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The mind guru tasked with fixing the confidence issues in the Irish rugby team

Gary Keegan has already convinced Bundee Aki that he can bring the glory days back to Irish rugby.

Wherever Gary Keegan has gone, success has followed.
Wherever Gary Keegan has gone, success has followed.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

WAY BACK IN the distant past, when Irish boxing’s reputation was on the ropes, Garry Keegan took a piece of chalk, got down on his knees and drew a line down the middle of the gym.

Like all the best coaches, he then paused for dramatic effect, stared straight into the eyes of a collection of boxers who were lined up against the gym wall, a little like the poster image of The Usual Suspects.

Keegan didn’t mince his words. “There’s the line,” he said. “You have a choice.”

They could either stay where they were – literally standing still and going nowhere in their careers; or they could dedicate themselves fully to their trade.

They crossed the line, three of them medalling in Beijing, Paddy Barnes doubling up to become a two-time Olympic medallist in London, by which stage the Irish boxing programme had become a byword for over-achievement.

Come 2012, Keegan had moved on from his role as a high performance operator in boxing to become the head of the Irish Institute of Sport, a position he held until 2016.

Significantly, 2016 was also the year Annalise Murphy won her sailing silver medal in Rio; also the year Keegan was fully ensconced in Jim Gavin’s Dublin set-up. While the five-in-a-row was, first and foremost, Gavin’s achievement, Keegan gets a mention in the credits.

Better again in 2019 he also became the first coach in history to have a foot in two All-Ireland winning camps: the Tipp hurlers availing of his expertise on the nights when he had time off from the Dubs. We should also mention the work he did in 2017/18 with Leo Cullen’s Leinster. You might remember that year they won the Pro14/Champions Cup double.

“High performance sport is all about solving problems better than your competitor,” Keegan said in an interview with The Sunday Times’ Denis Walsh earlier this year. “So you’ve got to love the problem. You can be tippy-toeing around stuff, you’ve got to drive the elephant into the room. So we don’t walk on egg-shells, we crash in and try to find out, ‘What’s this about?’ Last year with Dublin the five-in-a-row was never the elephant in the room. The elephant was the noise that was starting to infiltrate.”

dublin-team-celebrate Keegan worked with Dublin during their five-in-a-row success. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

These last few weeks he has walked into a different room only this time there isn’t just an elephant in there, but a herd.

Joe Schmidt’s shadow looms large. Questions about their attack, their defence, their ability to transfer the game-plan from the training ground to match day, have also been sounded. We haven’t even mentioned the mental hang-ups about World Cup quarter-final day yet. Short-term, they need to learn how to get one over Scotland, a side they have routinely beaten since 2017 but who now fancy their chances of an upset today. 

Gary Keegan twitter post

Top coaches discuss leadership and the lessons they’ve learned with Shane Keegan. Get access to the podcast series here>

Entering this room filled with doubt is a serial winner.

“I have had a few one on one sessions with him and found him very interesting, very helpful,” said Bundee Aki, the Ireland centre.When you are speaking with him, he threw a few boxing jabs, just as a means of trying to explain things. There is always a physical side to rugby but there is a mental side of it, too.

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“Players need to feel they are mentally very clear on what they need to do and try and block out all the outside noise as much as they can and try and focus on what is the most important thing.”

bundee-aki Bundee Aki insists the Ireland camp is a happy one. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Although positive about Keegan’s influence, Aki didn’t give away too many secrets, either.

Yet from his previous experiences with Dublin, Tipp and Leinster, it’s clear what Keegan’s method is. He is unafraid to be candid, to show a vulnerability of himself in order to gain players’ trust.

“I am quite hard on the people I work with,” he said in that Sunday Times interview. “I won’t go around in circles with people. I expect them to take responsibility and apply the advice to their practice. I’m tough with people in terms of the feedback I give them at times but they know where it’s coming from.

“I’m not needy. I don’t need to have this. I want to be there. I want to impact on the individual that I’m working with or the group. My performance is important to me so I’m not going to allow someone else or some other group drag my performance down. I know the kind of people I can help. I’m not trying to be anyone’s saviour in any way but I need to be very deliberate about the people I work with because I want to be successful. I’m very ambitious to make an impact. If I’m not making a difference I won’t hang around.”

It’ll be fascinating to see how long he does hang around for then because ever since 2018 ended, the Irish rugby team has suffered a double-dip sporting recession, their form slumping firstly in Joe Schmidt’s final year, then being just as bad in Andy Farrell’s first season.

rory-best-dejected-after-the-game Ireland's form dipped at the 2019 World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Aki, already, is a convert. “He just gives a different perspective on how you do things, things you might not have thought about when preparing for a game,” the Connacht centre said. “It could be something small but when he speaks about it, or talks about it, it just makes you think a little more and it makes you want to do the things he is saying and see how it goes.”

“Top-level athletes,” Keegan said in Damian Lawlor’s book, When the World Stops Watching, “are very driven by the achievements of the group. That becomes their environment and learning to contain that energy can be a very intense thing because all mistakes are public within that space. People see and observe everything, and it is a constant challenge for the athlete to find a better self.”

The challenge for Aki and Ireland today is to find a better performance and reproduce their 2018 form. “One hundred per cent, I believe in this group of players and in this coaching staff to be able to do that,” said Aki.

“It has been unbelievable how the boys have been able to express themselves here off the pitch and around the pitch. I definitely have faith we will get there at some stage. You can’t jump straight there. Everyone wants it to be a perfect picture but it is a work in progress.”

He doesn’t think Ireland are “too far off” completing that work. “And I am sure that when we do then everyone will be clapping us on our backs and saying how good we are.

 “When we played New Zealand here in 2018 and in Chicago in 2016, I think everybody was clapping us on the backs then, and then everyone seemed to jump off the bus when we lost to them in the World Cup. But look, everyone knows in this group and in this team that we are more than capable of beating any other team; we are more than capable of getting to where we need to get to.”

Seeing Keegan guide them on that journey will make for great viewing.

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Garry Doyle

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