RONAN O'GARA: Six things I learned from the Six Nations

1. The Power of the Mind

After four rounds of the championship, each country had become obsessed with the outcome and, as a consequence, developed a win-at-all-costs mentality. Once they each had a loss they had to reset and just look at what happened in the last weekend, what can be achieved once a clear target was put in front of teams.

The mind is the most powerful tool in a sports person’s locker. If Wales had needed to score another two tries or 12-14 points in Rome, I think they would have succeeded. Watching the game against Italy it was fascinating to see the way they relax subconsciously once their target had been reached after 60 minutes and how the Welsh invited trouble on themselves by switching off for even a really short period of time.

At the top level of sport we are talking about very small margins deciding outcomes and the lessons from this exercise for Wales can be huge. They had broken Italy, destroyed their spirit and were well on top but because of the power of the mind, the players relaxed, albeit subconsciously, once the so-called target of reeling in England was reached.

Imagine if Wales had upgraded their target on the run and said, instead of needing plus 27, ‘we’ll go for plus 47’. Champions?? The body will only go where the mind is telling it.

Six things I learned from the Six Nations

2. Defence, and Discipline, Wins Championships

Ireland conceded on average 11 points over the five matches. A magnificent achievement. What people are missing, though, with all the emphasis on attacking rugby during “Super Saturday” is how important it was to keep Scotland under their average.

By Ireland getting this massive component of their armoury right the bigger prize arrived. The hunger, workrate and desire of the players to achieve this was most enjoyable to watch at pitch level on Saturday last.

Why was this the case? Defence coach Les Kiss has been in the Ireland set-up nine years and he’s had his bad days as well and so it shows to me that some players will take the lazy option unless somebody is laying into them. That’s what happened in the previous regime, people got soft with each other because standards weren’t where they are now.

Les Kiss is obviously very intelligent and a very good defence coach but it’s also the fact that so much of it is peer pressure and it’s player-driven, people not wanting to let the player next to them down.

Ireland scrambled very well and they needed that. Jamie Heaslip’s tackle on Stuart Hogg was the big one but there were plenty of other examples against Scotland when they could have easily scored but Ireland had that mindset of ‘whatever it takes’ to keep them out.

The other key to this is discipline and how well Ireland have been playing referees. I believe this an area they have a distinct advantage over other teams. Look at England in Ireland, when their discipline was very poor and then take the Irish in Cardiff – when their discipline deserted them in that first quarter, it killed them and the result was four kickable penalties and a 12-0 deficit with the first 13 minutes.

They refocused after that but when it was happening panic set in, they were stressed and under pressure and that brings us back to those small margins, those short timeframes that become huge moments.

3. Victory in the Air and on the Ground

This championship has highlighted the importance of winning the ball in the air as well as the importance of the effectiveness of the ball carrier and cleaners at ruck time. Games at this level are now decided by the ability of players to compete in the air and also how they can prevent defending teams from slowing down their ruck ball. Ireland are operating at a different level to the home nations on this front.

Whether this can be maintained against New Zealand and Australia is key to RWC success. We know they can boss a Southern Hemisphere team because they beat South Africa in all aspects of the game last November – maul, ruck, restarts, kicking game, aerial game. But I thought Australia gave us more of a challenge and New Zealand, of course, will be the ultimate challenge, because they have that mentality of being prepared to knock themselves out whenever they’re going for the ball. That’s some attitude to possess.

4. Number 10s Are Alive Again!

Six things I learned from the Six Nations

What is most encouraging for the Northern Hemisphere teams heading to Rugby World Cup is that their out-halves are in rude health. Johnny Sexton, George Ford and Dan Biggar were among the top three individual performers of the championship for their respective squads and it goes without saying that the performances of these three will determine how their country fares at RWC.

Biggar was once considered a bit of a weak link in the Wales side, left out of their squads at times in favour of Rhys Priestland but now he’s their king on the chessboard and his kicking form has been outrageously good, probably driven by the hurt of those earlier experiences. England’s Ford is growing with each Test he plays for England and if he keeps up that rate of acceleration he’s going to be awesome.

Wales have the added bonus of knowing that in Biggar, the show can go on without first-choice place kicker, full-back Leigh Halfpenny. Do Ireland and England have the same luxury at 10 without Sexton and Ford respectively? I think not…

5. The French

Six things I learned from the Six Nations

The reaction in France to last Saturday’s game at Twickenham has been unbelievable. They shipped 55 points to England and yet there is a feeling of happiness on the ground here in France that they scored their five tries the way they did. That said, people I’ve talked to at Racing Metro are disgusted that, yes, ‘we scored 35 points, great, but people lost sight of the fact that England tonked us by 20 and put 55 points on us’.

The major problems are still around the French. It’s like why Test teams beat the Barbarians because they’re coached and they’re more structured and more physical. As talented as the Baa-Baas are, and the French, they need direction. Just look at Ireland, who seem so comfortable on the ball and know where everyone’s going.

You have that from 1 to 15 and see how good it looks. It takes expert coaching and one wonders what would happen if Joe Schmidt was whisked away to Marcoussis for a month. I’d like to see France then.

6. What will the Southern Hemisphere coaches be thinking now?

Six things I learned from the Six Nations

Down in the Southern Hemisphere they probably think we don’t have the skills levels they have but it’s different when you’re playing in usually wet and windy conditions compared to their usually dry days. In their kind of weather you don’t have to think about catching and passing, it’s an easy day.

Those were the conditions last Saturday for the Six Nations finale and look what we got.

Those three games have rekindled everyone’s enthusiasm for rugby. Everyone had been going on about how the game had changed for the worst, about the lack of space and so on, but as I’ve said before, the same amount of space is there it’s a question of having to go out and find it. Last weekend the teams found it who needed to go out and score, neatly bringing us full circle. When they want to play rugby, these teams can play.


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