You either die a hero, retiring close to peak achievement, or you live long enough to become the villain, trying to fan the embers of a career that no longer carries warmth on the pitch or in the stands.
It happens to every athlete in one fashion or another. While you don’t become a villain per se, or at least not unless you do something massively untoward, there comes a time when start to feel like one; performance quality drops, self-doubt and anxiety kicks in, to a point where you are convinced that your teammates and the coaches are aware of what you’re thinking.
[ Gordon D’Arcy: Pecking order at outhalf beneath Sexton about to come into sharp focus ]
Those feelings were present at various points in my career, when I started and went off the rails, the mid-career slump and then at the end, where the sun was rising for my young successor while setting on the sporting life and times of a thirtysomething.
How you deal with these moments, where form deserts you, will have lasting implications for you as a person and as a player. Losing your confidence can be terminal for a career, as for most it is accompanied by forfeiting your place in the team and/or the squad. This can be a fantastic learning opportunity on how to deal with adversity, if they are humble or open enough to the concept.
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I have known players who still felt entitled to a place on the team, drawing down on past achievement rather than acknowledging current form. That skewed perspective ushers a player through the door marked ‘resentment,’ a lonely place, and left unchecked it can quickly destabilise a team environment.
The phrase “no dickheads” was coined to warn against players whose behaviour acts like an emotional millstone for the group. There are anomalies in sport where a valued asset is indulged to a greater degree than the average Joe, but no one can outrun time, the moment when a player’s ability to evolve his game hits the buffers, where ‘smarts’ can’t match physical qualities.
Joey Carbery turned 27 in November and ordinarily should be hitting peak career time. Physically he looks to have put injuries to bed, but his game lacks the swagger of old and that hints that his confidence might need a bit of topping up.
Toulouse marked the second week in succession that he failed to reach the hour mark on the pitch in the European tournament, to go with a supplementary setback of being left out of Andy Farrell’s extended Ireland squad for the first two rounds of the Six Nations Championship.
I am occasionally guilty of forgetting how powerful and suffocating a team environment can be. One of the challenges that I found very difficult to deal with at times while playing professional sport was managing the ebb and flow of confidence levels, remembering not to get too carried away when everything was good while also understanding how and when to check in when things weren’t going so well.
Early in my career I would react to a setback rather than be proactive in making sure that my mental wellbeing was where it needed to be; a poor run of matches, being dropped for important games or missing out on an Irish squad would have my self-esteem down around my bootlaces.
[ Gordon D’Arcy: Champions Cup is in danger of becoming a sideshow ]
As I got older, and I am going to say wiser, my awareness of the need to be mentally attuned to the demands of playing professional sport became sharper. I sought to check in on a regular basis, to reflect on how I was going, and to make sure any drop in performance would not turn into something bigger.
It can be hard when you are in the environment to see things for yourself, the wood from the trees analogy so to speak. When I met with Enda McNulty, he helped me to understand that I will always have the answers, his job to help me to ask the right questions.
So, whether it was Eddie O’Sullivan, Declan Kidney or Joe Schmidt that sat me down to have those awkward conversations about underperformance, I had to take the message and process it objectively. There is always a choice; I could accept their decision as final, or I could look to improve and fight my way back into contention. When I eventually stepped back and asked the “right” question, it would be there staring me in the face.
Some aspect of the inexplicably complex formula to my performance would be out of order, not sleeping or eating correctly, carrying emotional baggage into a match, contractual or injury worries affecting my mindset. There would always be a fix once the root cause was found.
That is the choice facing Carbery now. Does he adopt and settle for the views of other people or does he stand up and fight? Is he tough enough? There is no doubting his physical bravery, something he’s demonstrated throughout his career, and again at the weekend in absorbing monumental hits from some very big men. His courage is irrefutable.
The primary question relates to Carbery’s mental strength. Farrell’s message to Carbery is that you need to be better to reclaim your place in the Irish squad. I believe that the Ireland head coach has the best of intentions. He’s asking Carbery to prove him wrong, to reclaim lost ground; Farrell wants to elicit that response, where it matters, on the pitch.
Why? Because Carbery’s talent is undoubted, and his own ceiling is set incredibly high. Which makes his current form even more perplexing, however, if he remains one of the most gifted players in Irish rugby and we do not have the strength in depth to allow a player like this to fall by the wayside. There have been many opinions expressed, mine included, on what Carbery should do and to a certain extent he has looked like he is playing the way people want him to, rather than how he wants.
[ Gordon D’Arcy: Trying to defend the indefensible not the way forward for either the GAA or rugby ]
This is not a physical challenge like a return from injury, which to a certain extent is a paint by numbers scenario. If you do X and Y, improve your strength it will eventually equal a return to play. It is about the mindset you carry into each match. When you are on form, each positive moment feeds the next but when things aren’t clicking then it can feel suffocating.
Rediscovering form starts with identifying the blockage, and then reminding yourself what makes you a great player, beating players, offloading, passes and perhaps the hardest part, believing that it is still who you are.
I hope he uses this time away from the Irish squad to rediscover why he plays the game, his love for it, and the freedom that will come from being true to his talent. The more selfish he can be in fulfilling those goals, the more Carbery and Irish rugby will benefit.
The United Rugby Championship (URC) matches, starting at the weekend, and in the down weeks during the Six Nations provide opportunity. Munster signed off on the pool stage of the Heineken Champions Cup with a largely excellent display underpinned by some in-form players such as Gavin Coombes, Tadgh Beirne and Jean Kleyn.
The latter’s form has been very impressive, and the prospect of packing down with RG Snyman at some point presumably before April and for the knockout stage of European competition will add a new dynamic to the Munster pack. Although it will raise an interesting selection issue for Munster, where do they play Tadhg Beirne, in the secondrow or the backrow?
Graham Rowntree would have been reasonably happy with events in the south of France last weekend, even taking into consideration the missed kicks. They scored the try of the round, if not the tournament, one that contained flicks and tricks (Coombes) that facilitated the initial breach in the Toulouse defensive line.
Shane Daly and Craig Casey swapped offloads, taking play to within feet of the Toulouse line, Kleyn’s carry kept the home defence scrambling in tight to the ruck. Carbery’s vision and execution switched play to the far touchline. I wrote before Christmas how Munster needed a greater conversion rate when they created chances. This was a classic example of getting it right.
At this stage in the evolution of Munster rugby, the coach wants to be able to turn to their players and show tangible progress. Rowntree is winning the battle for the hearts and minds in the changing room. You can see it in the belief of his players.
As I have written before, he is asking them to think and play a bit more and it has not been an overnight success. They stayed the course and saw the results of their efforts in a big match against one of the best teams in Europe.
This season will not be about silverware, but it will be a success if this momentum is continued during the URC window and into the Champions Cup in April. They will likely reach their ceiling sooner than other teams, but one or two more big performances will reignite the hunger in the squad, and the belief in the fans.