Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Head man Gilbert is on the case

Mental skills coach and assistant manager Gilbert Enoka will not have enjoyed his 150th test with the All Blacks last week, against England. As Wynne Gray writes, when the All Blacks perform poorly, it's Enoka who often gets the blame.

Gilbert Enoka has been part of the All Blacks set-up since 2000. Photo / Photosport
Gilbert Enoka has been part of the All Blacks set-up since 2000. Photo / Photosport

As the Eden Park crowd fretted their way to the final World Cup whistle with the All Blacks last year, Gilbert Enoka was going through a range of jobs in the changing room.

Mr Fix-It and baggage man Errol Collins prepped the area for the players' return, keeping an eye on the television whenever an extra roar came though the sound system.

"I wasn't twitchy," Enoka said. "I just thought what will be, will be."

The team psychologist and many others in the group had been through the eviscerating experience of Cardiff in 2007 and the unsettling aftermath. Enoka concluded he and the All Blacks had not been fully equipped to cope with that test and other issues.

"When we got on that stage that day, we did not have the skills to be able to navigate our way through it. I sat back and said I don't have all the answers here and need some help."

Enoka sought assistance from some like former All White Ceri Evans (a professional 'mental trainer') and delivered different layers of advice throughout the All Blacks.

He felt far more at ease last October as the All Blacks headed into the play-off section of the tournament.

"We had embraced pressure and decided to walk towards it," he said. "If we were going to win the tournament, we were going to face three teams who would put in heroic performances and had to be best on the day."

There were nerves before the semifinal against the Wallabies; there was a rippling tension that the All Blacks built on to find a stunning 20-6 victory.

"For me, that was the best performance I have been involved in," Enoka recalled as he looked back on a career which reached 150 tests last weekend against England.


When people ask Enoka what he does in the All Blacks after starting back in 2000, he lists an array of credits. He began as a mental skills adviser but is now the assistant manager with a wide-ranging brief. During Adam Thomson's judicial hearing, his counsel described Enoka as the "custodian of the culture" within the All Blacks.

"Trying to pigeon-hole my work does not work because I am involved across many areas in this team," Enoka said. "I do not want to be an arse-licker, I want to be someone who challenges others. When you have been around for a length of time, you get a feel for what works and the sense of the direction you are heading in and that continuity creates a wonderful degree of knowledge."

Players trust him to be able to express their fears and anxieties, knowing those issues will get help rather than being marked in a book somewhere as a sign of weakness. They are exposed when they go through those confessional box times which Enoka encourages as part of the All Blacks' progress. If Enoka feels ill at ease about any aspects of his work or life, he will talk things through with Steve Hansen, fitness man George Duncan or Skype his wife.

"You can't succeed in this environment unless you are prepared to be vulnerable," Enoka said. "That goes all the way from the top. In showing and talking about that side of us, we are building trust."

It was not rocket science, he said, simply a way of helping people if they started to feel vulnerable. The only way to help players deal with those feelings was to have a plan and guide them through that.

Within the All Blacks, there is a coaching group, a logistics group and a well-being group which Enoka leads. They meet on a regular but often informal basis to check how players are travelling against their target charts.

"Gilbert is the glue, really, within this All Black group," Hansen said. "His obvious job is mental skills but he heads the well-being group and is just someone you can rely on to do the right things. He has a great amount of wisdom and players have huge respect and confidence in what he does."


Enoka played volleyball for New Zealand and understands the mechanics of team sport and its psychology through other work with New Zealand Cricket and netball's Silver Ferns.

Usually All Black manager Darren Shand's and Enoka's rooms are either side of Hansen and all three are constantly in discussion.

"If I need to download, I will go to Gilbert because he is a good listener. He is more a guy to share an idea with and he will help you grow it," the coach said.

Enoka started his All Black work with Wayne Smith in 2000 and had one break, in the 2003 season, when he was not used by John Mitchell. It's been a long and varied workload and pride in that performance is one of Enoka's realised targets. Part of the All Black ethos is that no one is more important than another but Enoka knows his longevity is a sign of his value.

His sporting skills did not suit rugby but working with the All Blacks was the next best thing: "Every day I get up, it is different. Every day I get up, there are challenges. Every day I get up, I love it. Some nights, I go to bed absolutely shattered but I wouldn't want to be anywhere else," he said.

Enoka laughs at the "shrink" label and the mumbo-jumbo connotations attached to him: "The only time people have commented on the shrink and the head has been when we have done poorly. No one has ever come back when the team has done well and examined what this part plays in the success of the team. It did annoy me but the longer I have gone on, I have got more tolerant because people don't understand what is involved."

Enoka tries to detach himself from the action during a test so he can sense it better. He likes to be in the dressing room, helping out and watching the monitor. Just like he was for some of that October 23 evening last year. Enoka was confident work they had done would help the team stand up to the heat.

"We had done some superb work on what the referee wanted to see and what the referee wanted to hear and I was confident Richie [McCaw] was right across everything that could possibly happen. It gave me a sense of calm because, in Cardiff, we had none of that - no plans for anything we were going to do in those moments.

"I said what will be, will be - but I must admit, when that final whistle went, I just shot out of the tunnel."

- Herald on Sunday

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