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Chris Henry: Ireland need to enjoy it and stop letting the negativity take over



Mixed emotions: Johnny Sexton's face says it all after Ireland struggled to victory over Italy in Rome

Mixed emotions: Johnny Sexton's face says it all after Ireland struggled to victory over Italy in Rome

Conor Murray

Conor Murray

Mixed emotions: Johnny Sexton's face says it all after Ireland struggled to victory over Italy in Rome

When scrambling for reasons why Ireland's Six Nations has felt so underwhelming to date, a key cause is as simple as the fact that rugby players are human.

There's always a demon or two lurking in the brain before any game, it's only natural. My first ever PRO14 league game, or Celtic League as it was then, was away to Dragons in early 2009. Playing eight and dropping back for kick-offs, the responsibility was something I had on my mind in the early going.

I still remember the first ball spiralling through the air in my direction. It's a build up of tension, the crowd baying for you to drop it, knowing that if you do it's the kind of error that draws all the attention onto you. Then, relief.

You catch that first one, just as you have done countless other times playing rugby at all levels, and you don't think half as much about the second one. On it goes through the game.

The flipside, of course, is when that first involvement doesn't go as planned, something that happened for a number of the Ireland players in Rome on Sunday afternoon.

Whether an overthrown lineout, an unforced knock-on or a misplaced kick, those pre-match nerves are amplified again and again with every involvement that doesn't go to plan.

The mental side of things really is such an important part of the game of rugby and at the minute Ireland don't look like a team that's enjoying themselves.

For all the analysis, the hype and responsibility, rugby is a sport. It's fun; nobody will tell you that more than someone just retired. But sometimes in a tournament as consuming as this one is, you can lose sight of that a bit.

When things aren't going well, the negativity can feel like it multiplies, one thing on top of the other spreading like a virus, and you can lose sight of what got you in the position you are in. It's times like this when the process becomes so important.

What got Johnny Sexton to be the World Player of the Year? What has Conor Murray as one of the best scrum-halves going? What made Leinster the most dominant team in Europe? Process, process, process.

It can be as simple as repeating what you do over the course of any normal week - get away for a day, go to the cinema, go out for a feed with friends - whatever it is, just do something to remove yourself from the bubble and reset.

Ireland have used a sports psychologist for a long time now and it was something I took advantage of throughout my career, especially coming back to play after my mini-stroke.

Hugh Campbell, a renowned sports psychologist who has worked with teams at Queen's since 2011 and a number of GAA teams including Armagh's '03 All-Ireland winners, was a huge help to me at times, just chatting through things with somebody completely outside the set-up. You don't want to become too reliant on it or use it as a crutch, but it's certainly something that can make a difference.

As it is, for all the talk of cohesion and fluidity in the build-up, this was another ragged performance. Tito Tebaldi was the best player on the pitch and with better basics - restarts, discipline and kicks off the tee - there could have been a famous scalp for Conor O'Shea's men.

Again, when it comes to Ireland's big winners you're talking about who wasn't there - in this instance, namely Rory Best, Tadhg Beirne and Devin Toner. I always feel bad for a hooker when the lineout goes wrong as it's much more of a unit failure than people realise, and Sean Cronin remains the best impact sub Ireland have, but he, along with Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane who both played well, will still be expecting Joe Schmidt to revert to the tried and tested two weekends hence.

It would be wrong not to mention Italy too. Having not won a game in the Championship since 2015, their losing streak continues, but in falling to defeat by margins of 10, 11 and 13 this season, they're getting closer.

I don't think the relegation/promotion talk will die off - even with Italy beating Georgia back in November - but it's just not something I see happening. With Italy, there's a familiarity to their players from the PRO14 and, despite the world rankings, I still think they're Europe's sixth best side, just one who happens to be competing against some of the best in the world.

Besides, given all the sponsorship involved, money talks in this game and there's no doubt that Rome generates more of it than Tbilisi.

Belfast Telegraph