Taking a Leaf From Spain’s Book


Spain have taken maximum benefit of Barcelona’s incredible success. Lessons? (c) Euro 2012.

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.


Core players for Leinster, core players for Ireland. (c) Ken Bohane.

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.

Vicente del Bosque

There are similarities between Vicente del Bosque and Declan Kidney. (c) Universidad Europea de Madrid.

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?


Photos courtesy: Universidad Europea de MadridMarc Puig i Perez, UEFA Euro 2012.

10 responses to “Taking a Leaf From Spain’s Book

  1. Very interesting analysis. You’re right. As much as it would pain Munster fans to admit, Leinster have raised the bar in European rugby and its up to everyone else to keep up with these incredible standards. There’s no doubt that Kidney should be trying to integrate the Leinster style of play into the Irish set up. Barcelona have brought the level of football to a similar new level but were caught last season when Real Madrid won the league. With the Spanish side almost entirely made up of these two teams, its no wonder they’ve been so successful. If the likes of Munster and Ulster can reach that level over the next few years and Kidney bases the game plan around the Leinster ethos, I reckon Ireland should be back challenging at the level they should be. It would be great to play ‘boring’ rugby like the Spanish football team and be half as.successful as them.

  2. Kidney used the Munster model successfully with Ireland in his first year as head coach; he has not adapted his game plan however and this outdated style continues to be outdated with his current crop of players at least. Can Kidney adapt the Irish game plan to fit the Leinster model? I am not so sure if he is the man to do it unless he gets a like-minded attacking coach to lead the way.

    • Yeah that’s exactly the point Barry, you’re totally right! The Munster model was perfectly adapted when those two-time H-Cup champs were the spine of the team. The make-up of the squad is different now, and needs to reflect the spine players’ strengths within the Leinster model. Absolutely agree that he needs an attacking coach who can interpret and successfully transpose the Leinster model into Ireland’s. Kidney is trying to make the players fit into a previously successful system rather than fitting a system around the players’ strengths. Gotta move on! Attacking coach will be key, and I expect the IRFU to force one on him.

  3. Over simplification, I fear, though not totally without merit.

    Rugby is firstly a more complex game than soccer. Secondly, overall, the standard overall in the HC has dropped. Not because of the Irish sides, I hasten to add and certainly, Leinster have reached a level far higher than any other Irish side. But I would suggest there is only one Pool of Death this year!

    Thirdly, man for man, could ANY Irish team/strategy live with NZ at present? I don’t think so.

    • Yep, it’s an argument with several flaws, but the basic idea is the main thing I want to get across. Yes, football is a less complex game in many ways, but the premise of going out to win with a game plan designed around your key players is the same in both sports.

      As for the weakening of the Heineken Cup, that’s an argument that will always be brought up when one side is dominating and winning repeatedly in any competition. But I genuinely think this Leinster team would have won, or come very close, any of the Heineken Cups in the last 10 years. I know it’s not a realistic point because the game has changed, but I mean to say I think their quality is as good as any previous Heineken Cup winners.

      Thirdly, I wasn’t trying to suggest that Ireland could beat the All Blacks if they take more influence from Leinster’s style of play. But I do think that they would have got closer than the 124-29 aggregate score over the series, and I certainly think they would have done more with their 50% + share of the possession in the 3rd test than to come up try-less.

      The main point here is that we have an incredibly successful asset in Leinster. The key players for Ireland in the last couple of years have been Leinster players. I don’t think we’ve got the full benefit of it in our national side.

      • Brian Hodge

        Just to clarify. I agree totally with your assessment of Leinster’s strength and don’t suggest that their standard of play is inferior to any previous HC winners. On the contrary.
        However, the English and French sides, with some exceptions, don’t bring the same fear-factor of old. And I don’t believe that is totally due to Irish rugby being best in NH!! I know you haven’t said that, equally I agree that Leinster is the strongest side in NH.
        I believe that Kidney’s 2009 success (GS) was greatly assisted by the input of Gaffney. Not the latter’s superior backs coaching, more his intimate knowledge of both Leinster and Munster players. Personally, I would love to see a Kidney/Schmidt or Ruddock/Schmidt partnership even better, leading Ireland now. I doubt Schmidt in the senior position could live with the IRFU. Also, strong, dynamic Provincial coaches are crucial to National success. The National coach just doesn’t have the same influence on players – Wales being an exception.

  4. I would agree with your point, as a Munster fan but to put Spain’s good play all down to Barca is a bit incorrect. Spain have a history of fluid play, Barca’s history isn’t incredibly long. It began a bit with Cruyff and died for a while under Van Gaal and even Rijkaard to an extent. Ireland don’t play the way Munster did to win their HCs, Munster’s was far more comprehensive and invovled greater fluidity. As a nation we are built to play a bit like Leisnter, with no backs coach and deccie in charge I don’t see it happening.

    Nice piece my review of the tour is here:http://www.sportpulse.net/content/ireland-rugby-summer-tour-review-3834?page=1

  5. Yeah that’s true about Spain’s history of fluid play, but I think it’s hard to argue that the current national team are greatly influenced by Barca’s style over the past number of years. The way they retain possession as both an attacking tool and a defensive tactic is certainly part of Spain’s play. I understand that lots of Spanish club sides like to keep the ball on the deck, but I think Barca are the greatest influence. Even the tactic of playing Fabregas in the false 9 role was something that Barca did first, and del Bosque was only too happy to learn from it and adapt it into his team.

    I suppose the essential point is that Pique, Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta are the core of this team. Regardless of the history at Spain or Barca, del Bosque allows these guys to lead the team by playing in the manner they train every single day at Barca. I just think Ireland can learn from that. Our key players, Sexton especially, are clearly more effective with a particular style of play and I just don’t think that’s been integrated enough into the national team!

    As you say, without an backs/attack coach it looks unlikely that too much will change over the next year though.

  6. I think both have influenced eachother, Spain played fluid football before Barca/Pep’s domination but took it to another level after that. Barca are at fault for the “boring football” (I don’t see how people find it boring but anyway) we saw over the tournament.

    Ireland are not playing a style that suits them agreed, we are built as people to play kind of like Leinster. A mix of strength and speed more so than outright physicality like say South Africa. Although to say Munster played the archaic style Ireland are playing now is complete bull. Munster kicked but kicked for territory. Our forward play was well executed but we did show some incredibly incisive backplay more so for the second HC win but still. Just remember Munster were the ones who first went ot France and schooled Toulouse with some insane tries 😉

  7. I think the key word here is “adaptability”. In fairness to Kidney he has always said he wants to play with an Irish style. However he is referring to the manic aggression style seen only three three times this season (OZ, France, NZ no.2). It may suit our psyche but it doesn’t suit our physical size and power.
    It is ludicrous to suggest Ireland could play the same style as South Africa – BOSH, while it is also ludicrous to suggest we adapt a Barbarians style. What is much more achievable, as Murray has suggested, is to adopt a style that is familiar to many of the current Irish players, ie. Leinster. To be fair Munster and to a lesser degree Ulster have tried to emulate their neighbours style with some success Ulster v Leicester and Northampton v Munster this HCup. It should therefore be relatively easy to get a group of professional athletes singing from the same hymn sheet, or is it?
    Top of the IRFU shopping list should must be an attack coach, or somebody as an attack consultant until the end of 6N 2013. I would doubt that Kidney’s contract will be renewed so its time to start looking at available attack minded head coaches. That said the fecker will probably orchestrate a Grand Slam while not conceding a single try and unearth a world class tight head and inside centre in the process!

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