Sport Rugby

Thursday 19 April 2018

Mentally, we are not where we should be

Wales dominated the mind games last weekend and exposed our glaring weakness, writes Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

"Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste death but once."

Prescient bloke the Bard. It's a wonder how he worked that one out from the safety and comfort of his drawing room.

Fear is the prime driver for top athletes. If you don't have fear, you guess three things could happen: they will either not perform, they are already out of the competition or they are dead.

Strange things happen in dressing rooms prior to international Test matches. Each athlete copes with pre-match anxiety in different ways -- but that is an article for another time. Fear, though, is healthy; fear is an imperative for contact sport. If the adrenal glands weren't working overtime, it would be a fairly tame, sanitised and reserved game of rugby that you would be involved in. Fear makes you brave. Fear ensures you don't feel those massive hits until you are back in the dressing room again.

It is important though that you control fear and anxiety in the pre-match. Sports psychologists will tell you about getting the balance right.

Nobody except the Irish team knows what happened inside the dressing room or in the immediate lead-up to the Welsh game last weekend. What we do know is that Ronan O'Gara, Cian Healy, Donncha O'Callaghan, Jamie Heaslip, Gordon D'Arcy, Mike Ross and Keith Earls played poorly. Seven others played below the level we would ordinarily expect from them and one, only one, played to what we know he can do. That man psychologically has always been sure of himself. Champions don't do introspective or self-doubt.

How or why did the Irish team doubt itself in its moment of need? I would like to use two prior matches to illustrate a point I am going to make.

The history books will tell you that Leinster won the Heineken Cup in 2011 and that Ireland won the Grand Slam in 2009 -- a sequence of daunting opposition to overcome on both occasions. We were sure that our Heineken experience would stand to us in the heat of battle, as would our most recently won Six Nations championship. If you look back at what happened in the Heineken Cup final this year, the first half was a 'Ladyboy on Elm Street' extravaganza. Northampton, if they had been a little bit more accurate, could have been 40 points up by half-time. It was the worst 40 minutes I have ever seen from a Leinster side. What were they up to? Leinster pulled something special out of the hat at half-time and went on to win spectacularly. Northampton collapsed in the second half and Leinster romped home. Silver cups negate the need to ask any questions but it has to be asked: where were Leinster mentally in the first half.

In Cardiff too in 2009, don't let dreamy and romantic silhouettes of the TV highlights fool you. Ireland were awful for long periods as they made mistake after mistake. The burden of expectation, the enormity of the occasion and a bad mix of anxiety/fear in the pre-match. Yet they pulled through in adversity.

Ireland would draw on this knowledge and the legacy of big-match experience, winning experience, and this would see them through.

I am not suggesting that complacency, misplaced or otherwise, might have set in but I do think that Ireland should have prepared like Shakespeare's 'cowards' who die many times before the battle. I'm sure Ireland had a far different feeling before they went into the dressing room prior to the Australian game. The body language told you as soon as they hit the pitch. Traditionally, Irish teams are mentally the most unwieldy bunch of athletes and it is something that coaching tickets have misinterpreted and got wrong over the years -- using the wrong dynamic or motivation to get the team into the next phase of the competition.

I would suggest that the emotion and drive from the pool stages was what we used for the quarter-final, it worked, why change? It showed that our coaches were unable to discriminate or think outside the box. Ireland don't have the mental capacity to continue to win matches sequentially. Four is our limit; five as in 2009 was done under exceptional circumstances and down to the fact that our captain literally won it on his own. The coaching ticket can only be blamed in hindsight; after the ship has sunk, everyone knew how to save her.

Argentina, although they lost to New Zealand, were mentally dextrous and aware. They challenged themselves to live with New Zealand. The scoreboard says differently but Argentina were in a different place mentally than they were in the pool stages. QED, they had gone a stage forward psychologically in the competition. Fear and anxiety did not impact on their performance.

France too -- an inexplicable quantum to turn over the English. Ireland throttled back and were just in the wrong gear to cope with that extra jump and were unable to pick up a gear or two when we realised that the Welsh were primed and ready to fight. Ireland lost by more than the scoreboard suggests and that is disheartening because the graph of progression stops dead after a defeat like that.

Symptomatic of how lax Ireland were was their lack of awareness or expectation of what Wales would try to do to them. Declan Kidney, when questioned in the pre-match, would quite often harp on about the fact that his focus is on how Ireland play and shows no real concern for what the opposition is going to do to us.

I think that even five minutes studying how Wales were going to stop us would have been time well spent. If Warren Gatland had gunpowder for brains he couldn't blow his own hat off. Yet he was quite able to determine that if you stop Ireland's back row going forward then you stop Ireland. We have become very one dimensional recently and our over-dependence on Seán O'Brien and Stephen Ferris was a huge weakness. Counter-analysis was needed. The Taffies would surely figure out how to stop us getting front-foot ball -- were we clever enough to think through all our extra avenues, the what-ifs?

I just think that mentally when you are up for the task you are able to think on your feet when you need to. Mental agility sometimes is born out of desperation and quite possibly Ireland didn't see that they were in trouble at half-time and when they pulled even it was odds-on that they would wear the Welsh down.

If ever you needed to know whether Ireland are mentally fortified for the battle, all you have to do is see what happens at kick-off time. Ireland, when they are not primed, generally turn the ball over in this phase because mentally they relax. This was a game where every turnover was vital; that's how the Welsh viewed it. Ireland coughed up ball cheaply at this phase and gave Wales the opportunity to go ahead again.

They swallowed up our runners, quite often with only two or three men at the breakdown, and comfortably flooded the midfield with willing tacklers and used as many sweepers in the back field as they liked and nobody was able to think their way out of it. Nobody expected it and it copperfastens the notion that at this level the mental side of our game is a decade away from being where it should be. There is an overemphasis on physical fitness and the gym whereas in reality the three SANZA sides are able to beat their European counterparts because mentally they just have it.

It's a pity. It takes a little bit of interplanetary alignment to get a group of this calibre together with an opportunity of this magnitude. Then an opportunity presents itself and gallingly the Taffies, of all people, a side we have been certain of dominating psychologically, do us in the top four inches. Ireland will not progress until we make a quantum leap in this department at international level.

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