Tuesday 24 October 2017

Alan Quinlan: Last week's loss reminded me of Argentina in 1999 - but Ireland can bounce back with a bonus point

Alan Quinlan

I open a door and then close my eyes. Never before has anything felt so awkward. But there's nowhere else to go even if there are a million other places I'd rather be. And that's the price you pay when you're deemed good enough to be called up to a World Cup squad but not quite ready to have a place in the match-day 22.

So you stand around, dressed in your shirt and tie, and stare at your feet, uncomfortable with the silence that surrounds you. Ordinarily, dressing rooms are noisy places. Studs clatter off tiled floors, the team's joker speaks more loudly than he normally would and, all across the room, there is laughter and fun.

But on this occasion there are no jokes, nor any smiles.

Every sound is amplified. You hear someone cough and you know it's to hide the fact that tears are on the way.

Seconds later, from another part of the room, you can see a guy's eyes moisten and that just makes you feel even crappier than you already do.

In any other walk of life, someone would go across to that person and put an arm around him. But the rules of polite society don't apply here.

Seven minutes earlier, Stuart Dickinson, the Australian referee, blew the whistle on Ireland's World Cup hopes.

It's 1999. Lens. Argentina have beaten Ireland 28-24 to advance to the quarter-finals and I've just walked in on the sporting equivalent of a wake.

Was this what it was like in the away dressing room at Murrayfield last Saturday? For 10 minutes or so, I'd bet it was. Anyone who'd have entered that room would have been met by the eeriest of silences. They'd have seen 23 lads sat motionless, staring at the floor.

No one would have talked, not for a good bit. Then, out of a duty of care, the team's medical people would have gently approached the players who they knew had taken a knock and would have crouched down beside them and softly asked: "How's the shoulder, Tadhg?" "You okay, Iain?"

But nobody in that room would have been okay. For those who played, there is hurt and regret.

And for those players who just missed out on the match-day squad, this is as uncomfortable as it gets. Your job is to say nothing and give people space, because they'll be going through hell in those seconds and minutes, reflecting on the defeat and also, in their heads, on the things they did wrong.

I've been that person. I've sat there with just dark thoughts for company, thinking about a missed tackle or a dropped catch, about whether I'd lose my place or if rugby people, who support the team, would think less of me on the back of how I've just performed.

Those Ireland players last week? They'd have had those same thoughts. They'd have been shocked and distraught.

Whereas Lens in 1999 was the end of the World Cup, and felt - in the subsequent hours - like the end of the world, last week's emotions wouldn't have been quite as bad.

Yes, there'd have been pain at the fact a Grand Slam chance had gone, in light of the heightened expectation after November's successful series. There'd have been silence, broken only after about 10, maybe even 15 minutes, when someone, somewhere starts to think about getting his gear off and heading into the shower.

Within half an hour of the final whistle, the first murmurings of conversation would have been heard.

Joe Schmidt, Andy Farrell and the rest of the coaching team would have realised this was probably the time to tell the team where they'd gone wrong.

The players would have taken the silence with them onto the team bus. They'd have stared out the window into the Edinburgh sky and would have been lost in their own little world. Some would have been angry with others, some would be beating themselves up, wishing they could turn back time.

They'd have gone to their beds that night knowing they'd struggle for sleep and when they woke up on the Sunday morning, that's when the loss will have hit them hardest, because that's when the shock will have worn off and the realisation will have kicked in, that the day before, they'd lost a game they should have won.

If all this sounds melodramatic and funereal in tone, then that's understandable.

Being a professional sportsperson is a strange business, where a win has a tendency to bring relief rather than euphoria and where defeats overwhelm you. Yes, crass as this sounds, being in those dressing rooms, as I was in Lens, was like being at a wake.

You're there to console, to pat a guy on the back and show him that you care. Yet there's nothing you can say, because deep down, both of you know that a grieving period has to be allowed, that words - in the immediate aftermath of a match like Argentina in 1999 or Scotland last week - are pointless.

By Monday, it will have been different, though. Because by Monday, those Irish players will have realised that there was still a prize to fight for - that unlike the aftermath of that World Cup in Lens, there is a chance to correct things.

The night before, the players would have made their way down to the team room and the video room in Carton House and spoken to Mervyn Murphy, the team's video analyst, and checked out the clips of their performance.

They'll have noted their mistakes and will be fully aware that they'll be pulled up on them in front of the group the following day.

From what I'm told, Schmidt does not hold back with his words in these meetings. Yet though harsh, he can be fair. No player - no matter what their reputation - escapes punishment.

Plus, he knows he needs to get a balance right between explaining to players how standards need to rise without denting their confidence.

Unlike Lens in 1999, the problems from Murrayfield are fixable. And Schmidt will have told the players that.

By Monday afternoon, the healing process will have begun. There'd be an edge to training.

Players will have screamed at each other, demanding the best, in terms of effort and standards. In the past, during weeks like this, I can frequently remember rows occurring between team-mates. And yet, when training was over, we'd all feel a little bit better about ourselves.

Still, a week is a long time in sport. Even if you have turned a corner, mood wise, on a Monday, you'll know, deep down, that the waiting game until Saturday is tortuous.

Preparing for Italy - and figuring out how to beat them - will take over your thoughts as the days go by, but believe me, after a loss like last Saturday, hours will feel like days, days like weeks.

By this morning, they'll be focused, even if the unwanted distraction of Rory Best's stomach bug - which forced the Irish captain to miss training yesterday - is a negative factor they have to contend with.

If Best makes it, there'll be relief, but even if he doesn't, deep down there will still be a confidence in Niall Scannell and also a conviction that if Ireland turn up with the right attitude and match the Italians' physicality that they should have too much class for their hosts.

They'll know what's coming, that Italy will attack Ireland around the edges and attempt to ruffle them.

If Ireland's attitude is right, though, and if they enter the game with a positive mindset then it isn't just a victory that they'll be travelling home with, but a bonus point, too. In more ways than one, the team needs to show stomach for the fight.

Irish Independent

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