Friday 23 February 2018

Building blocks, winning IQs and chasing those 'W's

Ireland's performance psychologist Enda McNulty
Ireland's performance psychologist Enda McNulty
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

CONFIDENCE and consistency are the two things that deserted Ireland at the end of the Declan Kidney era and solutions are being sought.

CONFIDENCE and consistency are the two things that deserted Ireland at the end of the Declan Kidney era and solutions are being sought.

Performance coach Enda McNulty has been with the squad through a difficult year and is drawing on his work with Riverdance dancers, major corporations and Tour de France competitors – as well as his own successes with Armagh's Gaelic footballers – to help the team pick themselves up from one of the most tumultuous 12 months in Irish rugby.

It began with a 60-0 defeat in New Zealand and finishes in Toronto tomorrow for all except the Lions contingent. It incorporated the highs of beating Argentina and Wales, and the crushing defeats to Scotland, England and Italy that saw the coach replaced as a result.

Kidney brought McNulty in to work with the team ahead of the November Tests and he has observed many things in the year since. The stock of Irish rugby may be low at the moment, but a few minutes in the Armagh man's company would have you investing.

"Overall, having forensically observed that Six Nations, I came out of it with massive positives. Massive," he said in Toronto yesterday.


"Results didn't go according to plan, there is no hiding that and I wouldn't sugarcoat it in any way because I am around sport too long for that.

"The positives were the work ethos of the players after defeat, the attitude of the players after defeat. The professionalism of the back-room staff, incredible. The cohesion of the squad, Ulster, Munster, Connacht and Leinster; the cohesion on the pitch, on nights out, in team meetings.

"The other positives I would say, and I believe this fundamentally, in order to be successful in sport you need to lay the foundations early. I believe there has been granite building blocks put in in Irish rugby that will bear fruit down the line.

"You can't just build that pyramid of success block on block. You have to build the foundations and then the next layer of blocks and the Six Nations saw that."

He speaks about the building blocks that are in place, but winning, getting what he calls Ws on the board, is the currency they trade in and he knows results must improve to back up the good work behind the scenes.

"You're right," he replied when asked if the team needs to start winning. "It is all about Ws. I am not naive enough to think that it is not about Ws at this level of sport. The team got a W and the team needs to get more Ws or otherwise everything is undermined.

"But, in order to get the Ws, the process, the preparation, needs to be in place or else the Ws won't be at the end of the formula.

"It means serious preparation, serious talent. There is serious talent in the provinces and that is evidenced by what is happening in the B&I Cup, the U-20s and the talent pipeline that Irish rugby is creating. We have to have all the first elements in the formula right in order to get the last element, which is the Ws."

Consistency is one of the things new Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt must address in his first year in charge. Ireland have veered wildly from high to low since the 2009 Grand Slam.

"It is a very good challenge, everyone has highlighted that," McNulty said. "A lot of people say to me I'm overly optimistic about what is happening in Irish rugby. I would say I am hugely optimistic, but grounded in reality.

"The reality is the team need to be more consistent and I think they are now putting the infrastructure in place to allow the team to be consistent. That is the coaching infrastructure, the leadership infrastructure and the mental toughness infrastructure.

"There is no single solution. It is tactical, slightly mental and consistency on the training paddock and leaders excelling in the white heat of battle.

"I'd be enthused by Irish rugby overall, massively. On the confidence piece, can Ireland get more confident? Yes they can."

One of the major themes on this two-match tour of the US and Canada has been about finding new faces to lead Ireland forward.


In the course of a fortnight, we have seen Peter O'Mahony blossom into a real Test captain, Ian Madigan step up at No 10 and the likes of Devin Toner take on more than ever before. It is something McNulty has been heavily involved in and he was pleased with the results as Ireland fought to a win in Houston last Saturday.

"We've worked with the leadership group. Myself, Mick Kearney and Les (Kiss) have had two sessions with them and we've another one today," he said. "It is about basically encouraging and coaching them to be better leaders.

"I think the team showed very good winning IQ in the last 10 minutes (against the USA). I remember five or six times in the last 10 minutes when Devin Toner was mentally tough, when Peter O'Mahony made significant carries and obviously the substitutes that came on – Tom Court – really resolute, strong and calm."

Schmidt was watching closely as his era gets under way. He will hope that McNulty is right.

Irish Independent

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