Learning how to deal with The Fear
The youngsters call it The Fear. The Fear lives in the twitching, Stygian, phantom innards where the colonoscopy and the gastroscopy are as blind as bats without radar. The Fear is a squadron of drilling, buzzing bluebottles with shrapnel wings and boxers noses looking for a window out of your quivering, putrid belly.
The Fear is when every sound in your head is a nail scraping glass and your once trickling worries become a torment of troubles. The Fear is when you die in a dream and wake up wishing you were dead.
The Fear is caused by too much drink and it usually goes away after a few days.
The Rugby Fear is not as bad, but it does exist and it can be debilitating. Ronan O'Gara urged his comrades to play without fear, and I'm fairly sure it wasn't just the French he was talking about.
The internet has given a forum to all and sundry. It has spawned many wonderful contributors and is the most evocative expression of our right to freedom of speech, but I think it can truly be said to be the last safe haven for lunatics.
The problem is, the players read stuff about themselves all the time. A visit to Google can sometimes be more traumatic than a Fianna Fail canvass.
It's part of human nature to dwell on the bad review, even though hundreds of people might tell you that was a great piece or you played a great game. The little, spotty b***ix with multiple identities, seething at the rejection of his play by the Abbey, who didn't really get why a main character would want to sleep with his mammy and make soup out of his daddy, will keep you up half the night because he said you were a terrible writer.
Let me stress, most of the contrib-utors are fair, and sometimes very brilliant, but the bad ones operate with near immunity through anon-ymity. It would be easier to puck out the tide in Ballybunion with a lollipop stick. That's the frustrating part.
I have grown immune. But like most of my generation, I've been through more ups and downs than the opinion poll companies. It ain't easy on the young. And players are young.
I know of an inter-pro, a kid, who was so traumatised by the criticism from his own province's website that he lost all confidence. Nearly all of the comments were accurate and not malicious, but where do we draw the line? There's no doubt, though, that some contributors should wear mittens when they are anywhere near a keyboard.
Those of us who care for club, county, province and country know it takes time for players to mature. You have to counterbalance this with the public's right to know. I often take a pull at the reigns. Sometimes it can be a hard call, but it is sport we're talking about here, not who runs the nation or controls the drug trade.
The pundits who wield most influence are on TV.
It was interesting to read Luke Fitzgerald say here yesterday to David Kelly that he felt Conor O'Shea got it very wrong when he blamed Luke's lunge out of the traps for the Italian try. I was surprised that a player should take such notice of what the TV guys say about them. I always thought players would have been told not to watch TV analysis.
O'Shea is very fair. He has a job to do. Fitzgerald may have been right and he gave us an insight into the way coaches use critics to motivate players. We all felt Ireland were terrible against Italy -- you'd swear the ball was wired to an electric fence. Those of us who are sympathetic to the players just have to make that observation, but how do we criticise without inflicting long-term damage?
Controversy sells. Players have to live with that. That's the world we live in right now.
I asked a sports psychologist whether or not athletes should watch and read the media. She said they should.
And while adding a rider that every player is different and should be treated as an individual, the point she made was, the more you face up to The Fear, the better you will cope. Then, if the youngsters do not read the papers, surf the net or watch TV, they are left with a fear of what might be said about them. It's The Fear of the Fear.
One player I'm aware of loves reading the negative stuff and gets a laugh out of it. He grew up with 'net' rants and says no one of his age takes much notice. Some of the more irrational stuff can be hilarious, but unless today's player can deal with The Rugby Fear, he's a gonner.
Phoebe Prince was an Irish kid living in the States who took her life because of internet bullying. I hope I'm wrong, but it's only a matter of time before we have a similar situation in this country. And the victim might well be a sportsperson with some inherent hair-crack weakness that turns into a crevice when he or she is placed under the microscope at the public laboratory.
And if you're reading this and feel bullied, please get help. Everyone needs counselling at some stage of their lives. In the meantime, remember sticks and stones will break my bones, and sure you know the rest yourself.
It's one thing for us here in the press to be objective -- cheering and the wearing of colours is not allowed in the press box. But the thousands of pundits at the game are duty-bound to get behind the team. I always maintain if you're not hoarse after a match, you should have stopped at home.
I give us a chance against France, but the French must be made realise they are at a game and not a Marcel Marceau performance.
There are times when we all need unconditional love, even if it's only for 80-something minutes on a Sunday afternoon.