The Independent’s Ruaidhri O’Connor and ex-Ireland captain Keith Wood joined Wednesday Night Rugby on Off The Ball to discuss mental blocks for Leinster and Ireland.
Leinster lost their Champions Cup quarter-final against Saracens 17-25, after trailing 3-22 at half time.
After the match, head coach Leo Cullen said that they were “spooked” by the visitors in the first half, resulting in them falling behind quickly.
O’Connor thinks that this could be due to a mental block that some of the players have against the English side.
“Leo Cullen dismissed it when I asked him about it, but he’s talking about his team being spooked by this opponent,” O’Connor said.
“In particular I think [Maro] Itoje is in the Irish heads right now.
“There has got to be some body of work done on the mental side of things for these players.
“Johnny Sexton makes more mistakes against this opponent, unforced ones, than he does against others.
“I think that is something that they’re going to have to interrogate.
“If Sexton is the man that is going to lead us forward for the next one or two years, then they’ve got to ask him what’s going on and then fix it.”
Ryan needs to get over Itoje
O’Connor felt that even though Maro Itoje is one of the best players in world rugby currently, James Ryan needs to be able to challenge him.
“James Ryan is coming off second best against Itoje even though he’s the player we all want to build the pack around,” O’Connor said.
“He’s only a year younger than Itoje, but Itoje clearly at the moment is the better player.
“Not to say that Ryan is not a very good player, they will probably be the Lions second row, but Itoje is probably the best second row in the world right now.
“Maybe a few South Africans will dispute that.”
With the resumption of the Six Nations right around the corner, O’Connor thinks it is up to Ireland boss Andy Farrell to interrogate the mental weaknesses in the Irish players.
“There is a mental challenge for Andy Farrell to address,” he said.
“I think he’s already started working on the physical challenge, I think Caealan Doris will come into the equation, Ryan Baird, Ronan Kelleher, Dave Heffernan down in Connacht.
“I think he will pick players based on their ability to win collisions.
“Him and his coaches need to get that maul right, get that scrum fixed completely, obviously you need to get Tadgh Furlong back into the mix.
“Maybe you get Dan Leavy back, he’s back on Friday in this A game hopefully against Ulster, he gives you that warrior spirit that both teams are missing at the moment.
“It is beneficial that he has this behind closed doors relatively low stakes trip to Twickenham in a couple of weeks.
“I think the more Ireland play against England, it could be damaging psychologically, but the more they get time to figure it out the better.”
Pressure on Leinster's minds
Wood agrees, believing that the huge amounts of pressure placed on Leinster will be playing on their minds.
“Pressure plays a huge amount on players’ minds if they haven’t been under it,” Wood said.
“To hear Leo say ‘spooked’, that’s what it looked like for me.
“It is a horrible thought for a team to think that another team would like it more or wish for more or want it more.
“You could see the level of hunger on the Saracens’ players.”
Wood said that he saw Saracens “bully” Leinster, and that their desire to win was etched on the players’ faces.
“I thought Itoje was brilliant, [Michael] Rhodes was brilliant, [Jamie] George was brilliant; the effort that they put in.
“They weren’t taking guys off after 60 minutes, they were looking for another 10, 15, 20 minutes from them.
“They had wanted it that much.”
Ireland to switch it up in autumn
After the Six Nations matches against Italy and France, Ireland will focus on the new Autumn Nations Cup, which starts in November.
“When it comes to the coming internationals, the two Six Nations games are important, but the ones that come after that [aren’t],” O’Connor said.
“It is a COVID Cup, I don’t think anyone is going to remember who wins this tournament.
“I think it is an opportunity to make a few changes and to try a few things.
“There are six internationals in seven weeks, so even from a player welfare point of view I’d say you’d see, maybe not 60, but we’ll see a lot of players playing for Ireland in that period.”
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