Information is not intelligence, so let me draw a line between Ireland, England and Glenstal Abbey. Two are winners and one is struggling. Why are they winning when England are not? It goes beyond team selection. The result of all the preparation that pours into Joe Schmidt and Sean Skehan’s sides is mostly measurable: rucks hit, lineouts won, tackles made or missed. England are missing a less obvious but crucial, and perhaps unmeasurable, ingredient: rugby intelligence.
Take the way Glenstal Abbey School and their opponents, Crescent College Comprehensive, approached this month’s wonderful semi-final of the Munster Schools Senior Cup, at Markets Field. Glenstal won 30-10, and although there was no obvious difference in physique or talent there was a monumental difference in application.
Glenstal ebbed and flowed, all players comfortable with the ball, all adding hugely in all sorts of ways. When they got an early penalty inside their half, for example, their outhalf and captain, Ben Healy (a Stephen Larkham lookalike), kicked the ball to his left winger, the lightning-quick Ronan Quinn, whom this column first mentioned in January 2016, when he was playing in the junior cup. Soon after Healy’s audacious cross-field kick Glenstal scored their first try.
Crescent, on the other hand, struggled to get into the match and stuck rigidly to their game plan, which had the hallmarks of the senior professional game. This is too restrictive on developing teenagers; big players like Crescent’s number 8, Fintan Coleman, missed out on the ball coming his way by sticking to the game plan, a variety of 1-3-3-1 where others missed too much of the fixture to advance Crescent’s needs.
By starting kids in this “professional” style of play too early, are we preventing them from reaching their full potential as they mature? Where did Tadhg Furlong learn the skills we saw at Twickenham? Most likely he would have run around New Ross RFC after the ball, finding himself in all sorts of situations that required solutions, and where his evolving skills got him out of so many problems. If he had been restricted by a professional structure as a youth, how many fewer problems would he have encountered – and solved?
Much has rightly been made of CJ Stander’s try at Twickenham, but RDS regulars are accustomed to seeing two forwards in particular, Furlong and Scott Fardy, use with apparent ease, and throughout the season, exactly the same skills that the Ireland tighthead prop deployed to hoodwink the English.
So where was the problem for England? They do their homework, too, and herein lies their problem. Under Eddie Jones England have buckets of information. But information has to be interpreted in order to become intelligence. For field sports that occurs in real time, on the pitch. When it’s an elite grand-slam deciders, that interpretation has to occur at a ferocious pace in front of 80,000 people. Time and again England have struggled to convert information into intelligence.
There’s no doubt England had prepared for Johnny Sexton’s famous loop and all the options it affords. Just as they did with the hoodwinking Italian breakdown in the 2017 Six Nations, England’s 50-plus-cappers deferred to their master, the referee (or coach), for help.
For all their perceived power, England lacked it at Twickenham at crucial times: they lacked the ability to bully on their home pitch, especially in those lineout mauls. Worse still, their shot selection was heavy on information but light on intelligence: they couldn’t think on their feet. Ben Te’o, for one, was caught between options far too often.
Too often England’s shot selection erred: they split their attacking resources, or attacked the defended side even though fatiguing Irish forwards were vulnerable on the other side.
Glenstal, however, can think – and even though they’re a school with minimal numbers they outplayed a fancied Crescent and went on to win the Munster Schools Senior Cup for the first time in 79 years, beating the powerful Christian Brothers College Cork. Is it a coincidence that Skehan, their coach, is from Dublin, and is aided by Tom Hayes et al, and that they play much of their preseason in the Dublin loop? In the end Glenstal looked less restricted by formal, professional structures and solved the myriad problems that Crescent and CBC presented them with.
Likewise Ireland, who are rightly regarded as the best-prepared team. They can spot problems and solve them on the pitch. Against Scotland they adjusted an opening wide game into narrow power plays. When England pummelled lineout maul after lineout maul in the opening half at Twickenham, Ireland knew to defend their line at all costs before striking with less possession and position. In doing so they neutralised England’s centre of gravity. In France, with a game dead and gone, they eked out 41 phases to win it.
Crescent and many other sides are struggling, like England, to adapt to the off-piste problems being presented to them – the Italian breakdown, when Furlong passed the ball to the “wrong” man, or when Ben Healy of Glenstal dropped a goal from 40m, using both feet to kick throughout. Many teams are so structured they can’t think for themselves. Forget England: they’re the finished article. Ireland must develop beyond the Six Nations, in transition and tactics, towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup. But it starts with our maturing kids prioritising intelligence over information, unfettered by professional structures.