Friday 24 November 2017

There's nothing we can't fix – Best

Ireland camp immersed in positive vibes despite daunting Kiwi test

Rory Best and the Ireland team are still full of good vibrations at Carton House despite their defeat against Australia
Rory Best and the Ireland team are still full of good vibrations at Carton House despite their defeat against Australia
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

WHEN you sit in one of the luxurious chairs in the Duke's Study at Carton House, you can be transported to a different world.

With the antique furniture, period features and grand surrounds, there is a 'Downton Abbey'-style quality to the place, but it is not the 19th-century parallel universe that one is in danger of falling into while speaking with the great and good of Irish rugby at their base this week.

Instead, it is a fantasy world in which the Irish rugby team does not have its backs to the wall at the end of a terrible calendar year and are not licking their wounds after a four-try-to-nil hammering from Australia and facing into a Test against a team they've never beaten with injury worries hanging over some of their key players.

There was a real sense of disillusionment with the whole international set-up among the public leaving Lansdowne Road last Saturday night after the no-show against Australia and the pubs around the stadium were filled with conversations comparing the performance to the bad old days of the 1990s.

Yet, even while those debates were getting more and more heated as the pints began to flow, the Irish team were beginning to talk about fixable problems, easily rectifiable issues and accuracy.

Sometimes you just want someone to bang the table.

Most analysis outside of the video room in Maynooth has centred on the lack of aggression and intensity shown by Joe Schmidt's team against the Wallabies, but within the four walls of the inner sanctum it has been a more controlled process and as far from panic as one could get with the world's best team lying in wait on Sunday.

One by one, the key leaders have faced the media this week and brushed off the idea that something seismic is needed. The All Blacks, we are told, are just another rugby team – albeit a very good one.

We will only know if the sanguine public face of defeat is to be worried about when they face the Haka, but the message is to keep calm and fix the fixable.

"We leaked four soft tries which the Australians didn't have to work too hard to get," says forwards coach John Plumtree.

"They took us wide once, back to wide and the next minute they were scoring under the posts. That's unacceptable, you know?

"They've got to work a lot harder than that to score points. There was a driving line-out that we knew was coming, but we didn't deal with it and that was disappointing.

"The try they scored from the scrum was a poor scrum from the forwards, because we didn't apply any pressure and we got it wrong defensively; that allowed Quade Cooper in and those were soft points."

Jamie Heaslip echoes the feelings Brian O'Driscoll shared the previous day, that the Australian rout was not a cause for concern because the improvement needed was tangible and the problems easily identifiable.

CONCERNED

"We're not too concerned about what transpired because those tries we let in are all very, very fixable from our perspective and very controllable. When we look at the game as a whole, we created a lot of chances," the vice-captain says.

Operating as they do on a week-to-week basis, players appear to be able to compartmentalise results in a way fans cannot. It's their job and they have to do it.

Since they lost 60-0 to this weekend's opponents in June last year, Ireland have struggled to put together back-to-back performances and have lost to opponents they once expected to beat.

Of course, this is a new era and no one is expecting miracles from Schmidt as he looks to implement new ideas and inject life into an ailing team.

There is no sense from talking to the players that their confidence is dented. Instead, they've spoken this week of a belief that they can become the first Irish team in 28 attempts to beat New Zealand.

Rory Best admitted it won't be easy, but insisted that the 32-15 defeat to Australia was nothing to be overly concerned about.

"I think it's tough. Mentally, it's going to be a challenge," he says. "But I think when you look back and let the dust settle on that (Australia) game – and we've been through it – I think it was very frustrating last Saturday because we created a lot. It's one of those where, if you hadn't seen the scoreline, you would have looked and seen that Ireland conceded very few penalties and you'd have assumed that, at home, we would have won it, because the one thing we pride ourselves on is our defence.

"We don't concede many tries and we didn't concede many kickable penalties, so you'd have assumed that we would have done well.

"It was just disappointing to concede four tries in the manner we did, so, from that point of view, we've had a look at it and a lot of the stuff that we did wrong on Saturday is very much fixable."

There's that word again, but as Best continues: "Words are one thing, but unless you put them into actions it really means not a lot."

The IRFU employ former Armagh footballer Enda McNulty as their sports psychologist and focusing on the positives is one of his big mantras.

During last summer's tour, he sat down with a group of journalists in Toronto and spoke at length about his methods and where he thought the Ireland team were at mentally after a rough Six Nations.

"Results didn't go according to plan, there is no hiding that and I wouldn't sugar-coat it in any way because I am around sport too long for that," he said last June. "The positives were the work ethos of the players after defeat, the attitude of the players after defeat. The professionalism of the back-room staff, incredible.

"The cohesion of the squad, Ulster, Munster, Connacht and Leinster; the cohesion on the pitch, on nights out, in team meetings.

"The other positives I would say – and I believe this fundamentally – in order to be successful in sport you need to lay the foundations early. I believe there has been granite building blocks put in place in Irish rugby that will bear fruit down the line."

That work remains in progress as Ireland look to leave 2013 behind on a high note. Back in 2012, a week before the Hamilton meltdown, Ireland faced into taking on the All Blacks seven days after they had lost 42-10 to the same opponents during a gruelling tour.

On that middle Saturday in Christchurch they came as close as they have since 1973's draw to beating the only team Ireland have never won against.

They almost turned a big defeat into a famous win in seven days and it is a reference point for this week.

"Go back to Christchurch," Heaslip recalls. "We didn't give them access points. It was pretty even-steven.

"We have got to take something from that game in Christchurch and have some belief and take a little bit of the anger from last week and take a little bit of the anger from when we played New Zealand last and help that spark the fire. Belief and motivation go hand in hand, the outcome will take care of itself. Just belief in your team-mates, the guys either side of you.

"You ask anyone who is out there training every day – they want to win. but part of that outcome is having belief in that action in that moment and then the next one and the next one and the next one.

"The next thing you know it's 80 minutes and, hopefully, you get the right outcome from all those actions."

The mantra is strong and the men are on message. An unconvinced public want to believe, but are finding their faith challenged. Over to the troops.

Irish Independent

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