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Mental conditioning: The high-performance coach guiding the Irish rugby team

Players not fazed by Ireland’s Rugby World Cup history, says Gary Keegan — ‘I think this group wear that skin very well’

It would be wrong to describe Gary Keegan as one of the unsung heroes of this Irish team’s success story. The players sing his praises whenever given the cue to do so, or voluntarily, almost as much as they do Andy Farrell himself.

Keegan is a high-performance coach who specialises in mental skills and was a key driving force in the success of Irish boxing. As chief executive of Uppercut, his list of clients has included Dublin GAA, Leinster Rugby, London Business School and blue-chip organisations.

Keegan had been on the IRFU Professional Games Board when Farrell first approached him, before first asking him aboard at the end of 2020 to work for two days a week.

“We quickly discovered that that wasn’t going to do it because you have to be fully immersed, you have to integrate yourself with the language and what it is that rugby is. It’s quite a complicated sport. It’s not like Gaelic football, there’s a lot more to learn. Two days worked well with the group and then it became full-time,” said Keegan, of his increased role last summer.


Keegan has evidently helped imbue the players with clarity and belief, in living to their mantra of being next moment focussed, of rolling with the punches and avoiding the kind of “performance anxiety” that IRFU performance director David Nucifora identified in his review of the 2019 World Cup campaign.

Tournament regulations demand more media offerings than normal, and so on another warm, mostly sunny Tuesday at the squad’s HPC in the Complex de la Chambrarie in Tours, Keegan faced the media for the first time.

He is very engaging, has a way of making the complex seem simple, and with passion and positivity.

His primary responsibility is around the players as individuals but he is also a member of the support staff, if required.

“Anything around maximising their performance from a mental perspective, planning their daily diaries, their schedules, building strategies around their mental game et cetera, 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.”

His work is rugby-specific and, like everyone else, is secondary to Andy Farrell, who “has a very clear sense of what he’s trying to achieve and a very clear sense of where he wants to take the team. And it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s taken three-plus years to build the environment and build the belief in the group in terms of what we’re collectively trying to achieve. He’s been consistent and constant in his approach to that and I think we all take our lead off how he’s leading and managing the environment.”

But what about the World Cup baggage and quarter-final glass ceiling? “We’re not bothered by it. 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.”

To this end, he says, it’s important to “keep grounded and stay curious”.

This inner belief also comes to a large degree from Farrell.

“It takes a leader who wants to do that. It takes a leader who has the confidence in himself to want to break the mould and to want to reach for the stars. 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 has also worked in four-year Olympic programmes but noting that the World Cup is longer in duration, the longer the planning the better.

“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 has worked with successful “head coaches”, per se, before in Billie Walsh and Jim Gavin, and says they share a realisation that their role is to serve the staff around them. “I’ve been lucky to choose the right people to work with, genuinely. There’s some people I wouldn’t work with.”

The similarities with boxing are obvious in that both sports place an emphasis on physical collisions and, Keegan adds, because boxers and rugby players have to be intelligent with technical and tactical abilities.

“But I’ve been amazed by what these guys have to take in from a rugby perspective, in terms of what they have to learn week-on-week. But yeah, there are similarities between the two sports.”

However, he has detected a big difference between individual and team sports.

“Individual athletes are a bit like entrepreneurs, they’re out there on their own. It’s them and their coach and maybe their support team. They’re accountable to themselves and they have to go out and produce their own performance.

“Whereas we are a collective. We’re a unit and a team and we have to build relationships. We have to build connections. We have to learn the game together and 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.

“I think that’s quite astonishing, what these guys have managed to achieve but it’s very different.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times