Ireland need to Tipp balance
Published 20/11/2010 | 05:00
The time for talking is well passed now. Ireland have never beaten New Zealand and both sides have spent a week betraying polite shock at how such a state of affairs still exists.
But exist it does. Ireland have played New Zealand in wet weather, in cold weather; with 15 men, 14 men, 13 men; in Dublin, in New Plymouth, in Auckland; with their cockles up, with their confidence on the floor.
And still, in 23 attempts, they have never beaten them. Matt Williams assessed the record in stark terms last weekend: "It's a disgrace!"
Ireland's Grand Slams and Triple Crowns don't excuse this recurrent failure; if anything, they magnify this historical imbalance. Clearly, Ireland's talent and physicality does not inure them against achieving success against the All Blacks. Is it all in the mind? It must be. There is no other logical explanation, hence we must examine an area where logicality does not necessarily always apply.
Why else would a Grand Slam-winning combination from such a short time ago be struggling so visibly with their confidence?
Ireland are currently playing with fear, a palpable, debilitating energy which is causing a team intent on expansion to actually retreat further within themselves with each mistake.
That is what we saw against Samoa and, in a different way, against South Africa and Scotland last year.
Ireland's admirable declaration of change is being hamstrung by poor skills. This damages their confidence. Which damages execution. Which damages confidence. It's a vicious cycle.
It has even affected the coach. "When people are under pressure, they go back to what they know and that appears to have happened in this situation," said Paul Wallace of Declan Kidney's conservative team selection at the Guinness Area 22 event in Limerick on Thursday.
Paralysed by fear, Ireland and Kidney resemble the England of Martin Johnson 12 months ago.
The England of now, viz last week's stunning success against Australia, demonstrates just what can be achieved if Ireland can break through that wall. It's a big if. Especially against a seemingly invincible black force.
Where the pain of under-achievement is often compounded by the agony of knowing that every time you expect it to be different, the ultimate feeling remains stubbornly similar.
"You'd be disappointed with last year's one," says Donncha O'Callaghan, of the dismal day in New Plymouth when Ireland helpfully threw the game away even before they threw their men to the line.
"We didn't even pack a punch and it was probably so easy for them to get a result. And you come off the pitch thinking, 'Did we even make them change out of gear? Did they even take their foot off the pedal and even feel sorry for us?'
"That can kind of anger gets you a bit and then some other ones, past ones, you would have remembered games when you were kind of six points up with 10 minutes to go and you blew it. So you take little bits from all of them. It's almost like a bitterness in you, and you pull 'em along for other games."
All the while, as Ireland accumulate hurt, the All Blacks count the wins. Their record demands respect, even if it pains some to offer it. English hooker Steve Thompson averred that the Kiwis can't shoot fireballs out of their backsides. Perhaps they've not bothered trying.
Thompson fell into a familiar strategy. He deferred to the opposition, even if not politely so. And still lost.
For Ireland, the Willie Anderson approach failed, so too the Gary Halpin rude gesture, or Clive Woodward's misguided use of Brian O'Driscoll as a pawn in his propaganda game pre-haka.
All this distracts from performance. "You have to have respect for any opposition, but just a small bit," says Caroline Currid, the mind performance coach who has helped Tyrone to All-Ireland glory and, last year, Tipperary defeat hurling's invincibles.
"The All Blacks are who they are. But Ireland will be focusing on their performance. Ireland are under pressure and they need to channel that the right way, like Tipperary did.
"Kilkenny had this big aura, but we didn't talk about them all week because it wasn't about them, it was about us. Any team can be beaten, but you need to perform at your optimum."
Ireland's historic failure can allow fear to accumulate. But it must be conquered from within.
"Every athlete has a fear failure but if you can react to that in a good way, you can use it to your advantage," adds Currid. "Tipperary did that. It's a hatred of failure, more than a fear of failure.
"Ireland have come under serious pressure before and channelled it in the right way. It's how they react to that pressure. It's a massive challenge, but what better way to respond (than to win)."
Kidney has this week acknowledged the fine lines between fear, anxiety and levels of confidence. This can inhibit performance and decision-making, sabotage enterprise and create a comfort zone of safe options that prevent, rather than encourage, winning.
"Both teams prepare very well and it's small margins," says Currid. "The All Blacks still have to be 100pc accurate to win. But if you raise yourself to the required level, it's about getting into that space to be able to beat them. No Irish player goes out thinking they will lose.
"Not one Tipp player went out believing they would lose. Kilkenny came under pressure and didn't react and Tipp won because they had every box ticked, unlike the year before.
"Ireland will put in one hell of a challenge if they can raise their performance level, which they know they're capable of, and Declan Kidney has put trust in them."
Former hooker Bernard Jackman's take is illustrative. "Whenever Ireland play the All Blacks, the fear factor usually helps us," he says. "By fear factor, I mean having the mindset of, if we don't play to our 100pc maximum potential, we will get hammered.
"This is okay in terms of providing a mindset that will keep the score down, but it isn't likely to produce a victory. This Ireland team shouldn't be lacking confidence. It is one of the most experienced squads in the world and these players need to create an attitude.
"They need to make everyone believe we are good enough to be on the same pitch as the All Blacks. If they take that attitude, the crowd will respond and we will have a badly needed game of rugby that we can be proud of."
As Eric Miller avers: "There will always be a fear factor until we win." Only winning can remove it.