Thursday 22 February 2018

Alan Quinlan: Mayo must learn to be ruthless like we did at Munster

Players have to adopt more ferocious attitude if they want to recover from draining defeat

Devastated Munster players leave the pitch at Lansdowne Road in 2004 having been beaten by Wasps in the Heineken Cup semi-final. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Devastated Munster players leave the pitch at Lansdowne Road in 2004 having been beaten by Wasps in the Heineken Cup semi-final. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

As we sat there together, yet also feeling eerily alone, trying to digest that unmistakable hollow feeling of another Heineken Cup defeat, we knew something needed to change.

It was of little consolation that the 80 minutes of rugby that afternoon would be considered among the most exhilarating in the history of the competition; coming out on the wrong side of the result against Wasps, on the familiar Lansdowne Road sod, was one of the worst defeats of my career.

It was April 2004, just over two years before we finally claimed the Holy Grail against Biarritz in Cardiff, but I am convinced that our reaction to that agonising defeat played a huge part in Munster finally achieving success in Europe.

That was the day the players said 'no more', that was the day where we realised that we needed to develop a greater ruthless streak if we were to finally get over the line.

And the most important part of that realisation was we knew that the players had to lead the change, it could only come from within.

We were blessed with tremendous leaders at the time, of course, having the likes of Ronan O'Gara, 'Axel' Foley, Paul O'Connell and John Hayes to name but a few.

Over the years the numerous near-misses, whether it was the 2002 final loss to Leicester and Neil Back's sleight of hand or the 2000 decider defeat to a more streetwise Northampton outfit, our shortcomings pointed to a deficiency in one area - ruthlessness.

When we lost those two finals we were underdogs and we felt like we were almost in bonus territory. We were pinching ourselves that we there to some extent. I think when we got to the finals we believed we could win, but in hindsight maybe we didn't believe it enough.

Successive

The 2004 defeat to Wasps was the fifth successive year we had exited the competition in the semi-finals or the final, and while we knew we had improved our fitness, skills levels and the depth of our squad, we were still coming up short. We had gone through our fair share of heartache at that stage and that defeat was a real turning point.

After that game there was definitely a drive from the players to put together some sort of strategy so that this wouldn't keep continuing. We knew as a group that we weren't a million miles away but that something was not right despite the incredible work-rate, bond and spirit of the group.

There was massive hunger but maybe we didn't know how to be really ruthless and resilient.

Sometimes you do need a bit of luck but usually if you're good enough, and have all of those different elements it takes to win, you'll get there.

Looking at Mayo last Sunday, I couldn't help but see a bit of that on-the-cusp Munster side in them as the game headed down the stretch. The same could be said of Clermont in recent years, although last season's Top 14 success should take the pressure off them a bit.

The difference between ruthlessness and out-and-out cheating is subjective. It is up to the officials to call the game as they see it, but players have to do what it takes to win. And that's not always easy.

We had to become ruthless to win the Heineken Cup in 2006, and that meant even in our own group you couldn't feel pity for guys who weren't being picked, who were injured or who weren't having their contracts renewed.

Of course we had empathy, but empathy doesn't survive long in a ruthless atmosphere like we had in Munster. It might sound extreme but that was the way we operated.

Your heart has to go out to Mayo but there was an incredible ruthlessness about Dublin as the clock ticked past 70 minutes at Croke Park. It was first of all obvious in Dean Rock's unflappable free attempt but more so in the incidents that followed.

Once ahead, the Dubs essentially refused to let Mayo breathe. Attacks came from all angles, whether it was trying to disrupt the goalkeeper's kick-out strategy by supposedly interfering with his kicking tee, or doing everything in their power to prevent a Mayo player from getting their hands on the ball from the re-start.

Dublin's frightening ability sees them cruise through most of their games these days, but they wouldn't have as many Celtic Crosses as they do if it wasn't for that ruthless attitude when a tight game is there to be won. They don't seem to care how they do it, they know most of those incidents will be forgotten long before they return for pre-season training.

Having such a win-at-all-costs attitude also generates an incredible confidence in a group. You could see in the demeanour of the Dublin players how they seemed to grow in the final stages, none more so than Diarmuid Connolly.

His body language just oozed composure; the way he held the ball for Rock in his right hand after earning the decisive free, while calling for calm with his left, said much more than a roar and a fist pump could.

The smile on his face indicated the confidence he had that his team-mate would slot it between the sticks, and that again comes from that ruthless culture that has been developed internally. Much like Ronan O'Gara for Munster, you just knew that Rock would produce the goods when the stakes were so high.

I love watching teams that have that edge about them when they have that game-face on. Dublin don't look happy winning three All-Irelands, they look like they want to win about 10.

This Mayo team have suffered as much, if not more heartache, than we did with Munster after the turn of the millennium and, similarly, they probably feel like they have already made all of the necessary improvements to finally end the All-Ireland hoodoo.

Desire However, the most important thing for them now is to consider where they went wrong, and what they can do better in 2018 and generate the same drive and desire again.

The controversial ousting of the previous management team illustrates that the players don't lack leadership or are afraid to make big decisions.

From a human perspective it's challenging to get up for it again and have the same appetite and intensity but that reaction has to be player-driven.

They need to embrace that culture and adopt a more ferocious attitude among themselves and believe they will do actually do it, as hard as that can be after such a painful, draining defeat. That may be the key for them, just like it was for us.

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