Like questionable fashion tastes, rugby strategies too often seem just as whimsical. Initially entrenched in some simplified notion of the now, they're then dumped after dubious overuse in ways that weren't originally intended.
When Ireland finally beat New Zealand in Chicago in early November, it felt monumental, and that a real shift had taken place, something tectonic. A duck had been broken and so with it a national predisposition to unendingly find new ways to snatch defeat from odds-on victory. While there's no doubting the excellence of that superb result, it feels more like an outlier given Ireland's inability to back it up since. Sure, they have beaten a poor Australian side, but that's a team that was beaten by England on four consecutive occasions last year. The real issue seems to be that Ireland seem incapable of turning dominance into actual points on the board.
Against New Zealand in Chicago, Ireland had 50% of territory and possession but were clinical and disciplined, returning five tries and conceding only four penalties. Perhaps most alarmingly though, New Zealand managed to carry the ball 514 metres against Ireland's 194 metres, hinting at a lack of attacking incision and potency. Much was made after the match of Ireland's newfound positive mind-set, one that turned down normally kickable opportunities in favour of potential tries. The thinking was that if they were to beat New Zealand, they would need to score circa thirty-five points, as this was roughly the All Blacks regular points tally during the previous Rugby Championship.
As a press conference soundbite, it might be interesting, but as a guiding strategy, it's woefully misleading. Unlike golf, rugby isn't a game played in isolation, where you compare scores only at the end. A rugby match is an eighty-minute process where each small outcome affects decisions thereafter. It's as if the dice is constantly being loaded and reloaded to skew the outcome in either direction. It's true that concerted pressure often leads to points, but alone it doesn't load the dice. You have to score points. That's the problem with such simplistic notions and hypothetical scoreboards. They don't allow for nuance and aren't fit for purpose.
Back when I was playing with London Irish, I remember we were fed the same equally useless statistics to remind us how to win, as if it wasn't already clear that simply scoring more points might do the job. Apparently there was a magical number, plucked from some biased sample of previous games, which suggested that if we conceded less than seventeen points, we would win the match. As a random statistic for discussion during one of the many rudderless team meetings, it was relatively harmless. But when it was bellowed out again the following weekend in the dressing room before the match, as a sort of actionable rally cry, it became both harmful and stupid. As a tool, it was blunt and meaningless in the moment, with only marginal value in hindsight for those pretending to sound prescient.
Of course simplification is sometimes useful. I am doing it now to make a point, but focusing on one number and thinking that destiny lies therein is moronic. Summarising this more eloquently, a supposed law of economics, named after Charles Goodhart warns that, "when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."
Two weeks on from Chicago, when playing New Zealand in Dublin, Ireland enjoyed a sweeping victory nearly everywhere, except on the scoreboard. With two-thirds of possession and more than that in position, Ireland only gave away four penalties compared to fourteen for the All Blacks, two of which also resulted in sin bins, further enabling the men in green. Yet New Zealand still managed to carry the ball for 470 metres to Ireland's 360 metres on route to winning a bruising encounter with some to spare, 9-21. Notable again in this match was Ireland's stubbornly positive (or overoptimistic) attitude, that refused plenty of kickable penalties and came away with nothing. The same plan hadn't just come up short, it was undone. New Zealand had scored considerably less than thirty-five points, but this was quickly forgotten.
Against a comparatively weaker opposition in Scotland last weekend, a positive Ireland were similarly defeated by themselves. Having enjoyed roughly sixty percent of position and possession, they failed to translate pressure into points and deservedly lost. Drop goals & kicking all available penalty options is seemingly out of vogue for no good reason. One result in Chicago has changed nothing, and certainly hasn't affected probability. The Irish rugby team seem to believe that they have a winning strategy because it worked once when they played roulette. They would do well to consider that what separates good traders from bad, isn't the size of their wins, but the extent of their losses. By sticking to some redundant idea of what it takes to win, Ireland are losing. Time to ditch the latest trend and get back to basics.