OPINION: There is a brutal simplicity to coaching

Win and it’s easy. You’re a genius. The media start talking about all your little training gimmicks during the week as if they were nuggets of gold.

All a player has to do is drop an inside term – “Stuesdays” – during a particularly loose media session and, as long as you keep winning, it’ll be
hailed as further evidence of your intellectual superiority.

Start losing for long enough, however, and it won’t be long before the pressure starts to crank up. Lose a few big ones and your genius gimmicks during the week – gold a few months back – won’t be worth a shovel of dog shit.

2019 Rugby World Cup Pool A, Fukuoka Hakatanomori Stadium, Fukuoka Prefecture, Fukuoka City 12/10/2019 Ireland vs Samoa Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt ahead of the game Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Yet the margins between the two are so small that it beggars belief. Look at how Joe Schmidt is perceived now in the aftermath of a poor World Cup. Last November he was the guy with a Slam in his back pocket and a first-ever win over the All Blacks in Dublin.

Fast forward a year and he’s a coach who “failed to evolve” while South Africa won a World Cup playing a broadly similar style to Ireland in 2018. He has to hear about “not picking form players” from lads sitting at home looking at PRO14 highlights and games against Tier 2 countries while he’s looking at four years of in-depth training and match data.

He had a plan, it didn’t work out, so now he gets to be the fall guy. That’s often the last job a coach does for his squad. So much of coaching comes down to looking at the only reliable metric there is who has performed for me on the biggest days?

It’s not “loyalty”, it’s pragmatism because no coach can be unfailingly loyal to a player. When Jacob Stockdale emerged in 2017, he was backed by the coach because he showed him he cod help him win rugby matches.

The guy who he replaced? Goodbye and good luck. Peter O’Mahony took the usual flak from those who don’t understand the role that the coach picked him to play. Why is O’Mahony being selected over [other player]? Because O’Mahony provided the skills required for the role demanded by the coach consistently and relentlessly.

Rugby World Cup 2019 Japan Quarter Final Ireland vs New Zealand All Blacks Tokyo Stadium Tokyo 19/10/2019 Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony wins a lineout Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Most of the criticism that comes O’Mahony’s way, and Schmidt’s way for consistently picking him, arrives from the same lads who’d play five number eights in the back five. But it’s when those lads are writing opinion pieces in national newspapers that it becomes a problem.

As people on the outside, we only see the very top of the iceberg, matchday. The majority of a coach’s work is done under the waterline, where people don’t really get to see what’s going on. If the players go out and don’t play like they were coached during the week, it’s the man in the stands behind a laptop who gets the flak. He didn’t kick one ball or throw one pass, but the blame rises upwards whenever you lose.

It reminds me a bit of Munster’s semi-final against Racing 92 a season or two ago. Johann Van Graan picked Alex Wootton on the left-wing. Going on Alex’s display against Toulon a few weeks’ prior, he was the form player.

So when Zebo was left on the bench it was an understandable call. When Wootton had an average enough game, Johann Van Graan was criticised for picking him.

If he’d gone with Zebo and the same result happened, he’d be the coach stuck who went with the “big name” over the “form guy” and got punished for it. You lose either way.

Munster Rugby Open Training Session, Irish Independent Park, Cork 16/8/2019 Head coach Johann van Graan Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

So the only way to win is not to play the game on the outside. As a coach, you see who’s training well, who’s ready to step up to the next level, who went away to play AIL for the weekend, didn’t perform and then came back wondering why he’s not up for this week either.

You know what players need game time, who better suits next week’s game and who’s carrying a knock that you don’t want to risk. You know who isn’t taking advantage of every rep in training and when you know who isn’t showing up on Tuesday, you have got a good idea who will show up on Saturday. All that goes on below the water. Does it make the iceberg look different? It should.

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