Alan Quinlan: If players don't get mind games right, they will soon be found out
Leinster and Munster must have their mental attitude spot on today for next week’s big semi-final showdowns
I used to hate these weeks. And at the same time love them. Sandwiched between the extraordinary high of a Heineken Cup quarter-final victory and the anticipation of a semi-final showdown, the battle I constantly faced was not with any opponent but with myself.
So as I studied the team sheets of the Munster and Leinster sides named yesterday, so many old memories came back to haunt me, not least the attitude I brought to training, and matches, in the spring of 2000, when - in the aftermath of being dropped from the Munster team - I indulged in a prolonged sulk which was neither useful to the team nor myself.
Two years later, I was in a better frame of mind. This time I had lost my place following an injury but the immaturity I had shown two years earlier had been replaced by something much more admirable, a desire to prove - in the final warm-up game before the Heineken Cup semi-final against Castres - that I was ready, if called upon.
Sure enough, I was given the call in that semi-final. And this time I was in a position to answer.
Providing answers, indeed solutions, will be the primary motivation of the 15 Leinster players Leo Cullen selected for today's game against Connacht, 12 of whom didn't start their quarter-final victory over Wasps. Those 12 players won't be worrying about picking up an injury and missing out on next week's trip to Lyon.
Instead, they'll have spent their week speaking that bit more loudly in training than they normally would, making it vocally clear that their minds are switched on, not just for this game against Connacht but next week's date with Clermont.
But there is no doubt in my head that there will be conflicting emotions within the side. There may be one or two players like the Alan Quinlan of 2000, hurt that colleagues have been picked ahead of them for the bigger European games, guilty of self-pity as they watch their friends, their province, their team move closer to fulfilling a dream.
While that's all well and good, the player who is part of the squad but who spends more time thinking about himself rather than the cause, is someone who isn't worth a damn. That was me in April 2000.
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Eight years later, I was in a completely different mindset. I was in the team this time. We were playing Leinster in the RDS, one week after a great victory away to Gloucester in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals. But that night, we were emotionally flat.
It may have been Leinster; it may have been a televised match against our biggest rivals and they may have had an aggression and an edge that we couldn't match. But we just couldn't get into the type of mood we needed to be in for that type of game and this came to mind when we discussed the match in the dressing room afterwards.
At its core, rugby is a physical game, one of many sports where if you do not have things right in between your ears then you can be found out, irrespective of your past reputation or ability. It took me a period of time before I appreciated this issue which was why these were the weeks which I began to see as the true test of a player.
The big games tended to take care of themselves. Heineken Cup matches or internationals, played in front of large crowds in beautiful stadiums gave you an adrenaline rush. On those days, motivation was never an issue.
But in between times you had to spend Sunday afternoons away to the Dragons or Friday nights at the Scarlets, where the stands could be half-empty, where the PRO12 did not carry the same sense of importance but where you learned to realise that if you thought yourself too good for those occasions, you'd be shown up.
That was why men like Brian O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara continued to impress me. No matter what the setting, they'd get themselves fired up. They'd deliver. Time after time. Season after season.
As for me, consistency - at various points of my career - was a problem. As was self-confidence. With the passing of time, I learned to deal with this, and learned to realise that weekends like this one were not the time to switch off. Instead, it was when you had to find a way to motivate yourself, to prove that you didn't need the inspiration of a raucous crowd or a coveted prize to bring out the best in you.
Today, those questions will be asked of Munster and Leinster's players. Can they live in the moment rather than be guilty of looking ahead to their semi-final dates with Saracens and Clermont? They have to realise that in this sport, if you are lackadaisical in your attitude, that this can have a snowball effect throughout the side.
A rugby player's aggression is as raw as the survival instinct because this is a game of collisions and if you lose those, then - more often than not - your team loses the match. Worse again, if you lose the physical battle, you can end up hurt. Good players, and this is the key thing, have that ability to perform week after week, irrespective of whether the spotlight is shining on them or not.
And that is why Rassie Erasmus has - pretty much - gone with the strongest side available to him for today's clash with Ulster.
He has set out a challenge to his players. They have raised Munster's standards this year. They've grown as men and as a team. But, significantly, while they have won people's respect, they have yet to win any trophies.
In his head, the Munster director of rugby will know that Ulster will be highly charged today, motivated by the knowledge that there are several players whose Ulster careers are on the line. Will they get new contracts? Deliver today and in the forthcoming weeks and they may. Everyone knows Ulster need a win here, whereas, to all intents and purposes, Munster can afford to lose and still be guaranteed their place in the semi-finals.
In this context, can Munster draw any more from their emotional well to counteract Ulster's anger?
That is the intrigue of sport.
There are some players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi who have consistently delivered for over a decade, averaging 60 games (and nearly as many goals) per season. However, for all its pressurised demands and physical hazards, the threat of injury on a football pitch compared to its rugby equivalent is nowhere near as great.
Huddles And that is why you have to constantly search into your soul. It's why players like Peter O'Mahony at Munster and Rhys Ruddock at Leinster will have gathered men around them in huddles and reminded them this week to train well, not to drop standards, to make things happen.
Obtaining the right attitude for matches like today's has to be a player-driven thing. Coaches remind their players this week will be really important to the overall narrative of the season but you kind of expect them to say as much.
But when players demand one another to raise their effort levels, commitment and desire, then you can be sure they are on the road to success. Munster's best years coincided with those seasons when there was a constant reminder of our responsibilities to one another and the team's supporters.
That may seem like a simplistic and old-fashioned attitude. Trust me, you could have worse principles in life.