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Andy Dunne: Ireland need to make sacrifices during Six Nations or shut up about World Cups

‘How about we stop relying on guys who aren’t playing well? At least give guys a kick up the arse.’

Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray and Peter O'Mahony look on from the bench.
Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray and Peter O'Mahony look on from the bench.

THERE HAVE BEEN some bleak days of late in The42′s podcast studio as Murray Kinsella, Eoin Toolan and Gavan Casey have attempted to get to the bottom of Ireland’s World Cup failings both on our regular Rugby Weekly pods and our daily Rugby Weekly Extra members pods.

One man’s silence has been deafening, however: Andy Dunne, one of Rugby Weekly’s regular panellists, has been outspoken in his reservations over Ireland’s style of play throughout the Joe Schmidt era, taking his fair share of flak for voicing his concerns even when the men in green seemed like genuine World Cup contenders less than 12 months ago.

There was significant clamour from listeners to get Andy’s view on last Saturday’s destruction at the slick hands and fleet feet of the All Blacks, and so the man himself was summoned to provide his two cents.

Granted, he was actually scheduled to come on the pod win, lose or draw as he does every Thursday, but don’t let that take away from the fact that he declined the offer of a taxi and drove here himself such was the urgency with which he treated the matter some five days after Ireland’s World Cup exit.

He had a lot to get off his chest: it was almost 26 minutes before Murray got a word in sideways. Here are a few of segments from his in-depth autopsy, while you can listen to the full episode — including his and Murray’s semi-final preview — on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts (just search for The42 Rugby Weekly).

Andy on how either the IRFU need to be willing to sacrifice some Six Nations results or we need to ‘shut up about World Cups’

Andy Dunne: “If the IRFU are going to change how we try and manage peaking in cycles for World Cups, they probably need to have a whole new PR and media message that we’re going to try new things, that we need the public to be forgiving for a Six Nations or a 12-month period, because we’re going to try and play a certain kind of style that we need to develop, that we need to encourage players to do.

“New Zealand were in the same boat, peaking in between World Cups for a number of years, and they somehow managed to change it. Yeah, I think there’s an IRFU role in all of this because of how immediate they are in terms of their demands on the Irish team. The public – are we accepting of a year of some losses in the Six Nations or two in order to develop a style? And then, obviously, the Irish management and players have to step up and say they’re ultimately responsible for standards and play and they let us down, and they let themselves down.”

Gavan Casey: “But whatever about the public’s perception about it and whatever about players and management, the IRFU aren’t going to tolerate patience. Or at least they haven’t shown a willingness to do so over the last eight, 12 years.

Andy: “Yeah, they haven’t. And with 80% of the revenue generated for Irish rugby coming out of the Six Nations, it’s unlikely they’re going to completely blow it off and say, ‘No, no, throw a few games’, but I’m not suggesting that either.

“You can very tactfully get a message out there among the media and you can generate positivity and momentum. Now is a perfect time to come out, when people are at a low ebb, and be transparent and say, ‘We’re going to have a new departure, we’re going to not focus immediately on…[results].’ However they word it. And that’s very important from a media and communications point of view. And also, I don’t think that’s being done very well in Irish rugby for the last year or two, going back to the Sean O’Brien debacle in a pub all the way through to the Japan World Cup squad getting leaked and the rushed announcement. Those things shouldn’t happen in a professional environment. There shouldn’t be leaks coming out of a squad — all these things that were worrying.

But we have a perfect time and opportunity now to delicately say, ‘Let’s give the team some breathing space, let’s try a few new things with a view to peaking at the next cycle’. If that’s what everybody wants. Otherwise, we need to shut up going on about World Cups and just accept we’re not going to peak at them if we keep playing rugby that is the same style and might win the odd Six Nations game. You cannot go into a World Cup playing the type of rugby we play and expect it to last seven weeks in a row.

greg-feek-andy-farrell-simon-easterb-joe-schmidt-and-vinny-hammond-along-with-support-staff The Irish coaching staff watch on during defeat to New Zealand. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

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Andy on Ireland’s penchant for ignoring form in team selections

“If you look at form, that’s not been addressed. Like, I’ve a sense we’re the worst at it in the top seven, eight nations in rugby — on form selections.

