Tyrone Howe: Mind games will be key for Ulster
Over the Christmas period, I read an article which told how Sir Alex Ferguson had written a letter to a British soldier on the front line in Afghanistan.
The core message was that the final part in a footballer’s make-up and something which he tries to instill in all his players is concentration. When you are out on the field, it is paramount not to lose one’s concentration for a second.
The parallels are all too obvious but of course, although sometimes it may feel that way, sport is not a matter of life and death.
After four previous victories including the back to back wins against Bath, Ulster’s last two games have been a real anticlimax. First of all, there was serious underperformance against Leinster, which Brian McLaughlin partly put down to complacency. Then there was an expected defeat down at Thomond Park. Why expected? Well, given the number of changes and relative inexperience that took the field, a victory would have been an enormous surprise.
Complacency leads to a loss of concentration. You start expecting things to happen for you — that the passes will stick and your tackles will dominate your opposite man. Instead, that slight drop in intensity seems to have an exponentially negative effect on your play. You then are forced to search for the back to basics default button in order to rediscover your “process”, but it proves elusive.
In fact, without the correct mental preparation, your default button changes to a position where mistakes are inevitable, and a vicious cycle ensues — the harder you try, the more mistakes you make.
While such complacency is disappointing, it is maybe not that unexpected. In conversation with an Ulster supporter in Bath after the away victory, I listened to the comment that it didn’t matter what happened in the next three weeks as long as Ulster beat Biarritz and Aironi in the Heineken Cup. I found myself completely in agreement, and that was my big mistake, my own lapse in concentration. If the supporter was thinking it, and I was thinking it, then why would a player be any different? All our minds found themselves fast forwarding to January 15 when Biarritz come to town.
This sporting and human trait is not restricted to Ulster. Llanelli Scarlets are currently top of their Heineken Cup Group which also includes Leicester Tigers, Perpignan and Treviso — harder teams than Ulster face.
Having claimed a full 10 points against Treviso in European competition, the Scarlets were smashed 60-17 by their own inter -provincial rivals, the Ospreys. They lost concentration and look what happened. However, supporters will not give much of a jot if the Scarlets manage to qualify for the knockout stages as it would count as one of the greatest achievements in the history of the competition.
So, what’s the problem then? Well, maturity and mental strength go hand in hand. In this regard, both Munster and Leinster are still in a different
league to Ulster when it comes to producing consistency of performance. This is as much attributable to the standards that the players set themselves and demand from each other. Anything less is anathema to the players who accept that responsibility and the pressure that it brings.
After the odd and questionable selection for the Munster game, I fully expect Ulster to revert to a Heineken selection for this week’s match against Treviso. For seasons, Manchester United have proved how to cope with the mental pressure of performing week in week out and challenging in different concurrent competitions. The player who most personifies the qualities associated with the sustained level of achievement enjoyed by his club is Ryan Giggs.
Maybe the key for Ulster lies in some words that Giggs made recently in an interview. Giggs said that the players hoped to get better in the second half of the season and that they realised that they couldn’t take anything for granted and needed to be at their best in every game. Wise words from a legendary sportsman.