Leinster can rediscover the mongrel dog within and rise again
When two evenly-matched teams clash, the winning edge is found within the team that is the more desperate to win.
In the back-to-back Heineken Cup rounds, Clermont had a crucial motivational edge over Leinster.
This type of motivation can be pictured by the image of a skinny, starving, mongrel dog standing over a tasty scrap of food. Growling with its lips curled back, baring its yellowed fangs, it is willing to fight and die for the morsel, because it knows failure will mean starvation.
The mongrel dog may be nothing more than fur, paw nails and teeth but it is willing to die in the fight.
This unconditional commitment to the fight will defeat stronger opponents that are not willing to die.
At Lansdowne Road Clermont were that mongrel dog.
Last season while Leinster celebrated their wonderful European Cup triumph in London, high on the French Massif Central, Clermont players and coaches agonised through weeks of emotional pain and frustration. After years of humiliation at the hands of Leinster, Clermont decided losing was no longer acceptable. Whatever the price that had to be paid for victory, Clermont were prepared to pay it.
While this is painful for all at Leinster to acknowledge, let’s not sugar-coat it. What Clermont did was mighty.
At both scrum time and in defence Clermont broke the law. They were offside all day. More power to them because to win you do “whatever it takes”.
Like motherhood, winning, is not for wimps. If winning means effective illegal tactics, then do it. While much discussion in Ireland has focused on the French illegality, it was Clermont’s brave, courageous tackling that repelled wave after wave of Leinster runners that demonstrated their motivation.
I have witnessed this type of commitment at first hand. The emotion and energy created in a team, when every member commits fully to the cause of winning, can never be replicated by a lone individual. It is as if the elements of the universe conspire to assist the team attaining their common goal.
It may sound like a new age fantasy but sportsmen around the world who have experienced this sensation will assure you that it is real.
Leinster have also experienced this phenomenon.
In 2009 in front of 80,000 at Croke Park, after years of having the nation rub their noses in Munster’s success, Leinster discovered the mongrel dog within. A defeat at the hands of Munster that day would have been unbearable. Winning was the only option and to a man Leinster committed to the do or die mission.
From that day the mongrel dog has stayed with Leinster – until Clermont came to Lansdowne Road.
I am not suggesting Leinster were unmotivated, that would be an oversimplification. Leinster are true champions and were brave but Clermont’s desperation to win was greater.
After last season I thought Leinster were on course for a dynasty of championships but success can make you weak. Like a thief in the night, winning can steal away your inner drive, that crucial edge.
The contentment that winning brings can eat into your subconscious and place dangerous emotions into your mind. Emotions like accomplishment, contentment and fulfilment. These throw food to the snarling mongrel dog of your motivation and turn it into a well-fed lap dog.
In the words of Marcel Proust: “Happiness is beneficial for the body, but grief powers the mind”. Happiness has not been good for Leinster’s mindset.
Crash and burn
Bill Walsh, legendary NFL coach of the San Francisco 49ers, won five Superbowl championships. In the NFL Walsh observed “that individuals who prevail in a highly competitive environment have one thing in common besides success, it is failure and their ability to overcome it. Crash and burn is part of it, so is recovery and reward.”
Bill Walsh’s 49ers of the 1980s won a sequence of Superbowls. Then, like Leinster, they lost. It took time but the 49ers rediscovered the mongrel dog within and they once again recorded Superbowl victories.
For Leinster, this Heineken Cup season is over. Yet I believe Leinster still have what it takes to recover and win in Europe. They have massive talent across the entire organisation. Joe Schmidt took over a hungry and driven Leinster and they have won championships that have etched their names into Irish rugby history.
Joe’s task now is, after achieving so highly, can he do what Bill Walsh did with the 49ers and lead Leinster to rediscover the motivational hunger necessary to win the Heineken Cup again? This is a brilliant challenge for a top coach like Joe.
Gene Tunney, the Irish-American former heavy weight boxing champion, said, “champions get up when they can’t.” I know a lot of champions in the Leinster team and there are still a few old mongrel dogs in D4 that right now are hurting and licking their wounds. I would not dismiss Leinster from winning next season’s Heineken Cup just yet.