Saturday 22 July 2017

Sinead Kissane: Alarm bells ringing but no need to panic on Schmidt's watch

Paul O'Connell's injury elicited emotional tributes from his teammates
Paul O'Connell's injury elicited emotional tributes from his teammates
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Three times in the space of two days the fire alarm went off in my hotel in Cardiff. The first was a false alarm after the steam from someone's hot shower set off the alarm (seriously). The following day it went off again as I worked in my bedroom.

I assumed it was another steamy shower session in what began to feel like a Fawlty Towers version of a hotel. I went with fight rather than flight and stayed in my room.

When the noise became unbearable, I stormed down the stairs and was surprised to see everyone already standing outside the hotel.

"Where's the fire, I don't see any smoke?" I asked one of the hotel staff as a fire brigade pulled into the grounds.

"You still have to wait outside miss," I was told. There was no smoke. Because there was no fire. The third time the fire alarm went off was just a test (of my patience).

Alarms have also been going off in my head all week. No Paulie. No Pete. No Seanie. Can we really get a repeat performance again tomorrow?

This is Argentina. Our old foes. They would have loved the soundings from all of us about how we were so glad to avoid New Zealand in the quarter-finals. Enough print coverage to plaster every centimetre of their team-room wall. Twice over.

But more than that, Ireland were just so damn good in the second half against France that I began to fear if we could do it all over again against Argentina.

Drained

I never felt more emotionally drained and energised all at once after a game. Never have I felt such poignancy in a stadium than the sight of Paul O'Connell being stretchered off mixed with the reverential applause.

On top of that, a group of Irish fans behind me started singing 'The Fields of Athenry' as he was carried off.

Yes, I know, nobody died. But standing in that stadium at that moment it felt like something had.

There were other moments that day that halted me in my tracks. After the 65th minute I ran up the stadium tunnel to meet with the media organiser. Ireland were leading 14-9 at the time and the ground was a heaving melting pot.

Compared to the chaos outside, inside felt erringly quiet and cool. I quickly gave my TV3 post-match interview requests before turning to head back out the tunnel.

But just as I was about to run back out, I saw a guy sitting on the ground, on his own, staring up at the TV in the corner. It was Johnny Sexton. The sense of despondency around him caught my breath.

Further down that corridor would have been the injured O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony. The realisation that their World Cup dreams were over would have been hitting them hard.

Sexton looked in all kinds of pain too. You know when someone needs to be left alone. I gave him a nod and re-entered the mayhem outside. A few minutes later Conor Murray scored the second try which sealed the win.

I thought of Sexton, sitting on the ground inside the home of Welsh rugby, and how delighted he would be.

The Irish players were like Terminators in the second half with their supernatural steel and heart. Standing at the end of the tunnel as the players walked in off the pitch after the full-time whistle, you see the more private moments. The hugs. The tears. The love.

And the emotion just kept coming this week. The tributes to O'Connell from his team-mates pulled at your heart.

But what if all this emotion is too much for the squad? Will it be harder this week for Joe Schmidt to switch the players into that cold, hard, ruthless mode again?

The sense of 'Doing it for Paulie' is noble but he would be the last person who would want anything which could in any way cloud or over-power what the players need to do against Argentina.

Last week Schmidt's tactical genius hit new heights. This week, as well as the tactics of course, is about managing the players. And he seems to have this capacity to read them, to read their mood and readjust accordingly.

When Ireland were beaten by Wales at the Millennium Stadium earlier this year -which ended their Grand Slam ambitions - Schmidt said the training sessions after that defeat at the start of the week leading into the final game against Scotland were flat.

Anyone could see that the mood around the Ireland team had flat-lined a bit after they put everything into trying to win a Slam.

So what did Schmidt do? Well one small thing he did was instead of having their usual kind of captain's run training session the day before a game, the players played a game of walking touch rugby at Murrayfield.

I have never seen the players laugh as much at a training session or have as much fun on the pitch. It was the kind of laughing - especially from O'Connell - which made you, in turn, laugh as well. The shift in mood from earlier in the week was huge.

Watching them at that time I thought these players are going to have fun tomorrow. I don't need to remind you of how they played the next day against Scotland to defend their Six Nations title.

And remember how Brian O'Driscoll broke down in an interview with RTE after Ireland beat France to win the Six Nations last year in Paris after his last game for Ireland?

It was recalling the words that Schmidt said in the dressing-room before the game which got O'Driscoll all choked up.

Schmidt will work the loss of Paulie and Pete to just the right temperature. It won't overpower the players but will fire them up even more to try and make a first ever semi-final.

It was good to be back at the Millennium Stadium yesterday to see Ireland train ahead of tomorrow's quarter-final. It was good to see Sexton back on the pitch after the last sight I had of him at the stadium last Sunday. It was good to see the players looking focused, fresh and firing nicely.

Maybe it's a sign of things to come tomorrow. There's never smoke without fire.

Irish Independent

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