Thursday 24 May 2018

Fear replaces reason after video-room horror movie

Tommy Conlon

The match last Saturday had barely gone cold before various Ireland players were contemplating with dread the next ordeal.

And it wasn't the prospect of the New Zealand All Blacks looming large on the horizon eight days later.

No, it was the inevitable dissection by video of the manifold failures that had left them so thoroughly exposed against Australia earlier that evening. There would be no escaping this particular home movie.

They had been beaten in just about every facet of the game. And soon they would have their noses rubbed in the mess. They would have to sit and squirm. The video replay would be a compendium of errors; it would be an affront to their pride and to their self-image as professional rugby players. But they would have to face it.

One wonders, in passing, how much sporting history would have to be rewritten if by miracle it could be revisited with the help of contemporary filmed footage. A lot of myths and legends might have to be revised. A lot of hallowed reputations, burnished by the power of nostalgia, might have to be deflated.

Human memory is notoriously fickle, eyewitness accounts similarly unreliable. Even nowadays, with the visual evidence in front of them, people can still disagree over an incident, a referee's decision or a player's performance.

Without it, the sky's the limit: it is open season for the imagination, for faulty recall, for all manner of denial, exaggeration and delusion.

In that environment, one imagines that sportspeople of previous generations were routinely tempted to rewrite the narrative of a match or a race or a controversy of some sort, knowing that it was witnessed only by the spectators who were there. Knowing that it had dissolved into the ether as soon as it was over, never to be seen again. If they'd been guilty of an abject performance, a moment of cowardice or an act of thuggery, they could, if they wanted to, proffer various excuses and explanations that couldn't be challenged by filmed replay.

No such comfort exists now. It is one reason why modern practitioners are capable of a degree of self-criticism seldom to be found in other spheres of society. Because no one likes to have their mistakes publicly aired. Most people become defensive when it happens. It is a self-protective reflex; it may even be some class of an evolutionary mechanism.

But serious sportspeople operate in a culture of self-appraisal that is unforgivingly honest by general standards. They won't resort to excuses or denials because they know there's no future in it. The only way to produce a better performance the next day is to face up to the inadequacies of the previous one. They know that evading the truth will lead to a dead end.

And even if they want to, the data is there waiting for them anyway. It is there in the stats, the facts and figures of their performance. And it is there in the visuals, captured from multiple angles by an array of cameras, and packaged together in an editing suite for maximum effect.

If the Ireland rugby players didn't sleep well in their beds last Saturday night, Sunday and Monday mightn't have been too restful either, knowing that the dreaded picture show was awaiting them on Tuesday.

Various individuals would have sat there in the half-darkness, raw with embarrassment as their own mistakes materialised on screen. There might have been some solidarity in the collective, with everyone else sharing in the acute discomfort too. Presumably there was a degree of catharsis in the process; that by confronting their failings, it helped to exorcise them.

Top rugby players seem to have a healthy analytical streak anyway; an ability to diagnose the flaws in a performance, and to articulate their findings. They can be impressively realistic about the ups and downs of a given match display. So we can take it on trust that if the Irish lads watched last weekend's game with clenched bodies, their eyes remained wide open. They are a patently honest and genuine bunch; they faced the music in the video room.

The irony is, however, that having swallowed the ugly reality of that performance, they've had to engage since in a process of self-delusion. It's been a necessary process. They've had to abandon common sense because

they've had to persuade themselves that they can beat the best team in the world.

They've had to make a quantum leap, psychologically, from the depressing reality of the Australia game to the make-believe scenario of beating New Zealand. To do this, they've had to suppress all the doubts, all the banging on the door in their heads.

The myriad problems unearthed eight days ago, they said, were "fixable"; the build-up last week was all about "belief". One could almost visualise them repeating it like a mantra: belief, belief, belief. They swept the crisis under the carpet, they put it on hold, because they didn't have the time to do anything else.

Reality and reason have gone out the window. In its place today will be fear, primarily fear of humiliation. And out of fear often comes a kind of mania: Ireland will be manic against the All Blacks this afternoon. They are in a corner; they have no other choice.

It won't be enough. But one hopes it will be sufficient to salvage their pride at least.

Sunday Independent

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