Gold must produce inspiration after the perspiration

London Irish are almost safe from relegation and in the semi-finals of the cup, so now all their coach has to do is find a way to score tries. Chris Hewett talked to him
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The Independent Online

If London Irish did not invent anonymity, they are frequently accused of perfecting it. Their current first-choice internationals can be counted on the fingers of no hands; they have just seen Paul Sackey, a player described by their former head coach Brendan Venter as "our one piece of star quality", disappear in the direction of Wasps; and at their current rate of delivery on the silverware front, they are not due a trophy until 2106. Add to this the fact that they recently went 20 months without registering an attacking bonus point in the Premiership, and you have something close to sporting invisibility.

If London Irish did not invent anonymity, they are frequently accused of perfecting it. Their current first-choice internationals can be counted on the fingers of no hands; they have just seen Paul Sackey, a player described by their former head coach Brendan Venter as "our one piece of star quality", disappear in the direction of Wasps; and at their current rate of delivery on the silverware front, they are not due a trophy until 2106. Add to this the fact that they recently went 20 months without registering an attacking bonus point in the Premiership, and you have something close to sporting invisibility.

A wounding perception? Agreed. But it is also a common one among the ever-increasing multitudes who follow the fortunes of England's professional clubs. The Exiles have been known to attract record-breaking crowds to their match-day home at the Madejski Stadium in Reading, but their weekly efforts are frequently lost on the rest of rugbykind. Could they expect their Premiership peers to band together and defend to the death their élite status in the face of relegation? Maybe, maybe not. If Northampton or Harlequins finish bottom of this season's Premiership, a political war will certainly be fought on their behalf. Would anyone raise the barricades for the Irish? It is a moot point.

It is in this environment that Gary Gold, perhaps the most adept coach in the Premiership and certainly the most fluent advocate of what might loosely be termed rugby's "new science", is endeavouring to give London Irish what they most obviously lack in the eyes of the great unwashed: an identity. As he is also engaged in a radical overhaul of tactics and strategy and has two fairly urgent issues on his agenda - Premiership survival, which has almost been achieved, and the small matter of a Powergen Cup semi-final against Leeds, which takes place tomorrow lunchtime - there are scarcely enough minutes in the day.

Life might become busier still if the Exiles mess up at Headingley this weekend, for Gold could easily find himself playing father confessor to a squad of confused, dispirited depressives.

"This semi-final is paramount in terms of the things we've been trying to do as a team for the past three or four months," he said this week. "In terms of confidence and belief, it is absolutely crucial that we win this game. We've been on a very dangerous knife edge psychologically - our entire value system has been under extreme pressure - and victory over Leeds would give us two things: a cup final as the focal point of our season, which is well worth having, and the momentum we need for our Premiership run-in, which includes games against Leicester, Gloucester and Bath.

"We're not mathematically clear of relegation yet - it would be bloody arrogant of me to look at it any other way, and stupid too, because these things can jump up and bite you on the backside very quickly. So every game is a cup game in the sense that they are all vital to us. When we went to Saracens in the Premiership a couple of weeks back, we knew the outcome of the match would determine whether or not we were in the mire. We won, we lifted ourselves up the table and gave ourselves some respite. But there is still a job to do, and the positives we would take from a win this weekend would help us complete it."

Confidence, belief, positivity: Gold uses these words with a frequency that would put a confirmed psycho-babbler to shame. To be sure, rugby has its share of charlatans with a thesaurus in one hand and a big fat wage slip in the other, but Gold, a South African from Cape Town who left the celebrated Villagers club to try his luck in England at the behest of his great friend Venter, is no one's idea of a phoney. He is sharp-witted, engagingly earnest, hugely knowledgeable - a fast-talking Rod Macqueen is probably as good a description as any - and an hour spent in his company would be enough to persuade the most embittered cynic that the Exiles can, and will, develop into one of the Premiership's bill-topping acts.

Of course, a ceremonial crossing of the opposition whitewash just now and again would help the process along. London Irish have been strangers to the art of try-scoring for longer than they care to remember - when they put four past Saracens in that recent game at Vicarage Road, the world very nearly stopped spinning on its axis - and Gold is the first to acknowledge his team's failures on that front. But acknowledgement is easy. How about an explanation, Gary? After all, the Exiles have the reputation of being brilliantly coached across 98 metres of the pitch, and fairly clueless in respect of the remaining two.

"No, we haven't been prolific in terms of try-scoring and yes, it's been a worry," he said. "But we've introduced some very significant changes to the way we approach our rugby - changes that reflect the way the sport itself has developed - and the possibilities are still being explored. I'm quite certain we would be three or four places further up the Premiership had we simply concentrated on spending more time in the opposition half, playing keep-ball and kicking our goals; after all, we have two kickers, Mark Mapletoft and Barry Everitt, who are right at the top of the percentages. But would that have fulfilled me as a coach, or us as a team? I don't think so. This sport is moving all the time - a few years ago, it was all about upping the ante in defence; now, the balance has shifted towards the attacking game - and I'm more interested in instigating ideas than following them.

"There has been a conscious decision to play more rugby in more areas of the field, and I can unhesitatingly say that it represents the biggest test of values I've ever experienced as a coach. We went through a spell of achieving lots of the things we set out to achieve but failing to deliver the one simple thing that would have given us a try, so the feeling of relief at Saracens was very strong. Did I believe we would eventually prove ourselves? Of course. But time was running out. Another two or three weeks of failure would have created a real issue."

As far as the Exiles' exuberant supporters are concerned, there probably is an issue. They have seen their team add splashes of colour to the familiar green-tinged monochrome before, under coaches as distinctive as Clive Woodward, Dick Best and the ultra-zealous Venter, but these vivid touches have never amounted to anything permanent. While admitting that "statistics can be dodgy", Gold talks persuasively of the benefits of "performance evaluation", as opposed to a slavish attachment to the win-loss ledger.

"I would be hopelessly naïve if I thought results were anything other than hugely important," he admitted. "But there are so many variables. Quite frequently, we get an awful lot right in an awful lot of areas of our game, but it's the easiest thing in the world for some flanker to kill our ball and concede penalties. In those circumstances, it's down to the kicking. If Mark kicks his goals, everyone says we're on the right track; if he misses them, everyone tells us us how crap we are. That's the way it is, but it's also true that all the things that went into mounting those attacks and winning those penalties were well executed, whether or not we got the reward. It's absurdly difficult to get that message across, but it's vital to the understanding of what we're doing."

Irish have it in them to beat Leeds on Yorkshire soil tomorrow, and if they go on to win the trophy for the second time in four years, Gold will look very good indeed. Not that he will even begin to believe his own publicity.

"If a coach thinks he knows it all, he's on a hiding to nothing," he said, "and if a coach is driven by his own ego, he's in even worse trouble. It's not the most embarrassing thing in the world for someone in my position to say 'I don't know'.

"Look, I can't profess to be the world's foremost expert on full-back play, so why not ask the full-back for his opinion? Is there something terrible about that? Of course not. If I said 'I don't know' to every question I was asked, there'd be a problem. But I'd far rather be sniggered at for not knowing than be laughed at for trying to blag it and giving a stupid answer."

Somehow, the chances of Gold giving a stupid answer to anything seem ridiculously remote.

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