Sunday 18 March 2018

Ryanair chief O'Leary leaves Ireland players in better place after colourful motivational talk

Michael O'Leary
Michael O'Leary

Hugh Farrelly

IF Ireland's battered squad manage to overcome a six-day turnaround and a succession of injury setbacks by beating Scotland in Lansdowne Road tomorrow, Ryanair chief Michael O'Leary can take his share of the credit.

On Tuesday night, at their team hotel in Co Kildare, the players were called in to one of Carton House's many ornate drawing rooms for what they assumed would be another team meeting regarding the challenge of overcoming the Scots.

Instead, they were greeted by a beaming O'Leary, who proceeded to entertain them with a series of anecdotes and observations from his colourful career as well as offering advice on goal-setting, ambition and the drive he believes can be just as well applied to sport as to business.

Declan Kidney has forged a reputation as being a master of motivation and this was a smart move by the Ireland coach, who knows the power of input from outside 'the bubble'.

After the disappointment of the World Cup, when Ireland set themselves up perfectly for a first semi-final appearance only to be out-thought and outfought by Wales, the Six Nations was supposed to be a revival exercise, but instead it has become one trial after another.

Ireland have had to endure numerous injury setbacks, including the loss of two Lions captains, officiating injustice, a needless trip to France and an enforced schedule of four internationals in four weeks. And, although performances have been steadily improving, the World Cup sense of opportunity lost has been continued by Ireland's inability to see off Wales and France when they were ripe for the taking.

It has also meant an extended stay in camp when cabin fever can easily set it. Carton House is a lovely location, but there is only so much golf/table tennis/Xbox you can play before boredom sets in, while the regular team and analysis meetings, while necessary and relevant, can become draining in their own way -- particularly when results have been left behind.

Enter O'Leary. The 50-year-old airline chief is never far from the public eye. Outspoken and driven, O'Leary is frequently controversial (he received another rap from the advertising authorities this week) but always worth listening to.


Educated at Clongowes and Trinity, O'Leary has a rugby background and a keen interest in sport in general as a lifelong supporter of Manchester City and owner of 2006 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner War Of Attrition.

Those experiences coloured his talk to the players, as did his experiences in working his way up the ladder and turning Ryanair into a major international airline, earning an estimated ¿334m fortune in the process.

He has been the target of consistent criticism about Ryanair's treatment of passengers, the fact their airports are often located miles from the intended destination and for his own views and utterances.

To get to where he has requires a strength of will and purpose, and it is these qualities Kidney wanted his players to tap into when they met O'Leary on Tuesday.

He also wanted to give them a break, a chance to kick back and get their minds off things while simultaneously gaining an insight into how success can be achieved.

And Kidney's intentions were realised on every front as O'Leary, a man's man never afraid to use expletives to emphasise his point, produced a storming performance.

"He is a fascinating character," said Ireland scrum-half Eoin Reddan. "He was talking about the challenges he has faced in business and the need to stay positive; about making sure that when you get your chance you are ready to go and be prepared to have a go.

"I could relate to that. He has always been prepared to back himself and that is something I feel I can do as well. You have to get on with things, you can't dwell on it.

"You look at yourself and ask, 'could I have done something different?' and as long as you can say, 'I gave it my all', you can stop beating yourself up. He was good craic, he was very funny."

This is not the first time the Ireland rugby team has brought in outside speakers to provide inspiration (see panel). In 2003, while they were in camp preparing for the World Cup, then coach Eddie O'Sullivan called the players into a meeting and told them he had a surprise speaker.

When BBC Ulster rugby correspondent Jim Neilly took to the stage, there was widespread groaning. Neilly was well liked and respected but also a familiar face and hardly a 'surprise guest'.

However, after slowly winning the players over with a few amusing anecdotes, Neilly, who doubles up as a boxing correspondent for the Beeb, then, out of the blue, called upon legendary former world middleweight champion 'Marvellous' Marvin Hagler. The players were blown away.

"It was partly motivational but partly about him speaking about how he got to the top of his sport," said O'Sullivan. "The players can identify with that because the same traits Marvin required are required in the game of rugby."

Ireland's star centre Brian O'Driscoll said he saw the former boxer as an inspiration. "When you really do not expect someone like that, it is not always the case of what he has to say, it is just the fact that he is there," said O'Driscoll. "He could have been talking about rabbits for all I care. You are just looking at him in amazement."

Five years later, when the players were in camp in Enfield setting goals for the Six Nations, Kidney introduced three-time Major-winning golfer Padraig Harrington to a similarly rapt audience.

With only a couple of notes for reference, the Dubliner spoke for nearly two hours about the psychology of winning.

The key message was how Harrington had overcome years of being a serial runner-up and his reputation as a 'choker' to finally win on the big stage -- and then win again. The players were transfixed and a few months later were celebrating their first Grand Slam since 1948.

Given that Ryanair are regularly the butt of comedians' jokes, there are obvious digs to be made about O'Leary's speech being "way off base" or "not landing where it was supposed to", but the indications are that it was a highly informative and entertaining exercise that left the players in a better place.

"He is a smart man and very interesting," said Reddan. "As well as the novelty of a talk from someone as famous and as entertaining as Michael, it is good to get input from outside your own sphere. It really gave fellas a lift."

In the middle of a hard week during an incredibly trying Six Nations, O'Leary could have been exactly what Ireland needed.

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