Gordon D’Arcy: Leinster and Munster must find their flow

Wounded Tigers and chastened Chiefs will ask real questions of provinces this weekend

Gordon D’Arcy in action against Northampton in 2013. “I know the precise moment we lost that night at a packed Aviva. After the warm-up, before the kick-off. I saw it happening. The body language was wrong, too many smiles.” Photograph: Billy Stickland

Gordon D’Arcy in action against Northampton in 2013. “I know the precise moment we lost that night at a packed Aviva. After the warm-up, before the kick-off. I saw it happening. The body language was wrong, too many smiles.” Photograph: Billy Stickland

 

“Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

More from our good friend Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the father of flow, anon.

Some context first.

I played professional rugby for 18 years. Some days the mundaneness of it all crept in. Boredom is a virus no squad is immune to. The effect is instant; we play poorly and lose. Rarely did I experience this problem before or during Leinster’s European outings.

The Northampton mess of 2013 was not down to boredom. No, our flow was taken by other ailments, like ego. We destroyed them 40-7 at Franklin’s Gardens. Every action followed from the previous one. I remember Brian O’Driscoll passing under his legs for a try assist en route to Luke Fitzgerald’s hat-trick. We looked unbeatable but that’s perhaps how the virus manifested itself.

Suffice to say a few were distracted from the task at hand. Northampton came to Dublin a week later with a collective motivation stronger than the prospect of winning any silverware – they were salvaging respect. They had been humiliated by us not once but twice dating back to the 2011 miracle final.

I know the precise moment we lost that night at a packed Aviva. After the warm-up, before the kick-off. I saw it happening. The body language was wrong, too many smiles. We lost before we had stepped on the pitch because some players weren’t in the head space to maintain our flow.

We were manhandled by Samu Manoa, Courtney Lawes and the rest. Instead of securing a home quarter-final that defeat sent us off to Toulon. The cost remains incalculable.

Johnny Sexton was in Paris but there’s enough of that team remaining to remember what went wrong. Leo Cullen was still a player. I imagine the same mistakes will never be repeated on Leo’s watch.

Leo Cullen: current coach was still a Leinster player when Northampton turned the tables on Leinster after suffering a crushing home defeat.. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Leo Cullen: current coach was still a Leinster player when Northampton turned the tables on Leinster after suffering a crushing home defeat.. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Exeter will thoroughly examine this theory. It’s a different time now.

Different Leinster team, different coaches; they look good enough to win the Champions Cup with an added bonus that everybody else looks beatable. Clermont proved as much by crushing Saracens on Monday night.

The difference between the sides at Sandy Park last Sunday was quality. The cultures at both clubs appear similar but Exeter struggled to contain Tadhg Furlong. Scott Fardy’s impact was significant. Seanie [O’Brien], Johnny, Isa [Nacewa] complete a spread of world class players Exeter do not possess.

Leinster are striking a balance now between home-grown talent, foreign contributors and a team-first attitude.

Scattergun reaction

A combination Matt O’Connor had yet to master as our coach back in 2013. Matty’s back at Leicester, as you may have noticed over the weekend with his scattergun reaction to being walloped in Thomond Park showing a veteran coach at work: call Munster cynical at every breakdown, accuse Andrew Conway of breaking Veainu’s jaw despite stooping into contact and knocking himself out!

Oh and lambast the referee.

This was O’Connor taking two in the head for his no-show players. The Tigers pack were smashed by O’Mahony, CJ Stander and the rest so he changed the narrative.

It’s smart coaching. José Mourinho did exactly the same after losing the Manchester derby. Create havoc to divert the focus away from a miserable performance. Put it on everyone else. Straight from the Aussie coaching manual, act deranged to steer the media clear of the real problem: these men are not the Leicester Tigers of yesteryear.

I’m certain O’Connor [and Mourinho] looked his players in the eye this week and said: I’m willing to sacrifice my reputation for this club, what the hell are you willing to do to protect Welford Road?

What are you going to do about Peter O’Mahony? Is Conor Murray going to be allowed dictate the tempo on our pitch?

Once the ferocity is primed and narrowed, you give them a simple game plan. Munster and Leicester already have a history of violence. Sunday evening will be the latest instalment.

