Gary Keegan, the man who transformed Irish amateur boxing, has been called in to help with the mental preparation of the Ireland rugby team under Andy Farrell. Farrell’s first calendar year in charge limps to a close with this Saturday’s Autumn Nations Cup playoff versus Scotland. 

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Farrell, whose record so far is Won 5 Lost 3, has made six changes to his XV for that third-placed match following the disgruntlement of last Sunday’s limited win over tournament minnows Georgia.

He then let slip at his post-team announcement media conference on Thursday that he has been accessing outside help recently to help to motivate his squad. Mick Kearney, the former team manager from the Declan Kidney and early Joe Schmidt era, has returned to the fold in a mentoring role but the addition of Keegan is an intriguing move.

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Dylan Hartley and Jamie Roberts talk Autumn Nations Cup and what could make rugby a better spectacle

Irish amateur boxing only had one boxer qualify for each of the Olympics in Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, but Keegan’s work as performance director laid the foundations for the winning of three medals at Beijing 2008 and four at London 2012 along with multiple medals at world and European level. 

Keegan is now CEO of his own company Uppercut and has been a member of the IRFU’s professional game board in recent years before becoming hands-on in recent weeks with Farrell’s charges.  

“Gary Keegan has been with us for some weeks now doing a tremendous job,” revealed Farrell after naming an Ireland team that sees fit-again Johnny Sexton return as skipper. “Gary’s mental skills as far as helping how that translates to performance is what he is second to none at and his whole connection piece, bringing all the management and playing squad together, is a big part of his remit.

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“Mick Kearney was there in previous years as a manager but he is there as a mentor for many of the players as well. It isn’t just the stress of a match week, it’s dealing with life outside rugby as well. That can be a whole build up in a different manner and Mick helps massively with that mentoring outside of rugby. With Gary and Mick we are well on our way to starting something that is going to help in the future.”

Irish rugby’s dip in fortunes post-Schmidt has not been confined to the field as their stark financial situation has seen no negotiations open yet with the 50 per cent of the Test/provincial player roster whose contracts expire at the end of the 2020/21 season. 

Farrell insisted he was fully aware of the sitiation regarding all the players in Ireland. “As a head coach I know all about that and I know where everyone is individually. But honestly, the feel in the group you would never know it exists. The players have been in absolute magnificent form for a period of eight weeks.

“The drive has been second to none to learn and get better. You would never think that’s at the forefront of the mind, which is massive credit for them.

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“We are dealing with that type of stuff from a mental performance preparation aspect. It’s something we are touching on constantly, that we have helped with along the way. Stress comes from people wanting to put their best foot forward when they are given an opportunity, how you deal with that. 

“That is our job and the help we get from the outside to help them along with that stress. That’s international football, that’s why it is so different and that is why everyone wants to be a part of it.”

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