Victory in Rome essential to maintain Ireland’s current momentum
The performance against Italy on Saturday doesn’t matter nearly as much as the result
Ireland’s flanker Sean O’Brien in action against Italy during the Six Nations clash in Rome in 2013. O’Brien may start on the bench this weekend. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/Getty
Over the coming weeks, you will hear people saying loads of times that the Six Nations is all about momentum. It has become everybody’s favourite cliché about the competition.
It’s funny in a way. Rugby has become so technical and everything is worked out now with massive precision because defences are so dominant and hard to break through. And yet we’ve all decided that the most important factor in winning a Six Nations is a kind of general thing rather than something you can put your finger on.
Momentum is about confidence. At the beginning, getting results is more important than performances. Ireland go to Rome on Saturday and all that matters is getting over the line. Get in, get out, get home with two points on the board. If you don’t play brilliantly, it’s no a big deal. Just make sure you get the job done.
A win in your opening game gives you a platform. It doesn’t matter if you’re rusty – everybody’s rusty. Teams will always be better at the end of the Six Nations than at the start. International coaches don’t have their players together often enough for them to be slick and mistake-free right off the bat. You need a few leaders to get through that first game and then you can sit down on Monday morning and work out what needs to be fixed.
But just the fact of going and getting a result is huge. Lose your first game and it can feel like the tournament is over. Especially if you lose to England, Wales or Scotland. Whoever loses in Cardiff on Friday night knows that the Grand Slam is gone and the Triple Crown is gone and it isn’t even Saturday of the opening weekend yet.
Yes, you can still win the championship but there’s a reason it’s not very often done after losing your first game. It’s because it’s really difficult to generate that momentum people talk about. Lose your first game and expectation goes way down. Because it’s so condensed and run off in such a short space of time, people assume the worst.
And that’s far more important when time is such a factor. The whole thing is over in six weeks so there’s very little time for regrouping or going back over the gameplan or waiting for guys to catch up.
But if you are winning, the feeling of confidence and drive can carry you from game to game. You’re on edge all the way through the Six Nations. You’re engulfed in pressure. When you win, you can’t wait to get on with the next one. When you lose, it slows you down.
The difference in camp on the Monday morning after a win and a defeat is huge. You can take positives out of a defeat to one of the Southern Hemisphere countries but if you’ve lost a Six Nations game it’s likely a lot of your players didn’t perform. So you’ve got a load of guys with regrets, waking up in a bad mood, angry at themselves and at others. It can eat away at you.
For the coaches, you have two problems. One, you have to turn the mood around and get guys motivated again. And two, you have to go back and start over with a game plan that you were happy with just a few days previously. Either it’s wrong or the players are implementing it in the wrong way.
Whichever it is, you now have to spend time going through it again. You’re having to tick boxes you thought were already ticked. On a very basic level, momentum has been interrupted.
But when you win, the feeling is different. Now, you have a something to aim at and something to build on. Your confidence in the coach and the game plan goes up. It’s no accident when set-plays and rehearsed moves come off. They work when you do them with confidence, when you know that the guy outside you will take the angle and run the line he’s supposed to. Your set-play is fluid because these things come easier to a confident team.
Momentum can carry you through games as well. It isn’t just about putting wins back to back – it means something on the pitch too. It’s about landing psychological blows on the opposition, pinning them back, winning turnovers, robbing setpieces. You can get a huge amount of momentum out of one good scrum, one big tackle, one period of hanging on for dear life on your own line before winning a penalty.
The opposite is true as well, of course. They will add up against you quick enough when the other side has that momentum. They move the ball quicker and seem to slip out of your tackles easier. To survive in the middle of it, you have to get in there and disrupt.
Slow the game down, get them out of their rhythm, frustrate the hell out of them. You don’t always have to give your best performance to get momentum. Sometimes it’s enough just to stop the other team building their own.
Players have a lot of game intelligence. They know when a momentum shift has happened. You feel the pain of hanging on and coming through and for all the advances in tactics and sports science, that rush you get when you turn the tide of a game with a big stop counts for a huge amount.
Go back to the game against South Africa in November – Ireland’s momentum that day came from their defence. Two tries came from turnovers, massive changes to the way the game had been going with South Africa hammering the Ireland defence. You could see it plain as day. It deflated the South Africans and filled the Irish team with confidence.
So far, Joe Schmidt’s game plans have been relatively simple. They’ve been based on players doing the basics really well and building confidence through the success that has followed. I expect them to vary their game a bit through the Six Nations and have some other bits and bobs up their sleeves. But he can only do that now because momentum has been building since he took over. Remember, when he came in, Ireland were after having their worst ever Six Nations.
That 2013 competition is the perfect example of how the whole thing can go up in smoke very quickly. Ireland won the opener against Wales in Cardiff but from there on it was a nightmare campaign. One little thing fed into the next. Johnny Sexton got injured in the defeat to England, which led to the whole controversy about Ronan O’Gara and Paddy Jackson and then there was injury after injury. Every day seemed to bring some new problem.
They will hopefully have Johnny Sexton, Seán O’Brien and Cian Healy all back and motoring by the time the England game comes around on March 1st. That looks like the sort of schedule that could work out in Ireland’s favour.
First though, they have to beat Italy. I don’t think they will drop their guard in Rome, I expect them to go and do a professional job. Schmidt names the team tomorrow – most of it is straight-forward enough I reckon.
The main call he has to make is in the backrow. I’d imagine he might leave O’Brien on the bench and give him the last half an hour. I’d go with Tommy O’Donnell there because I don’t think Jordi Murphy has enough rugby played. Otherwise, my team looks like this.