After a total non-performance, getting ready for the All Blacks is a matter of attitude
Losing so badly against Australia is bound to cause doubts and questions in the heads of the Irish players
Ireland’s Seán Cronin, Ian Madigan and Brian O’Driscoll after the defeat to Australia game. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
The worst part of being a professional rugby player is losing games. That probably seems like an obvious thing to say that but it’s still worth remembering when we’re giving out about how poorly the Ireland played on Saturday. However bad it was for us who were watching, it was worse for the players. We can go home and forget about it afterwards. This is their whole life, everything they work for.
The low of losing always stays with you longer than the high of winning. You don’t consciously think a huge amount about winning. All you get is that natural feeling of elation. You don’t really dissect it too much. You just enjoy the sense of having done what you were aiming to do. And it passes pretty quickly.
Whereas when you lose, all the questions crop up, and there aren’t always answers for them. Why did I do this? Why did we do it? What went wrong with our preparation? What should we have done different? Are we just not that good?
The Irish players are in a lonely place after playing so badly against Australia. A lot of them would have gone home on Saturday night and had Sunday to get away from it all. To be honest, that might not have done them much good either. After a game like that, they’d have been grumpy and irritable and when you’re in that mood, you’re nearly as well not to be around friends and family.
When your life is defined by playing rugby and you go out and put in a complete non-performance, you’re at a loss in the immediate aftermath. You don’t sleep well that night. The following morning is the worst time because it’s the first thing that hits you as soon as you open your eyes. You’re annoyed at having lost, you’re dreading the reaction from the press. It affects your whole psyche.
When Munster lost the Heineken Cup quarter-final to Llanelli in 2007, the feeling was worse than anything I could remember. We were the reigning champions and yet we were well beaten. Straight away, we had a lot of what-ifs. We knew we didn’t prepare well, not just for that match but for the whole process. We had huge expectation levels and they were just blown out of the water. It was a very negative place to be.
Every defeat is different but the Ireland players would have been feeling something like that on Sunday morning. The expectation levels were so high going into last weekend. There was a feel-good factor around the team, around the whole public really. And to have that bubble burst, to get to a situation where nothing works and everything goes wrong is very hard to get your head around.
Most sports people at the highest level are honest and realistic. You wouldn’t get there if you weren’t. They have a fair idea going into a game what sort of performance to expect. A day like Saturday pulls the rug from under them.
Because when you give so much to something and it means so much to you, getting completely outclassed like that makes you doubt everything. At least that’s how it was with me. Am I up to this? Am I fooling myself?
The week then becomes all about changing your mindset. Some guys can do it quicker than others. I used to struggle to get over a really bad defeat because it brought up all the doubts I had as to (a) what I had to offer and (b) how good we really were. It definitely took me a little longer than some of the others.
For certain fellas, it comes completely naturally. They’re able to dissect the defeat, look at the bad so that they can start working out how to fix it and then consciously decide to bin the game entirely. They instinctively know that the quicker you do that, the better set you are to get back to the winning mentality.
Mentality is the big thing. Fixing mistakes isn’t about God-given talent, it’s about the force of personality that makes you refuse to take no for an answer. You can accept not winning every day, you can’t accept being humiliated. To turn things around, you need to get your confidence back and get moving again. That’s nothing to do with your skills. It’s all to do with mentality.
Ronan O’Gara was the master of it. He had a real knack for seeing clearly after a defeat. All the heads could be down in the dressingroom on a Monday morning, everyone really disappointed, a lot of negativity in the air. And he would stand there and just raise the confidence level by making it all very simple.
He would have a go off you, tell you what you did wrong and then just go, “Look,we know we’re better than that. We were absolutely crap, our work-rate was shocking, our accuracy was terrible. We’re so much better than that so let’s fix it.” That honesty was key and he would always finish on a positive.
But it isn’t easy to turn things around and it can’t always be done quickly. Sometimes the turnaround can start in the dressing room straight after the game. I’ve been in dressingrooms where the players themselves have just drawn a line in the sand there and then. The coach hasn’t had to say anything.
That’s the big challenge for Joe Schmidt this week. What to say, when to say it, who to say it to. Sometimes you want the coach to come in and take the paint off the walls after the final whistle. You want him to tear strips off you, off everyone.
I remember a few times sitting there waiting for a coach to come in and go mental and all they did was walk in, pick up their bag and walk about again. That’s when you know you’re in trouble come Monday. Because if a coach is doing that, he’s usually afraid to start talking in case he says something he can’t take back. The mood is so dark at that point that he could easily go over the edge and get too personal in his criticism.
Because above all, the job for everyone is to find a way to restore belief for the next game. Somebody will have to be the spark. It will usually be the coach or one of the senior players but sometimes it just takes someone who doesn’t often say much to stand up and change the atmosphere.
This is backs-against- the-wall stuff really. That’s tough on Schmidt going into his third game in charge. But there’s a lot of criticism and negativity and he has to get his team in the frame of mind to fight their way out of it. They need a performance of enthusiasm and bite on Sunday, otherwise people will lose faith.
In a strange sort of way, it actually doesn’t matter a damn that it’s New Zealand they’re playing. Ireland were so bad last weekend that all they can really concentrate on this week is themselves. It wouldn’t matter of they were playing Japan, the errors from the Australia game would need to be sorted out anyway.
What that means is that they had an obvious starting point this week. Once you have that, you start improving as you go along. Find a problem, fix a problem, go on to the next one. The only difficult thing about that is you’re telling players basic stuff, you’re nearly shaming them for not getting it right in a match situation. That can fairly sting.
But if it’s done the right way and everyone is honest and up-front, you will see results very quickly. And once that happens, it means that the general confidence level lifts as the week goes on. I’m not saying that you beat the All Blacks at the end of it but you finish the week in better shape than you started.
People have to lead. The big players have to set the tone. Before the All Blacks in 2008, Brian O’Driscoll was so certain that we were going to win. There was a huge fear factor there but he was so positive that he even had me convinced. He genuinely believed that we could do it and the more he reinforced it over the week, the more players bought into it. I know we didn’t do it in the end but I always admired the way he took us by the scruff of the neck that week.
I would say there’s a good chance that Schmidt will be the one doing most of the leading. For one thing, it’s early days in his regime and this is a great chance for him to really stamp his authority on the whole environment.
For another, none of the players played well last week. I’d imagine it might take a day or two before anybody is going around barking orders. Anyone looking to lead will be demonstrating it in the way they train, the way they’re attacking rucks, their body language. They’ve got to earn the right a bit first, make up for last weekend before they go making big speeches.
Bit by bit, the whole squad has to build itself up and put itself back together before the weekend. This week is about attitude. Fix it first and then you can worry about everything else.