Ireland rugby fans may be having sleepless nights about whether the team will finally reach the Rugby World Cup semi-finals but the man responsible for strengthening their mental resolve says the players themselves are “not bothered by it”.
The Irish look in the best shape ever to finally get past the quarter-finals as they came into the tournament ranked number one in the world and having achieved the Six Nations Grand Slam.
Ireland’s last defeat dates back to the first Test against New Zealand in July 2022, though they went on to secure a historic Test series win.
However, due to the World Cup draw being done before that impressive run, they find themselves with a devil of a task to finally reach the last four.
Their pool opponents include defending champions South Africa and Scotland and a tricky match against Tonga on Saturday is next up.
Provided Ireland progress, their quarter-final opponents are likely to be either hosts France or three-time champions the All Blacks.
Ireland’s High Performance Coach Gary Keegan, though, said the present squad were indifferent to the underwhelming record of their predecessors who also came into World Cups with great expectations.
“We’re not bothered by it,” said Keegan.
“I think this group wear that skin very well. It’s not normally in the Irish mentality but if you’re there, you’ve earned the right.”
Keegan said however there was no question of the players being over-confident, as it’s important to “keep grounded and stay curious”.
He specialises in the mental strengthening side of things and was instrumental in several success stories in Irish boxing and also in Gaelic Games.
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell came calling in 2020 — Keegan was on the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) Professional Games Board — and the arrangement soon became a full-time one.
Explaining his role, Keegan said: “Anything around maximising their performance from a mental perspective, planning their daily diaries, their schedules, building strategies around their mental game etc, all those aspects,
“We meet players one-to-one on a daily basis and we prepare for them as a group so that we have that collective connection to what we’re doing and then we go back to the individual support work.”
Keegan and his team’s skills can only go so far in keeping the players focused and their spirits up, for he says the mood is set by the man at the top — Farrell.
“It takes a leader who has the confidence in himself to want to break the mould and to want to reach for the stars,” he said.
“Because if he’s not convinced that it can be achieved, it’s very hard to convince everybody else that it can be achieved.”
Keegan says a key idea he tries to instil in the players is that due to the length of the seven-week World Cup, they should not look at the potential scenarios further down the line.
“This team have been preparing for this World Cup for quite some time, so we have a very clear sense of what’s ahead of us and how to manage it,” he said.
“The key is to stay in the day, not try and swallow the whole tournament in one go.”
Keegan said there was a world of difference between dealing with individual athletes and teams.
“Individual athletes are a bit like entrepreneurs, they’re out there on their own,” he said.
“It’s them and their coach and maybe their support team.
“Whereas we are a collective. We’re a unit and a team and we have to build relationships.”
Keegan, who says he is choosy about who he works with, has been impressed at how tight-knit the squad is given that they are opponents on the pitch for their provinces in Ireland.
“We have to go out of our comfort zone to go into different personalities and different relationships and build them, especially given these are coming from four teams that compete against each other,” he said.
“I think that’s quite astonishing, what these guys have managed to achieve.”