Winning the moment in front of your face!

I heard an interesting podcast interview with Paul O’Connell recently (you can listen to it here). In the interview, the Irish rugby legend discussed how he struggled to cope with the mental preparation for games in his younger days. It was an interesting insight. We think of O’Connell now as the ultimate professional; a consummate leader who always adapted well to the rigours and disciplines of professional sport.

Not so. In the interview, the Limerick man discussed how, on the contrary, his psychological preparation often left a lot to be desired. In particular, he recounted how his goal-setting, especially, was extremely unrealistic and often quite counterproductive in terms of achieving the desired outcomes. Despite his tremendous success, the big man was often anxious about his performance and struggled to enjoy his enviable life as a rugby professional.

To remedy the problem, Paul sought out sports psychologists and sourced advice from other renowned sportspeople and coaches to establish how they coped with the dreaded pressure to deliver, to achieve constant success. In the end, the former Irish captain used a variety of techniques to help him enjoy what is often the tedious, daily grind of the elite sportsman. However, interestingly, it wasn’t a psychologist that offered the most useful and applicable piece of advice. So, what were the words of wisdom the big man found so helpful? How to stop fretting about the past and silence your nagging doubts about the future? Simple. “Win the moment in front of your face.”

Think about it. It’s genius simplified in terms of advice. And it’s universal. In fact, it’s hard not to think of a scenario where the advice above isn’t useful. Worry and stress are certainly destructive emotions, if left unchecked. We all do it. It’s so easy to let the demons take over and succumb to the negative force that is worry. Whether it’s fretting pointlessly over perceived mistakes from the past, agonising over a decision, or torturing yourself over future scenarios, many of which never come to pass. Preparing endlessly for disasters that never happen. The hectic nature of modern life encourages and exacerbates these stresses in a way that didn’t happen in days gone by.

Everything is measured nowadays. Everything has a (often quite artificial) deadline. We all feel rushed and hurried. Either we’re late for something or it feels as if we should be! More and more is demanded of us and we often  struggle to cope with the pressure. The strains of modern life can be extremely burdensome. So much to do and so little time to do it in. I must admit I’ve struggled myself with prioritising tasks and separating the urgent from the dispensable; the immediate from that which can be deferred safely. Like a lot of us I suspect, my reflex instinct is to try to do as much as possible, regardless of the task’s actual urgency. I set unrealistic goals and often beat myself up for failure to meet self-imposed deadlines and targets.

And you know what? All that stress and worry is ultimately futile. Pointless. So much wasted energy. I guess that’s what Paul O’Connell discovered, albeit belatedly in his career. There’s a great saying in sport: “Control the controllables.” It makes total sense. Don’t worry about the superficial and irrelevant. Don’t let ancillary factors distract you from the task at hand. Don’t worry about what your teammates or perceived rivals are doing. Just focus on yourself. Do you what you can to improve and don’t dwell on mistakes. Learn from them.

Concentrate on being the best you can be and shut out unhelpful, irrelevant distractions. Let’s be honest. Life can be stressful enough. Why let unnecessary worry destroy all joy and fulfilment from your daily routine? Ever since I heard the interview, I find myself regularly reinforcing the message. I can’t get away from it. It’s so simple. But it’s beautiful in its profoundness. So next time you’re lamenting a supposedly bad decision or worrying needlessly about the future, don’t. Listen to O’Connell instead. Just win the moment in front of your  face. It’s all any of us can do, anyway. The past has already happened and the future will take care of itself. “Mindfulness for rugby players,” O’Connell called it. The wise sage who provided this advice? Joe Schmidt. “Win the moment in front of your face.” There’s a lesson for us all in there somewhere.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

Irish Rugby mood far from All Black

Blacklash or back-up? Prior to yesterday’s game, we speculated which it would be. Would Ireland  replicate their historic win over a chastened All Blacks in Chicago? Or would the peerless world champions atone for a momentary blip on their relentless drive for world domination by routing the Irish? In the end, it was neither.

