Ireland’s ranks are populated by some of the best players on the planet and some of the best ambassadors amongst our sportsmen, but it doesn’t mean we should pamper them in defeat and ignore huge underachievement in green, writes Ewan MacKenna.
The story goes as follows. Back in 2006, after England had fallen at home to Argentina, coach Andy Robinson headed for the press conference fully aware that his side had just lost seven games on the bounce. He was only bending down to sit when the first cutting question set an honest but brutal tone. “So Andy,” piped up one journalist immediately, “time to go?” It was fair comment because it was an affront to mediocrity, a refusal to accept losing. Many around Irish rugby could learn from it after a week of pandering to an international that was thrown away, regardless of the opposition.
Nobody is suggesting such extreme questions need to be asked of a brilliant coach like Joe Schmidt, but that doesn’t mean no questions should be asked of the players amidst all the back-slapping and flattery. After all, heroic defeat is still defeat and without criticism, there’s no constructive criticism. Sure enough, Seán O’Brien didn’t see the result as acceptable, but it doesn’t help that this group are surrounded by a national culture where so long as the performance is there, defeat is okay.
In such an environment of acceptance, there’s a danger of the same cycle of failure repeating itself. And the major worry now after going so close against New Zealand is that there’s a trend in this chapter of Irish rugby that suggests greatness before falling short. It would be a harsh analysis based on one game against the world champions, but if this result isn’t to fit a tired and frustrating narrative, then it cannot be seen as brave and as doing the country proud.
Years ago, when working for another Sunday newspaper, our golf writer was less than impressed when he saw the word choke appear in a headline above his piece. His argument was golfers detest the term and it’s a no-go in that sport. It seemed as if there was a fear of addressing a deep-rooted flaw and it was easier to tip-toe around it. But it’s an episode that came to mind this week because few want to call the loss to New Zealand for what it was. That there were 74 amazing minutes of rugby from Ireland doesn’t make losing okay. In fact it only makes it worse because against top sides, and after such an effort, avoiding mistakes and holding your nerve is the essence of elite. Far from just the physical clichés, mental improvement is what top-level sport can often be about.
Indeed it’s what Clive Woodward referred to it as TCUP, or ‘Think Clearly Under Pressure’ during his own time ruling the sport. “It is the ability to control aggression, to know when to push the referee, when to slow the ball down or have your prop fake an ankle injury,” recalled Will Greenwood of a phrase that helped England win a World Cup. “It is a catch-all phrase that sums up a player’s ability to stay cool and do the right thing. In short, it is knowing how to win.”
It’s tough to say about such fine ambassadors currently filling the Irish ranks, but if you are to judge them on recent times, as a national side we don’t know how to. In the four seasons since the Grand Slam triumph, this Ireland have failed to win more than three games in a Six Nations campaign, while only Scotland and Italy have poorer records. Since summer 2010, in 11 attempts against the three best southern-hemisphere sides, there has been just a single victory, something even Scotland mustered. And if the 2007 Rugby World Cup was a unique disaster, the last showpiece was a disappointment. Say what you will about beating Australia in 2011, but much like far worse Irish teams that went before, and in a sport played by just a handful of countries, Ireland still haven’t been to a semi-final.
Some refuse the idea that there’s been a massive underachievement, but remember this is a golden generation of players. And besides, ask yourself, when has this group actually overachieved? It’s not good enough yet few will say as much, although it’s understandable as to why.
It’s impressive that despite their high profile, these players barely ever put a foot wrong off the pitch. And when in provincial colours, it’s rare that they put a foot wrong on it. As rugby evolves at a political level and the good times slip out of sight, only then will we truly realise what Munster and Leinster have achieved. But because this group are such heroes, there’s a feeling amongst fans and media that a bad word cannot be uttered. When it comes to Irish rugby, wins are wonderful and losses are simply unlucky. We treat what should be a world-beating team like a bunch of loveable losers, as if these were still the days of Willie Anderson getting arrested for drunkenly urinating on an Argentinian flag during an away tour.
It’s an attitude that’s insulting to both the team and backroom staff. In fact it’s like the beefed up obituary in that there’s a fear of being honest and accepting reality. It’s why there’s been all this talk during the week about New Zealand being fitter, Ireland running out of steam, their DNA being that bit better than ours. Yet of the Irish team that started, there were 22 Lions’ tours worth of experience; there was an astonishing 26 European club medals; the Six Nations all-time leading try scorer, multiple Six Nations Players of the Tournament and ERC Players of the Tournament, as well as the greatest and possibly second greatest Irish man to ever play the game were all present. And still, we make excuses for them, when they deserve better than excuses. They deserve to be judged by the standards they themselves have set, not the standards we stoop to.
In his book ‘Legacy: 15 Lessons in Leadership’, James Kerr spent five months with the All Blacks and wrote: “It’s not the physical but the psychological aspect that the All Blacks have pioneered – the use of randomness, unpredictability and constant questioning, combined with pace and physicality, in order to stress the brain and test decision-making capacity.” That’s what we saw at the death seven days ago. But while this isn’t an analysis of the New Zealand game, rather an analysis of a trend, the finish last Sunday was a microcosm of the bigger picture.
There was Jonny Sexton’s penalty with seven minutes to go, Conor Murray kicking the ball away when possession was everything and Jack McGrath going off his feet when time was all-but up. Essentially there was a failure in execution, in decision-making and in discipline. It meant that our psychological weakness helped reinforce New Zealand’s psychological strength and what would Woodward as a coach have said to that?
When talking about TCUP a number of years ago, Will Greenwood continued: “If a player forgets it, he’s not just letting himself down, he’s letting his team down… To win at the highest levels you must be able to think clearly under pressure. If you cannot, you let your team down and that, in team sport, is the ultimate faux pas.” We’d do well to remember that amidst all the talk of heroic defeats. After all, yesterday’s lie is left alone only to allow today’s.
1 December, 2013
Sunday Business Post