Shane Lowry provided one of my favourite quotes in sport when he suggested that “everyone tells you how to get to the top of the mountain, but no one ever tells you how to get down the other side”.
It underlines the importance of understanding the emotional and physical toll that accompanies both success and defeat in professional sport. Traditionally the underdog tag fit snugly in Irish sporting culture and psyche, except for occasional outliers such as Roy Keane or Sonia O’Sullivan, who were once-in-a-generation athletes.
That phenomenon appears to be changing from both an individual and team perspective as Irish sportspeople seem better able to cope with expectation while delivering consistently high-end performances across the sporting spectrum.
As Lowry understood after his Open triumph, sport is a series of summits where you climb to the top and then return to base camp to start again. The next journey is a huge mental challenge because physically you know you can get there.
There were times in my career when I didn’t get it right, I’d rush back from Ireland duty to play for Leinster, sometimes through a sense of obligation and perhaps an internal pressure to be different. Physically, athletes will recover within a relatively short period that varies a little from sport to sport but what is common to every major triumph is the emotional tariff that must be paid.
Recognising that fact helps you to recalibrate and go again, ignoring it can lead to a plateau in performance terms. Ireland head coach Andy Farrell reported a clean bill of health after last weekend’s brilliant Rugby World Cup victory over South Africa and as I travelled home on Sunday morning in the company of bruised and battered Irish supporters, I began to wonder what the week ahead would look like.
When circling the fixture before the tournament, it was impossible to be sure whether Ireland would win, lose or draw but what was certain was that the need to regenerate the mind as well as the body would be crucial. It is my belief that Ireland got that wrong in 2019.
Beating New Zealand was the summit in November 2018 and, in everything that ensued in the Six Nations and World Cup, Ireland failed to peak again. They found the mental or emotional bucket too heavy to carry.
The break this week not only serves as a chance to rejuvenate limbs and minds but also to draw a line under what has gone before. Ireland must adopt a knockout-style mindset, knowing there are four matches on the horizon and, given certain results in other pools, a clear idea of what that road ahead will look like.
I have often referenced the need for a team to improve match on match in knock-out rugby. The best example I can think of was where Leinster faced Munster in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park. Given our history with our provincial siblings we had to make sure that we didn’t allow that victory to become the mountain top.
England beat the All Blacks in the 2019 World Cup and never showed up for the final against South Africa. In many ways Ireland’s win and performance provides a strong foundation for the weeks ahead.
There were huge positives in the win but many areas in the performance that will need to be improved if Ireland want to realistically target a quarter-final victory seven days after a crucial encounter against Scotland.
The core elements were there, ones that you expect from the top-ranked team in the world, work-rate, passion, leadership and trust. Whether that was James Lowe ripping the ball from Pieter Steph du Toit, Bundee Aki’s textbook tackle on Jesse Kriel from a defensive five-metre scrum or Tadhg Beirne’s ruck defence in the final moment of the match, Irish players made brave calls.
This can also be said for the Springboks, as shown in two incredibly athletic moments from Kriel to drag Hugo Keenan to the floor inches from the line and the way he hustled to get onside following Aki’s line-break.
South Africa would have not required a deep dive in their postgame analysis to source the reasons for their defeat. There were some performance issues but front and centre was the kicking from the tee.
In a game of small margins leaving that many points behind is disappointing but of greater concern is a nagging doubt whether it is fixable without a personnel change that would alter the team’s attacking set-up.
Ireland will forensically scrutinise all parts of their lineout malfunction and how best to move forward. It didn’t just cost possession but meant another block of tackling big Springboks and that additional attrition depletes the batteries.
Both teams had three try-scoring opportunities and converted one each. Ireland lost five of seven prime attacking lineouts (if you count two marginally outside the 22) and given this has traditionally been their go-to attack platform, it denied them the opportunity to consistently stress the South African defence.
An exception was Mack Hansen’s try, where Ireland won a lineout deep in their opponents’ 22 and took South Africa through eight phases. Jamison Gibson-Park looked for the widest forward on each carry to force the Springboks to work around the ruck. The final ruck before Lowe’s excellent catch and pass for Hansen to skuttle over was about six-plus seconds; the big South African pack was slow to adjust and reset.
In a tournament format the lessons learned in victory are the ones you want. Paul O’Connell can spend the next few days planning to address the lineout issues. There was a degree of fixing on the pitch, with Andrew Porter and Ronan Kelleher trying to highlight the lack of a gap.
While there is a growing sense that these two teams can meet in the final, Ireland have shown they can win with one hand tied behind their back. However, from here on in the margins narrow and Farrell’s side will need to find a way to free themselves and leave nothing to chance.