Sunday 21 July 2019

Brendan Fanning: Turning the fear factor into strong motivation

Conor Murray says there is a confidence within the squad that, if they perform, they can beat France

Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray
Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Everyone has a job to do. Four years ago, Conor Murray was the greenhorn at Ireland's Rugby World Cup, and as the runt of the litter they put him on cleaning detail.

So after a spin to or from training, or some other outing, he had to make sure the flotsam and jetsam - he remembers orange peel being the most common item - had to be cleaned up, and the bus returned to the way they found it.

Unlike the current regime, where cleaning up after yourself and generally leaving only a positive imprint, is de rigueur, back then it was just a chore to chuck at the young fella. Murray has since been upgraded, he says. Booking the golf is about as dirty as his hands get these days.

There is a symmetry to all of this for the Munster scrumhalf. It was four years ago, in the warm-up for the World Cup, that he jumped the queue and made his debut, against France, in Bordeaux. One World Cup cycle later, and he is at the heart of the affair for Ireland: a very good technician, and a team leader.

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If things are going wrong, then Murray is one of the players the management would look to for assistance. Off the field he couldn't be happier. From the moment they came into camp their time off has been maximised, he says, so while we've had seven Tests, between warm-ups and the real thing, he looks and sounds like it's the first day of term.

On the field it's ticking over, but some way removed from humming. A week ago, with the bulk of the 54,000 crowd in the Olympic Stadium expecting great things from Ireland, they were battling to contain the Italians, and Ireland needed their number nine to have his wits about him. He was concerned but not hyperventilating.

"Squeaky bum is probably the best term you can use there," he says. "Someone said it was a timely reminder for us that maybe we got a little complacent after the first two results. It was a frustrating game to play in. We wanted to play, to put on a better performance and maybe score a few more points and build up the confidence a little bit but it turned into a game where we didn't take chances early on, which might have given a bit more flow to the game, and we probably would have played a bit more.

Rugby Union - Ireland v Italy - IRB Rugby World Cup 2015 Pool D - Olympic Stadium, London, England - 4/10/15
Italy's Leonardo Sarto in action with Ireland's Conor Murray
Reuters / Eddie Keogh
Rugby Union - Ireland v Italy - IRB Rugby World Cup 2015 Pool D - Olympic Stadium, London, England - 4/10/15 Italy's Leonardo Sarto in action with Ireland's Conor Murray Reuters / Eddie Keogh Livepic

"The way the game went, we were exiting our half an awful lot and towards the end we were only seven points up and, as you say, squeaky bum time, and probably didn't want to risk running and ended up kicking it, which is something we're good at but probably didn't want to be doing too much of.

"That said, we're through that and it was a good reminder, a good kick up the behind for most of the squad. I think there was never panic. Like, if you're seven or less ahead, there's always a chance that the Italians could have scored a try and converted and even if that had happened, I think we still would have believed in ourselves, in our systems and in our ability, that we would have scored somehow."

A few nights after that, with the mistakes having been highlighted in red pen, and the focus shifting to France, there was one of those uplifting experiences which keep athletes sane when they have been cooped up together for weeks. Along came Sonia O'Sullivan, AP McCoy, Henry Shefflin, Barry McGuigan and Niall Quinn. High achievers from other codes, stopping by to pay their respects, and swap notes.

"It was actually quite well-timed that those people came in and chatted to us," Murray says. "I think a group of very like-minded people in a room together - while it is different sports, the mentality of sportspeople is very interesting. It's very, very similar. I don't think it changes an awful lot from sport to sport. Hearing their stories, hearing their tough times and how they came through them or how they approached them maybe . . .

"Sonia O'Sullivan . . . I was sitting next to her for a while and she was . . . just for her silver medal, she was going through how she mentally prepped for the race. She kind of mapped it out that she could see herself doing it and fully believed she was going to do it going into the race.

"The same with Barry McGuigan when he was talking about his title fights and the confidence that he had going in. He knew if he executed what he wanted to do and he had confidence that he could do it, that there was a good chance he was going to win. Particularly for us at this point in time, with the underdog tag beforehand people liked to cling on to that. I think we know now if we perform, I said it before, if we perform and we get things right on the day, we are in with a good shout of winning most games. It's nice to hear that from other Irish people, other sporting icons, which is very good. "

As part of the build-up to a game we've all been waiting for since the pools were drawn, and certainly since Ireland won the Six Nations tie earlier this season, it was perfect. To balance it, however, you need the fear of knowing that if you don't get it right you won't just come second - you won't be mapped at all.

