Scaling fresh peaks the next task for Joe Schmidt and his team of high-achievers
Only six of these players have won a Six Nations before – and one of those is retiring
Irish players celebrate at the final whistle after clinching the Six Nations Championship with victory over France at the Stade de France in Paris. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Success is a strange feeling. It’s rare and it’s wonderful and you never want it to go away but it also feels a bit unnatural sometimes. You never quite know how to enjoy it because you never really know what’s coming next. All you know is that you should enjoy it – you actually have a real responsibility to enjoy it. Otherwise, what was it all for?
The cold, hard truth of sport is that most people will end whatever competition they enter with a defeat. Only one team or one player can win each time so everyone else has to go away and deal with failure in some shape or form.
In a way, it’s quite easy to react to defeats. It’s not easy to take them but it’s usually fairly straightforward to work out what to do about them. You have your motivation, it’s just a matter of going and doing it. There’s actually a real sense of satisfaction in it too and maybe a bit of comfort even. You can take reassurance from knowing that by doing A, B and C you will give yourself a real chance to do better next time.
You don’t ever really become used to failure but you do learn the drill a bit better each time. You go back and look at what went wrong. You assess and evaluate what factors made you come up short. You do what you can to fix them and you use the hurt as a spur when you eventually go again. That’s the circle that every player in every sport is most familiar with.
I think it’s fair to say that there has been a mentality change throughout Irish sport over the past 10 or 15 years. For a long time, we had that small country mentality. However well we did, there would always have been a part of us that was pessimistic about our chances of really hitting the heights. That attitude of, ‘We shouldn’t really win here but we’ll give it a good old crack anyway’.
That’s gone, thankfully. Not just in rugby but across Ireland in all different sports. It had to go because you were in danger of using it as an excuse. And it’s a big part of why success has followed, whether that’s in rugby or in Olympic boxing or in someone like Rob Heffernan or Pádraig Harrington. There’s no more just having a go.
But what about when you win? How do you deal with success? – especially the sort of success that Ireland had over the weekend. It was only the second championship in nearly 30 years and only six of the guys who were involved in 2009 played this time around. And one of them is retiring.
So you’re talking about a huge number of players who are going to be handling their first Six Nations, in fact their first success of any kind in an Ireland jersey. Great sportspeople have an ability to come back and win again. Working out where to go next and how to lift it again is going to be a big part of what Joe Schmidt does with them over the coming year.
One thing they definitely should do is give themselves credit for what they did well. Repeat winners don’t just say: ‘Well, we got lucky this year and a few things went our way at vital times.’ They examine what went on and they accept that if some luck went their way, it’s very likely that they did something to earn it.
It’s important you do that because I think you owe it to yourself due to the work and sacrifice you put in. Making your own luck is more than just a cliché. If you focus too much on the lucky bounce itself rather than the work that went into getting you to the point where the lucky bounce saved the day, then you’re in danger of downplaying the work that got you there.
It’s the easiest thing in the world to look at the last two minutes of that game on Saturday and pick out Pascal Pape’s forward pass to Damien Chouly. If that pass is flat, France win, England are champions and Ireland have blown a lead in the closing stages of a big game for the second time in four months. There’s no doubt about it – Ireland were lucky he made a mess of that crucial pass.
But look at it again and watch the ground that Dave Kearney makes up just as the ball is coming to Pape. It isn’t enough to take him in a man-and-ball tackle but it’s enough to catch Pape’s eye and make him twist his body to avoid Kearney’s lunge.
That’s the last amount of energy in Kearney’s body in the 79th minute of a massively intense Test match. That’s not luck. That’s the result of months of work that started in pre-season last July. That’s an extra session in the gym, another set of weights, a night out with his mates that he shunned. That’s recovery that was carried out to the letter, disciplined diet, the right amount of sleep.
He squeezed an extra half-yard out of himself and it threw Pape that tiny bit off balance right at the moment the ball left his hands. Yes, Pape should still have got the pass away but he didn’t and you have to assume that he would have without Kearney putting him off.
By dismissing that as a lucky break, you’re basically telling Dave Kearney that all those sessions since July didn’t make the difference when it mattered most. Whereas if you hold it up as an example of what comes from hard work, you open everyone’s eyes to what’s possible. Everything comes down to small margins but anything you get, you’ve usually earned.
The key is honesty. You have to be honest enough with yourself to give yourself the credit for what you’ve done. If you can do that, there’s a better chance of you working honestly on your shortcomings when the time comes.
And that time will come. Of course it will. The next time the Ireland squad gets together, they are going to be faced with the problems that all winning teams in all sports are presented with.
When you win stuff, it can be hard to maintain a high level of self-motivation. You’ve reached the top, you’ve won the trophy. There’s always the temptation to ease off a bit, even just a couple of per cent. That’s just simple human nature.
It is always easier to skip a pool recovery session on a Sunday morning when you have just won a trophy a few months beforehand. You can find yourself making little deals with yourself in the middle of a gym session – ‘I won’t kill myself today but I’ll go double hard tomorrow’. Your body fights with you and your mind argues with you and sometimes you just give in. But you’re much less likely to when you don’t have the medal.
You tell yourself you’re working as hard as ever but are you really? After all, what are you working for? At best, you’re just going to achieve what you have already achieved. You can only go sideways or down.
Hunger to achieve is a massive thing, so much so that it’s nearly an unconscious thing. It makes you push yourself without thinking about it. Once that hunger is fulfilled, you have to find another motivation.
The good news for this Ireland team is that there is plenty more for them to achieve yet. The World Cup is looming. England have beaten them four times in a row. Brian O’Driscoll has to be replaced. They won’t lack reasons to keep working hard and keep improving.
Apart from anything else, they will go into next year’s Six Nations as defending champions. That automatically makes the opposition raise their game when they come to play them. It’s a simple thing but it’s a real thing.
The other teams are envious of Ireland this week. England will be telling themselves they were the best team in the competition – and maybe they were – but they don’t have the trophy. When they come to Lansdowne Road next year, they’re coming to the home of the champions. They’re coming to do all they can to take what they feel they should already own.
In your head, you are constantly measuring yourself against other players. Again, it’s human nature. You’re looking at a guy who plays in your position on another team and you’re going, ‘I’m every bit as good as him yet he has a medal and I don’t’.
Have no doubt that there are English players this week thinking exactly that about Irish players. It doesn’t matter whether they’re right or wrong in their assessment. What matters is that they’re going to get angry about it and they’re going to work harder to change it next time around.
That will keep happening every time Ireland play in the Six Nations until such time as they’re not champions anymore. Even when they’re not playing for Ireland, players at club level on other teams will be delighted to have a crack off them because now they’re having a lash off a Six Nations winner.
Nothing gets you noticed better than having a big game against a big name. All these Irish players are automatically a big names now.
Winning is tough. Coming back and winning again is what makes great players and great teams and great coaches. How they handle this success will be very interesting to watch over the coming year.