You're only nervous when you're truly confident

Wed, May 16, 2012, 01:00

FROM THE BLINDSIDE: For the players, there’s no point pretending the Heineken Cup final is anything less than a defining moment in their lives. There should be no ‘if onlys’

THE ONE thing a player can’t do when he’s getting ready to play in a Heineken Cup final is pretend it’s just another game. This is different; of course it’s different.

This is a special time in your life and you have to treat it that way. If you just let on it’s the same as every other game you’ve gone out and played, you won’t be ready for the intensity of it. You’ll be playing with and against guys who are hitting every tackle like it’s the last one they’ll make all year and if you’re not prepared to do the same, the game will pass you by in a flash.

There’s no point pretending this is anything other than a massive moment in your career and in your life. Why would you? This is what everything else is for – every day of work, every bit of failure and success that has gone before is leading up to this one game. No matter how good a player you are, no matter how lucky with injuries and how well-run your club is, you’ll still only get to play in a handful of these games at most. Even Brian O’Driscoll didn’t get to play in one until he was 30.

What I’ll remember most about the week leading up to a Heineken Cup final is just the pure excitement of it all. You’d have this nervous energy in your body and since you weren’t doing any of the really physical stuff in training, there was nowhere for it to go. There’s very little contact work this week, just a lot of fine-tuning and video work.

I’d say by now the Ulster guys are dying to get stuck into something.

They’ve been pretty much wrapped up in cotton wool since the semi-final, whereas Leinster had to get through their Pro 12 semi-final last weekend.

That can work both ways – in 2000, Munster had a couple of weeks without a game before the final whereas Northampton had a few tough games in the Premiership.

They were that bit more battle-hardened than us going in as a result. We were a bit off the pace and we weren’t as clinical as we had been up to that point.

Brian McLaughlin had his players away in Portugal last week and they would have done any of the heavy stuff over there. This week is just about getting the memory back in to the muscles, making sure everybody knows their role and keeping that sense of excitement going within the squad. Saturday is a shoot-out. It will be nervous, full-blooded and winner-takes-all. The Leinster players know that because they’ve been there before. The Ulster players have to get themselves into the right frame of mind for it.

Partly, it’s about fear. You have to go into a game like this with a healthy fear factor. You have to know that today could be your day and you have to be afraid of what happens if you don’t live up to it.

You always have a little bit of doubt, a little bit of worry. You have to picture yourself on that podium at the end and if that vision doesn’t make you nervous, then there’s a real danger you won’t perform.

At least that’s how it always was with me. The closer the game got, the more nervous and uneasy I became. In the early part of the week, I would be full of positive visualisation. I’d be thinking of all the big plays I was going to make, of the opposition players I was going to disrupt, of all the ways I was going to help my team-mates.

But as the day got closer though, that visualisation would become more negative. I’d start thinking about the things I had to not do. I had to not get into trouble with the referee, I had to not get into trouble with my team-mates. Don’t do this, don’t do that. You’ve come this far – don’t be the one who makes a balls of it now.

You don’t have that in every game, which is what makes a Heineken Cup final so special. You give small things more significance than you would the rest of the year, even something as routine as putting on your tracksuit on the Friday morning and leaving the house. You know putting on the tracksuit that the next time you’re wearing a proper suit, it will all be over.

You know going out the front door that the next time you come back through it, you’ll be either a champion or a loser. You’re in match mode now and the meet-up, the flight, the bus, the captain’s run over there – it’s all part of it. It’s not until you get back to the hotel the night before the game that the nerves really set in.

The night before the 2008 final against Toulouse, myself and Ronan O’Gara were rooming together and we were probably more nervous about this game than any of the finals we played in.

Rog had played in all three of Munster’s finals up to that and I had played in two. We found ourselves chatting about the game longer than either of us had intended, purely because we were both so nervous about it. I remember saying to him at one point there must be easier ways to make a living than this, sitting in a hotel room in Cardiff on a Friday night with your stomach churning.

I think it must have been because we were so confident that we were so nervous. We knew we were going into that game with all the bases covered.

We knew that everybody in the team trusted everybody else and we knew that we all had experience of the day behind us. Even though it was Toulouse we were playing and they had a world-class squad, our only fear was underperforming. That was what had us so nervous – the worry that we might not play up to our ability. It wasn’t a fear of losing, more a fear of not doing ourselves justice.

I’d imagine Leinster will be in a similar frame of mind come Friday night.

No matter what we say about Ulster, everybody agrees Leinster are favourites on Saturday and if they perform the way they know they can they’ll win their third Heineken Cup in four seasons. Leinster have come through the tougher semi-final, they’re unbeaten in the competition since December 2010.

If everything goes the way it’s supposed to go, there’s only one winner.

But I don’t buy this idea that Ulster have nothing to lose. They have to be brave and throw caution to the wind to some extent but if they go in thinking they have nothing to lose because nobody expects them to win, they’re just wrong. This is what I mean about it being a special day in your life. A game like this doesn’t come around very often and it might never come around again. You don’t want to spend the rest of your life wishing you’d realised at the time what a massive chance you had.

The heartbreak for Ulster if they lose on Saturday will be huge. Nothing to lose? They have a final to lose and it’s a very long way back to this stage of the competition. They will be starting from scratch again in the autumn and they’ll have to fight for every inch to have as good a season again.

Their lives will be very different if they’re starting from scratch as Heineken Cup champions rather than plucky underdogs who had a go but didn’t win.

Ulster have to do what they did to Munster. They have to frustrate the hell out of Leinster and throw them off their stride and out of their rhythm.

Saying that, they won’t get away with 30 per cent possession like they did against Munster.

Leinster are too good with ball in hand and they’ll just punish Ulster if they let them have the ball. Munster didn’t hurt them. Leinster will because they generate such quick ball and they can create chances out of very little.

So Ulster have to score. It sounds obvious but they’re not going to squeeze the life out of Leinster and win with just the odd try and a few penalties.

Leinster have the fire-power and they have the experience and there’s just no way Ulster can hope to get an early lead and hold out until the end like they did in Thomond Park. They need to be able to pick themselves up when they concede and trust themselves to go down the other end and rack up a decent score. They will get chances and when they do, they have to take them. Any sniff of blood has to be seized upon because finals pass so quickly.

The breakdown is going to be the key. Both teams are very good in that area and if the likes of Chris Henry and Stephen Ferris can slow Leinster’s ball down, then they have a chance. Both teams will have top quality back fives on the pitch and for such an important area of the field, Ulster can feel confident there’s no massive difference between the sides. They need to get on top in that area and frustrate Leinster.

In the end, you have to favour Leinster because they’ve got the experience and they’ve got the class. They’ve got the senior players who will be expecting unbelievable passion out of Ulster and they’ve got a coach who gets the best out of them.

Most of all, they know just what winning the competition feels like and they’ll move heaven and earth to get that feeling again.