'This team doesn't want to stop at winning a Six Nations'
Failures of past irrelevant to Schmidt's Ireland, insists former Armagh star and sports psychologist McNulty
Published 22/03/2014 | 02:30
SO what of it – the journey from fifth to first? Where score difference saved Ireland from the wooden spoon and just 12 months later, they were crowned champions of Europe.
In the end, Ireland had to win in their Paris graveyard of dreams to complete the turnaround. Shane Horgan spoke about finding it hard to breathe in the Stade de France before kick-off during his days as a player.
Perhaps nowhere has the same hold over Irish rugby.
He shovels any credit onto Joe Schmidt now, but it was surely in the week prior to the France game when the team's performance psychologist Enda McNulty was put to work.
The antidote, he says, was simple.
"The old paradigm in Irish sport is 'We are the nearly men,'" McNulty says. "But Leinster have written their own script, so have Munster and so have Ireland in the last five years.
"So, whether we are underdogs or favourites, it's quite irrelevant. Let's be professional about it, let's not worry about the old wives' tales about being favourites, underdogs or also-rans.
"What happened in sport 50 or 100 years ago, or even 30 years ago, in Paris is largely irrelevant. Johnny Sexton wasn't born 30 years ago, so why do we think what happened then matters when he goes to play against France?"
The Six Nations success was a milestone in McNulty's own journey from South Armagh to being part of the Irish set-up, which was a combination of determination, good people and lucky breaks.
Even when he got in his own way, the universe dug him out.
Physiotherapy was top of McNulty list when leaving school, but he didn't hit his targets and had to settle for a course in sports psychology in Queen's instead.
Being a trusted part of Schmidt's backroom team is a long way from when he walked away from a GAA coaching job in Dublin in 2005, with an idea in his head to work with professional sportsmen and big business on developing the mental side through his company Motiv8.
"When I left Ballyboden as a coaching director in 2005, I wanted to work with professional athletes and big business. I started with no income, no athletes, no office, no business cards, no business plan, no budget at all. Banks wouldn't give me a penny. I only had a diary where I wrote down how we were going to create a plan working with the best athletes and corporate teams in the world."
Ireland was awash with money, but the banks wouldn't support his new venture. Sport psychology was still met with suspicion then.
After all, it was less than 10 years since the Wexford hurlers had enlisted the help of Niamh Fitzpatrick in their drive for the 1996 All-Ireland hurling title. To keep her involvement a secret, she was sometimes asked to pose as a physio.
McNulty carried on regardless, his brother Paul picking up the rent as the company struggled to get off the ground. He continued his Gaelic football career with Armagh, too, training in David Lloyd's gym in Donybrook – then Leinster's base – becoming familiar to some of the province's players.
A chance encounter with former Leinster scrum-half David Moore and a young Luke Fitzgerald opened a door. McNulty worked with Moore, then Fitzgerald and Gordon D'Arcy before Michael Cheika asked to meet for a coffee. Cheika set McNulty to work with Bernard Jackman. The hooker's throwing stats went through the roof and he was named Leinster Player of the Year in 2008.
But it was Leinster's defeat away to Castres that year which provided a real opportunity. The game nearly brought Johnny Sexton's time in Leinster to an end as all of the province's old failings came back to haunt them.
Later that year, Cheika called the Armagh man and a couple of other senior Leinster figures to his house to address the side's shortcomings.
"What Michael Cheika did, along with Jason Cowman and Jonno Gibbes, was put together a plan that would allow Leinster to become much more mentally tough against the best teams in Europe. That plan was a 12-page document.
"On the front page, the objective was to become the most mentally tough team in Europe. That was an incredibly detailed plan in terms of what needed to happen on the pitch, in the gym, with the walk-throughs and at the scrum-machine. That plan was executed with military pragmatism."
Leinster went on to win the Heineken Cup and he's been part of the province's team ever since. Last year, Declan Kidney drafted him into the national set up before the 2013 Six Nations.
McNulty's profile is international now. Companies like Digicel, Morgan Stanley and Lidl have enlisted his services. It's a long way for a member of the 2002 Armagh All-Ireland winning side to come. And if that success gave him a profile, their failures drive him now.
By his reckoning, they were in a position to win seven All-Irelands, but it still haunts him that they only got over the line once.
"That Armagh got beat so many times, there's never a day it doesn't hurt me. I remember meeting Gerry McEntee for a coffee in 2010 and I was asking for his advice. He says there's never a day he doesn't think about when Meath lost to Down in 1991 All-Ireland final and I can say I'm the same.
"There's never a day I don't think about the final we lost to Tyrone (2003) or to Kerry (semi-final in 2000), or when I see how successful Ireland and Leinster are that I don't think 's**t, why the f**k didn't we go that extra level to become a great team?'
"We won seven Ulster (titles) and one All-Ireland, but we have that unfinished business. I believe that it's important not to have that as a negative and turn it into a positive fuel to become better on my job."
Ireland's World Cup will come swiftly into view. Like Paris, the competition hasn't been kind to Irish rugby. Lens, the entire 2007 tournament and the absence of a semi-final appearance are all on Ireland's rap sheet.
McNulty will be put to work once more and he believes they'll be a better side by the time the competition starts. "Is Irish rugby in a good place? Yes. Has Irish rugby arrived at the top of the mountain? No. There is massive room for improvement and I'm not saying that out of school. I'm saying that knowing what Joe Schmidt and Paul O'Connell have spoken about this week and knowing the characters that are Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, Andrew Trimble, Rory Best.
"These guys are not happy with winning the Six Nations, they want to improve and develop and they are now hungry for winning Championships and the Heineken cup. They'll all go back to the provinces looking to win games and you can bet your bottom dollar that in the Leinster-Munster match they will be tearing each other apart trying to win that game.
"So, in terms of the mindset, it is overwhelmingly about improvement and development and seeking to raise the bar."
The journey continues.