Monday 14 October 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Just how can Ireland escape the strait-jacket of anxiety that has left them under such pressure?'

Analysis

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: PA
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: PA
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In Mike Ross's autobiography, 'Dark Arts', a light is shone on the sacrosanct status of Joe Schmidt's play sheets.

Tailored specifically for each opponent, the sheets must always be adhered to for three or four phases before licence is granted the team to play what's before them. A player's every movement through each phase is, thus, established with non-negotiable precision.

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"All of us knew individually that if we were to make a decision and depart from a play, then that decision had better work out!" wrote Ross. "It had to if it was to match or outdo what lay on Joe's sheets.

"On Joe Schmidt's Leinster and Ireland teams, you could back yourself, but... man oh man... you had better be right!

"Therefore. Me?

"I always thought it smarter to stick to Joe's sheets."

As Ireland wrestle in Japan with what looks a bad case of creative sterility, it is tempting to wonder if this team can escape the strait-jacket of anxiety that has pitched them into a game with Samoa this morning which, inevitably, becomes a conversation with themselves.

Schmidt's status as a coach is incontestable. Yet this already feels like an old World Cup story being recycled, one of trying to solder cracks mid-tournament and avoid what has become a familiarly melodramatic response to failure at home.

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Bear in mind a Genesis Report was commissioned to explore the mistakes of 2007, Donncha O'Callaghan observing of the team's muted, almost stealthy arrival back from that World Cup as one that gave him "the feeling they'd have liked us to arrive into Cobh by boat under cover of darkness".

Much was made back then of Sofitel Le Lec, Ireland's wretchedly uninspiring base in a Bordeaux industrial estate. But four years earlier, the team enjoyed a spectacular training headquarters in Terrigal on the New South Wales coast and four years later their first camp would be by a lake in Queenstown with access to just about every leisure activity imaginable.

The story of Ireland's relentlessly poor record at World Cups has lacked consistency then only in the area of forensics.

So imagining the team room in recent days has been unavoidable. Put in front of media microphones, the players invite us into a wasteland of buzzword and cliché. A deadening rigmarole programmed to reveal nothing.

So what is the real energy in that room? Fear? Panic? Anger? Hope?

When a squad is under the same roof for this stretch of time, humour can only be protected by performance. Paul O'Connell was maybe slightly tongue-in-cheek when he told a friend, Ger Clohessy, that his "fondest memory" of the 43-day Lions tour in '09 he captained, was watching the new 'Batman' movie with O'Callaghan - a large bag of sweets between them - in an Auckland cinema.

Elixir

But there comes a point in long tours for management and players when, without the elixir of high achievement on the field, even the obligatory 'court-sessions' begin to feel hopelessly forced and juvenile.

The signals from Japan were mixed this week, eyebrows certainly raised by Rory Best's somewhat cryptic interjection -when speaking about the importance of a strong player-led environment - that "there has to be something to lead".

Similarly, Iain Henderson's apparent suggestion that Ireland had been somehow taken aback by the expansive game played by their hosts two weeks ago in Fukuroi.

To Eddie O'Sullivan, the energies communicated from the Ireland camp have carried worrying echoes.

Armed specifically with bad memories of the '07 tournament in France, he reflected this week: "What happens is that the energy just goes out of guys. One telling sign is when they go quiet on the field. They're almost afraid to play and, equally, not to play. This kind of torpor sets in.

"Your fear of things going wrong stops you from doing anything. Nothing feels instinctive. It's probably a bit like getting back into a car after being in a crash. You're edgy, things you previously did on reflex require conscious effort now.

"Fundamentally, it's a confidence issue. I had this experience in '07 where the opportunity to fix things always felt like it was last weekend."

In '07, Ireland arrived at the tournament hopelessly undercooked, management realising too late that, in their desire to protect the players, they'd exposed them to far too little game-time. Now?

"The mental side of it is the only side of it," suggests O'Sullivan. "That's the irony. The difference in skill, physique or fitness between most of these teams near the top of the tree is relatively small.

"Like we all agree that the All Blacks are the most skilful and the Springboks the most physical, but Ireland, Wales, England, Australia... they're all pretty good at everything.

"So, ultimately, it comes down to the top four inches. What's going on upstairs. If you go through a period of bungee performances, even though you have good days, they don't fully erase the bad days. The bad days do more damage than the good days manage to fix.

"Because they leave that little kernel of doubt and it doesn't take much for that to grow. Then superimpose on that the pressure of the occasion...

"This is a one-in-four-year cycle. It's become the big deal for us. And after being on fire for a year, in the last nine months we've been wobbly."

Schmidt's record in the Irish game will be very hard to surpass. One of the world's most coveted coaches today he has, essentially, doubled-down on the impressive work of O'Sullivan (three Triple Crowns) and Declan Kidney (Grand Slam). But his relentlessness can wear players down too, creating an environment described by Andrew Trimble as "tough and unpleasant at times".

The famous key-card anecdote from a training camp in Carton House has become almost emblematic of his hostility towards those guilty of even the tiniest deviations in concentration.

It is certainly unimaginable that one of his players would countenance doing what O'Connell did during the 2011 World Cup.

In the week of the Australia game, one of those infamous 'court sessions' sentenced O'Connell to draw a cat's nose and whiskers on his face and leave the markings there for 24 hours. It meant he took the forwards' meeting that week looking, as O'Callaghan put it, "like something out of a pantomime".

In Japan, we can be absolutely certain, nobody's chanced pitching up at a team meeting looking like Garfield.

Yet, sometimes, maybe that sense of the absurd keeps players sane when results chafe at the collective humour. And effort, certainly, has not been a conspicuous Irish shortcoming in Japan. As Ronan O'Gara said of '07: "Attitude wasn't the problem. We couldn't try any harder. We couldn't have been more desperate to get it right."

Schmidt will, thus, surely understand the need to balance firm leadership with a touch of human understanding here.

As O'Sullivan sees it, this team is still capable of staying longer in a World Cup than any previous Irish side has ever done. But they'll almost certainly need a compelling performance today.

"They're a good enough team to pull it off, that's the stupidity of this," he says. "But the longer they're taking to find their mojo, the less likely it is. They're effectively bringing a second hangover into their last group game and it's a s***ty place to be.

Blow-out

"As a coach, you try to identify the things they're good at and give them confidence. And they might buy into that going out. But all it takes is one or two mistakes for the fear to set in again. It doesn't take much when you're that nervous.

"There's immense pressure on these fellas. They're in a bit of a hole, no question. They really need a blow-out against Samoa now. You need to remind them that they've done this before. But the thing about it is that the higher up in the game you go and the bigger the occasion, the more claustrophobic the fear becomes.

"It's still possible to save it. But you need the right mix of fear and confidence so that, if they get to the quarter-finals, the team plays like it's their last game on earth. Both scenarios are still on the table.

"The trouble is that being so long together, it can become like a family get-together. When it's a good party, it's a great party. When it's bad, it's f***ing terrible. The only way to turn it around is to go out and play well. What happens on the pitch is the barometer for everybody, not just the supporters."

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