Wednesday 24 January 2018

Alan Quinlan: This may seem like a lost weekend in the calendar but Big Brother's watching - and the players know it

Peter O’Mahony in action against England last weekend – the Munsterstar will be keen to return to his province and prove a point to the Irish coaches. Photo: Sportsfile
Peter O’Mahony in action against England last weekend – the Munsterstar will be keen to return to his province and prove a point to the Irish coaches. Photo: Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

Seán O'Brien walked into the Ireland dressing room at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday evening shortly before seven o'clock.

And he'd have sat there, smiling. So would CJ Stander, Peter O'Mahony, Andrew Conway and Luke McGrath. So, for that matter, would everyone, because they'd have felt the way a farmer or a mechanic or a salesman or a nurse feels after a hard day's work, satisfied with the fact they put in a long shift, pleased with the end result.

Then their minds would have drifted back to Cardiff and Edinburgh and regrets would have lingered momentarily in their heads. They'd have thought about missed tackles and missed chances, about England standing in their home ground with the Six Nations trophy and about three Scottish tries in the opening half hour at Murrayfield and a lineout going wrong on 16 minutes in Cardiff.

Shortly afterwards, Joe Schmidt would have walked into the room with the rest of his staff. He'd have spoken briefly to everyone, thanking them for their efforts over the course of the campaign, for the discipline they showed, the commitment they gave, not just in the matches but also in training and around the team hotel.

He'd have told them to be proud of themselves because he is proud to be their coach. And the players would have liked that. They'd have clapped when their coach finished his speech and would have been reluctant to move from their seats to the showers because those are the moments players live for, days when you win a game many think you'll lose.

Many will have felt tired and most would have been relieved that this pressurised seven-week period of their lives was over, that they'll not be judged severely for a couple of weeks at least and that the pessimism that gripped so many supporters after the defeat to Wales had given way to an optimism, generated by their narrow, but deserved, victory against England.

And for the next 10 or 15 minutes, you wouldn't have heard the sound of water bouncing off the tiled floors and walls in the shower room. There'd have been laughter and cheery voices, the click of a beer bottle opening and somewhere, in the background, a doctor or a physio quietly going around every player, asking them if they're okay, if any injuries were picked up during the course of the game.

Within the room, there'd have been guys who barely featured over the seven weeks and five games, who would have felt like the evening guests at a wedding, arriving after the speeches, the meal and the first dance had finished, hearing all the chat about the great day, smiling away at someone else's joke, feeling a little isolated but, at the same time, pleased for their friends who had achieved something special.

A lot of people would have approached Andrew Conway, Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath and warmly said, "Well done, you proved you belonged out there."

Marmion, McGrath and Conway would have quietly said thanks and left it at that because while their pride would have been overflowing, an inner voice would also have reminded them that they've a lot more to do before they can feel self-satisfied.

Then they'd have thought about friends and relatives and would have rushed to get changed quickly so they could get to the lounge where their partners and parents were hanging out. And, at the same time, part of them would have wanted to stay in that dressing room forever, because after a win like that over England, a bond forms within a team. Those wins are the sweetest of all.

Just as sweet are the moments with partners and parents, shared in an upstairs lounge, where you're conscious of how proud someone you love is of you.

From there, they'd have headed to the end of tournament banquet, and if they were lucky, they would have sat with someone from the opposition who was fun and interesting, who was comfortable chatting away, and those hours would have passed happily.

But when you lose, and when the speeches are long, it's a room you don't want to be in. Last Saturday, Ireland's players would have loved it. They'd have enjoyed a drink - justifiably so - because whereas at the start of my career, the question wasn't "will we go out tonight?" instead it was … "Where are we off to tonight?"

These days, though, players know they can't burn the candles at both ends. They might have a few beers after every game, but big nights out are rare events in today's professional world. The culture has changed.

And yet they remain important, because it is on a night out that players can bond and get to know each other a lot more, where different guys, who'd normally mix in a defined group, could end up chatting away in a corner with fellas they never before knew too much about.

And all this would have happened last Saturday night.

And then Sunday and Monday would have been spent at home, opening post, paying bills and catching up on the kind of stuff you put on the long finger.

Then Tuesday or Wednesday would have seen them re-enter a familiar environment, getting reacquainted with fellas they'd soldiered through pre-season with, but had barely seen over the course of the previous two months.

After beating England, there'd have been an excitement about going back, that enhanced confidence that comes from knowing that not only are they international rugby players but also successful ones. They'd have felt duty-bound about going out and training well.

Some - like Stander, O'Brien, Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Jack McGrath, Simon Zebo, Robbie Henshaw and maybe half a dozen more - will have thought, "Warren Gatland is going to watch my next match and he's going to make up his mind about whether I'm off to New Zealand this summer or else New York or Japan".

Others, like O'Mahony, will possibly be feeling the way I was in 2009, so close to being on a successful Grand Slam team, but ultimately an eyewitness to sporting history. And he will be determined - as I was in 2009 and also after the World Cup in 2007 - to get back to his province and prove a point to the Irish coaches, to the public and to himself, that he was good enough to have been selected.

If you are in a negative place in your head, you stay there.

And if you decide to swan around in training at Leinster, Munster, Ulster or Connacht, and believe you are the bee's knees, then you heading for a fall. Rassie Erasmus and Leo Cullen won't give a **** about what happened against England, their sole focus is on preparing a team for this weekend's Pro12 game because the last thing they'll want is a sloppy performance and a panicky call-to-arms before their big Champions Cup quarter-finals.

I remember coming back from the 2003 World Cup. Munster had difficult results while we were away in Australia and all the returning internationals could feel that negativity. People assumed we'd return and perform miracles but it didn't happen.

There were occasions, throughout my career, when I would have felt a bit of tension from guys competing for my position at Munster.

Training would have had a real edge to it and often we ended up kicking the s**t out of each other. I'd feel guilty about coming back and taking someone's place.

Rest assured, there will be someone - somewhere - in Munster and Leinster who will have similar feelings of guilt this coming week when they get named in a side and then see the face of a man who held that jersey while they were away on Ireland duty.

They'll sense that anxiety and they'll pretty quickly appreciate that they have got to earn their stripes again and show why they are an international player.

A decade or so ago, someone like Ronan O'Gara or Paul O'Connell would have picked up on that tension in our camp and would have had a chat with the internationals and reminded us to bring a positive attitude and intensity to training, and to deliver on what is expected of you.

You can expect men like Stander, O'Mahony and Sexton having those discussions this week.

And you can imagine someone saying, "Joe Schmidt is watching us all closely, looking for complacency. We need to perform."

So even though this weekend seems like a lost one in the season's calendar, trust me, deep down, it is anything but. Big Brother is always watching. His name is Joe, Warren, Leo and Rassie.

Irish Independent

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