Blessed be the off-season. Gone are the days when players drank as much as humanly possible until official training resumed.
Like many current pros, my last few summers were consumed by Daddy Day Care rather than sipping cocktails on some far-flung beach.
Exposure to some sunshine will be high on the list for the player and his better half. Not that you want to be hopping on another long haul (business class) flight to stay in another (five star) hotel. Such creature comforts help the body to get from one big game to the next but holidays are all about doing something entirely different.
Draw breath. Press the off button. The first two weeks must be used to decompress. Hang around Dublin with your family or head down the country with friends you have neglected for months. Go fishing. Play golf. Whatever floats your boat.
Draw breath because the mental attrition of these past 24 months needs to dissolve before the group reunites in a month or so.
Press the off button – something that needed to happen after November.
That’s why, I think, Ireland struggled during the Six Nations. Can any of us fully comprehend the heights they reached to beat the All Blacks?
A highly motivated England came to the Aviva and exposed the slightest dip in form. I stated mid-Six Nations that the end couldn’t come quickly enough. To their enduring credit, Ireland showed well against France but the performance in Cardiff revealed a team in need of recuperation – mentally and physically, but mostly the top six inches.
A drop in standards was inevitable. The past two seasons have been glorious but unforgiving.
Wales and Warren Gatland are worth examining. How he motivates the group also feeds into why the Lions have been so successful (hence, he leads them on a third tour in 2021).
Tactical or physical preparation will not be an issue for Ireland or any team with aspirations of winning the World Cup. England, Wales, South Africa, New Zealand and even Cheika’s Wallabies should have their houses in order when they arrive in Japan.
So, what will it come down to?
See how the Lions gelled under Gatland in New Zealand. That had a lot to do with his Welsh players (also, Johnny and Owen). Wales hardly reinvented the wheel en route to their latest Grand Slam; Gatland’s magic potion pushes a team towards tunnel vision.
Leinster can help Ireland reconnect to the collective mindset evident throughout 2018. Munster’s season won’t cause any lingering problems because, for the most part, their Irish players performed well. Keith Earls, Joey Carbery and Peter O’Mahony produced some outstanding performances.
There won't be any good excuses. Ireland will be good enough or they won't
They are not thinking about wearing the red jersey until November. There were plenty of times over the years when coming into Ireland camp was a welcome escape from Leinster’s latest coaching search.
The leadership group is equally important for Ireland. The leaders retain enough force of personality to steer the group and inform the coaches what needs doing at certain moments.
This is Rory Best’s fourth World Cup. Third for Conor Murray, Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Sean Cronin, Cian Healy and Earls. There’s a nice balance of experience and bright young talent in the 45-man squad announced yesterday.
No bolters, as Jean Kleyn and Mike Haley – two foreign signings, neither of whom are guaranteed to make the final cut – have been added to a very familiar group, currently without Will Addison (pity, he excelled for Ulster until the back injury).
I recall five pre-seasons before World Cups. It’s different. Didn’t make the cut in 2003 and 2015 – for polar opposite reasons – but overall I never played my best rugby at the other three tournaments.
I’ll examine this in more detail when the column returns, but the highest standard of rugby doesn’t suit most players. And be under no illusions, the World Cup is another level to a European final or Grand Slam showdown or Lions Test series. More pressure. Less time to recover.
The World Cup separates elite players from very, very good ones. Maybe that applied to me and a few others. Brian O’Driscoll was the only Irish player to come out of 2007 with his reputation fully intact.
In 2011 Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris confirmed their status as world class flankers but once Wales chopped them down we were found wanting in Wellington. In 2015 our strength-in-depth took a pounding. That’s been addressed to the best of Joe Schmidt’s ability.
There won’t be any good excuses. Ireland will be good enough or they won’t.
How come Wales and Argentina surpass expectations at World Cups?
The sum of their parts. The collective moving in the same direction. Nothing else matters to them.
In about two or three weeks players will feel fully rested. That’s when they start tuning up, readying themselves for the first day back in camp.
I always loved the return to Carton House. You no longer need to think. Show up with boots and gum-shield. The physios know your body. Jason Cowman has a plan to get you into shape. Just get down to work. Another week off is followed by preparation for the warm-up games as rugby tactics start flooding in but, with Ireland in 2019, most of what they are doing is well established.
Joe and Andy Farrell will be adding small pieces to the puzzle. The Six Nations is a distant memory by this stage. You learn from negative experiences but you build on the positives.
The culture is strong, it has to be. How else did they win a Test series in Australia?
How Schmidt manages each individual is key to Ireland going where no Irish side has been before. Gatland’s Welsh and Gatland’s Lions get enormous credit for this while Joe doesn’t get enough.
This is a primary strength of our outgoing head coach. He takes time to get to know his men. Now, this can freak some lads out as they might feel they are being judged but Schmidt understands his players. It allows him to base difficult selection calls on their character. He makes no secret about that. He values strength of personality because it guarantees good decisions get made under intense pressure.
This is what really matters in a quarter-final when freak-sized Springboks will enter the fray on 60 minutes. The inner collective strength of the group is how Ireland survive the onslaught.
The culture is strong. It has to be. How else do they win a Test series in Australia? Or capture a Grand Slam, via Paris, in Twickenham. Or beat the All Blacks.
Johnny made a telling comment on the Stade de France pitch – after his drop goal – in February 2018. He spoke about the collective aim revolving around winning that game and staying on track for the slam. Defeat would have derailed their plans, he said.
Ireland have reached the highest expectations they set for themselves, so suffering from the mental strain that followed was inevitable. It caught up with them this year. Took its toll.
Combine all that together and they will be just fine. The squad that travels to Japan and performance levels they attain will look after themselves because preparation will surpass anything we have ever known.
I’m certain about this.
It starts by doing nothing. Last night, at the 10-year reunion of Leinster winning that first Heineken Cup, we remembered Croke Park and Murrayfield but really we were a gang of friends happy to spend precious time together (which we will keep doing today). That’s what so many of the great teams are all about. Doing it together, for each other and nobody else.
So, relax for a few weeks, keep ticking over with some paddle boarding or pilates, whatever you know your body needs.
Escape the bubble. Forget about rugby. Go do something else for a while.
Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy are gone but Josh van der Flier and Jordi Murphy can seize the opportunity. Others won’t make it. We know this.
What will be will be.