Gordon D’Arcy: Winning team must first learn how to lose right

Being genuinely tough to beat may have to suffice for the next few years

Jonathan Sexton leaves the Stade Felix Mayol pitch following Leinster’s defeat to Toulon in last weekend’s Champions Cup clash in France. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Jonathan Sexton leaves the Stade Felix Mayol pitch following Leinster’s defeat to Toulon in last weekend’s Champions Cup clash in France. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

The bus was rolling down the quays late one Friday night when Michael Cheika went ballistic. ‘Pull in!’ our coach commanded.

It was late 2007 and Leinster had just lost another game on the road that we should have won. I can’t even remember who the opposition was but I know we even managed to squander a bonus in the last sloppy play.

That made for a devastated changing room. Cheika seemed content to preside over this grim silence and in the airport he would have seen our lingering disgust. We knew a solid performance had been ruined by lapses in concentration when mental sharpness was most needed.

One thing that was always in evidence was our friendship. We always enjoyed each others’ company at Leinster so gradually pockets of the airplane began to brighten the collective spirit. By the time we boarded the coach home at Dublin Airport the lads almost had a festive cheer about them. We had two days off. The funny men in the squad found their stride.

We took comfort in each other and the craic. When you are good friends losing becomes easier to handle.

Cheika surveyed this scene. It was his second season in charge, a season already doomed to failure, so he decided to find out if any of us really cared about losing. Because losing, as much as winning, is a habit. There are ways to lose, just like there are ways to win.

Back then, Leinster were losing in a way that was not conducive to a winning culture. But Cheiks had no intention of failing his first major chance at being a professional coach. When people didn’t tune into his way of doing things, he got rid of them. It delivered a very clear message to the rest of the group.

Serious warning

That night came a serious warning. He stood up at the front of the bus, stopped in the middle of late-night Dublin traffic, to deliver a 10-minute lecture about how we should lose if we want to be winners.

Is this who we are? Easily sliding from devastation to sadness to happiness all within a few hours? It was a moment when the penny dropped for a lot of lads. There has got to be more to losing than this.

When the Irish provinces were the dominant forces in the old Heineken Cup, when defeat for all comers to Ravenhill, the RDS or Thomond Park was almost a foregone conclusion, the English and French clubs didn’t merely roll over and die. They channelled that European disappointment into successful domestic campaigns.

That’s what the Irish provinces must do now.

We need to re-evaluate what is success in Irish rugby by looking at how success is measured in Ireland as a whole. Look at other sports – both team and individual. They don’t have success all the time (like rugby did from 2009 right up to the World Cup). But there is no reason why we can’t be competitive. Genuinely tough to beat. That may have to suffice for the next few years.

Last Friday night Ulster showed how you win a game you should be winning (Stuart McCloskey has to be close to an Ireland cap). They beat Toulouse and secured the bonus point because that’s what that game demanded.

Leinster and Munster could have lost in a different manner over the weekend. Both started well but neither were able to finish in a way that would create much confidence heading into the second part of these head-to-head matches.

The French and especially the English have suffered some humiliating defeats to Irish provinces over the years. They went away, assisted by huge investment, and now it’s their turn. They have learned from those tough days. They have learned from losing.

Many Leinster and Munster players are now experiencing defeats of a similar magnitude. They will never win these type of games without losing a few. I know. I lost most big matches I played in for 11 years. Right up until Michael Cheika stopped the bus.

Second Captains

Until then most of us had grown far too accustomed to losing. We found it easier to recover from each new low. We had it down to a fine art. Whereas once upon a time it had pained us for two or three days, we now honed our mental ability to recover to about three hours.

That, of course, was why we continually folded under severe mental strain. Our opponents knew it.

Nobody wants to linger on the fact that they are a loser. But we weren’t learning from these defeats. So we kept losing the games that were hardest to win, the games away to French clubs or Leicester.

Until that changed we were destined to remain in the middle of the food chain.

Instead of flying home late Friday night and seeing it as a free weekend, we started having an early night, maybe even looking at the video or at least going in early the next morning to begin analysis.

