Friday, March 20, 2009

Advantage Gatland in the Mind Game

If there were a Geneva Convention for pre-match banter, Welsh coach Warren Gatland would be getting a stern letter this week from Mr Ban Ki-Moon. Gatland’s remarks during the week about the Welsh hating the Irish was the equivalent of some African warlord dropping a dose of beriberi onto one of his neighbours from the clear blue sky, with a spot of whooping cough thrown in for luck.

What’s particularly tricky to figure out about what Gatland said is that the Welsh don’t hate the Irish at all. The Welsh hate the English, just like everybody else. The English hate the French, themselves, and the French, naturally enough, hate them back.

So why then did Gatland say it if it’s patently not so?

He said it because Gatland is a master of psychological warfare. Gatland lived in Ireland long enough to pick up a few traits about the Irish psyche, and the particular one that he’s thinking about here is the tremendous Irish need to be loved.

It’s not enough for Ireland to win a Grand Slam, even though Ireland haven’t won one for sixty-one years. There is a tremendous need for the Irish to be acknowledged as a great as well. If we don’t get the pat on the head, the nation pouts like a teenager.

If we stepped back a little, we could see that glory and Grand Slams are not necessarily the same thing. David Sole’s Grand Slam team of 1990 – and it by no means An Spailpín’s intention to have a cut at the Scots, God love them – were by no means a glorious team but the record book shows 1990, Grand Slam, Scotland, and that’s all that counts.

Gatland is clearly fully aware of this insecurity in the Irish psyche, this tremendous need. He’s also aware of that word that rhymes with poke, and joke, and coke, and the Irish connection with same over the years. So, like Begbie in Trainspotting throwing the glass over the stairs to see what would happen, Gatland has rolled his hand grenade in under the Irish door and walked away laughing.

He’s a sly dog, Gatland. The Irish are blessed in that Declan Kidney is no eejit either, but it is a sad truth that teams have been psyched out of games before by soft chat in the press, and England are the most famous example of that.

Brian Moore has been unfairly criticised in Ireland for calling the Irish chokers two years ago, but anyone who took the trouble to read what he wrote will notice that Moore was upfront about why it bothered him so much. Because Moore himself was hooker and pack leader on the England team that choked against Scotland in 1990, and then choked again against Australia in the World Cup Final the year after.

The story bears repeating. 1988 was a red-letter year in English rugby. The selectors finally did away with the Corinthian ethos that saw quality players being regularly dropped for fear of chaps getting too big for their boots, and instead boiled their rugby right down to brass tacks. Rob Andrew kicked the ball ahead of their pack and bad men like Mickey Teague and Wade Dooley chased after it, giving no quarter to whomever or whatever got in their way.

By 1991 England were unstoppable, grinding their way through opposition like so many locusts fed exclusively on bully beef. In the World Cup Final that year, England faced their antithesis, Australia, a flair team epitomised by the mercurial David Campese on the wing, one of the greatest players ever to play the game.

Campese knew that Australia stood no chance in a battle in the trenches with England. So he spent the week before the final giving interview after interview saying that England were destroying the game with their ten man game and it broke his bloody heart to think of the game he loved, a game about boys running with ball in hand and the wind in their hair, being crushed by the fearsome hooves of the yeomanry.

All balls, of course. Australia is not a rugby nation. They’d play League if only they were let, and they’re doing their damnedest to turn Union into League with those cursed ELVs.

But Campese was an exceptional talent, and a masterful student of the human condition. Campese looked into the soul of English rugby and saw Roundheads who wanted to be Cavaliers. Campese’s goading caused England to change their gameplan as they tried to play the Australians at the Australian game in the final. England were wiped out, Campese laughed his way back to Australia with the Webb Ellis Trophy under his arm, and Brian Moore is still bitter eighteen years on.

The parallel is not exact but the level of psychological insight is the same – sublime. And worse, the last time Ireland played for a Grand Slam they fell for another psychological trick. The Irish huffed and puffed over the insult to our President in 2003, but if they were that upset they would have trooped off and let the International Board sort it out. But the Irish are too afraid of being unpopular, so they let Johnson pull their pigtails, and then payed the price when the game began.

This same need to be loved is what Warren Gatland is playing on so expertly now. How will Ireland respond?

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