Wednesday 16 October 2019

Neil Francis: 'Joe Schmidt must kill mistakes virus now or watch it grow'

Ireland’s woes predominantly stem from mental failings which can be notoriously difficult to fix

System error: Jacob Stockdale passes to Ireland team-mate Keith Earls (unseen) on a last minute break which resulted in a dropped pass. Photo: Sportsfile
System error: Jacob Stockdale passes to Ireland team-mate Keith Earls (unseen) on a last minute break which resulted in a dropped pass. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Last Sunday in the Stadio Olimpico, Sean O'Brien - a double Lions Test player and first capped for Ireland in 2009 - lined up to catch the kick-off.

O'Brien placed himself in the flight path of the ball and prepared for its arrival. There wasn't an Italian player close to him and yet he dropped it.

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Ninety-nine times out of a hundred he would gather the ball with his eyes closed.

The ball was dropped backwards, O'Brien reached down and retrieved it and brought it up to the advancing Italian line which had gained an extra 10 metres from the time it took O'Brien to recover himself.

Even in your 100th cap you can still feel the nerves during a Test match - it's only natural.

Three minutes later Ireland had a lineout past the 10-metre line in Italian territory.

The ball was won and O'Brien pulled out of a maul set-up and threw a poor pass to Conor Murray who had retreated to the outfield to act as first receiver. Murray knocked the ball on and a promising attack died in embryo.

O'Brien - a comfortable and accomplished passer - got his eye and hand lines wrong. Murray, though, could still have caught it - it wasn't that bad a pass. A minute later Sean Cronin overthrew to Peter O'Mahony six metres from the line.

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If they had done their video analysis, the Italians would have stayed on the ground close in, the arc on the ball had too much loop - a flat ball would have done it.

The contagion continued in the 15th minute as Johnny Sexton threw a poor pass to Keith Earls in the middle of the park. The ball was dropped but went backwards, and was called thus by referee Glen Jackson.

The ball then moved forward and Sean O'Brien dived on it and got pinged for offside. It was just one of a number of rubbish calls by Jackson all day.

If Earls had knocked it forward and O'Brien had regathered in front of him - it would have been offside all right.

Sexton and O'Brien were in close proximity to Jackson and both players have PhDs in refereeing games while actually playing in them.

The fact that neither contested the call probably told you something about where they were mentally.

O'Brien, in particular for someone who is so charismatic and a catalyst for energy and direction, was not his usual self.

Ireland scored through Earls in the 51st minute and O'Brien again juggled the unpressurised kick-off. What on earth was going on?

Our halves have also been central to the tetchy and tentative performances.

Ireland's celebrated halves were over-shadowed by Tito Tebaldi and Tommaso Allan - it is a bad day when that happens. All of this was mental.

That said, however, some elements of Murray's game have diminished markedly.

The muscle wastage or restriction in his arm/shoulder region could be why his passing is so far away from where it should be. There is no zing or controlled urgency in his delivery.

I looked at Murray's box-kicking technique in the Italian game and wondered whether he had changed his technique. There was no full leg extension and his foot and ankle were at a peculiar angle.

There was no height and the accuracy and distance were way off his normal standard. These were mental things.

The first moment in the match told us that Ireland's issues are purely mental and the last moment merely confirmed it.

I watched Jack Carty play for Connacht against Leinster at the RDS over Christmas - he put himself forward for international selection that night.

The intensity of the Leinster v Connacht game would be on a par with the match in Rome - against nine Benetton players, four from Zebre, and one each from Wasps and Toulouse in blue.

Carty had only been on the pitch for the guts of five minutes when Stockdale made an audacious break in the last play.

The inside pass was meant for Earls but ended up as a loose ball and it should have been meat and drink to a player of Carty's skill. He knocked it on.

The guy had been in the squad only since Wednesday and already he caught the contagion.

Psychologists Dr Olivia Hurley and Enda McNulty have assisted the Ireland team in their remarkable rise to the top but surely they would earn their stripes now by assisting the team when they have been at the apex and have fallen to a low.

Getting them back up there - quickly - is where you get real merit.

Cyber psychologist Dr Mary Aiken had a fairly simplistic attitude to the current problem.

"Sports psychologists talk endlessly about confidence, that is, the degree to which a player thinks and feels their actions will achieve positive results. But confidence and self-esteem are not the same thing," she says.

"Self-esteem refers to how you feel about yourself; confidence refers to your belief about how you could perform a task successfully.

"For example; I would consider that I have good self-esteem, but I have no confidence that I can land a jet plane successfully.

Edge

"As a species confidence gives us an evolutionary edge - it help us to approach a task without trepidation. If you had to jump over a ravine to escape a predator, being confident would help you approach the task without distracting anxious thoughts that might make you stumble - however self-esteem can undermine confidence and in rugby, emotion gives away penalties and makes mistakes.

"When Joe Schmidt says Ireland are 'a bit broken by the England fallout', as a behavioural scientist I feel that he is referring to emotional as opposed to performance variables, self-esteem as opposed to confidence.

"So what can we do? If I was advising the Ireland team, I would say that talent is a given, confidence is a given - the motivational answer lies in emotion, in self-esteem and in pride instead of endless drills and workouts," Dr Aiken concludes.

Ireland's preparation, I feel, will be down to minute psychological detail.

The physical challenge presented by France will be overcome by correcting their mental and emotional approach.

It is, however, not that simple. But get it right and victory is assured - get it wrong again and the virus grows.

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