through the second and third triumphs. And yet the Romanian is so often airbrushed out of history.

“Michels was very strict,” Gerrie Muhren, an Ajax legend from that three-in-a-row side, said. “But when he left, and Kovacs took over, we were even better because we were good players and now we were able to make our own fantasies on the field. We still had the habits that Rinus had drilled into us; but the pressure had gone.”

So let’s transfer that thought of Muhren’s across sporting and geographic boundaries. A towering, authoritarian, successful coach has gone, replaced by an assistant who has more of an affinity with the players.

Suddenly this Irish rugby team seem to have the best of both worlds – the lifelong lessons Joe Schmidt instilled into them, but the ability to relax, knowing he’s no longer around to examine them.

And to get an idea of how intense that Schmidt scrutiny was, here’s the picture Andrew Trimble painted of his infamous Monday morning review meetings: “If a player made a mistake, they were told about it, not face to face but in front of the entire team room, and initially I hated that, it embarrassed me. I wasn’t sure I was cut out for stuff like that.”

joe-schmidt-with-andrew-trimble Schmidt transformed Trimble as a player. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Yet he stuck with it. “It ended up that this exposure to difficult, critical feedback was exactly what I wanted,” Trimble said in a previous interview with me. “The thing about Joe is that he leaves you in absolutely no doubt about what needs to happen. In defence, if you switched off, he’d give you a hard time. When that first happened, I thought, ‘this guy doesn’t rate me’.

“He was a little bit like Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid. I was being shaped, moulded into the type of winger he wanted and I didn’t even realise I was taking on board the type of feedback that he wanted me to take. And it worked. I played my best rugby under Joe. Everyone got better. You could see it in our results.”

Well, you could until 2018 became 2019. That was when things started to go south long before the team had even travelled east to Japan – evidence of how even the very best coaches and systems have a limited shelf-life.

Onto today and Andy Farrell, Schmidt’s former No2. He too is trying to impersonate Stefan Kovács, deciding it’s time to take the stabilisers off and trust these guys to cycle their own path.

It’s easy to understand why. Given that he, some members of his backroom staff and every one of this Saturday’s starting XV were all part of the Schmidt regime, there had to be some change to distinguish this era from the previous one. Hence all this talk over the last week about culture and environment.

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“We’re trying to make it inclusive, get some proper feedback, get them talking,” Farrell said of the first Monday review session he carried out, following last Saturday’s 19-12 victory over Scotland.

Our guys are rugby players; they don’t just want to be sat in a classroom the whole time. They want to be fixing things out on the pitch and the facility we have here (at the national training centre in Abbotstown) helps us do that.”

Certainly, there’s plenty to fix from last Saturday – the set-piece for a start; and while we’re at it their decision-making in attack and their desire to win more collisions. “We’ve been honest in our review,” Farrell said. “We said ‘what we did against Scotland was good but it needs to be better’. It probably needs to be (better by) this weekend.”

nick-haining-and-cian-healy Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It definitely does. Irrespective of the fact Scotland played well on Saturday, Wales are capable of a lot more. They, remember, lost a World Cup semi-final by just three points, seven months after they won the grand slam, beating Ireland in their final game when they ‘played the conditions a lot better than we did’.

There’s further context needed. Like Ireland, the Welsh have also replaced a long-standing coach with a new regime. But unlike Ireland, their new man in charge (Wayne Pivac) had a preparatory game – against the Barbarians – to road-test a few ideas, something Pivac spoke with Farrell about at the Six Nations launch.

“After a performance, you get to fix things,” Farrell said. “Wayne had said (post the Barbarians game) that he wasn’t quite happy with how things went for him on the other side of the ball (his defence). But I thought they were excellent in that department against Italy last weekend.”  
As he spoke yesterday, it was interesting to observe Farrell’s body-language, particularly as he appeared noticeably less relaxed than in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s win.

andy-farrell Farrell at yesterday's press conference. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Last week we were wary of Scotland and what they were going to bring, but we also concentrated on ourselves,” he said. “Monday’s review and (Tuesday’s) training session was more of the same. We focused on ourselves. It’s about getting ourselves right first and foremost. I’m sure we can deal with Wales in the right manner. We need to get our own house in order.”

They certainly do. This tournament is relentless in its scheduling and even though it’s only the second weekend of Farrell’s life as a head coach, he’s already at a pivotal stage in the campaign. Win and Ireland will carry momentum as well as an unbeaten start to Twickenham – plus, on a personal level, it’ll also pretty much guarantee Farrell par for his first season, considering Italy is a guaranteed five-pointer.

But lose to Wales and the championship looks unwinnable. Trips to England and France await – a fixture-list as unforgiving as the demands of being a No1. All of which brings us back to our old friend, Stefan Kovács. Two seasons, back-to-back European Cups should have brought him respect, at the very least affection. But did it? “Two years of him was enough,” said Johnny Rep, Ajax’s great midfielder.

Tough crowd – those Dutch lads. Tough job, stepping out of the shadow of a serial winner.  

- First published today, 06.50

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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