Alex Ferguson had just returned from breakfast. His mobile was ringing, his PA was desperately trying to grab his attention, but he didn’t break stride when he walked across the bright, tiled floors of Manchester United’s training ground to say hello. “Had that drop from [David] Humphreys gone a few inches the other side, you could easily have been semi-finalists,” he said.
This was 2004, a few months after our narrow loss to Australia at the World Cup. Through a mutual contact, I had been granted a pass to spend a day at Carrington. Hoping to get a few minutes with Sir Alex, I instead spent eight hours in his company, the coaching equivalent of a physics student receiving a tutorial from Albert Einstein.
“The reason we’re consistently successful,” he said, “is because we are able to get most of our best players on the pitch for the key matches in our season. It’s really that simple. Years ago, Bobby Charlton brought me to Real Madrid to study their academy and see their set-up. The first thing that struck us was the quality of their medical programme. Everything was geared towards minimising injury and maximising recovery. The best money we spent was on improving our resources in this area.”
The thing that impressed me most about Ferguson that day wasn’t his knowledge — even though that was extraordinary — nor even his energy, even though he defied the stereotypes about men slowing down when they enter their seventh decade, it was his desire to help out a stranger. He had seen our World Cup games — hence his reference to Humphreys’ near miss — and was fascinated by rugby’s attempts to modernise.
We needed to. Two years before I had embarked on my first tour to New Zealand, albeit without eight key players, six of whom had to withdraw with soft-tissue injuries, victims to fatigue more than anything else.
The World Cup opened our eyes even wider to the necessity of change. Australia and France had overpowered us. Physically we just weren’t big enough. “We need a better plan,” Liam Hennessy, the IRFU’s head of strength and conditioning at the time, said to me.
We started putting one together. First we wanted to restrict the number of games that Irish players played to a maximum of 25 per season. Secondly we insisted that they get four weeks’ holiday at the end of each year and thirdly that they had to undergo an eight-week pre-season. Naturally the provinces weren’t going to be thrilled because they would lose their best players for chunks of the season.
But the IRFU bought into it, especially Eddie Wigglesworth, who was director of rugby. To their credit the IRFU’s committee also listened to our arguments and agreed to invest time and money. Instantly our injury profile improved dramatically. Proudly, 15 years on, it has been rewarding to watch Donncha O’Callaghan and Peter Stringer still running on the treadmill, years after most people thought they would retire. Paul O’Connell and Gordon D’Arcy kept going until 2015, Brian O’Driscoll until one year earlier.
In short, the system worked and everyone else in Europe was envious.
“I want to pick your brains,” Rob Andrew said to me at the rugby writers’ dinner in London. Tea was being served and Andrew, recently appointed RFU director of elite rugby, was looking for an edge. “How can we get your system to work here in England?”
A little over a decade on, it’s a question they are still trying to answer, to the extent that Eddie Jones is considering resting his Lions contingent for this summer’s tour to South Africa. Ireland don’t need to adopt a similar policy, though. With our players contracted centrally, Joe Schmidt knows that this summer’s tour party, between their holiday and pre-season, will not play again for three months after the tour ends.
He also knows that when the 2019 World Cup kicks off, the player-management system will limit Ireland’s injury list. Being a contact sport, no system is foolproof — Seán O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock and Jared Payne all missed this year’s Six Nations. But even so, everything is geared towards Ireland being in the best possible shape when they head to Japan in 18 months.
That’s from a physical perspective. Emotionally Schmidt will have work to do, trying to keep a lid on the hype that has already started to build. I know all about the problems this can cause for World Cups, with the nightmare experience of 2007 still fresh in my memory. However, lessons from that tournament have been learnt. In our preparations the players spent too much time in the gym and insufficient time getting match-ready. Without doubt we should have played more warm-up games. Those mistakes will never be repeated.
Even so, Schmidt still has a dilemma. Does he decide, like Clive Woodward did in 2003, to tackle one huge milestone after another? Or does he sacrifice results by testing out new guys in four key positions — hooker, out half, scrum half and full back? There’s logic in both policies.
Winning a Test series in Australia would probably require the Sexton-Murray combination to be at the fore in all three Tests rather than the relatively untested Joey Carbery-Kieran Marmion alternative. Plus Rory Best’s leadership may be understated but it should not be underrated. He is vital to Ireland’s cause. If Rob Kearney were to get injured, Jordan Larmour needs to have more game time. Without these three, a 12-game winning streak can suddenly end and a chance to bridge a 39-year gap back to the last time Ireland beat Australia on tour could disappear.
Looking at it a different way, England’s 2003 World Cup winners have said that their success stemmed from the confidence and momentum they built throughout the year. They won the grand slam in March and again on their tour to New Zealand and Australia that summer, when even a temporary reduction to 13 players couldn’t deny them a 15-13 win over the All Blacks.
It’s incalculable how much confidence this Ireland team could build from winning all three Tests in Australia and then following that up with wins over Italy and Argentina, their potential opponents in November. That would lead into the All Blacks match on November 17, potentially game No 18 on a winning run, which would equal the recognised world record.
That’s a prize that cannot be ignored. The bigger prize, of course, is the World Cup and if they’re going to do well in that tournament then road-testing Carbery, Marmion, Larmour and Seán Cronin is a necessity. Schmidt won’t want to wait until a World Cup quarter-final to do so. He knows what happened the previous time he was forced to do that.
Courtesy of The Sunday Times (Ireland) Article written by Eddie O’Sullivan.