Coach Joe Schmidt and his management will recognise that the longer they can keep everyone champing at the bit, the better their tournament prospects, writes Ronan O’Gara
DON’T make the mistake of just looking at the 1-to-15 for Ireland’s World Cup pool opener against the Canadians. Rookie mistake.
Examine the replacements. Then figure out from that who are the squaddies not in tomorrow’s match-day squad. The so-called tackle bags. They’re the one who will determine whether Ireland win the Rugby World Cup or not.
In any camp, where the group are together over a protracted period of time, it’s the disaffected who make things go pear-shaped. They are the ones who can stir poison into the mix. Joe Schmidt and his management will recognise that the longer they can keep everyone champing at the bit, the better their tournament prospects.
He manages the non-starters really well, and that could be fundamental to the group-think. If you have those lads hungry on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, it will set the tone. And things might just kick off in training — there’ll be a turnover and the bibs will score a try and the starters will get the huff. Happy days. I know, because I’ve been on both sides. Eoin Reddan will be trying to speed it up and play it quick for the bibs and there’ll be a nice bit of clipping going on.
However, if in week three they’ve accepted they’re just carrying a bag for 15 minutes, they’re done for and the squad is in trouble. During some of our Six Nations campaigns, it was full-on. There’s been bust-ups in the second last match, even after winning the first three. And it’s usually because the bibs are thinking, ‘feck this, I’m not getting a look in here’. So they need a carrot. Like Dave Kearney. He was ripping it up in training and gets his chance.
That bit of craic and excitement when the squad was announced has dissipated now. Now the players’ social committee starts its work. House rules apply: So, the two youngest fellas will have to clean the team bus. There’ll be four or five lads on music for the gym, for the team-room, the dressing room. Then there’ll be three or four for the clothing committee, and the same number charged with keeping the team room clean.
Everywhere they go, there’ll be fellas having to give a synopsis for two minutes on the local history of, say, Burton-On-Trent, doling out interesting facts. If that doesn’t go down well, they’ll get booed or put off the bus and made to get a taxi back to the hotel.
There’s the court system, and maybe a table tennis competition between management and players. Foremost is the Social Committee, which looks after everything from cinema to nights out to best venues for parties. Non-rugby distractions are just as important as the rugby after already having spent over 70 days together in pre-season.
From what I hear from the players, there is a good vibe and attitude in Camp Schmidt. There are a lot of characters, though in that regard Fergus McFadden and Andrew Trimble are a miss, but in terms of absolutely cracked, stone-mad beauties, you’ve got Sean O’Brien and Luke Fitzgerald — that guy doesn’t live on this planet at all. Sean Cronin is tapped and sure even Paulie’s a bit tapped in his own inimitable way.
They’ll be the gel keeping the thing tight. The one person that’s stood up and spoken against Schmidt in 24 months or so of his reign has been Darren Cave. He said maybe my face doesn’t fit, there was a conversation, and now he’s knuckled down, really got his act together and appreciated Joe’s rules.
I’m fairly sure Burton-on-Trent has its delights, but the fact Ireland will be moving from base to base has its plusses. These things make a huge difference. Having somewhere to drift off to for a coffee is a positive distraction. In Bordeaux in 2007, you couldn’t even do that because we were basically in an industrial estate. But most of all, the squad mood is determined by what you do for the 80 minutes on a Saturday. That shapes the mood, every week. Every morning. Do you wake up happy, are you rolling on the wave or is that wave crashing over you?
Everyone in the group wakes up with a different mindset. Some are only thinking about getting on the team, others are driving the team, more are asking ‘why am I not getting a chance?’ Then there are the aforementioned lads who aren’t going to be playing — and they know that.
No one, least of all the Irish management, is expecting 30 fellas all on the same emotional page. You won’t have that. In 2011, I wasn’t thinking about the USA [in the first game], I was thinking ‘am I going to get game time?’ How am I going to do, and what am I going to do to impress when my opportunity comes?
England will put on a good World Cup and it’ll be all around the players this time. In New Zealand in 2011, it was a little bit odd as we were so far away, and there was a huge time difference. Then, you catch a clip of the 6.1 News on the laptop after we beat Australia, and you see the reaction at home.
Once Ireland’s business with Canada is done tomorrow, Team Schmidt will settle down to watch France and Italy in our Pool D. Ireland need 10 points from the first two games to ensure we are not chasing points against the Italians. Against France, it’s only about the the result, but you wouldn’t want to see Monsieur Saint-Andre and Co starting with five points against Italy.
Schmidt will start with a full press in terms of team selection, barring Henshaw, and the choice of back three is interesting. Did the four warm-up games tell us a lot? The big decision in their wake was Andrew Trimble, who is a big add to any team in terms of those decisive ‘moments’ he can bring to the table. But would I pick him ahead of Zebo or Earls, notwithstanding the fact I am biased towards those two?
People are saying Tommy Bowe looks bereft of confidence, but how is he? From two games? It might only come out in time where his head was, but Tommy is very experienced. Perhaps, he thought he could cruise through Twickenham and had his eye on two blocks of hard work, last week and this.
The defeats to Wales and England might serve to cool everyone’s excitement. Three or four weeks ago, people were talking about Ireland winning the World Cup, like it was an everyday occurrence, rain in Ireland sort of stuff, run-of-the-mill conversation. Who are we to talk like that, we have no history in the competition? We can beat teams one-off, but we need a lot of things to work and 10 of the players at absolute optimum for that to happen.
Now, all of a sudden, we go into the World Cup with a deflated sense of our own value, like it’s 2007 all over again. Is there any middle ground in this country?
There’s no fear within the camp that anyone is looking beyond tomorrow’s opener, but it will be hard to insulate the players from the conventional wisdom that it’s all building up to one date, October 11 versus France. That’s a horrible conundrum for a group of players, but it’s critical to realise that the French game isn’t an end in itself. Either way, there is another day. If we win the pool, there will be jubilation, but everyone has to get heads right for (presumably) the clash with Argentina.
The lessons of 2011 are invaluable here. We beat Australia and Italy and, sure, hello, here come the semi-finals. Wales? Ah we’ll take them alright in the quarters...
If you don’t get the match-to-match psychology right - the last time out, it was coping with success in the pool stages was the problem. Of course, were Ireland to get to a semi-final, they are walking on water, and the opposition - whoever it is - is eating pressure by that point.
When the handbrake comes off with Ireland, it’s open country. If you’ve Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy, Paulie, Peter O’Mahony and these boys on the front foot, anything is possible. Because we all know what will happen - the country will go buck-ape, they’ll be dancing at the crossroads.
The more World Cup games we win, the less pressure we’ll feel.
But let’s beat Canada first, eh?
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