What does winning mean – Part Deux
A year or more ago now I asked what does winning mean to this Connacht team. Due to the current injury crisis there is a growing debate on the Connacht Clan specifically about the Newcastle game tomorrow and what can be expected from the Challenge Cup this season, which relates to this question. There are a lot of interesting factors at play here, which I want to spread out into a more general discussion of winning.
The team that has been picked for tomorrow is more than just experimental, and with the decision to only name a 22 man squad, Pat is making a statement to European rugby. Not having looking at every single player in the European squad I don’t know if its really true that we can’t actually field a full 23, but regardless it carries a lot of symbolism. In this context, the current debate is whether or not Pat is throwing this game in favour of resting or protecting players for the Christmas interpros. The fans are divided into two camps, which I will attempt to summarize as fairly as possible here.
The first camp wishes to be as competitive as possible in as many games as possible. While others view Europe as a side issue, this camp sees it as an opportunity – perhaps Connacht’s best opportunity – for silverware. While they would not target this competition above the league (as targeting is a very bad word to this group) they see that the path to success in this competition requires only between seven and nine wins, as opposed to perhaps 18+ wins in the league. Winning the Challenge cup also carries the added bonus this year of Champions cup entry for next season, the hallowed ground for many or most rugby fans, at least in Ireland. Their position is often summed up in the statement that Connacht have never won anything, and therefore turning ones nose up at a tilt towards the cup in favour of the league is both foolish and perhaps self-sabotage.
There are a number of positives to this approach. Victory in this competition puts your team in the history books, perhaps provides some added cash for investment and puts you on the map for players looking to join a club on the up. It’s probably fair to say that the Challenge cup (or its previous iteration) was a stepping stone in some clubs (Harlequins, Toulon) progression to greater things, and their players and fans probably look back on it fondly. Of course there are others (Blues for instance) that have sunk when they could have swam, but that doesn’t negate the point that it can be a stepping stone – it just means that further success requires more than just a good year, which is perfectly reasonable.
Although there are a lot of positives, I have to ask how far can we stretch this attitude. Should we be fielding a stronger team in the B&I cup and spanking Jersey on our way to a cup final? Some would say that this is a strawman but I feel its just taking the argument a step further. Leinster did celebrate their B&I cup wins alongside their European successes, so its not as if the competition is wholly meaningless, but it doesn’t get the pulse racing for most fans.
The second group I would call the walk before you can run type. While both groups see themselves as pragmatists, this one believes in slow and steady progression. The league is our main competition after all, by virtue of having more games and being played over a longer period. Any number of teams have had great cup runs but a successful league campaign is widely seen as the true sign of a maturing club. Of course this is not a commonly held attitude in Irish rugby, but we are perhaps an anomaly in that regard. This group sees the inherent risk of banking your life savings on a single game and asks you to take a step back to consider the variables. A cup season can end with a single dodgy score, but in a league generally the best teams do rise to the top. In addition, league progression would be a true sign of growth for a Connacht team that we must keep in mind have never finished with a greater than 1:1 win: loss ratio. Resting players to save them for a league fixture, especially a set of derbies, makes sense to this group, as this is the team’s bread and butter competition.
If I’m honest I lean more towards this group than the former, but that’s not to say I don’t see the value of the first position. I’m sorry to ride the fence but I think a certain amount of compromise is required.
I don’t think it’s a complete surprise that Connacht’s recent period of success has come about under a coaching group that emphasizes the importance of process over results. That doesn’t mean that they don’t want to win, but when speaking to the media you’re far more likely to hear Pat talk about processes than anything else. Similarly the academy has really profited under the guidance of Nigel Carolan, who has pointedly stated in the past that he doesn’t necessarily see his role as preparing the young guys for a rugby career, but as helping them to become adults. The wins are welcome, but they are merely the end result of the players efforts, they are not the only thing that the players are judged upon.
Think about this mindset in contrast to the terrible run of games in Connacht’s first Heineken cup season. The attitude within the camp was one of absolute desperation after the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth loss. It’s a little unfair to compare then and now, as the West’s Awake documentary gave us far more evidence of that squads mindset, but we could have guessed that much without seeing inside the documentary. It weighed incredibly heavily on the players and coaches as they tried to break their run of poor form and increasingly mistakes came into their game as a result. If a team focuses on their personal performance goals, and as long as they meet those goals, then while they will still have regrets after a loss they still have something to fall back on as a safety net of sorts.
Rugby to me seems to be a sport where incremental progress is perhaps the only option. Unlike in soccer where one or two players can be the difference between a relegation battle and a title fight, it is impossible to be competitive in rugby until you have 30+ genuine first team options. They don’t have to all be internationals but they should all be players of experience, who are specialists in their position and who can be interchanged without a drop in quality. You simply will not be competitive until you have those underlying factors. To be competitive as league (or cup) contenders, you need to have a number of players who would likely replace their opposite numbers in most teams they encounter. It almost sounds so simple as to be unnecessary when written down, but its more or less true. Now you can add a number of other things around those factors but until you have those elements you’re unlikely to get very far in any competition. Your chances in a cup may be magnified somewhat, but not by much.
I realize, of course, that we all want to win, most or all of the time. That’s the underlying principle of sport, of capitalism in general for that matter, to which I can only offer this counter: Don’t let your highs get too high and your lows get too low, said Brad Thorn (‘Thorny’ to his mates, which I assuredly am not). Its easy for a dual sport world cup star and one of the best ever in his position to say something like that, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. If winning is everything, then there’s nothing left for you when you don’t win.
So, the question remains, what does winning mean?