Gordon D’Arcy: The importance of winning the mental battle

Leinster and Munster must both go to The Well on Saturday and not give an inch away

"On our team we put a huge premium on body language and if your body language is bad you will never get in the game. Ever. I don't care how good you are. I'd rather lose than watch the way some kids play." – Geno Auriemma, US women's basketball coach.

Body language in sport is a proxy for overall behaviour.

Having coached the Connecticut Huskies since 1985, Geno can tell us plenty from the way a collegiate athlete carries him or herself.

This equates to all sports people – amateur and professional – because your body language can reveal where you are at emotionally while giving an indication of the depths of a person’s physical resolve.


Auriemma coaches a specific age bracket – a rolling roster of 18 to 21 year olds – so he needs to continually drive the message, whereas a successful Irish provincial squad must create their own self-sustaining echo-system.

That originates from the head coach's philosophy but the senior players must eventually seize control. So while Michael Cheika put Leinster on the road to becoming European champions, it was the players who eventually made the leap. And that begins far from the big stadium.

In those years when Leinster were winning trophies everyone knew that to arrive into training on a Monday morning with the wrong body language could lead to someone else wearing the jersey come the weekend.

Talent is a distant relative of what’s needed when a game is in the balance.

Grit is the primary attribute. I'm talking about players like Trevor Hogan and Trevor Brennan. I name these two because the stakes never seemed to matter to them, be it a regular AIL Saturday or Champions Cup final, they played at the same intensity. Men like this, who would chase down an intercept or smash a ruck they had no right to reach, inspired me at a formative period of my career.

So did Mal O’Kelly. We were on a direct course to losing in Biarritz when I made a double tackle with Mal. I was slow getting up from the turf, not injured but starting to tire, when I got a lesson that stayed with me for the rest of my career.

One of the best modern day locks, a freak who could do everything, Mal was already two strides towards the next ruck when he glanced back, turned and heaved me to my feet. Not a word was said but the look he gave was seared into my brain. The message was clear: ‘Get up. We fight to the end.’

We at Leinster, before the medals came, learned to lose a certain way.

Sometimes you have to fake it. Years later in the heat of a European knockout game under blistering Bordeaux sunshine I didn’t need anyone to lift me up. ‘Get up before them,’ said the internal voice. ‘They’ll break, keep going. Don’t show any weakness.’

By then my body language was automatically light of foot, upright and strong so the powerful Clermont backs – Sivivatu, Rougerie, Fofana and Malzieu – who had tried to run clean over me and Brian for the past hour and smash us early or late at every opportunity, could only be thinking: ‘How are these little fellas still looking for more?’

Adrenaline kept us upright as much as anything. But you see Rougerie looking at you, see the flicker of doubt in his eyes, or shoulders sagging as we exited our 22, and you grow a few inches. Well, in your brain all this is happening. You see their weaknesses because you are concealing the very same.

That’s what Geno is on about.

It goes both ways. In Cardiff it felt like the air was sucked out of Irish tyres when they didn’t turn all that pressure near the Wales line into points. The Welsh players had seemed to be flagging but when Rory Best’s try was disallowed Alun Wyn Jones’ pack surfed the atmosphere 80 metres down field.

Body language matters in a one score game.

The head coach can only re-enforce all of this. Body language and the action of doing – the act of going out and winning (or losing) a game – is ultimately about the players.

It's such a cliché but the Leinster and Munster coaches will relinquish most of the control to Peter O'Mahony and Isa Nacewa come kick-off on Saturday. The captains confide in men like CJ Stander and Johnny Sexton before they look to the touchline for help.

When discussing body language I am really discussing character. It is a euphemism for standards or, to borrow from the All Blacks, ‘No Dickheads’ policy.

In Ireland, how we grow our players, how we nurture our provincial stocks, has to be different from everyone else. Some players move on because bottle-necks form in their position but others get weeded out due to what the coaches see in an under-20s or A game. It’s about what players do repeatedly under pressure.

Now, Irish rugby cannot be a ruthless environment. Not in the same way an English and French club might be. Certain players need time to develop.

The intended result is those who break into the senior panel bring with them an irreversible attitude.

