Former Irish rugby and Lions team doctor Eanna Falvey tells a great story about how Joe Schmidt’s attitude is reflected in his players.
The situation was this. Johnny Sexton had just torn a quad muscle in training. Ireland’s most important player was now out for six weeks, just prior to an important series of games. Falvey was tasked with breaking the news to Schmidt.
In an almost sympathetic tone, Falvey began to convey the message to the boss, “Sorry Joe, Johnny is out. It’s going to be six weeks, two matches and no real kicking practice in between”.
The response from Joe?
The power of Schmidt lies in being able to deal with the fact of the matter, cruel as it may seem, almost immediately. The way he reframed the situation and believed in the opportunity that was presented makes Schmidt different.
Every team suffers setbacks, times when the world seems to be contriving against them. In those circumstances, a manager can decide to create a siege mentality, an excuse, or an opportunity.
They will try to create a narrative to their advantage based on which option is chosen, but the performance will be dictated based on how the dressing room reacts, and whether the manager can convince his or her players.
Whichever option is chosen, the manager had better have the conviction to pull it off because the dressing room will pick up on every single cue in their manager, verbal or otherwise.
One manager who has more conviction than most is Tipperary’s Liam Kearns. He and his management team have done a good job with Tipp and the result against Cork last Saturday does not change that.
One of their greatest strengths has been their ability to create a siege mentality coupled with defiance, and always pre-game to maximum effect.
On each occasion it’s clear the players have bought in. With incredible regularity, Kearns has been able to draw indignation, releasing his players from expectation, endeavouring to lull the opposition into a false sense of security.
It has echoes of fellow Kerry man Mick O’Dwyer’s famous ability to play things down. “Shure we’ll turn up anyway,” Micko used smile.
At the start of 2016, Kearns was facing an “unprecedented injury crisis” with 11 of the 15 players who had lined out for Tipp in the 2014 championship unavailable to him.
It became the narrative for the season. Despite all this, Kearns insisted Tipp would soldier on. Privately however, he must have been happy with the plethora of underage talent coming to the boil (All-Ireland minor winners in 2011, minor finalists again in 2015 and U21 finalists as well in 2015).
Other players like Bill Maher (Tipp’s best player against Cork last Saturday) had defected from the hurlers but this was not the soundbite to be used. It was clever, strategic stuff. Later that year, he demanded answers from the CCCC about travelling to Breffni Park for the qualifier game against Derry, citing several factors about the venue, which gave the opposition “an unfair advantage”.
Last year, before the Munster semi-final against Cork, Kearns offerred that Tipp were down two of their “greatest ever players” in Peter Acheson and Ciarán McDonald, that they were being victimised by a “draconian” suspension of their keeper and that they were disadvantaged by playing away from home.
Having said all that, they were “coming to spoil the party” that might arise in a new Páirc Uí Chaoimh between Cork and Kerry as the expected Munster final pairing.
This year, the pre-game narrative for last weekend’s Munster SFC semi against Cork in Thurles was the six-day turnaround from Tipp’s game with Waterford. The irony was that Cork had, in fact, offered to play Tipperary a day later (last Sunday) before or after the hurling match between the two counties.
Cork also offered to play the semi on the following Sunday in Limerick, again before or after Tipperary played Waterford in the hurling championship.
So my understanding is that it was, in fact, Tipperary who declined to switch the fixture. And why would they? The reality is the logistics probably suited them just as much as the narrative of injustice.
This was a perfect opportunity for a team (like Tipperary) with Super 8 ambitions to dry-run their week-on-week routine, something that would be demanded of the team later in the year. By virtue of the Waterford and Cork games one week after another, Tipp were being afforded a soft game followed by hard game in consecutive weeks before (hopefully) having to do the real thing in the Super 8s a couple of months later.
The party line was again one of defiance, however.
Kearns said that despite it all, Tipp were coming to play and that “Cork had better turn up ready to play” as well.
So clearly, Kearns has his players in the palm of his hand and Tipperary will come again. There appears to be a pride in that group of players and a conviction in their management that is hard to deny. We wait with bated breath for the next indignation that might befall them through this year’s qualifiers.
Having said all that, and as effective as the siege mentality has been for Tipp, it is legitimate to question its sustainability and suitability for all situations and teams. Certainly it does not allow for positive critical analysis when a team has under-performed.
Maybe its use in Tipp has been exhausted and they now have enough quality to move on from it. Of course, that’s not for anyone outside their camp to decide. Liam Kearns will have a better insight than
anyone else as to what is now required.
In Cork, current boss Ronan McCarthy and his two predecessors, Peader Healy and Brian Cuthbert, seldom, if ever, played the underdog card.
Perhaps it’s not realistic or believable in a county the size of Cork with its football-playing population. The consequence has been that all three managers have had to operate in a media environment which speculated who else out there could do the job better.
To their credit, all three conducted themselves in a manner in which they seemed prepared to come back with their shield — or on it.
For that, they will always have the players’ respect.
During this time, former players from other counties have lined up to scrutinise and patronise the Cork players.
Regularly, any number of those former players will have an article on Cork. Some of it has been insightful and valid, a lot of it has been both patronising and condescending.
“Abject limpness” has been one description, “Watery” is another. We have all wondered and all foraged to draw a reaction from the Cork players based on those insults.
All the while, these Cork players have largely stuck at it. They have lost games, for which they were castigated, and dug out performances which have been either glossed over or attributed to an under-performing opposition. Then again, maybe the defiance and the siege mentalities were part and parcel of previous Cork teams with different identities, teams that Ronan McCarthy has quite rightly now urged us all to move on from.
This group of Cork players is maturing. Maybe we’ve misunderstand them in a broader sense, a younger generation which does not have to show indignation and defiance to release a performance.
Maybe it doesn’t suit their personality.
Yes, words cut deep and they’re not deaf. But maybe these irrelevances roll off them in a fashion which allows excellent but understated players like Luke Connolly and Mark Collins to express themselves with enjoyment rather than self-righteous, fist-pumping indignation that is not their style.
Maybe they are in fact serious footballers but relaxed individuals not having or wanting to imitate the intensity of teams gone by. Maybe they should stay that way and maybe they should play that way. Maybe that’s standing up for themselves in a different way.
Maybe they have now learned not to over analyse and not to persecute themselves or each other. Maybe it won’t be enough to win a Munster Championship this year but maybe it’s the turning of the curve.
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