Matt Williams: Ryan Baird’s infectious belief can inspire Ireland to RWC success

As 2023 nears ‘if the truth be told, deep down in our hearts, we all want you to be right’

Ryan Baird of Ireland celebrates after the Autumn  Series victory over Argentina at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. File photograph: Getty

Ryan Baird of Ireland celebrates after the Autumn Series victory over Argentina at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. File photograph: Getty

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After an outstanding display against the Pumas last Sunday, Ryan Baird found his voice. “We have a collective vision of where we want to go . . . We are not afraid to say we want to win the world cup.”

Powerful words from the leader of Irish rugby’s Generation Next. Baird’s athleticism and skills are only surpassed by his enthusiasm. To watch him is to witness his joy of playing. Maybe not with a smile on his face, something the Second Rowers Union does not encourage, but his body language oozes positive vibes.

When Baird’s cohort were children they cheered on as Ireland teams won two Grand Slams and the provincial teams won multiple Heineken Cups, Magners Leagues and Pro 14 competitions.

His generation rightly believes that they are as good as anyone else on the planet and have an equal opportunity to win every trophy that they compete for.

And more power to them.

The genesis of lifting any trophy, especially the William Webb Ellis Trophy, starts with the players dreaming they can win. Baird put into words what he and his team-mates believe.

It was more than a powerful statement. It was inspiring.

Still, I could hear all the begrudgers gasping, “Now steady on young fella. Winning the world cup! You’re getting well ahead of yourself.”

Whenever anyone attempts to do something unique, something that has never been done before, there are always the begrudgers. The little minds, full of jealousy and fear.

Einstein warned us about these energy sappers when he said, “Stay away from negative people. They have a problem for every solution.”

Yet sporting history is littered with the feats of champions who conjured up a “BEHAG”, a Big Emphatic Hairy Audacious Goal, that others found impossible to even imagine. Through the adversity of setbacks, with sheer blind pig-headed determination, all underscored by unimaginable hard work, they somehow forged a way to achieve uncommon success.

To put it simply, champions get up when they can’t.

Great achievements start with an individual who believes he/she can do what almost every other person on the planet said was not possible

If we consider some of humanity’s greatest physical accomplishments, like Roger Bannister breaking the four minute mile or Edmund Hillary scaling Mount Everest, before they were accomplished, they were perceived as literally not humanly possible.

All great achievements start with an individual who believes he/she can do what almost every other person on the planet said was not possible.

So why was Bairds’s declaration of his belief that Ireland can win a Rugby World Cup (RWC) not greeted by Obama like cries of, “Oh yes we can!”, but more like a Mrs Brown, “Ya don’t say?”

It is because of 2019. Irish rugby’s annus horribilis.

Today the Irish rugby community remains deeply scarred by the failings of 2019.

Despite the overwhelming evidence provided in the horrid on-field performances from multiple matches over 2019, the Irish rugby public and most of the media remained in denial. They kept repeating, “We beat the Kiwis in November 2018, so we can win the world cup”. In those bleak days, the brand of rugby that Ireland displayed had no hope of winning a Rugby World Cup.

As Donald Trump has proved, if you tell a lie loud enough and often enough, people will start to believe it. The Irish rugby community had completely bought into the “Ireland for the world cup” fallacy.

The only people in the rugby world that were surprised that Ireland was smashed out of the quarter-finals by New Zealand were the Irish themselves.

As the reality came crashing home the Irish supporters were left feeling foolish at being so gullible.

As Baird spoke of winning Rugby World Cup 2023, the Irish supporters hesitated. Once bitten, twice shy. Well, actually eight times bitten. 1987, 1991, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019. That’s not a single bite from a RWC quarter-final, that is a mauling.

As Baird said himself, “We [the team] have milestones along the way.”

Before the Irish rugby community can fully believe in this national team they will need to witness Ireland winning a lot of those milestones. An away victory in London or Paris in the next Six Nations and a single Test win in New Zealand will be a minimum for 2022. Like a community of doubting Thomases, the Irish supporters will need to place their collective fingers into the wounded flesh of France, England and New Zealand before they allow themselves to commit to belief.

I can hear Baird growling, “Oh ye of little faith.” Sorry mate, our hearts were broken by some blokes before we met you. It’s not you, it’s us. We just need a bit of time to flirt about for a year or two, before we can commit to another serious relationship with Billy Webb Ellis.

In reality, 2019 proved what the Irish supporters and media believe is irrelevant. All that matters is what is in the hearts and heads of the players.

Rugby has always been a players’ game and not a fans’ game. The players thoughts, behaviours and beliefs are the drivers of success.

November 2018 proved that beating New Zealand in Dublin guarantees nothing. Zip. Zilch. Donut.

After that win that group of players and staff believed they had all the answers and did not have to evolve. That arrogance proved to be destructive. Their heads were totally in the wrong space for success at RWC 2019.

The new style of rugby displayed by Ireland in their last four matches has the potential to defeat the best in the world

The current Irish team appear to be on a different trajectory. They have committed to a radically new philosophy of attack that could open up possibilities, that up until now, would have seemed unimaginable. The new style of rugby displayed by Ireland in their last four matches has the potential to defeat the best in the world in the final weekends of RWC 2023.

However, “potential” is a word that gets coaches sacked. Ireland must show us the money by winning games and continuing to evolve as a team.

Despite all of this Baird and the players have every right to dream. To quote Uncle Albert Einstein again, “Imagination is everything. It is the preview for life’s coming attractions.”

The big coming rugby attraction is the world cup in France in 2023. So now is the time for the players to imagine what others deem impossible.

So Baird, don’t listen to the begrudgers. Prove them all wrong. Believe in yourself and your team. It’s just that, after the pain of RWC 2019, it will take a little more time and a few more wins before the rest of us can find our voice. But if the truth be told, deep down in our hearts, we all want you to be right.

We just don’t have your courage to say it out loud.

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