Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: The beauty of composure

The Wallabies were within a try of winning late in last weekend's first test but Richie McCaw and the All Blacks never gave them a sniff of victory. Photo / Getty Images
The Wallabies were within a try of winning late in last weekend's first test but Richie McCaw and the All Blacks never gave them a sniff of victory. Photo / Getty Images

Winning ugly is the popular term, and maybe that's what it is. Something has happened, whatever the definition, to enable the All Blacks to close out games they might once have lost.

The second test against Ireland became a battle of mental strength and nerve-holding. The Irish capitulated while the All Blacks, after 76 minutes of ineffective perspiration, found four minutes of inspiration to drop a goal and sneak out of Christchurch with the series.

Last week in Sydney, even when the Wallabies suddenly had the opportunity to win the game late, there was never any doubt.

It wasn't so much that the Wallabies never seemed to have a late try in them, it was more the confidence that these days the All Blacks stay composed under intolerable pressure. They know how to absorb intense waves of pressure and defend with composure, accuracy and discipline.

The World Cup final was their finest 12 minutes in that regard - perhaps the breakthrough game where they built unbreakable confidence in their ability to win games that hang in the balance.

The French still feel they were robbed in the final - that the All Blacks rode the life out of their luck to avoid being penalised. The home side were a touch fortunate at times but that shouldn't diminish the admiration for their new-found skill of winning tight games.

The World Cup final was the ultimate proof they had the mental strength and collective experience to win when it mattered, but the signs had been there for some time.

In 2010, they pulled off a dramatic late win in Soweto, scoring two tries in four minutes when everyone thought they had gone. In Sydney that year, the forwards pulled the game out of the fire - hauling back a good Wallaby lead in the last 15 minutes.

There was a worrying comeback by the Welsh in Cardiff that same year that required belief and commitment to be subdued and even the World Cup quarter-final against the Pumas had the potential to go horribly wrong but never did.

The All Blacks' incredible win ratio suggests they have always been masters at escaping from tight games with victories - yet everyone knows that is not true.

That wasn't the case in Rustenburg 2006, when the All Blacks contrived to drop a test they had no business losing.

Melbourne 2007 was another worrying slip - they failed to slam the door shut and allowed the Wallabies to claw their way back to a 20-15 morale-boosting victory. Then, of course, there was the 2007 World Cup quarter-final, a game too painful to recall.

It's almost impossible to equate the All Blacks of today with those of four years ago; it is almost impossible to believe that, if the current side were put back in time to those closing 12 minutes in Cardiff five years ago, they would have lost.

For a start, Dan Carter drops goals these days for fun. Then there is the leadership - driven by Richie McCaw, the world's most influential and best captain. The collective experience is enormous and under pressure, there are men across the team who know what to do.

None of this has happened by chance. It is the result of a deliberate and concerted effort to improve the decision-making of the squad, particularly under pressure. Greater time has been devoted to honing the mental strength of individuals.

"We were a lot smarter about our mental work between 2008 and 2011," says All Black coach Steve Hansen. "There is more awareness that it is not so different to the physical side of things - the more you work at it, the better you get at it. And to work at it, you have got to have an understanding of how it works.

"When you look at teams, most are pretty evenly matched across the park so I guess it is the sportsmen and sportswomen who control the mind the best who win the contest."

What sets the All Blacks apart is the level of detail they apply in this area. Mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka has taken the All Blacks to a new level on this front; long gone are the days of sports psychology being scoffed at and mocked. Just as redundant is the notion that this discipline is entirely motivational.

The All Blacks now understand that there are three core functions - instinct, thinking and emotion. Under pressure, it's usually the thinking part that is first to shut down.

Not thinking creates problems - that's when the game plan isn't followed and players react to what they see or how they are feeling; the results are rarely good.

What the All Blacks have tried to do is to help individuals recognise when they are disconnecting from the present and the thinking side of their brain. Brad Thorn, literally, stamped his feet during the World Cup final; that was his way of reconnecting his brain - of trying to bring his mind back to focusing on the task and not the outcome. McCaw might throw water on his face for the same purpose but, whatever the physical cue, it seems to work.

The senior All Blacks stay on task for longer than they ever have and that has been crucial in helping them ride out stormy closing periods.

Also crucial is their understanding of communication. In the past, All Black sides have gone quiet under pressure; players have gone into their shells and said nothing.

Now, the senior players talk - but not meaningless, motivational rants. The leaders have worked hard to remember to talk in specifics - with clear instructions about what they want to happen and what others have to do.

This clarity and focus, this composure under pressure makes the difference. The All Blacks have become truly mentally tough in the past 18 months and, whether it is beautiful or ugly, they know how to win.

- Herald on Sunday

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