Friday 17 November 2017

Sinead Kissane: Ireland can learn to live with the high expectations

Reigning champions can buck tradition and justify their tag of favourites

Rob Kearney lifts Paul O'Connell as the Ireland players go through their paces in the Stadio Olimpico during yesterday's Captain's run
Rob Kearney lifts Paul O'Connell as the Ireland players go through their paces in the Stadio Olimpico during yesterday's Captain's run
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

The likelihood is that I will be sold a dummy in Rome today. It's a hotel room right beside the Pantheon, their website claimed. It's also just a short skip in your Italian leather shoes away from the Piazza Navona, it gushed. And with excellent wi-fi in all the rooms, it lied.

You get what you pay for in Rome. Pay some big ones for a hotel room and you'll get, well, I don't actually know, so you'll have to google that one yourself. But it's too easy to get sucked in by the air-brushed pictures online of chic bedroom furnishings and hazy balcony views which can scream of false advertising.

Irrespective of that, you pack some hope and expectation into your luggage in the promise that this time you'll get the real deal.

But in the more authentic offline world, things rarely live up to your expectation. The only good thing about being let down by anything or anyone is the smug satisfaction that you knew all along that this was just too good to be true.

Which brings us to this brand new edition of the 2015 Six Nations. Which is what brings us to Rome. Thankfully, Ryanair have yet to find a way of charging for intangibles like hope and expectation because it felt like we hit the limit on that kind of excess baggage on the way over.

Niggling

There seems to be an infectious giddiness about this campaign for sure. But the niggling part of the build-up to Ireland's defence of the Six Nations has been the hope.

Because in case you don't already know, hope really is a bitch. It makes us lose the run of ourselves. Have you checked these pages today to see how much George Hook reckons Ireland will beat Italy by?

Hope turns us into unrecognisable, confident and chest-out creatures. We smell good, we sound good and we look even better. Rather like the Italians. Their rugby players are a team who are traditionally at their strongest at the start of the championship, a fact/cliche I'm sure you've heard at least 678,905 times this week alone.

But today isn't about Italy, today is about Ireland. We're simply not used to starting the Six Nations as the defending champions - today is only the third time in 30 years that Ireland kick off the championship with that title. We're not used to going into the championship after winning all our games in November - this will only be the third time ever that's happened.

We're not used to being ranked as the third best team on the planet. And the best in Europe. We're not used to being talked about as favourites in pre-tournament predictions by esteemed British journalists who usually like to keep us well down the pecking order.

We're not used to having the best squad we've ever known. We're not used to imagining possibilities without Brian O'Driscoll. And the strange truth is, we don't miss Brian as much as we thought we would. We're not used to having a head coach who we completely trust to make the right decisions, to have the right game-plan and come up with moves that no-one else has thought of.

In fact, we're not used to this current version of ourselves at all. Are we really ready for this?

And that's what happens when we're not used to success - we start to second-guess ourselves. Isn't the fear of failure meant to be a far more trendier emotion than confidence for the Irish psyche to thrive?

But you know what, I'm done with the chip, sorry, boulder on the shoulder approach which has been used in this country to get teams on the edge. What about the ideal of 'just' having confidence and belief in yourself, your team-mates and in your game-plan as the base emotion from which everything else prospers.

Yes, I can't wait to see if Ireland will "throw the ball around a little bit more" as Sean O'Brien put it last week. I can't wait to see Tommy Bowe bring sexy back to the Six Nations with some crowd-pleasing tries (are there any other kind?) after missing the last two championships. And the way RTE commentator Ryle Nugent squeezes every last scintilla out of his name which is a signal for everyone else to go ballistic.

But what I'm also really looking forward to is seeing if the Ireland players can stare down pressure and ask "is that all you got?" (I can see Rob Kearney pulling this off perfectly). They stared down the pressure of being the best team in Europe when two of the southern hemisphere big boys came to town last November and look what happened there.

As Rory Best said earlier this week, they know they have a target on their backs. He also conceded that Joe Schmidt has been putting a lot of pressure on them this week to make sure they are taking nothing for granted. The acoustics coming from the camp have certainly been grounded.

Going into last year's Six Nations, Schmidt made a point of saying a number of times that he wants fans to have expectations of this Ireland team. Box ticked.

And while this is the perfect hunter versus the hunted fodder for someone else to drool over and analyse, how the Ireland players handle this part of their preparation is an important part of Schmidt's remit.

I know I won't be sold a dummy in Rome today when it comes to the Ireland rugby team (whatever about my hotel room). We will go to the Stadio Olimpico this afternoon loaded with hope and expectation. We know what the other end of the emotional scale feels like, so to hell with it, we need to be more comfortable with confidence.

There is no air-brushing or false advertising here. This is just the real deal.

 

Question and answer time for Keatley

The first Ireland rugby team announcement of the season with Joe Schmidt felt like feeding time at the zoo. Give or take injuries, Ireland generally tends to have a settled look.

In the broadcast section of the press conference on Thursday, the back-three and the second-row were the only areas in the Ireland team which didn't require intensive questioning. Rob Kearney sat at the top table with Schmidt for the 10 minutes or so and for once he didn't have to take any questions as we all just zeroed in on Schmidt and his selections.

I keep falling into the ridiculous trap of assuming things with the Ireland head coach. Sure, the longer Ian Madigan was left on the pitch against the Wolfhounds last weekend, the more uncertain his position as starting out-half for today's game against Italy began to appear.

Either way, there was an opportunity there to start for Ireland. And he will be kicking himself that he didn't grab it and as good as make the decision for Schmidt.

But what a massive day this is for Ian Keatley. Some critics feel he needs to have more of a spiky attitude and a strut on the pitch. That's just rubbish. The out-half just needs to be vocal in terms of organising the backline and calling the shots for his team-mates. And clearly Schmidt liked what he saw in training for the past few weeks as well as the way Keatley has closed out games impressively for Munster.

Schmidt had to field plenty of questions about Keatley on Thursday. Keatley will aim to answer them all today.

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