Thursday 12 December 2019

Expectation shifts to Irish shoulders

Ireland's Rob Kearney is pictured in Carton House yesterday. Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
Ireland's Rob Kearney is pictured in Carton House yesterday. Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
Rob Kearney on the charge against South Africa last weekend. Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Perhaps there are no better opponents to focus Irish minds this week than Georgia.

Most would prefer to forget the 2007 World Cup nightmare, but the change in mood since Ireland's win over South Africa and the giddy expectation that has followed brings about cause to remember.

Few teams have experienced hype like the proclaimed 'Golden Generation' of the mid-2000s who claimed three Triple Crowns in four seasons and went to France on the back of comprehensive victories over South Africa and Australia and a strong Six Nations effort.

In Bordeaux, they were just about spared ignominy against the well-drilled, physical but limited Georgians. The bubble burst and the regime never recovered.

Rob Kearney had hoped to make the plane to France having made his debut the previous summer, but he was spared one of the more tortuous chapters in most players' careers.

Not that it didn't leave a mark.

"I was at home on my couch," he recalled. "I think the whole thing was just a nightmare, wasn't it?

"That whole World Cup, it just went from bad to worse. It was a team who, when things started to go a little bit wrong, it was very evident from looking at them that they were all in a huge, high-stress situation. I think you can learn from that a little bit too.

"I suppose it comes back to having that huge amount of confidence in your own ability, when things do go bad, never getting too carried away with how bad they can potentially get."

If, last week, the current squad's confidence was at odds with the general feeling that the injuries were too much for the Six Nations champions to bear, this week's attempts to play down a historic win over the Springboks will be equally contrasting with the giddy talk of World Cup title tilts and November clean sweeps.

While fans can get excited, the players must focus on Georgia. Nothing will bring them back down to earth quite like the driving rain they trained in yesterday and the prospect of scrummaging against the eastern European behemoths.

Whereas before the Boks they were given little hope, this week they are odds-on favourites and expected to run up a score.

Already, you can feel the expectancy growing for the visit of Michael Cheika and Australia. Players might not look past the next game, but the rest of us can.

The trick, Kearney says, is to keep improving. He recalls everything being "rosy in the garden" back in 2009 before Ireland slipped backwards gradually under Declan Kidney.

"I think it's really more just having an understanding and a desire that you constantly need to improve," he explained. "We won the Grand Slam in '09 and maybe we were guilty of not developing our game a huge amount come the following season.


"If we play the exact same standard and style of rugby that we did in the last Six Nations, then we won't win it again. We need to be constantly improving, we need to be constantly looking to better ourselves individually and as a team.

Saturday, the Louthman believes, is not a benchmark display for Ireland.

South Africa were poor, he argues, Ireland didn't spend enough time in their 22 and the best performance of the Joe Schmidt era was the Championship decider in Paris last March.

"The weekend certainly wasn't (the desired level of performance). I think Paris was a pretty good 80-minute display, even though we were very lucky in that 79th minute," he said.

"I think that was the closest performance we've had yet to an 80-minute performance. I don't think the weekend was it, no.

"Joe's trying to make us winners every single week and to improve our performance on a weekly basis, and he's trying to make us that 80 minute-plus team which is something that probably we haven't been a lot over the last, maybe, decade or so.

"I think, as players, we've learned a huge amount from recent games and that New Zealand game (last November) in particular, and we have learned from our mistakes in Paris as well.

"I think it was a great insight of a team who had learned from that mistake against New Zealand and the weekend gives us that confidence to really take on southern hemisphere teams, and that's huge for our mental ability going into a game knowing that we can genuinely compete and beat the best teams in the world."

What the victory over the Boks will give the squad is renewed belief in what they are working on and, as long as it doesn't stray into cockiness, it will be an asset.

"Confidence is a brilliant thing and sometimes over-confidence can be a detrimental thing too," Kearney said.

"It's key that we find the balance between the two and by no means we get carried away with one win over a South African team that played poorly on the day and it didn't really seem as if the defeat hurt them too much.

"I think that has to our biggest mindset, that we're very aware of what was achieved on the day but by no means losing the run of ourselves and getting ahead of our station."

One man who won't allow that to happen is the coach who, Kearney explains, has increased in intensity since taking over a job that limits his time with his players.

"He has changed his way as a coach," he said. "His intensity as a national coach in camp now, in my opinion, he didn't have the same at provincial level because he probably realised that on a week-to-week basis you need to be different.

"I do think when you go from a provincial set-up to a national set-up that there needs to be that very evident, much bigger intensity because the stakes are higher and that needs to be reflected in the environment in how we're treated and how we train."

This week, Ireland have Georgia on their minds and that calls to mind that horrible evening back in 2007.

"I genuinely do believe that we are a very different team to the national team that took the field in Bordeaux that day," Kearney concluded.

"You've probably got a better squad, you've got more depth. Our mental capacity for the big day is probably a little bit better. I think we've had more better performances against some bigger teams over the last 12 months."

He had enough confidence in the way things are going to commit the next three years of his life to Leinster and Ireland, but he's learnt not to get carried away.

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