Quest for success
As Leinster and Ulster go looking for Heineken Cup glory, Dean Ryan discusses their mental strength.
Last Updated: 16/05/12 12:00pm
When Michael Johnson one of the world's greatest track Olympians speaks about pressure any rugby coach whose team is still involved at this stage of the season should be reaching for his notebook.
With four Olympic gold's and eight World Championship medals to his name you may be questioning if he ever felt any, as his demeanour was always one of ultimate serenity.
Listen to him talk about pressure and his first point of reference is 1996 the Atlanta Games. Six years a professional athlete and no Olympic Gold to his name and he finds himself lining up in the 400m final on home soil, the weight of a nation's expectation sitting heavy on his shoulders.
Johnson goes on to win the 400m and later becomes the only male athlete to this day to add the 200m gold medal at the same Games.
What was it that on that particular day in 1996, allied to a remarkable physical prowess, that gave Johnson the focus and belief that this was going to be his Games?
He is quoted as saying: "The mind is absolutely instrumental in achieving results," and that, "One of the main techniques I used was focusing on the goal and visualising myself competing in the race before the race started."
Doubts creep in
Now rugby ,like most sports, has taken huge steps in recognising the part that psychology has in supporting individuals in their quest for success, but for all the support provided there will always be that most fragile of moments when an individual or team has yet to win anything and doubts are at their greatest.
Something or someone has to influence that final step which separates them from everyone else. This moment is all the more precarious within a team sport given that each individual has to rely on his team mate to share the same degree of focus and desire that he does.
The challenge for any rugby coach is to create a vision and belief that is shared by 23 others - no mean feat.
Wind back to last weekend's action and the game between Harlequins and Northampton. The Aviva semi-finals, with a spot at Twickenham up for grabs, a prize that neither have achieved in their past.
Both sides trapped in that most fragile of moments, no reference point of previous successes to refer to and aware that the next 80 minutes would define their last nine months' work.
Quins have lead the Premiership table since the early part of September with a brand of high tempo, well structured rugby, but struggled on the day to find the width and enterprise that has taken them so far this season. Conor O'Shea later admitted that his team had succumbed to the tension.
Lee Dickson scored for Northampton to give them an eight-point lead with just 13 minutes left on the clock. Cue Chris Robshaw who for this season plaudits seem never ending.
Nick Evans, one of the coolest All Blacks to grace these shores, makes reference to Robshaws words under the posts "We've got to believe in what we can achieve and what we've been doing all year."
Back that up with an unbelievable physical effort by Robshaw forcing himself time and time again to offer as a ball carrier, most notable in the closing minutes getting free down the left hand side before setting Mike Brown away to get themselves back into Northampton territory. An Evans penalty puts Quins within a score to set up the final few minutes of tension ending with a Joe Marler try to give Quins the spoils.
Now every game between two evenly contested sides will have their Michael Johnson moment, that point of clarity on what the next play should be. An individual whose belief in the outcome is so great that he convinces others of the improbable.
Northampton will certainly rue some of the decisions taken in those final moments. Their third semi final loss in a row as well as that spectacular Heineken Cup final will make things all the more difficult when they return to these key knock out games again. An absence of key experienced players at such a crucial time may have just tipped the balance to the opposition.
Quins now face a Leicester side that are in their record eighth successive Premiership final. They have 'how to win' stamped in their DNA and are, on Saturday's showing, doing a great job in bringing youngster George Ford up to speed with what's required.
Leicester will certainly be favourites given their unbelievable form and a recent win at the Stoop will give them that slight edge, but I can't help but think that a certain Chris Robshaw has a very clear vision of the race he wants his side to run and the more I see of him the more convincing he becomes.
This Saturday's Heineken Cup final captures everything just spoken about. On the one hand is Leinster going for back-to-back wins to rival Leicester's formidable record and a third final in four years, which is an incredible feat of consistency. Proven winners with two moments from Johnny Sexton standing out.
His half time speech at last year's Millennium final, facing a 22-6 deficit, had even the experienced Brian O'Driscoll all ears. Followed by a moment of clarity in this year's semi-final against Clermont to call the play at half time that would lead to Cian Healy's decisive try. Sexton clearly has the measure of pressure moments.
For Ulster who's remarkable achievement to escape the Group of Death and reach their first final since winning in 1999 looked shaky in their semi-final win over Edinburgh. It remains to be seen whether the impressive Ruan Pianaar can convince his teammates of the vision he has for this Ulster team.
Toulon v Biarritz - Toulon win
Leinster v Ulster - Leinster win.