Niall O'Carroll: Accountability is key to Ireland’s upturn in form

THE LATE great basketball player Kobe Bryant once said “if you are going to be a great leader, you are not going to please everybody. You are going to have to hold people accountable, even if you have that moment of being uncomfortable.”

It was that thought of holding people accountable that came to mind when watching the Ireland rugby team defeat Wales last weekend. One of the criticisms placed at the door of this squad, in the aftermath of their World Cup debacle, was that there were no leaders in the team. 

2019 Rugby World Cup Pool A, Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan 28/9/2019 Japan vs Ireland Ireland’s Conor Murray dejected after the game Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

A number of moments stood out for me watching the performance v Wales this weekend. Johnny Sexton’s managing of French referee Roman Poite’s decision making. Tadhg Furlong’s wild celebrations when lifting the siege on the Irish line by winning a crucial penalty for his team.

Jordan Lamour’s dancing feet, Keith Earls’ sublime pass under pressure and the all-round performance of CJ Stander who has been outstanding in his first two games. As someone who studies leadership, I felt that players all over the Lansdowne Road turf in green exuded a willingness to be held accountable at the weekend.

It was particularly interesting to see the Munster players having such a significant impact on the game. Such is the embarrassment of riches at the disposal of Leo Cullen that Leinster fans may be forgiven for thinking the Irish team should have a predominantly blue tinge.

It is wildly accepted now that Leinster are a long way ahead of their rivals in red, but the Munster contingent in the squad to a man stood up and fought last weekend. One possible reason for this upturn in their form comes from Andy Farrells fresh approach to leadership.

2020 Guinness Six Nations Championship Round 2, Aviva Stadium, Dublin 8/2/2020 Ireland vs Wales Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony celebrates Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Bryan Keane

There has been a lot of talk this week about there being more fun in the camp, about video sessions being delivered on the training pitch rather than the classroom, about players being encouraged to express themselves. To be accountable to themselves and to each other.

The power of this message was emphasised to me this week when I interviewed Isa Nacewa for a podcast series I am putting together. We spoke of his philosophies on leadership, his belief in the importance of creating a culture of excellence and the power of players constantly driving each other to be uncomfortable.

Like Kobe, Isa spoke of the need for players to be willing to hold each other accountable. He gave me an example of how he held a belief that “if you aren’t an 8/10 player every week then you haven’t got a right to call yourself a professional rugby player. That is the minimum standard”.

This would go a long way to explaining why Stuart Lancaster described Isa as the best leader he has worked with. The reason that Isa was such a consistent performer was that he gave that commitment to his teammates and was comfortable being uncomfortable, knowing that they would be ruthless with him if he allowed his standards to drop below what he committed to be.

He spoke of returning to a Leinster team in 2015 who had fallen off from where they were when he had left in 2013. The key difference he felt were that standards and behaviours had dropped. Both he and the returning Johnny Sexton worked exceptionally hard to remind the players of the values and standards this group had lived to when winning three European Cups.

They agreed actions with the coaching staff to raise those standards across the whole organization. Great leaders recognize that in order to create a culture of excellence then you must ensure buy in from all stakeholders. Isa gave an example of how this is implemented now at Leinster. He explained to me how there are 55 players pushing for selection at any time in the Leinster set up.

This means that 30 odd players face disappointment every game. Leo Cullen will have a conversation with every single one of the players not selected (every game) to ensure they know exactly why they haven’t been selected and what they need to push for inclusion next time out. There is clarity and accountability which raises the standards of all in the set up.

1 February 2020; Head coach Andy Farrell prior to the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Scotland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

This is something that Andy Farrell appears to be emphasizing in the Irish camp. It is exciting to see that while the team are a long way from being the finished article they are certainly restoring some of the damaged pride from 2019.

It will be fascinating to see how these players embrace being uncomfortable in Twickenham next week. I think it’s fair to say a team of 8/10 performances would go pretty close to securing a triple crown and thus set the team up for a potential grand slam game in Paris. Not a bad return for a team with no leaders.

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