The Irish rugby team find themselves in a decidedly strange position going into tomorrow's game against France -- they are favourites to win and to take the Six Nations Championship in the process.
Much has been made of Ireland's horrific record versus Les Bleus on French soil, with only two wins in 42 years. The last of these victories came in 2000, when a certain young centre announced his arrival onto the international stage with a hat-trick of tries. A star was born, these things come full circle, a fairy-tale ending, let's do it for BOD, blah blah blah...
When Ireland plays France away from home, they don't just play the team, they are playing the location. Time and time again, Ireland has fallen short in Paris. But this mental block has never been more primed to be smashed and left in the dressing room.
The psychological aspect of sport has risen to prominence in recent years. Professional athletes train to the point that the margins between individuals and teams have become almost indistinguishable. When Olympic Records are broken, it is by milliseconds. What tends to separate teams now is the mental preparation, the belief in a team and trust in team-mates.
It might sound like a myriad of clichés, but the importance of the mind in sport cannot be understated. Sports psychologist Enda McNulty was taken on board by Declan Kidney for the 2013 Six Nations Championship and his involvement has since been maintained by Joe Schmidt.
Johnny Sexton is a prime example of the school of psychological training. Fly-halves can be the fulcrum of any rugby team, probably one of the few positions on the pitch were individual belief, flair and accuracy truly affect a team's chances in a game.
When Sexton missed a very kickable penalty against New Zealand back in November, many people said it was clear from before he kicked it that he was going to miss it. Why? He did not prepare himself correctly. Every fly-half has a routine for place-kicking. Jonny Wilkinson's infamous bum wiggle was a cover for his own mental technique, where he would imagine a woman in the crowd just above the black spot of the bar, waiting to catch his (clearly successful) kick. Jonny Sexton changed his routine, perhaps to buy time at a crucial stage of the game, and his kick skewed wide of the upright. Even Ross O'Carroll-Kelly had his own routine, that's how important it is.
Thea idea of maintaining positive thoughts throughout a game is a major element of any success. When Leinster found themselves trailing 22-6 at half-time in the 2011 Heineken Cup Final, Sexton gave a speech in the dressing room. He urged his team-mates to see this as a positive. Leinster were in a unique position, he said, where they had the potential to become famous for overturning such a deficit. It was not a negative. Leinster were being offered an opportunity to take. And indeed they did, Sexton turned in a man of the match performance as Leinster won 33-22, keeping Northampton scoreless in the second half.
It's not just rugby either. Injured flanker Sean O'Brien has become involved with the Carlow football team in recent months, spotted on the sideline at a number of O'Byrne Cup games. He said his main focus has been the psychological aspect of the game, speaking to them on 'positive mentality' and 'using triggers' during games to kick on. Carlow recently won a league encounter against Antrim, 3-15 to 2-17, having trailed by six points with eight minutes to go.
Roy Hodgson has spoken recently on the possibility of involving a sports psychologist in the English soccer set-up before the World Cup this summer, in an attempt for England to overcome their penalty shoot-out 'jinx'. If you want to see mental toughness; watch any video of Steven Cluxton kicking the winning point for Dublin against in Kerry in the 2011 All-Ireland Final... It doesn't get tougher than that.
And in my own experience, mental preparation and training works. Having taken part in mental conditioning and strengthening with my own GAA club, the effects have been staggering. Instilling a sense of belief and confidence in individual players, and thus the team, translates to success on the pitch. We've come back from 'irretrievable positions', beaten 'unbeatable teams' and bounced back from near misses to continue driving for success.
As has been stated by many pundits, this is the worst and most disorganised French team this Championship has seen in years. Nicolas Mas storming out of a press conference on Tuesday suggests that all is not well in the French camp. Picamoles' antics against Wales, sarcastically applauding the referee and berating younger players for his own errors should only confirm the fractions. So, on paper, Ireland should wrap up the title on Saturday. But games are not played on paper. They are played on grass, and in the mind.
People will say that Ireland cannot win in Paris. Ireland will say different. As pro-surfer Laird Hamilton says; “Make sure your worst enemy doesn’t live between your own two ears.” The only thing that can stop Ireland on Saturday is their own insecurities.
They are better tasked than ever to beat France and take the title.