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Matt Williams: Leinster’s plight reveals the double-edged sword facing all elite rugby players

Athletes stare into the eyes of the monster that is defeat and search to find the courage to overcome their fear of failure

I was only a few years out of school and joyfully playing for Eastwood rugby club in Sydney. I was pumped up with youthful excitement for every match. After a game late in my first season, I sat in the changing room next to a senior player who had been my mentor. He was in his early 30s but at that time I thought he was impossibly old.

He placed a brotherly arm across my shoulder and told me he was retiring at the end of the season. I could not understand why he wanted to stop playing the game that was giving us so much joy. It was an impossible concept for my still forming, adolescent brain to comprehend. So I asked the most simple of questions. “Why?”

His answer has stayed with me across the decades. “I can’t stand the pain of losing any more.”

He could endure the hours of training and the physical bruises that a contact sport brings. He relished the camaraderie and brotherhood that remains integral to rugby’s culture. He would deeply miss the adrenaline-pumping sensation of heightened consciousness, when the laser-like mental focus required for the contest makes you more present in the moment than in no other area of your life, with every atom of your being sparking in full life.


He was prepared to leave all this in his past because of the emotional pain he felt when waking up on Sunday mornings after a defeat. Like the constant dripping of water on a rock, the long-term pain had worn him down.

The brains of rugby players who make it to the elite end of their sport are wired differently from the rest of society. They are pathological competitors who develop compulsive habits to fuel their desire to prove themselves superior to their competitors. To feed this winning obsession they are compelled to dance with the devil of defeat. Every contest is a double-edged sword where they strive to succeed, while completely ignoring the existence of the dark side of defeat.

Last Saturday as Leinster walked out in front of a packed Aviva Stadium, taking on the best team in Europe, they were treading on that sword’s razor-sharp edge. There were only two possible outcomes. Elation or desolation. There could be no middle ground.

On Saturday in Cape Town Munster face the same fate. After winning the most enthralling match of the URC season and condemning Leinster to more pain, their reward was a long-haul flight to South Africa to confront the Stormers in front of a sold-out DHL Stadium.

Munster face a gigantically powerful foe, with the odds overwhelmingly stacked against Peter O’Mahony and his men. Yet after courting disaster earlier in the year they have turned their season around to brilliantly reach the grand final. Despite all of this success, a loss today will open them up to the false accusation that they have failed.

Before both finals Leinster and Munster understand that whichever way their matches would go, the consequences would be lifelong because when you win a trophy it is yours for life. Defeat offers the same sentence.

In this environment athletes stare into the eyes of the monster that is defeat and search deep within themselves to find the courage to overcome their fear of failure. Ask players what their first emotion is in the moments after winning a championship and so many will tell you it is the feeling of relief at not being subjected to the pain of defeat. The elation does come but it is a secondary emotion.

A week on from lifting the Champions Cup and La Rochelle are back at the grind, chasing their first ever Top14 title. The reception the team will receive from their enraptured supporters as they walk on to their home ground at Stade Marcel Deflandre in the final round before the playoffs will be delirious.

They are back competing for the Bouclier de Brennus in the full knowledge that the playoffs can unexpectedly shatter their dream. Despite lifting the Champions Cup, the La Rochelle players accept that their season may end in pain. They only have to look back at Leinster to see what desolation a loss will bring if their Top14 dream is shattered.

Take a moment to consider the courage required for players to repeatedly strive and give their all for trophies with the full knowledge of the high price failure will bring. Pain and public ridicule are the unjust realities of perceived failure.#

Leinster remain a unique rugby phenomenon, with a team of players predominantly produced in their province, they have dominated both the URC and the Champions Cup for several years. Yet their trophy cabinet is ageing, as are their players.

There are questions for Leinster. Do they have the ability to emotionally overcome the seemingly endless string of painful defeats in major matches?

Leinster will heal from last Saturday, but all healing leaves a scar. How many scars can their collective rugby hearts endure?

Are the minds of Leinster’s undoubtedly great players beginning to fill with the same thoughts as my old teammate who smiled at me all those decades ago, with a face strained with the pain of accepting that he could endure defeat no more? I hope not.

Perhaps we all need some perspective on last weekend’s result. That perspective should fall to the great wisdom of my schoolboy coach Brother Paul Leary. After we had given more than our all in a big match but had come up desperately short to a better team on the day, with much pride he told us: “They did not beat us. They simply scored more points than us.” A mantra I have carried across life.

Leinster lost by a solitary point. The men in blue can either walk the path of my old teammate and pack it in or take Brother Leary’s perspective. The game itself is the greatest of teachers for life. We can quit in adversity or we can fight and endure. As the cliche goes “when you are going through hell, you must keep going.” The choice is ours.

For the record, with Brother Leary’s wisdom and under his coaching, my schoolboy team took our revenge the following season.

Leinster can do the same.