Deviating from the plan a sign O'Rourke's time with Monaghan is up

Malachy O'Rourke's success with Monaghan has been founded on their structural solidity and Saturday's move away from their normal template was a sign that he has reached a natural end of the road. Picture by Seamus Loughran

“By the time we’d realised something needed to be fixed with one of Eddie’s strategies, we’d already moved on to the next one.”
Paul O’Connell, The Battle

WHEN the Irish rugby team travelled to Twickenham in 2004, they were faced with a World Cup winning England side that was on a 22-match unbeaten home run.

What transpired was one of the great days of Eddie O’Sullivan’s reign, topped off by one of the best tries ever scored by an Irish side.

Starting on their 10-metre line, a series of long skip passes worked the ball from the right wing to left in a matter of seconds. The same move reversed brought the ball back to the right wing as the English defence scrambled in panic.

Five yards from the line, almost in the corner, Peter Stringer throws a long pass to Gordon D’Arcy. He misses the next two to find Brian O’Driscoll. He does the same to Tyrone Howe, who pops off to Girvan Dempsey. The England cover is nowhere to be seen, their famed solidity ripped apart by the speed of switch.

The problem with scoring the perfect try was that they kept trying to repeat it. For years, Ireland would try to replicate that move but without anywhere near the success rate required at that level.

In his book The Battle, Paul O’Connell says that so much of the smarts that brought them to a grand slam under Declan Kidney in 2009 were learned on the training field under O’Sullivan.

But the reason he never achieved the same success himself is that his mind was too full of different ideas. In seven seasons at the helm, which included two World Cups, Ireland never settled on any one style of play.

“Even when Ireland were winning Triple Crowns under Eddie, we were incredibly inconsistent,” writes O’Connell.

“Looking back I can see there were a number of reasons for our inconsistency. The biggest of them was that we had too wide a focus on the skills of the game.

“We varied how we played so often it was hard to build confidence in any one way of playing. When I was involved in more consistent Irish teams, we had a much narrower focus.

“There were certain skills and ways of playing that we tried to be the best at. We built our game around those.”

Joe Schmidt’s style might not be universally popular but you can’t argue with the results. Their win over the All Blacks last November was credited to a more expansive attitude that night but really it was built on the same principles he’s instilled throughout his career.

They stuck to the same play, except they did things better in Soldier Field.

There might be a lot to be said for having a plan B if things go wrong, but the best teams have such resolute belief in plan A that they focus more on perfecting that instead.

Tyrone, Dublin, Kerry and Mayo are not the top four solely because they have the best players. They also play the way they play every week and only bend to suit themselves, not the opposition.

Monaghan at the weekend were a prime example of what can go wrong when you lose trust in what you’re doing.

Across five seasons, Malachy O’Rourke has done an incredible job with the county. It had been 25 years since they last won Ulster when he masterminded a strong-arm over Donegal that they would repeat on more than one occasion.

Under the Derrylin native, they’ve won two Ulster titles, played in three consecutive provincial finals, been in Division One for three years and been in the All-Ireland quarter-finals four times.

For a county with their tiny population, relatively limited resources and without a recent underage record that suggested such a period of strength was on the horizon, it’s been a remarkable spell.

That cannot be overlooked in the analysis of how they have performed in Croke Park. When this generation’s time is up, they will surely look back upon the 2015 defeat by Tyrone with the most regret.

Saturday, though, felt like the end of an era. Not for the team itself, whose age profile is such that they can justifiably expect to remain on the scene in Ulster for a few years yet.

But for O’Rourke, the realisation must be close that he has taken them as far as he can. Since the first Ulster in 2013 they have targeted getting into an All-Ireland semi-final but on Saturday, they looked as far away as ever.

And much of that seemed down to the way that they played. From the very first whistle, Monaghan looked like a team with no belief in what they were doing. They had no conviction in anything they did.

During O’Rourke’s tenure the one thing they have always tried to be, first and foremost, is competitive. Dogged. Hard to beat. And almost every week, they have been so.

On Saturday, they surrendered so meekly. They put 13 bodies back inside their own 45 from the first whistle and they never laid a glove on Dublin’s vaunted attack. That was the last thing you expected to see from Monaghan.

The other thing you didn’t expect to see was such a deviation from plan A in attack. For the guts of those five years, Conor McManus has been starved of ball, left to come on the loop and kick scores until games open up towards the end.

Everything about them is usually so methodical. But from the first whistle on Saturday, Monaghan took to launching the ball into the sky any time they got within 70 yards of the Dublin goal, without offering any support to McManus and Jack McCarron.

There’s little doubt they worked on that in the days between their win over Down and their next trip to Croke Park. But seven days is no length of time for setting up a new plan when you’re going in to face the best team in the country.

All moving away from plan A seemed to achieve was to undermine their sense of belief in everything they’d built over the last five years.

A bit more conviction about their own strengths might have led to a different type of display. The change said it all though.

Defeat, even the manner of it, shouldn’t affect a glowing legacy.

But despite having another two years to run, this looks like a natural end of the road for Malachy O’Rourke in Monaghan.

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