Monday 11 December 2017

'We need to compete for 80 -- not 79 and a half minutes'

O'Brien urges team-mates to take next step into world where belief fuels success

Sean O'Brien on the charge against the All Blacks on Sunday
Sean O'Brien on the charge against the All Blacks on Sunday
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

"We're just disappointed. We felt that we had it there and let it slip away. We want to take that extra step to the next level. We want to go to that next stage."

-- Warren Gatland, November 17, 2001

AS Ireland's players trooped off from their warm-up to begin their final preparations for Sunday's assault on the All Blacks, they passed two of their old colleagues suited and booted on the touchline.

Their focus and intent was such that Shane Horgan and Ronan O'Gara didn't get so much as a glance from their mates as they headed for the dressing-room, but if they had it would have been a reminder of the precious thing they held in their grasp. Opportunity.

The two retired players chatting on RTE television will never beat New Zealand, the 23 men togged out in green still had a chance.

Horgan faced down Jonah Lomu as 23-year-old back in 2001 when Ireland led New Zealand 21-7 at half-time before coming unstuck, while a 24-year-old O'Gara watched on from the bench as an unused back-up to David Humphreys.

Warren Gatland's side wilted in the face of the wave of power that was unleashed after half-time as John Mitchell's side ran in five tries to Ireland's one and left Dublin with a 40-29 win 12 years ago.

Sunday's vintage lasted 81-and-a-half minutes before finally breaking but the feeling won't have been any better.

CLOSER

Having come within three points of the world champions twice in their last three meetings is a sign Ireland are closer than ever to breaking the last hoodoo, but while they might feel their chance will finally come -- it is up to them to take it next time.

Horgan knows all about it, O'Gara too. Gatland certainly found out pretty quickly when the IRFU relieved him of his commission just a few weeks after he had rattled his home nation's cage. Irish rugby has come on in leaps and bounds since 2001, but one thing still hasn't changed.

The coach's words in the aftermath in 2001 could have been copied and pasted and attributed to anyone connected to the set-up 12 years on; that next stage is Six Nations success and ultimately a World Cup performance in 2015.

There was plenty to take in during the after-match exchanges beneath Lansdowne Road on Sunday, but what hit home most clearly was Steve Hansen's assertion that Ireland "sometimes don't believe they are as tough as they are".

As a former Wales coach, the New Zealand supremo knew last Sunday's opponents well and, while it may sound like the normal pat on the head from a visiting coach after a hard-fought win, there was sincerity to his delivery.

Belief was a common theme that ran through the discourse.

Sean O'Brien's comments hit home most when he spoke of the "anger" in the dressing-room at letting history slip through their grasp.

"I think it's time lads grew up and got to know what's expected of them when they pull on an Irish jersey," the Tullow man said.

The openside was back on the airwaves yesterday morning and, while a few beers and a good night's sleep had calmed the emotion to a degree, the sentiment remained.

"Maybe I was a bit emotional at that stage, I think lads know what's expected of us in an Irish jersey, but maybe it's dealing with finishing off a team when we get a lead like we did yesterday," he said.

"Especially against a world-class team like the All Blacks, you can't give them a sniff. They'll take it and we've to learn and move on from that.

"It's about believing now in ourselves, moving on and trying to take a step forward. Really having a bit of confidence in the way we play and what we're about. There was a lot of pride in the jersey on Sunday, emotion and Irish teams, when we bring that, are incredibly dangerous.

"We need to bring that every day and we won't be far away from trophies."

Richie McCaw spoke on Sunday of the belief instilled on him by his former team-mate Todd Blackadder when he was a young provincial player on his way to greatness.

When they were handed the ball on their own 10-metre line with 20 seconds on the clock, the world's best team clicked into gear and from there a sense of doom came over the stadium as they patiently recycled their way to the try-line.

After winning 13 on the trot, they fully believed they could get over the line. Nobody panicked, everybody knew their role. Smith, Cruden, Coles, Crotty, try. Cruden converted and what Hansen described as the All Blacks' greatest comeback was complete.

"It shows the belief they have in themselves, I suppose, of playing to that last couple of seconds in the game and that's where we need to get to. We need to get to a place where we're able to compete for 80 minutes, not 79 and a half," O'Brien said.

It is a pertinent point, as former All Black scrum-half Justin Marshall said: "They just don't know how to lose, do they?"

"I didn't think they had it in them with 10 minutes to go," he continued. "They just have an inner self-belief, team belief, to get the job done somehow.

STEP

"Ireland had the opportunity there to win it and they'll look back on this game and say, 'How did we not?' The ability is there, what they need to do is learn from all these times when they've been so close is to close the game out. That's the next step."

O'Gara possibly summed this Ireland team up as "probably the best team in the world for one-off performances" in the aftermath of Sunday's heartbreak and Joe Schmidt's challenge when he next assembles his squad together before Christmas is to pick them up from their disappointment and channel the best parts of the performance into their belief system.

By the time they meet again, the players will have gone into battle with their provinces, battles they normally win. When Munster, Leinster and Ulster are faced by adversity, more often than not they come out on the right side.

When the cream of those teams come together in green they have not been able to find a way to combine their winning ways and as a result finish 2013 with a losing record, with their marquee win over Wales feeling a lifetime ago.

The All Blacks employ "mental skills coach" Gilbert Enoka and Hansen paid tribute to him yesterday. Former Armagh footballer Enda McNulty holds a similar role with Ireland and part of his remit is helping Ireland become a clutch team.

On Sunday, it felt like Irish rugby was instilled with a new lease of life.

"I've never heard the atmosphere like that at the Aviva to be honest with you," O'Brien said. "That's the first time I've really felt that the crowd were behind us in a long, long time and we need that at home. We probably gave them something to shout about as well, but it's a good feeling to have that kind of support behind you."

Their desire, commitment and skill got the public back onside on Sunday, but while the hearts and minds were won the match was not.

It will only prove a giant leap forward if Ireland can learn from their mistakes and use the bitter taste of that last-gasp defeat as an ingredient in their recipe for success.

They proved they can live with the best, their next challenge is believing they can beat them.

Irish Independent

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