New Zealand predictably prevailed at the Aviva Stadium in front of a raucous and expectant Irish crowd, but don’t let the scoreline deceive you. Ireland played incredibly well yesterday. In fact, they were superb. Only the result was missing. Chicago was not only backed-up and emulated, but to  a degree, surpassed. The All Blacks came to Dublin highly motivated and bristling with intent. Back to full strength and with a full panel to choose from, the world champions threw the kitchen sink at Ireland, but couldn’t subdue them. The hosts kept attacking and it was they who looked fresher at the end of a hugely attritional battle.

The New Zealanders played right on the edge, as they thundered into the collisions with a ferocity that’s reserved only for the biggest battles. The game’s pin-up boys sauntered through the Rugby Championship like it was a stroll in the park, amassing massive scores against some of the best defences in the world, playing beautiful, running rugby in the process. The Kiwis didn’t have the same luxury against Ireland. Instead, they had to fight for everything they got. Boy, they were made to work for it. In fact, Ireland’s defence was only breached through a combination of individual brilliance, slight defensive errors and, to be honest, some questionable refereeing decisions. In a contest of breathtaking test match intensity, the Irish gave every bit as good as they got. Leaving the ground yesterday, the pervading feeling of disappointment was palpable among the departing fans. And yet, in the cold light of day, this was a performance to take pride in; one which instils considerable hope for the future.

Fantastic individual performances were littered throughout the side and contributed to a fine collective effort. His defensive lapse for Beauden Barrett’s try aside, Conor Murray was again awesome; the fulcrum of everything Ireland did well. Surely, the Munster man, barring injury, is now nailed on as the starting Lions scrum-half this summer? Tadhg Furlong wasn’t too far behind him. Furlong’s scrummaging prowess has been obvious for a while, but he was immense around the park yesterday as well; bashing opponents all over the place. He was great in Chicago and even better yesterday. The Irish tight-head is another to have catapulted himself firmly into Warren Gatland’s consciousness.

However, the best performance came from Sean O’Brien, by a country mile. Incredibly, O’Brien’s selection had been debated prior to the game, with several pundits suggesting he might be omitted from the squad altogether! Instead, we were treated to a back row masterclass from the Tullow Tank. Every time Ireland’s openside got the ball, he made ground. O’Brien must have covered  every blade of grass in Lansdowne Road yesterday in a very dynamic performance. It says everything about the high standards the Irish flanker sets that he’ll probably be more concerned with the two try-scoring chances he failed to take than lauding his best display in a green shirt for a long time.

In truth, the rugby gods deserted Ireland yesterday. The men in green were extremely unlucky to lose Sexton so early. Not to mention Chicago match-winner Robbie Henshaw, who was poleaxed by a horrendous Sam Cane tackle. How the New Zealand openside escaped (at least) a yellow card is utterly beyond me. And not forgetting CJ Stander, who was having an absolute stormer until he was removed from the action for an apparent head injury assessment, not to return. Josh van der Flier wasn’t too far behind the more experienced O’Brien in the carrying stakes. There’s fierce competition for places in the Irish back row and it’s truly mouth watering to consider the abundance of talent available when everyone’s fit.  Garry Ringrose and Paddy Jackson also contributed impressive cameos off the bench, providing welcome legs and attacking impetus when Ireland were chasing the game in the second half.

To be honest, we’ve become a bit spoilt. As I left the stadium yesterday and headed for the train home, I wondered where my acute feeling of despondency had come from. Even 2013 didn’t feel this bad. After all, it’s no disgrace to lose to the bloody All Blacks! Then it dawned on me that the sense of disappointment is directly proportional to the level of expectation. What we’re seeing is without precedent. There’s never been such optimism within Irish rugby. This team has taken us to uncharted territory. We must adjust our horizons accordingly. Ireland are swimming with the sharks, the big boys. We’re not going to win them all. That’s sport. That’s life.