I’ve been on the end of a Tiger mauling. It’s vicious. Many moons ago I marked the oldest Tuilagi – Freddie (my entire week was trained on marking this giant). This was Martin Johnson’s Leicester in their absolute pomp. The baby Tuilagi – Manu, could reappear off the bench this weekend.

Munster’s Peter O’Mahony celebrates a try against Leicester at Thomond Park. The Tigers pack were smashed by O’Mahony, CJ Stander and the rest. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
Munster’s Peter O’Mahony celebrates a try against Leicester at Thomond Park. The Tigers pack were smashed by O’Mahony, CJ Stander and the rest. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

All the ghosts of Tigers past will be stamping on the changing room roof (it’s below the old stand) before kick-off. Protect the club. No smiles. 

Finding that flow is crucial for Munster. They must scratch the surface and see how these Tigers react. Motivation comes easy in such a cauldron. 

Absolute best

Some of the best players don’t need to be at their absolute best to stand out in the Pro14. After motivating themselves to perform at the highest level it becomes a different challenge to perform in these matches against lesser opposition in vastly different confines. That’s human nature. The league provides a valuable outlet for Irish provinces and in particular it allows Leinster to grow their squad. That’s the natural value of a third-tier competition (certainly in the eyes of an international player).

The sports psychologist Enda McNulty found a solution, for me. Don’t be stressing or trying to follow the same regimental processes that are necessary when playing for Ireland. Rely on money in the bank.

I marked Yannick Jauzion a good few times. Toulouse and France, the prince of inside centres, tall, rangy, elegant. I’d visualise dipping under the hand off, or making clean contact as the second man in to deny his natural offload. You are not thinking this way en route to Zebre for a Sunday lunchtime game. I told Enda about my new source of anxiety; how I’m not adequately prepared for the drop down.

Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act

But, Enda asked, do you need the same level of preparation this week?

No.

Is there a decade of knowledge built up that allows you to perform in this game?

There certainly is.

I switched to a different flow. Dominate because you are better than the standard.

Champions Cup rugby is the ideal environment for players to perform whereas Test match rugby can be suffocating. You’ve heard about the “small margins”. They really do matter.

For Ireland, you are worrying about multiple issues from selection – there might be an enormous 20-year-old tearing up trees at training – or the intricate moves that must be remembered or you’re embroiled in contract talks that have reached a stalemate.

In Europe it’s more a case of making sure you’re in-sync with familiar teammates. Maintain the flow. The Pool stages were always about going for it. Particularly in December. It also provides a pinball scenario for teams to claim instant revenge for real or, in the case of O’Connor, perceived slights.

So far this month, the Irish provinces look superior to the English Premiership teams. Is Eddie Jones to blame for all seven English defeats in round three? Will the clubs blame England preparations? Probably, but round four will provide a clearer picture of the current status quo.

Let’s wait and see.

Bonus point

Sometimes you can lose a match yet gain a losing bonus point that proves as valuable as victory when it comes to reaching the knockout stages.

European rugby brings the best out of teams. I remember in 2006 Leinster had to win at The Rec or we were eliminated. We had to be adventurous to win. Will Green scored a try off a lineout move we had practised. Brian O’Driscoll split the defence with an outside-to-in line, I ran a wider arcing support, returned Brian’s pass to take out their fullback before Will, a former Wasps prop playing against Bath, appeared on his inside shoulder. Magical stuff. Touch the ball twice in an attack, Alan Gaffney used to say, and someone should be scoring. 

Leinster, through Sexton and others, are currently existing in a highly focused mental state that Csikszentmihalyi tells us is between the anxiety caused by a challenge seeming to be too difficult and boredom created by a challenge being too easy.

In that December sweet spot the flow of a team appears seamless but the magic can disappear in an instant.  

Leinster versus Exeter should reinforce all of this on Saturday evening. Expect a great game simply because the need of both teams remains enormous and almost equal.

This mid-December week is all about the flow. Ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. Like playing jazz. You know it’s snowing, you see people hustling about with Christmas stress, but rugby players must be existing in a state of Zen.

“Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act,” Csikszentmihalyi wrote.

Creativity flows thereafter.

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