Indomitable spirit helps Ulster scale new peaks


FRENCH NOTES:In 2008 when I arrived at Ulster, the situation was as bad as could be imagined but, like Leinster, they have been able to somehow triumph over adversity, writes MATT WILLIAMS

Sweet are the uses of adversity, which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

– William Shakespeare

FLIGHT OR fight are the two human reactions to adversity. In sport, if you run it’s over, finished. The bonus is the pain stops. No more lost games, no more slagging in the press, no more squashed dreams. You retreat to anonymity.

If you fight you will take a beating. You will be bloodied, ridiculed, mocked and humiliated but one day you will be able to “fight one more round”. As former world heavyweight champion ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett said: “the man who fights one more round is never beaten”. To stand and fight through the adversity guarantees nothing, except that you have a chance, a very slim chance, to pick up the pieces of your smashed dream and put it humbly and privately back in working order.

To grasp ‘the precious jewel’ that sits in the midst of a vile reptile, you have to be on your feet and in the game.

Most successful people owe their victories in life to the determination born within the deep loneliness of adversity. It is the toughness of spirit, conceived in the mire of defeat that says, ‘I will overcome, I will endure, I will prove myself, you will not defeat me’. That spirit has produced more champions than any institute of sport or professional club academy.

In my experience, attitudes created in the face of adversity contain the highest concentration of motivation. These attitudes forge lifelong bonds within teams and empower the performance of the extraordinary. You can’t coach attitudes but a good coach can harness them.

Only when exposed to the blast furnace heat of adverse circumstances can you discover that you are far stronger than you previously understood yourself to be. After this discovery there comes a new steel to your resolve.

I have lived with both Leinster and Ulster in days of deep adversity. In both circumstances it was my privilege to stand beside wonderful men in very adverse times.

In 2008 when I arrived at Ulster, the situation was as bad as could be imagined. There were physical fights between players. Some team members did not talk to each other. Ulster were last in the Magners League with the worst defensive record in the competition. Yet the resolve in team leaders like Rory Best, Paddy Wallace and Stephen Ferris was so strong that it was clear to me that Ulster becoming a major force in European rugby was only a few seasons away. Success was not going to be instant and the pathway was going to be long and rocky but it was going to happen.

In 2008 Ulster had been humbled.

An Ulster man humbled is an angry beast. Channel that anger, born of adversity, into positive energy and with the right rugby structures to nurture it, and success will surely follow. The humiliation of their predicament in 2008 was fuel to their fire and the beginnings of their rugby redemption.

Ulster’s journey to the final of the Heineken Cup is truly remarkable. The magnitude of their achievements has been undervalued in the Republic because of all the white noise, both cultural and political that comes with the province.

Leinster is more complex.

For many years in the eyes of both the media and public, Leinster stood in the giant shadow of Munster. To the public, no matter what the Blue team did, it was never good enough. Looking back, there is no doubt the club and the players were unjustly evaluated. When a loss occurred the media’s habit of attacking the character of the team was reprehensible. Yet only two weeks ago in this paper the loss of the 2002 quarter-final to Leicester was described in such terms.

In 2002, because of a cancelled game due to a frozen pitch, Leinster played Newcastle in Leeds on a Tuesday, Toulouse in Toulouse on the Sunday and then the quarter-final against Leicester in Welford Road on the Saturday. This staggering schedule was impossible to successfully overcome.

Prior to the Leicester match, Leinster lost Mal O’Kelly with a broken cheek, Shane Horgan with broken ribs, Brian O’Meara to ankle ligaments and Nathan Spooner played with a dislocated rib cartridge because there was no one left to take his place at outhalf.

Leicester were the best team in Europe, with Martin Johnson leading a pack that would provide the bulk of the England World Cup-winning team the next season. Incredibly Leinster led 10-0 at the 25-minute mark. Of course, those facts are not remembered. Those who make history get to write history.

The defeat was put down to a lack of character but, in reality, it was a courageous performance. In Leinster the public vilification had several more years to run.

Being one of the best teams in Europe was not enough; Leinster did not win the European Cup so they were portrayed to the Irish public as losers. The disgraceful actions of the ‘Lunster’ supporter had to be witnessed. It was not until semi-final day at Croke Park in 2009 that Leinster was finally liberated.

The adversity endured by those in the Leinster team in those years created an internal bond within the club. It created a family club. There was trust inside this family.

In 2003, after defeating Clermont away, Leinster’s first ever victory in France and one of the club’s great days, Denis Hickie stood and spoke to an emotionally charged changing room. There were the coaches, players, our chairman John Hussey, a few of the alicadoos and one or two of the players’ Dads.

When Denny spoke we all listened.

He told us that “as far as Leinster was concerned the only people that mattered were the people in the room, our families and the few supporters who followed us. We did not have a ‘Red Army’ like Munster but that did not matter, we had the people in the room and that was enough. Forget the papers, forget the television pundits. It’s how people in this room act and think that’s important. It’s what we believe that matters.”

The culture defined by Dennis, and born in adversity, was the foundations of the spirit that created Leinster. Long-serving leaders like Leo Cullen, Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll and Shane Horgan, who remained in the team for many years, passed the hunger on to each new generation of player. Other generations of Leinster teams will now be part of a culture originally shaped in adversity and so a sporting dynasty was born.

Sweet are the uses of adversity for both coaches and players.

Munster are now living with the ‘poisonous toad’. We all await their response to their adversity.

A jewel sitting flush on the toad’s face waits to be plucked.