But the fact Ireland are prospering in this exalted company shows how far the team has come. We’re seeing a seismic shift in Irish rugby and it’ll be fascinating to see how far they can go on Schmidt’s intelligent watch.  When losing to the All Blacks by 12 points prompts a bout of soul searching, you get an emphatic sense of the recent progress. Irish rugby is in a good place. Sean Fitzpatrick spoke yesterday about a clash between the two best teams in the world. Think about that. Yesterday’s result was certainly disappointing, but there’s absolutely no need for any Irish rugby fan to feel all black as the weekend draws to a close.

File:Sean O'Brien 2015 RWC.jpg

Image from Wikipedia: By Warwick Gastinger (Rugby World Cup 2015 DSCN4964) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

 

Schmidt’s Boys Make History

We all wondered how the streak would end. Nothing lasts forever. All good things come to their natural conclusion at some point in time. No-one expected it to be yesterday, though. The Irish rugby team’s trip to Chicago to take on the mighty All Blacks was understandably billed as mission impossible. Yes, the trip was important in terms of marketing and global rugby politics; a sort of evangelist mission to take the oval ball game to one of the sport’s final frontiers. And of course a trip to see the sights of Chicago in the beautiful autumnal sunshine is never something to be sniffed at. But no-one expected Schmidt’s boys to win. Nobody. Not even the most ardent Ireland supporter.

You have to consider the context to understand this lack of optimism. New Zealand are the current world champions and have just completed the Rugby Championship unbeaten, amassing ludicrously large scores in the process. When the All Blacks defeated Australia a couple of weeks ago, the New Zealanders set a new world record of 18 consecutive Test wins. Such was their aura of invincibility, many pundits hailed these All Blacks as the greatest team ever to play the game. The very best.

Irish excuses were ready made and well prepared in advance. The travel, injuries, lack of game time for key men, truncated preparation, limited time together, jet lag…..I could go on. It was even mooted that Schmidt regarded the Chicago expedition as no more than a hit out, a shot to nothing and was targeting the forthcoming game in Dublin as Ireland’s more realistic chance of victory. With the Irish written off in all quarters, therefore, a New Zealand victory was seen as a virtual fait accompli. Ireland tore the pre-ordained script into a thousand pieces; the world champions falling unwittingly into Joe Schmidt’s unexpected ambush.

In writing a blog, I try very hard to avoid the treacherous world of sports writing cliches. It’s easy to fall into the trap. You know the sort of thing: “The boys done good, the crowd were the 16th man, Chicago was painted green last night etc….” All that meaningless nonsense. I don’t believe in unnecessary hype or exaggeration, either. If a story is strong enough or has enough resonance, it tells itself. No amplification is needed. When everyone else is getting carried away, I always strive to be realistic and measured.

I haven’t watched the game again yet, but my initial impression is that I can’t remember a better Irish performance. That’s why I’m unusually reticent to play this one down. Ireland not only beat a great New Zealand team, they dominated them for large portions of the game. And even when the All Blacks stormed back into it in the second half-as was inevitable-the men in green still had the mental fortitude and resilience to close it out. If this was one of the best Irish performances ever, it was because it simply had to be. Nothing else would be sufficient against one of the standout rugby teams of any era.

Ireland were wonderful. Schmidt’s bespoke game plan was implemented to perfection. Contrary to presumptions, the Irish kept the ball in hand and switched the point of attack with immaculate precision. In coordinating the effort, half-backs’ Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray were outstanding. Their endeavour was matched by Ireland’s magnificent forwards, who bossed the Kiwis in most areas throughout the game.

New Zealand’s makeshift second row made them susceptible to Irish pressure and Schmidt conceded last night that Ireland’s greater experience in the engine room allowed “access” into the game. In truth, it did much more than that. Ireland’s set-piece ascendancy enabled them to achieve unprecedented levels of dominance in the first half. What’s more,the front row of McGrath, Best and Furlong put in mammoth shifts in both loose and tight play. They were awesome. And Jordi Murphy was the embodiment of athleticism and industry before injury cruelly curtailed his afternoon; the Irish openside being replaced by the equally effective Josh van der Flier. Furthermore, the performance was buttressed by a herculean defensive effort that defied belief.

