When children dream of emulating their sporting heroes on TV, read about them online or – heaven forbid – in print, I imagine they envision themselves scoring the winning goal in a cup final, lifting a trophy or walking out onto their hallowed turf of choice. Perhaps they dream of fans chanting their names and asking for selfies – autographs in ‘old money’ – while they make their way from the field to the dressing room.
It is less likely, that young people who idolise their heroes ever think of the hard-work, the hours of toil, the incessant doubts and jibes and the sea of lenses and phones: the media-grind.
This week was a momentous one for Irish rugby for a reason that you will have heard much about and yet for which you probably cared very little. Following the victory over Italy in the Six Nations, the IRFU made a decision that Joe Schmidt would not be making himself available to the media beyond the obligations to which he is contractually tied. This affects the daily newspapers as it allowed them a chance to get some content that differed from the press conference. The ‘huddle’ was a mainstay for Irish coaches and this was the first time under Schmidt’s tenure that it did not take place.
It seems that both the media and the IRFU have been building to such an impasse over the past few months (even years) and the relationship between them is said to be at its lowest point.
So why the change in policy and why should anyone really care? Let’s look at why the Irish management feels the need to readjust their interactions with the media.
The past few months have been testing for the IRFU in terms of the media battles it has been waging. If we rewind back to November, with the imminent debut for Bundee Aki, a New Zealand-born Connacht-man, the policy of selecting a ‘project-player’ came under much scrutiny. The devaluing of the Irish jersey was the main reason for the media’s protestations and much of the narrative leading to Ireland’s first test against South Africa was dominated by talk of the cynicism that capping such players entailed. The likes of CJ Stander and Jared Payne’s eligibility for Ireland was dredged up once again and we all got a bit dizzy from the merry-go-round about the issues over the residency rule. That is, an uncapped player born elsewhere can represent another country if they have lived there for a period of three years.
It is worth noting that World Rugby’s Vice-Chairman, Agustin Pichot was particularly vehement on this issue and was successful in having it extended to five years when World Rugby voted on the issue in May 2017. Like many others, Pichot grew worried about the gaps between the tiers of rugby nations becoming schisms and I while I commend his intentions, I fear that much of the media were banging the wrong drum. The extension looks good on the surface but may actually just encourage wealthy clubs and unions to recruit even younger than they currently do. Look at Alivereti Raka’s rise from Fiji to Clermont and you will get a sense of the way things are already moving in this direction.
More recently the saga surrounding Gerbrandt Grobler, who served a doping ban, signing at Munster caused a huge kerfuffle. With the influence of the IRFU over the provinces and especially with the stringent rules about signing a foreign player, the questions over his signing and the Union’s policy on employing those with a chequered past were rightfully asked. Unfortunately, they were asked at the wrong time – Grobler was signed back in the summer – and largely, apart from a few awkward minutes outside the Lansdowne Road for Philip Browne, to the wrong people. The likes of David Nucifora and Browne should have born the brunt of this scathing criticism but, too often it was Schmidt, Van Graan and, really awkwardly, the Munster players who were left to face the music. Justifiable questions directed at the wrong men were sure to sour the relationship further in the run-up to the return of international rugby in the springtime.
Finally, the week of the opening game of the Six Nations was dominated by talk about Rory Best and Iain Henderson’s appearance at the trial of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. Both Olding and Jackson, Ireland and Ulster players, are accused of sexual assault. Best, as Ireland captain, finally made a statement after the France game where he explained his decision to attend the trial, was made as a result of legal advice. The crux of which was he should hear both sides if he was called to provide a character reference for either Jackson or Olding. In the delay between the reporting of his attendance at the trial and his statement, he drew much criticism from sections of the media who claimed that it was an intimidation tactic on behalf of the defence.
Now some may argue saying that Schmidt and the IRFU or Best himself should have gotten out ahead of the criticism and explained himself before allowing such allegations to fester. I tend to think that accusing someone of such a reprehensible action would want to have a hell of a lot of traction before anyone should run with it. If you fill in the backdrop of David Walsh’s character statement in the Tom Humphries’ case, you start to see how some people in the media were beginning to sharpen their knives.
I have always tried to imagine what it must be like to deal with the media on a day-to-day basis as a coach. There is a truth I cannot escape: it takes them away from the most important part of their job – being a coach. They should be spending their time and efforts managing players, analysing opposition, planning training and motivating individuals. What coach ever aspires to do a press conference?
The former Irish rugby coach, Declan Kidney was masterful at giving so little away in his post-match interviews. People I would watch his interviews with would bemoan this tactic. This sentiment is often echoed in the media, that the players and officials just ‘tow-the-party-line.’ But why wouldn’t they? Getting the best performance out of the team is the core of their focus and any other distractions must be avoided or minimised. Would I love to be a fly on the wall during training or team selection, of course, but do I have any right to such team environments? Absolutely not.
The more I see the media try to claw away at stories and provoke reactions from players and coaches, the more I really appreciate Brendan Venter’s interview after a defeat to Racing 92 while he was the DoR at Saracens. See here for the link to the clip and for my favourite line ever uttered in an interview: “Three cheers for Sirelli Bobo.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FgchHlaSQE
Such goading of interviewees, especially live, would be enough to make you “fit to spit” as Kieran Keane found out when caught in foul mood by Graham Simmons of Sky a few months back. While it makes for somewhat interesting viewing, these type of Marshawn Lynch style tactics from the interviewees are a sign that the relationship has hit rock-bottom. When this happens, there is a chance to change the relationship between the media and sportspeople.
Some coaches try to play the media with limited success. Warren Gatland often tries to put something out in the week of a test that would distract from the upcoming game and this has worked for him to a degree. His treatment during the Lions tour this summer in his homeland was evidence that he was, to twist a Churchillian line, “feeding a crocodile, hoping it would eat him last.”
Eddie Jones is someone who appears to love and hate the media in equal measure. His tirade after England’s tense encounter with Wales about the criticism Mike Brown has faced was perplexing. He seemed to take offence to the positive comments about Brown when the full-back had previously criticised. This came across as a little over-sensitive, especially for a man who has only lost once as England head coach. (Listen to this interview here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05xrv9n)
Jones was also trying to play the victim before the tournament when he said his team had been written off in the press. When probed further on this, he went off on a rant about how they do teach people to read in Australia. Imagine what he will be like if his team start to have a run of bad form and actual criticism does start to roll in. I have a feeling that Eddie Jones will come to a stand-off with the media (he has done so already) similar to that which Ireland are seeing at present.
There is a danger here that if Schmidt cannot come to some form of agreement with the daily Irish newspapers, we will be getting a very polished and sterile form of coverage. There is a suggestion that the IRFU through their own media platforms see themselves as more of a rival to the media now. While I do not doubt those behind Irish Rugby’s PR wing are doing a fine job, to consider them to be ‘reporting’ on issues would be stretching it too far for me. Some of the best writing on rugby is coming from newspapers and I fear that the fans will suffer if the only access we get is a mix of the press conferences and the IRFU’s media arm.
A rewrite of the rules of engagement needs to take place and I sincerely hope that they do because good quality journalism is becoming harder to find. The rise of easy to-produce-articles (this one included) and sites that are ravenous for clicks has engineered a sort of ‘race to the bottom’ and we often wallow in a mire of vacuous and sensationalist stories as we scroll through our feed.