He called it the “biggest mistake” of his career. A coach at the top of his game, making an early announcement that he would leave at the end of the season, only to then watch his players fall completely off the pace. Sound familiar?
The above quote is from former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and the context will strike a tone with supporters of Irish Rugby.
Back in 2001, Ferguson was at the top of his game. He had already delivered seven Premier League titles at United, including a historic treble in 1999. He was, in the eyes of many United supporters, the greatest manager they had ever had.
Yet at the beginning of the 2001/02 season, a season they entered as defending league champions, Ferguson announced his intention to leave at the end of the campaign. He soon witnessed a worrying drop in standards from his players. They were dumped out of the FA Cup and League Cup in the early rounds and trailed rivals Arsenal in the Premier League table.
Ferguson would eventually perform a dramatic U-turn in January and stay on at United, winning a further six league titles and a second Champions League.
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In a career full of high points, he would later reflect that announcing the date of his exit in 2001 was a rare misstep and had a detrimental effect on his players. “The biggest mistake I made was announcing it at the start of the season,” he said.
“I think a lot of them had put their tools away. They thought, ‘Oh, the manager’s leaving’, but when I changed my mind in January, I started thinking about United again and how we could get back on top.”
We can only speculate as to whether Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt is currently harbouring similar thoughts. We already know that the Kiwi felt the need to deliver some home truths following Saturday’s thrashing in Twickenham, the latest instalment in a series of worrying performances in 2019 that includes comprehensive defeats by both England and Wales during the Six Nations.
The drop off in performance levels has been stark compared to what Ireland achieved in 2018, a year where Schmidt’s side scaled new heights and achieved a series of milestone wins.
After capturing a third-ever Grand Slam, they went on to record a Test series win against the Wallabies, their first in 39 years in Australia, and they capped the season off with a first home defeat of New Zealand in Dublin. It was a run of results that saw All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen claim Ireland were now favourites for the World Cup.
Many agreed at the time, but nobody is making such lofty statements now. In November, Schmidt announced his intention to end his six-year reign as Ireland head coach following the World Cup and since then his team have looked a shadow of the side that took on all-comers last year.
It is interesting to wonder if, like Ferguson, Schmidt’s announcement has impacted the mindset of his squad. Speaking in March, fly-half Johnny Sexton rubbished the suggestion Schmidt’s looming exit was having a negative effect. “Change is going to happen in sport,” Sexton said. “But we’re all professional enough that I don’t know how that could affect us.”
Unfortunately for Schmidt and his players, the statistics tell a different story. Ireland won 11 of their 12 Tests in 2018, a win percentage of 92 per cent. Seven games into 2019, that percentage has plummeted to 57 per cent.
Hansen is facing a similar problem in New Zealand. He announced his intention to step aside from the All Blacks a month after Schmidt had made his own decision public. Since then, New Zealand have fallen from the top of the world rankings for the first time in 10 years and finished third in a condensed Rugby Championship.
There are question marks surrounding both his players and Hansen’s thinking. For the first time in an age, the All Blacks are not entering the World Cup as heavy favourites. From four outings in 2019, they have won just two, with the manner of their performances as surprising as some of the scorelines they have been involved in.
With Ireland, the problem has ranged from crucial lapses in concentration to a general sluggishness to their approach. Against England on Saturday they missed 34 tackles. Last season, that figure would have been completely unthinkable.
With both Ireland and New Zealand, there is not a clear and obvious reason to indicate this drop off is a direct result of the coach’s impending departure, but the similarities to Ferguson’s experience cannot be ignored. Like that United side, both New Zealand and Ireland are high performing teams who have failed to live up to their own standards since learning of their manager’s departure.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) August 25, 2019
It is a scenario that has cropped up time and time again across the sporting world, and there have even been recent examples within Irish rugby. In December 2016 Pat Lam announced he would be leaving Connacht at the end of the campaign. The previous season Lam had guided Connacht to the PROP12 title, the first trophy the province had ever won.
After confirming his decision to leave, Connacht went on to lose nine of their remaining 13 league fixtures, finishing eighth. They had only lost four games prior to Lam’s announcement. His departure had a lasting effect.
Under Lam’s replacement, Kieran Keane, Connacht failed to rediscover the wonderful form that delivered that 2016 title. It was only last season, under Andy Friend, where they began to take steps in the right direction again.
There are counter-arguments, of course. Rassie Erasmus has also outlined his intention to step aside as South Africa coach following the World Cup, yet his Springboks are looking more and more dangerous as the tournament inches closer. Warren Gatland has steered Wales to the top of the world rankings for the first time ever, despite the squad knowing Wayne Pivac will take over following the World Cup.
Yet different squads react to certain situations differently and the early announcement approach has had its fair share of detractors. Shortly after Hansen announced his decision to leave, World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward was highly critical of the timing.
“Making this public now is a huge mistake and if I was in Eddie Jones’ shoes I’d be rubbing my hands,” Woodward wrote in his Daily Mail column. “Having zero distractions is key (in a World Cup year) and this is a major distraction for the coach, team and country. Players will wonder and continually be asked: ‘Who is going to be in charge next?’”
Of course, Ireland could still do the improbable and turn their rotten year around in time for the World Cup. This could all be part of another Schmidt masterplan, where the focus all along has been solely on delivering results in Japan.
If not, then Ireland supporters will look back on the timing of his decision to leave and wonder if that was the start of the downfall. Ferguson was fortunate enough to spot the rot early and reverse his decision before the problem became irrepairable. That is one luxury Schmidt does not have.
WATCH: Ireland coach Joe Schmidt and captain Rory Best speak after their side’s 57-15 loss to England last Saturday
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