And what about Rob Kearney? The Louth man has been criticised by all and sundry recently, with his place in the team openly questioned. Yesterday, the Irish fullback reminded us what a classy and intelligent player he is. But they were all great. They really were. Henshaw, Zebo, Trimble et al. Heck, I should just list the entire squad and be done with it! The glue that keeps it all together is Ireland’s indomitable captain, Rory Best. Strangely enough, the Ulster hooker still has his detractors after years of consistent excellence in an Irish shirt. I can only assume these critics suffer from some form of visual impairment. Best is a wonderful rugby player and a consummate leader to boot. No-one does more for this Irish team than the reliable Ulster man.

I’m pleased for Best on a personal level. It’s somehow fitting that he led the Irish to their first Test win over New Zealand. One of the privileges of covering local rugby is you get to meet the players. While all players are extremely polite, some are a little different to how you imagined them. You get the impression that some rugby players (either consciously or unconsciously) adopt a bit of a media persona. Not Best. What you see is what you get. A man of complete modesty and humility. He deserves this moment. Think of all the great players and captains who competed against the All Blacks, but came up short. Best’s achievement is indeed remarkable. The former Portadown College pupil has delivered the goods.

And let’s not forget the mastermind behind it all; the architect of Ireland’s finest win. Joe Schmidt has copped his fair share of criticism, but this win is a timely reminder of the Kiwi’s coaching talents. Who knows how long he’s been planning this carefully constructed ambush. If this is what Schmidt can do with restricted preparation, we should be very excited about the next few weeks. The World Cup quarter-final seems a long time ago now. Ireland’s opponents should be worried. The best coach in world rugby has got his mojo back and I doubt he’s in any mood to stop here.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

 

File:Rory Best 2015 RWC.jpg

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARory_Best_2015_RWC.jpg

By Warwick Gastinger (Rugby World Cup 2015 DSCN5033) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons”

Should Schmidt Stay Or Go?

It’s fair to say that the Irish rugby public has had a less than straightforward relationship with head coach, Joe Schmidt. When Schmidt first assumed the mantle of Ireland boss, it seemed he could do no wrong. The Kiwi cut an almost messianic figure, winning praise and admiration from virtually everyone in Irish rugby circles. Sure, like anyone in the public eye, Schmidt had his detractors, but the prevailing consensus was that Ireland had bagged one of the smartest and most capable coaches on the international rugby circuit. Schmidt was the man. And Ireland’s subsequent results vindicated this assessment. Schmidt led the men in green to an unprecedented two Six Nations victories in succession, masterminding a remarkable run that culminated in Ireland’s superb destruction of Scotland in the 2015 Six Nations decider. Schmidt’s totemic status was assured, as sports fans the length and breadth of the country became enamoured with the erudite but unassuming New Zealander. And the affection was reciprocated. Ireland’s coach seemed genuinely taken with his adopted home, as confirmed by his proud naturalisation as an Irish citizen last year.

So far, so good. But then something changed. That something was the 2015 Rugby World Cup.  The relationship altered after that. It became complicated. While I’ve no reason to believe that Schmidt’s opinion of Ireland changed, there’s no doubt that the post-World Cup period has seen an altering in the perception of the coach by fans. Of course supporters were naturally devastated when Ireland crashed out the tournament at the hands of a classy, ascendant Argentina side. But the questioning of Schmidt’s methods went beyond mere disappointment with the outcome of the doomed quarter-final. The entire modus operandi of the  Schmidt regime was openly challenged. All of a sudden, all and sundry were disputing Ireland’s style of play. Apparently, we were boring, predictable, one dimensional. Those were some of the kinder verdicts! That’s not to say concerns over style hadn’t been expressed prior to the tournament. Before RWC 2015  kicked off, many pundits had pleaded for a more expansive and entertaining game plan. With the side winning, however, such disenchantment was easily dismissed. Why change a winning formula? That Argentina performance was a game changer in every sense, though. Post-Cardiff, it was open season on the amiable and intelligent Schmidt.

