It is well known that the difference between a heroic victory and a painful loss in high level sport is often dictated by the smallest of margins. Munster’s recent victories in the new European Rugby Champions Cup, for example, were somewhat dependent on a few important things swinging in their favour.
In this regard Ian Keatley has deservedly received high praise for his last minute winning drop goal against Sale Sharks. However of most interest to me was his comment in the immediate aftermath; “I think, as a 10, that’s your responsibility”, he said. Keatley knows as well as anyone that the outhalf, as the on-field general, is the one who has the most responsibility and the most influence in deciding whether the game ends in a glorious victory or a one point defeat.
Many of the coaches I have played under, both at an amateur level and professionally, would concur. ‘The outhalf is the player who dictates the pace of the game’ they would say, and it is he ‘who chooses when to run or kick, the one who calls all the plays.’ Ultimately it is the outhalf that can be most accountable for the winning or losing of tight games.
When a team wins by one score, the 10 will often feel as if he is responsible for that victory and will take immense confidence from winning that psychological battle with his opposite number. His positive mind-set will confirm to him that it was he who got his team into more point scoring positions on the pitch or it was he who was more accurate in turning the potential points scoring opportunities into points on the board.
But with great power comes great responsibility and when a team loses by less than one score, it often hits the 10 the hardest because he feels most responsible for the loss. His mind-set then changes into a more inquisitive mode, “What could I have done better? What play should I have called here? Should I have kicked more for territory? Should I have done more kicking practice during the week?” These are the questions that will be running through the head of the 10 after such a tight loss in particular.
External observers may feel that rugby is a team game and so a defeat is never one player’s fault alone, but any 10 good enough to start in the top rugby teams would disagree. Hence in the past when Munster won games from a last minute drop goal or penalty from Ronan O’Gara or held on to a slender lead O’Gara was unashamed in taking the praise for being the deciding factor. The reverse was also true; when the team lost by one score he would take full responsibility for that result.
The psychological battle between opposing 10’s has a huge bearing on any game. The Munster-V-Sale game was a prime example. Danny Cipriani was playing excellently when the wind was behind him and his forward pack where punching holes in Munster’s defence. His kicking was top class and he was showcasing his vast array of passing skills. However when Munster were chasing their third try, to bring the game back to a one-score difference, Cipriani looked unsure as to how to close out the game. His kicking from hand became a ‘kick and hope for the best,’ strategy and he woefully tried to run down the clock with nearly five minutes remaining. His teammates will have noticed this and his adverse change in body language, all of which has a huge psychological effect on the team. You can almost imagine his pack asking themselves “If our on-field general doesn’t know what he’s doing, how are we going to win this game?”
Keatley on the other hand showed fantastic composure, not only in nailing the winning kick, but also in waiting for the right time to kick, when he was properly set up and had a good angle for a right footed kicker. This, again, has a huge bearing on the team’s psychology, especially a team like Munster, who have been able to rely on Ronan O’Gara in these situations to, more often than not, kick the winning kick. Experienced players like Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Denis Hurley, Billy Holland and the two Donnchas will be a lot more confident and trusting in the team’s ability to close out and win tight games with Keatley at the helm as a result of his performance these past few weeks.
The following game against Saracens, while not decided by a one score margin, was an old fashioned arm wrestle with Keatley, again, outplaying and outmanoeuvring his opposite number. On this occasion his opponent was England’s number 10 for the last three years Owen Farrell. Keatley led his pack around the field, put Munster in a lot more point scoring scenarios and while his kicking wasn’t as accurate as it should have been, his general play did enough to ensure Munster were in a good enough position to win without the need for further last minute heroics. Keatley’s victory in the psychological battle over Farrell will only have enamoured himself further to the senior players.
It is no surprise due to his increasing maturity and authority in leading Munster on the pitch together with his ability to deal with the constant media calls for JJ Hanrahan to be Munster’s first choice 10, off it, that he has earned a place in Joe Schmidt’s national squad for the upcoming Guinness November Tests against South Africa, Georgia and Australia. A win for Ireland against South Africa and Australia, even by the smallest of margins, would be worthy of high praise. But it will be dependent on a strong showing from Ireland’s number 10.