Moving up to international level is all in the mind

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The Independent Online

This first weekend of the Heineken European Cup will no doubt be bringing extra pressures that will come as a shock to all the players involved – a step up in class always takes your breath away, no matter how much you prepare yourself for it.

That's what did for the Irish at Murrayfield last weekend and will be affecting many performances during this introduction to European action.

It is always difficult to imagine what is going on in a rugby player's mind – with some it is impossible – but the hardest job for any coach is to convince players that they have to raise their game by at least 20 per cent, mentally and physically, when they move from club rugby to international level.

Even when you've been making the jump for years it still comes as a surprise. It did in my early days in union and applies just as much now that the game has become fully professional.

The basic difference is that everything quickens up. Even the week before an international passes quicker as the tension increases.

Once the game starts, the speed-up intensifies. You seem to have less ball and less time to do something with it when you get it. For instance, the time you get to clear to touch at club level seems ages longer than the time available in an international.

Moves that work smoothly at your club don't work at all for your country. When a move doesn't come off in a club game you just try again the next time the oppor-tunity presents itself. In internationals there rarely is a next time. The same field position doesn't often recur.

I've always felt that there is not a big difference between winning and losing in international rugby. The main difference is that mental edge and being able to take your chances when they are on offer.

Of course, you get large margins of victory but the games usually hinge on one or two moments when one side's extra pace and intensity of purpose gives them the ascendancy. Who-ever takes advantage at those vital times usually goes on to win and when you break them down and study what happened there wasn't much in it apart from pace and mental alertness. You can't afford to be slow.

All of this goes a long way towards explaining Ireland's poor performance against Scotland and it should sound a warning to all our international teams.

Ireland were everyone's favourites to win the match due to their performances last season and the terrific form their provincial teams had shown in the Celtic League.

But instead of being bolstered and fired up by these factors they seemed to be undermined by them. Looking back, their pre-match attitude seemed too relaxed. I was sitting next to Ireland's Lions centre Rob Henderson and some were waving at him from the pitch. That's OK if you immediately switch back to focusing on the game. But they didn't.

For Scotland, it was totally different. They had to be focused because they were the underdogs and if their defence was brilliant it was because that was what they expected to be doing for most of the game.

They didn't start all that confidently, either, and were probably short of that 20 per cent themselves until they scored that excellent first try which proved to be the moment that sent the game surging in Scotland's favour.

Other factors come into play when you've been caught lacking in the mental-readiness department. You don't make the quick decisions that can change things. I would have changed the team in certain areas at an early stage but their lack of speed seemed to apply to everyone's thinking processes.

Rugby seems to be far better equipped to deal with the physical requirements of the game than the mental side – and people don't realise how important it has become.