With the appointments of Martin O’Neill, Roy Keane and Joe Schmidt, Irish sport is about to get a lot more interesting.
The expectation is that the Latvia game will draw a huge crowd, the New Zealand match is a sell-out, the Australia one isn’t far behind, and even Samoa will attract over 40,000 fans. Lansdowne Road is the place to be over the next few weeks.
Some pundits expressed their surprise that so many would turn up to effectively watch the same group of players that in the last year were so disappointing for the rugby and football teams. How could a group of coaches and managers have such pull? Some will just go to see Roy Keane in an FAI tracksuit, Eamon Dunphy said that in some ways it’s about hope, but for those who attend, it’s grounded in reality too.
Nobody can explain it fully, but force of personality, charisma, momentum, and leadership, all have a huge influence on the outcome of games at international level.
Last week the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, having been the worst team in the league last season. In the wake of the Boston bombing the team and the fans tapped into that raw emotion, but the only concrete reason anyone could provide for this unprecedented flip in form was a change of manager. Last year Bobby Valentine was in charge, and so toxic was his management style that he was literally booed out of the ground in his final game. His replacement, John Farrell, ended the season with the World Series and a congratulatory phone call from Barack Obama.
Under Farrell senior players were revived, unknown pitchers became throwing machines, twitchy players became clutch players, and fans loved him from the off. It got to the point where there was a sense of inevitability about the World Series, long before it was won. For the franchise that copied the Oakland A’s famed moneyball and data analytics model more than any other, this success came down to chemistry.
In the case of Irish football, there is a feeling that the sport here needs an injection of energy, something or someone to focus on, and even those who disliked him as a player can’t deny the power Roy Keane has to influence those around him. Even to get back to interesting press conferences and post match interviews will be comforting.
The sense always with Trapattoni was he cared about winning because it preserved his own status in the game, whereas Keane, in spite of his constant criticism and sniping, clearly cares about Irish football. Rugby is not at such a low ebb here. Fans still have the provinces to follow and they know that there is fresh talent coming through the academies, but last season was our worst in the Six Nations (for lots of reasons) since the 1990s, and the atmosphere at games has been poor for a while now.
Schmidt may not have as much influence on his team’s style of play as the provincial coaches do, but he will have a lot more access to his players than his football counterparts. The vast majority of the rugby players reside here, Ireland play 11 or 12 games a season, there’s a proper competition once a year, and they go into camp for extended periods. Plus, by the nature of the sport, rugby coaches can put more of a pattern on things, individual talent is less of a factor. There is no equivalent of Messi in rugby, because no one man can influence things the same way, even Dan Carter.
New Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane working for ITV last night in San Sebastian alongside Lee Dixon and Adrian Chiles . Pic: INPHO/Donall Farmer
So while the football fans will turn up to the Latvia game to witness a movement, a possible culture change in the sport, the rugby fans will expect and probably see a discernible change on the field of play as early as the second or third game of Schmidt’s reign.
John Plumtree, Ireland’s new forwards coach, said this week that with all the new coaches and players and terminology floating around, at the moment its more about ‘sorting things out’, which suggests there wont be a huge amount of complexity to the game plan against Samoa. Plus, there’s something about a Samoan shoulder to the rib cage that simplifies things in a player’s mind. On Saturday, however, and in the weeks to follow, fans of both sports will have a sense of hope and a sense of excitement as they walk towards Lansdowne Road, and thats one of the best feelings in sport.