Spain confirmed their position as one of football’s greatest ever sides with that stunning 4-0 win over Italy last weekend. Each of the four goals were beautiful creations, coming from the Spanish insistence on keeping the ball on the ground, passing and moving into space. Barcelona’s influence on the Spanish team is undeniable. The Spanish national team has taken the Barca model and, if not replicated it completely, used its strengths as guiding principles. There is a lesson in that for Irish rugby.
Barcelona have dominated European football since the 2008/09 season. In that time, they’ve won La Liga three times, the Champions League twice, and the World Club Cup twice, amongst other trophies. The entire club operates on a philosophy of creative, passing, attacking football right up from their famous La Masia training facility. The senior squad is largely made up of locally-born Catalans, or at least Barca-educated players who love the club. They’ve built the club from the roots up, and have been hugely successful, winning trophies in style. They have been the greatest side in European club football for the last four years.
Leinster have dominated European rugby since the 2008/09 season. In that time, they’ve won three Heineken Cups, and finished runner-up of the PRO12/Celtic League three times, topping the regular season table twice. The province operates on a philosophy of creative, passing, attacking rugby, right up from their underage teams. The senior squad is largely made up of Leinster-born players, or outsiders who have bought into the ethos. While maybe not at Barca’s level of youth development, they have strong background roots in place. They’ve built the province from the ground up, and have been undeniably successful, winning trophies in style. They’ve been the greatest side in European club rugby over the last four years.
For Spain’s national team coach, building his team on the Barca model has been a no-brainer. The availability of players like Pique, Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta meant del Bosque would have been foolish not to allow them to form the spine of his team in their unique style. That’s exactly what he has done. While Spain’s style is a modified version of the Barca system, the influence is clear. The team has been built around the incredible assets of Xavi and Iniesta, with players from other clubs adapting to the demands. The results have been incredible, with Spain deservedly winning the last three major tournaments they’ve played at.
However, in Ireland, building the international team in the incredibly successful Leinster model hasn’t been a no-brainer for Declan Kidney. While the spine of Ireland’s team is Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney, they have not been encouraged to play in a similar manner as they do at Leinster. I’m not suggesting for a second that Ireland should just name the Leinster team as their international XV, but rather that the team’s style needs to be built around the strengths of that spine. While Ireland won the 2009 Grand Slam, their performances since have been generally weak.
The limited amount of time an international coaching team gets with their players simply adds to the argument. Del Bosque recognised this and allowed his key men to play in the manner in which they train every single day at their club (Barca). Why wouldn’t he have done so? Ireland haven’t done the same thing though. I’m not saying that Kidney should just say, “Go out and play like Leinster lads” but allowing some continuity for his spine players from province into international set-up would only benefit Ireland. One of Kidney’s strengths in times past has been his belief in giving key players the responsibility to dictate play on the pitch. Now he needs to bring that back into action.
Kidney and del Bosque are similar figures, which makes their difference in approach harder to understand. Both men are reserved, dignified and give very little away to the media in interviews. Neither is renowned as a true ‘coach’, in that they don’t do too much hands-on work on the training ground. Their strengths lie in motivating players and creating a harmonious atmosphere within the squad. Del Bosque has been quick to recognise that he has an amazing asset in Barca and their tactical approach, but has Kidney done the same with Leinster?
I’m sure players from Munster, Ulster and Connacht have cast jealous glances as Leinster have gone about their business of winning H-Cups in spectacular style. Similarly, Spanish players like Xabi Alonso, Iker Casillas and Jordi Alba would’ve watched Barca and wanted to experience being part of it. Every single one of them, football and rugby players alike, would have felt that they had the ability to contribute and better such a system. The Spanish players have been given the chance to do so, and their joy has been clear. I think the Irish players from the other three provinces would have similar feelings if Ireland were unleashed with a Leinster-style gameplan.
Spain have extracted the utmost advantage and benefit from the once-in-a-generation resource that is Barcelona FC. Have Ireland done the same with Leinster?