We began preparing for the next time this situation arose so as to avoid defeat or at least salvage a bonus point from what could have been a 20-point loss.

We learned how to lose in a manner that would make us perennial winners.

That only comes from the individual.

I was a winner as a teenager with Clongowes. Won the Leinster schools cup in 1998 but not before losing a semi-final in 1996 and a final in 1997. Same with Leinster. Sure, we won the Celtic League in 2002 but thereafter losing became the accepted norm.

That gradually began to change from around 2004. It started with Ireland and the first Triple Crown under Eddie O’Sullivan. But France always knew how to beat us. So did Southern Hemisphere opposition.

We didn’t fully change into winners until 2009 – for Leinster and Ireland. There followed four years when losing did not enter the equation. We refused to accept it. If we lost, the victors would have the scars – both mentally and physically – to prove it. You had to pry victory from us. Beat us into the ground because we would never submit.

Period of decline

Toulon did produce several impressive passages of play but they never really attacked with a coherent objective. They smashed into Leinster, won an unforgivable number of penalties at the breakdown and scored tries off their rolling maul.

There is no Brad Thorn figure at Leinster, or anywhere in Irish rugby right now, to emphasis the breakdown is as much a mental battle as it is about power and technique.

Leinster’s defence was excellent but three sin-binnings against Toulon really should have ended in a 50-point loss. To have any chance against a team like this Leinster needed to be perfect for 80 minutes. They were far from that.

Munster were fantastic against Leicester in Limerick. For about 10 minutes. Robin Copeland made serious ground up the wing and with Francis Saili as first receiver they looked capable of scoring from anywhere. Everything good about Munster’s attacking play came through the twice-capped All Black.

Ian Keatley went missing. That simply can’t happen to your outhalf – they shoulder far too much praise when things go right so the pendulum swings the other way after a 50 per cent place-kicking return.

Johnny Sexton’s form doesn’t worry me. He made all the right decisions against Toulon. That tells me his current dip is temporary. He was still reading the game like a world-class outhalf, just without the usual execution.

The old Johnny will reappear soon enough.

But Saili, like Luke Fitzgerald, desperately needs those around him to reach a similar level of excellence. It didn’t happen. Fitzgerald clearly has a future at 12 but he is still adapting and Ben Te’o is also still learning the nuances of outside centre (albeit impressively).

Rattles the victors

Great clubs always come back to life. Take Wasps. When Lawrence Dallaglio, Josh Lewsey, Rob Howley and that generation retired together they were almost relegated. But I remember playing the bones of their current squad in the 2013 Challenge Cup quarter-final at Adams Park. We won 48-28 but I could tell they had the makings of a very good side.

Wasps went away, learned to lose in an honest manner, using defeats in Europe as motivation to perform in the Premiership. Now they have returned.

The provinces must do something similar in the Pro12. Leinster in particular have the squad to expect to win the league this season. That must be the focus now. For Irish rugby to make a new assault on European titles, the Pro 12 needs to become a respectable competition.

Supporters of the provinces need to prove their loyalty now. Many of them have clearly gone missing, especially in Munster, but I have been an Arsenal fan all my life. They break my heart every season but I stay with them because they are my team.

Supporting a team is like a marriage – you have to take the good with the bad and if you do this, then the former will always outweigh the latter.

The European Cup is gone for Leinster this season. I’m forever a glass-half-full person, and refuse to apologise for that, but all three provinces could lose this weekend. So it becomes about how they lose.

Their main obstacle is Ireland. The national team has so clearly become the priority. That’s perfectly understandable, I bought into it and it’s where the IRFU finances are generated, but they must now find a new way to co-exist.

This comes down to player attitudes. When the Six Nations comes into view players will be thinking about the upcoming Pro12 games.

But a winning culture can only come from everyone wanting to play for each other. If that isn’t evident, the success of previous years will never be rediscovered.

That’s the Catch-22. If the provinces don’t build a winning culture, how on earth can Ireland expect to sustain recent success?

Somebody needs to stop the bus again.

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