The academy does much of this work. It's why Luke McGrath can be elevated to the senior leadership group in his first season as the starting nine. The rise, in tandem, of Garry Ringrose and Josh van der Flier or the Scannell brothers is no coincidence either. They all obviously share the same mindset and behavioural traits.

The guy in year one of the academy sees all of this. He sees the base standard that is required of him.

In Leinster we spoke all the time about humility. That applies to everything from showing up on time, wearing the correct gear and just general attitude.

In my experience this played a huge role in fuelling the journey to success. It has a lot to do with the motivation that allows seemingly lesser teams – Ireland against New Zealand or the provinces dwarfed by the budgets of English and French clubs – can prevail despite being faced by significantly bigger men or players on superior salaries.

This is ‘The Well’, to quote Paul O’Connell, that Leinster and Munster must revisit once again on Saturday.

A huge element of controlling your body language is coping with mistakes. Subconscious gestures, hand or facial expressions – the slightest twitch – can be as simple as momentarily dropping your head after knocking the ball on.

In the 1970s the psychologist Professor Albert Mehrabian established the “7% – 38% – 55% Rule” to show the amount of communication conferred by words, tone and body language. Words only convey about seven per cent of the overall message sent with 38 per cent attributed to voice tone or inflection and 55 per cent via body language.

When reading about Mehrabian I instantly thought of Denis Hickie's speech before the last Six Nations game in Rome in 2007. We needed a shed load of points to beat France to the title. Johnny Sexton at half-time against Northampton in 2011 also sprung to mind.

I don’t remember what either man said but I’ll never forget the tone in their voices or intent in their body language. It was infectious, and both men produced monumental performances.

I also believed O’Connell when he spoke, moments before we took the field, about putting the fear of God in our opposition.

But the key message for me about body language is how you react after error: do you compound that mistake or ensure the next action has a positive outcome?

This is about creating the ability, within yourself, to accept the error but ensure it is not repeated by efficiently completing the next task – be it a tackle, a catch, a carry or a kick to touch. Whatever.

Just stand tall, don’t allow weakness become a visible trait. Rebuild your confidence action by action.

Leaders in a team must be more cognisant of this than others. If the body language of Nacewa or O’Mahony is obviously wrong the team can suffer. But when do you see anything but a positive stance or action off from these men?

Still, what they do is important as others feed off them.

Now, rugby players are human. They can’t always be walking about the place with the right attitude every minute of the day. Something might have happened that morning before they left the real world. Something with family, with financial issues or any number of things from life could have interrupted the tunnel vision so essential in the lead up to a game.

Again, the All Blacks have talked about controlling their thoughts by using triggers to regain composure – Brad Thorn splashed water on his face, Richie McCaw used to stamp his feet.

My motivation was: I want to play for this team for as long as possible so I need to have my head switched on.

I just love Geno’s attitude to the team over an individual; going with the unspectacular player over spoilt natural talent equals long term gain, and the building of a lasting culture.

On Saturday whichever teams crack first, in Limerick and at the Aviva stadium, will lose. The winners will recognise this before those who have cracked and that’s when they opt for the scrum, ignore three points to kick to touch or simply tap and drive into the guts.

The opposition’s body language will demand as much.

I spoke early last season about this Leinster squad needing to find their own identity. The same went for Munster. This has quite clearly happened but now comes the acid test; the games that will define their seasons. The games that will mark progress.

Saturday really is a microcosm of where European rugby is currently at – the Irish blueprint squaring off against the wealthy English club that can bring in Kurtley Beale for a single season and, further southwest, the French aristocrats.

No one can read your thoughts but they do see your body language. It is easy to be a good teammate when things are running smoothly.

Genuine mental toughness shows the good teammate is a relentless competitor when the collective are struggling.

That seems like a starting point for Leinster and Munster to build the required performances needed to derail powerhouse clubs from England and France.

You don’t want to be relying purely on the emotional intensity Ireland produced when beating England but it is a place players must rediscover on a knockout European weekend.

We know Ireland can go there, we have seen signs that these new Leinster and Munster sides can follow, and I imagine Wasps come to Dublin with a similar attitude. Toulouse . . . who knows?

All or nothing rugby then. To capture the Champions Cup a team must deliver a performance of unquantifiable brilliance three or four times in a season.

We need to see two of those performances on the same day.