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Saturday 18 August 2018

Keith Wood: Fear factor a major threat

I USED to be a great man for clichés but now I avoid them like the plague. Sometimes they fit the bill however, and for Ireland this is one of those times.

And so this is the biggest game of this Irish team’s life. And much and all as the team had been lying in wait for Australia, this weekend’s game always held the destiny of this group in its hands. The joy and emotion of a fortnight ago will pretty much count for nothing if Sunday doesn't go as planned.

And that is where my biggest fear lies. While the game against Australia had every ingredient that we thrive on in adversity, Sunday's game is littered with landmines of uncertainty.

I have often discussed on these pages our uncomfortable relationship with expectation, which may be our biggest hurdle to get over. And this is the first game where the expectation can be a burden.

Against the States, in terrible conditions and on the back of a confidence-sapping August, we eked out a win. It wasn't pretty but it was effective and we were never really in any danger of losing.

The resultant lack of praise for the win in many ways helped with the following game against the Aussies.

Australia looked and played arrogantly, as if the lacklustre Irish performance was a certainty to happen again.

Ireland on the other hand were on a freebie, no expectations and no belief, except where it mattered most, within the squad.

The performance was magnificent and the hype after guaranteed to be as huge as the negativity before. Against Russia the performance was equally impressive, with the rotated players holding up their side of the bargain.

The team looked focused and clinical. No arrogance, just respect given and nothing taken for granted. It was an ideal game for Ireland at this particular juncture and they dealt with it impressively.

All three of those games were very different from the upcoming Sunday match. Ireland were favourites against the US and Russia and a loss there would have been cataclysmic, and to be honest unconscionable.

Ambush

But Italy are a very different proposition. The issues we have to deal with are as much to do with Italy's lack of ambition as it is our own willingness to perform. As underdogs against Australia, we could watch and wait and ambush anything that Australia tried to do.

With the ball we played within ourselves. We knew better than to force the situation, especially in the conditions. Australia were due to win easily and played accordingly.

The problem for them was that Ireland

didn't have to entertain, they just had to stop Australia, and their young team realised too late that being favourites didn't mean you win.

We have the flip side of that story on Sunday with Ireland now in Australia's shoes. We are favourites, we have beaten Italy 15 times on the trot. Most people are talking about Wales in the quarters and even further.

Now Italy are on the freebie, nobody expects them to win, and all expect the Irish backline to fire. But they don't need to force anything.

The pre-match banter has started with Nick Mallett shooting the first salvo across the bow.

Foretelling a torrid time for the Irish front row, Mallett is obviously trying to sow doubt

into both the Irish scrum and the mind of the referee, Jonathan Kaplan.

It reminds me of conversations shared with Jimmy McGee on the night before the first Stephen Collins versus Chris Eubank fight in Millstreet and subsequently with Eubank's recollections from that same night.

It was rumoured that Collins had been hypnotised and was incapable of feeling pain or being knocked out.

Mental

Mad and all as that sounded Eubank started to believe that no matter what he did he couldn't have any effect on Collins. In that sport, as in so many others, the mental state is key.

However, with Mallett's comments I feel there may be a whiff of desperation in the air. Ireland know they can hurt Italy, they just can't afford to take it for granted.

The one factor that is utterly different is that this game is going to be dry and under cover.

Ireland will be in for a torrid day but that is no different from any usual game against Italy.

It will be hard, physical, and racked with nerves. It is the nerves part that Ireland need to get control of.

But the key factors in the other games in this pool, the intensity, the composure, the clinical performance, the patience will be enough. Just in time for another cliché.

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