What has always been successful won’t always be successful. It’s true for soccer, just as true as it is for rugby. Just because you have always been successful doesn’t mean that you always will be. Just ask Manchester United, or Arsenal.
Go back in time 10 years and tell fans of both clubs that, in a decade, both clubs would be so far off the pace in the English Premier League that they’d be closer to the bottom than they are to the top and they’d probably scoff at you. If you went back to Liverpool fans celebrating their league title in 1990 and told them that, as of 2019, that would be the last one they would win, they’d scoff too.
Elite sport erodes you if you don’t evolve and it doesn’t care about your culture, your history, or where you think you should be in the sport. If you don’t evolve with the sport, and ideally evolve ahead of the sport, it’ll chew you up and spit you out. When you’re ahead of the game, you talk about winning. When you’re behind the curve, you talk about history and then, if results are bad enough, “ethos”.
If you listen to Manchester United fans at the moment, there seems to be a clash between whether a coach “getting” the sporting ethos of the club is important or not, especially in an environment where results are poor.
The key part of that conundrum is the results. If you’re getting results and being where you want to be, your ethos is whatever is working. When you’re losing, complaints about “ethos” can usually be translated into “we should go back to the way we were when we were winning”.
You hear a lot of about this in rugby, especially around Munster. It struck me on Friday night as I was commentating on Munster’s narrow loss to Edinburgh in Musgrave Park. Munster are really approaching our work in a different way this season.
Some of the shapes are familiar but the attitude in how we’re approaching almost everything is different. Players are looking for offloads, attacking the line with depth and pace, and passing to other players in space. They have the confidence to do so, the licence – the “fear” of making a mistake isn’t really there anymore.
These are not “traditional values” that people usually associate with Munster when we were winning things. South Africa are a great example of working with what you have to win while also coinciding with the idea everyone has of them.
They have the best lineout in World Rugby, a massive scrum, an athletic kick chase and a monster defensive press. Anything that goes too far away from that aspect of the game would be needless artifice and it just so happens to coincide with what we imagine South Africa’s “traditional values” to be.
Munster’s Heineken Cup winning years are associated with similar qualities. A top end lineout, a huge maul and big hitting, test quality forwards being driven around the pitch by one of the best tactical fly halves the game has ever seen and a scrum-half who had an almost generational ability to turn average ball into quick ball and quick ball into gold.
But in an environment where you don’t have an all test pack and half-back pairing, what do you do? Do you stay playing the style of rugby that suited those players or do you try something else? We’ve seen what happens when Munster ran into a side that we couldn’t get forward parity with during big games over the last few seasons, we lost, and by a distance. If not on the scoreboard, in reality.
It’s not about having a strong set-piece. That’s the baseline expectation for a club that wants to win things. It’s a bit like the old Chris Rock bit where he talks about people wanting credit for doing things that they’re supposed to do. Oh, you’ve got a strong set-piece? You’re supposed to. At least if you want to win things. Once you’re soli there, you need to build beyond that.
By hiring Stephen Larkham, Munster and Johann van Graan have made a bold commitment to try “something else” and, in doing so, made a bid to hopefully evolve ahead of the game. If you play in 2020 like how everyone else is trying to play in 2022, you’ve got a great chance of winning things. The fruits of it might not be seen this season, but sometimes the best decisions take time to play out.