“If you look at Rory Best, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton — the core leadership team within that squad for the last 12 months have been poor to awful on a number of occasions. All of them.

O’Mahony seems to get a free pass a lot of the time because, you know, he does the ‘unseen work’, which is the rugby intellectual’s way of saying he’s getting through a lot of work but you don’t see it — but I do. It’s rubbish. Best has been poor, Johnny has been poor, Murray has been poor — they’re key players. Now, if you look at England, you’ve got George Ford who’s been outstanding for you — just gets dropped. There’s no national outcry. Beauden Barrett’s the best out-half in the world, he just gets moved aside because Richie Mo’unga comes in. Wales lost Gareth Anscombe — they won a Grand Slam with Anscombe, he was brilliant, [but] just get on with it.

“It sounds like there would be a national inquest if any of Best, O’Mahony, Murray or Sexton — if it was even questioned that they should be dropped. There was articles coming out, ‘Ultimately, we need to rely on these guys because they implement the game[plan]‘.

How about we stop relying on guys who aren’t playing well and put in younger guys, or guys who are playing well? At least give guys a kick up the arse. Change it up. But as long as you perpetuate the idea that we can only be at our best with four or five key people who implement what the coach wants, you’re becoming very one-trick-based, and I don’t see it happening across the board in other teams.

ireland-team-applaud-the-fans-after-the-match Ireland applaud their supporters following defeat to New Zealand.

“I mean, everyone seems to have a more diluted sense of responsibility in their team management and in their team plays — multiple ways to call attack. It’s not all driven in a hierarchical structure by one guy at the apex who’s all-powerful. And we had that in the playing field, and we had in the management. And it gets tiresome, I would imagine, as well, for both Joe and Johnny to implement it, for everyone else to listen to it, and then you’ve got to ignore form as well.

“So it’s completely filled with problems across the board.

But if you devolve responsibility and you have a group that is on edge to perform, and knows that no place is safe, you start to get much more sustainable teams — like New Zealand, like Kilkenny, like Fergie’s Man United, like Jim Gavin’s Dubs — that consistently perform over long periods because they have a changeover and a transition of personnel and it’s not all down to one guy. I think that’s been another underlying problem for quite a while in Irish rugby.

Andy on the ‘culture of fear’ that he believes began to inhibit Ireland in 2019

“For me, it was a level of intensity driven by Joe and the management that just couldn’t be sustained. That’s a psychological level of intensity, that’s a lack of fun, that’s a lack of empowerment, that’s players not really having a healthy sense of empowerment in any way; players having their heads ripped off by management for making mistakes.

If we heard it once, we heard it a hundred times: the infamous Monday-morning, blood-on-the-floor video sessions. There’s management styles within an office group, within a business, and within a sports team, and you do not need to go in and have blood on the floor every Monday and hand-pick in slow-motion every error. So you’ve raised a culture of fear among players, which it absolutely was. And then you start getting high-grade, elite-level players looking like amateurs on a field.

“That’s a psychological thing that, when I hear Joe coming out and saying, ‘There’s nothing I would have done different’, it’s startling. You’re hearing players perpetuate these lines such as, ‘Joe and Johnny [Sexton] know what’s going to happen on the field before it’s happened.’ It really is rubbish.

“It’s like an internal loop within the group, reinforcement within the group. ‘All is good. Johnny and Joe know what’s going to happen in the future.’ You’re hearing Chris Farrell come out and say, ‘I like playing with him (Sexton), because he knows what’s going to happen in 10 minutes’ time.’ Well, they don’t. Nobody does. When you hear that, when you remove yourself from it, these are problems — that’s a culture within that group that’s gone wrong, and it manifests itself in the most basic-looking handling errors.

The fact we physically couldn’t compete in any way when we could 12 months ago — New Zealand didn’t get excessively stronger than we did [in 12 months], we just couldn’t physically summon up the energy levels to take them on. We were falling off collisions from about five minutes in: Rory Best got smashed after about three minutes and took time to get up off the floor. You know, that can happen, but it happened across the board, and to me, that’s instructive. It shows there’s a much deeper issue going on, and I think it just started to crumble apart in 2019.

On the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly, Andy Dunne tells Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey about where it all went wrong for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland

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