And you know what? It’s all rather unfair and unjustified. More than that, it’s a little un-Irish. I’ve always had a strong belief that us Irish support and cherish our stars and icons in a manner not always seen elsewhere. Maybe we sometimes go a bit too far in our idolatry, but that’s another story. Historically, we haven’t subscribed to the extreme iconoclasm that our English neighbours-especially their tabloid newspapers-seem to revel in. Building people up just to mercilessly knock them down? As a nation, it wasn’t something we ever did. It wasn’t our style. And yet here we were apparently doing just that to someone who’s actually done a bloody terrific job for us!

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been as critical as anyone about Ireland’s oft conservative style of play. There’s been plenty of times in the past eighteen months where I’ve been willing the boys to throw off the shackles and give it the proverbial lash. But I’ve always appreciated Schmidt. My admiration for him hasn’t dimmed. As a rugby fan, I understand the value he adds as a tactician and strategist. Some of the more vitriolic and polemical criticisms are hard to fathom, therefore. Maybe it’s a symptom of modern society. We live in an internet age, in an era where bland soundbites and easy answers replace rigorous analysis and assessment. An age where Twitter threads and chat rooms silence the real experts. And such unfiltered noise can drown out the evidence of our own eyes.

The thing is we’ll miss him when he goes. Schmidt is on record as saying he’ll make his mind up about his future this summer. Ireland’s coach is contracted until next spring, but thereafter he’s a free agent. While an official announcement might not come until later, it’s suspected that Schmidt’ll reveal his intentions to his employers before the end of the summer. Having waited until the finale of the recent tour to South Africa-itself a tremendous success-Schmidt’s attention now turns to his future. It’s making his mind up time. No-one knows for sure, but the early indications suggest Schmidt might go. The Irish boss has already been linked with the Highlanders and Chiefs in his native New Zealand recently.

If Schmidt has an ambition to coach the All Blacks, a return to the land of the long white cloud is an essential piece of the jigsaw. However, professional aspirations aren’t the only consideration. As Schmidt movingly revealed last month, his family is his absolute priority and the health of his son Luke will be foremost in his mind. Will Schmidt stay or go? I don’t know.  Like the majority of Irish fans, I’d love him to stay and finish the job with this talented and ambitious group of young Irish players. If he goes, though, I wholeheartedly wish him all the best for the future. He’s a great coach who’s undoubtedly done a wonderful job for Irish rugby. I believe the overwhelming majority of Irish rugby people feel the same. I don’t believe that his pernicious critics represent the true fans. For all his detractors, though, it’s worth bearing in mind one of the great truisms of life. You only realise what you have when it’s gone.

File:Joe Schmidt coaching Irish team.jpg

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joe_Schmidt_coaching_Irish_team.jpg  @OvalDigest.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

Sublime Ireland Sink Boks

I’m finding it hard to make sense of it. You know the way events sometimes just don’t make sense no matter how hard you try and rationalise them? Well, I had that sensation in abundance yesterday. For those who missed it, Ireland defeated South Africa (Saturday 11 June 2016) at their Newlands stronghold. The win was significant enough in itself. Prior to Saturday’s game, the Irish had never tasted victory on South African soil. In truth, they hadn’t even come close. Therefore, their win was historic and unprecedented in equal measure. However, as anyone who witnessed the Irish performance will tell you, Saturday’s effort was so much more.

Typical of this enigmatic Irish side, they made history the hard way. The visitors found themselves down to 14-men after just 20 minutes thanks to the controversial sending off of their naturalised back row, CJ Stander, who was red carded for a clumsy challenge on his former compatriot and team-mate, Patrick Lambie. A Test match in South Africa is an unforgiving environment for any rugby team. The conditions are notoriously brutal, confrontational, and hostile. Therefore, for a young Irish side to think their way to victory in such challenging circumstances is nothing short of incredible.