"I didn't say the fear factor is gone," Murray reiterates. "I think it's just there is more confidence that we can beat them whereas before the older lads had probably not the best record against the French. I don't know, you'd have to ask them. We're fully focused on ourselves this weekend. That is not another line we spin to the media. It's genuine. We're looking at France and the threats they pose but we're fully focused on our own game and how we can go about winning this game.

Sergio Parisse, in action during Italy’s victory over Ireland in 2013, has been the Azzurri’s standard-setter for years
Sergio Parisse, in action during Italy’s victory over Ireland in 2013, has been the Azzurri’s standard-setter for years

"Yeah definitely, the biggest game of our careers for a lot of us. Especially because it's against France. We've played France in the last two seasons and we know how tight it is, how those little margins are won and lost on the pitch. Little gainline advantages, or things that lead to scores.

"Our last two Six Nations were won on points difference - we know, we've reviewed all the games, particularly the one over in Stade de France, we know those tight moments in the game where we have come through. We've scored points, scored tries, but they can so easily not happen if we're not on top of our game and we don't have those high standards. So we know how well we have to play, especially physically. Last week was a physical test for us, a physical wake-up and I think this week will be even more so. They're going to come out and probably try and bully us."

Murray's history against France is not a litany of incidents where he has been pushed around: two defeats from five Tests, and with every game he looked more and more like a man unfazed by rugby at the highest level. For him it starts with getting his house in order.

"Early on in the week, getting my detail done, and knowing my role, I can put it in the bank. For me, doing that and repping it on the training pitch, knowing I've done it well, I can then focus on the emotional side and getting physically recovered. Look, your family and friends are going to be over. It's a massive, massive game. You have to channel that and use it as a motivating factor. No one plays without any emotion. There are going to be important people you care about in the stands. That motivates me and the other lads.

"It's a balancing act and I've got it wrong in the past. Early in my career I probably got too emotional and wound-up about things. I still definitely use it [emotion] as a factor but it can only add so much to your performance. Training and getting things right in the week is probably more important."

By yesterday's captain's run then it was all done. The endless routine of box-kicking drills, aiming for the optimum 26-28-metre range, the passing, the analysis of his opponent's habits - and weaknesses - the physical preparation that make him such an important part of Ireland's defensive wall. And then there is the ethos: the bit about how you carry yourself and how you treat those who come into contact with you. Murray, in fairness to him, is good at that.

"Joe is big on that and the players and the older lads in the squad have filtered that through to the newcomers in the squad," he says. "We're very lucky at the moment, staying in really nice places and we're being very well looked after. It's only right we show respect to those people looking after you. I don't think it's an effort. It's the mentality of the squad, which is quite refreshing. He doesn't make us clean the bus, it's just something we do. Wherever we are, everyone is really respectful and very appreciative of how lucky we are in this group. And I think it shows by the way we behave."

Ireland v France, 4.45 (TV3, ITV)

We can't comment on the hype surrounding the first meeting between Ireland and France, in Lansdowne Road in 1909, but the preamble to this evening has topped anything in the intervening period. The Grand Slam game in Parc des Princes in 1982 created a lot of column inches; so too the World Cup meeting in 2007. Nothing comes close to today though.

Since France gave England a good seeing-to in the second half of the World Cup warm-up game in Paris seven weeks ago, Ireland fans have been having nightmare visions of a reprise in Cardiff. Ireland's plan will be to use their set-piece to open up France. France's plan will be to demolish Ireland's set-piece. Simple enough.

If it was Wales on the dance card then we would have had Warren Gatland in the media all week trying to put pressure on his opponents. Instead it's been France's Racing contingent saying that they can't wait to get their hands on their old mate Johnny Sexton.

Something the coach Philippe Saint-André said was also brought up by Joe Schmidt at the team announcement on Friday: at the coaches' pre-World Cup meeting Saint-André made sure to remark that France are the fittest they've ever been.

"If they get a run on you they can do a lot of damage," Schmidt said. All of which has contributed to a healthy fear factor in the Ireland camp. So if there was an element of over-confidence about taking on Italy in the Olympic Stadium last weekend, this literally is another country. One against whom our record in World Cups is woeful. Of the 14 nations Ireland have encountered over the seven previous tournaments, France are the only one we've managed to lose to four times out of four. The win over Australia in Auckland four years ago meant we didn't have to lump them into the same category. But France is a wasteland.

The sub-plots in this one are many, but take these four: the ability of Ireland to undo Freddie Michalak; the battle between Mathieu Bastareaud and Keith Earls; how Johnny Sexton copes with the attention coming his way; and how Brice Dulin will deal with the bombs primed for him. This has been a long time coming. It won't be pretty, but if you want to complain you'll be doing it from the edge of your seat.

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