I’ve been watching rugby for nearly thirty years, and can’t remember anything remotely like Saturday’s career defining performance. Indeed, I’m old enough to remember the bad old days when underpowered Irish sides were sent to South Africa to compete against enormous  Springbok sides comprised of utter behemoths. In those days, the men in green faced mission impossible, they were ritual lambs to the slaughter. In writing this piece, I think back to 1998 when an Irish team led by Paddy Johns faced shocking levels of aggression and attrition on the Highveld. The Battle of Pretoria and all that. Look it up on You Tube if you haven’t seen it. It was shocking stuff. Notorious. Madness everywhere. Nevertheless, Johns’s men didn’t take a backward step, meeting fire with fire on one of rugby’s darkest days. Thankfully, the game has come a long way in the ensuing years. Such overt and unfiltered violence simply isn’t tolerated in the uber-sanitised modern, professional game. Here’s the point, though. In those days, it was inconceivable, unrealistic even, to think that Ireland would ever defeat the Springboks on their home patch. That they did it in the midst of such adversity is remarkable in the extreme.

Of course many of Ireland’s woes were self-inflicted. What of the sending off? While Stander’s challenge was undeniably reckless and ugly (it doesn’t get any better with repeat viewing), CJ assuredly had no intention of hurting his former team-mate, and it’s hard to resist the impression that Ireland’s flanker was committed to a challenge he was unable to avoid in the heat of the moment. The post match consensus held that a yellow card was a more fitting sanction, and I don’t disagree with that analysis. Despite Ireland’s deeply ingrained propensity to make life difficult for themselves, this was a performance to be admired and treasured as a monumental effort. While Ireland’s tactics undoubtedly worked a treat, this was a win achieved with old fashioned grit and determination. The Irish refused to submit, just wouldn’t be beaten; even when reduced to 13-men following Robbie Henshaw’s first half sin-binning. This victory was all about belief and conviction; the young side showing unwavering heart and composure to withstand the South African onslaught.

Witness the way three Irish defenders bundled JP Pietersen into touch at the death to deny the South Africans a win they scarcely deserved. This display  was all about collective will and determination, the Irish simply wouldn’t be denied. In a side shorn of experience and leadership, good performances abounded everywhere. To a man, Ireland’s players emphatically rose to the occasion. Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, Jamie Heaslip, and Jared Payne all contributed outstanding performances. So too Paddy Jackson. The Ulster youngster has waited a long time for his opportunity and he grabbed it with both hands, with a performance full of composure and thoughtfulness. This was Jackson’s moment. And what about captain fantastic? Rory Best was magnificent. I lost count of the times the Irish skipper saved the day. Best was everywhere in a game where his leadership and character shone brightest. If anyone still doubts the class of the Ulster hooker, I suggest they look again at the video.

Incredibly, an historic series win is now within the ambit of Joe Schmidt’s men. After Saturday, belief and optimism must be surging through the veins of the entire squad. A word of caution, though. I can’t recall a worse South African performance. The Springboks were dire on Saturday, and this proud  rugby nation will unquestionably be smarting like never before. I fully expect a terrifying backlash next week. However, if Ireland can somehow withstand the mammoth onslaught, anything is possible. The bar has been set, and Schmidt’s men will be determined to make further history. It’s going to be a fascinating couple of weeks. It seems fitting to leave the final word to Man of the Match, Devin Toner. It’s been a difficult few weeks for the giant second row following the passing of his father. Toner has developed into a mature and vital member of Schmidt’s squad; his humble, modest demeanour reflecting the core values of this Irish team. On collecting his thoroughly deserved MOTM award, the big man simply said: “I just wanted to say, that’s for dad.” It was a poignant and evocative end to one of Ireland’s greatest days.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey