COMMENT

If there is one thing the All Blacks can put England straight on, it is that a psychological fault line that runs through the team's leaders can't be fixed quickly or easily.

There's more to building genuine mental strength – the sort required to win a World Cup – than asking the captain to do a few sessions of word association with the team psychologist and talk about his childhood and the feelings he endured when the family pet died.

It took the All Blacks eight years, if not longer, to transition from being a supremely talented yet mentally fragile team prone to cracking under pressure to becoming relentless winners and arguably the most dominant side in history.

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It was a painful journey for the All Blacks – one that saw them think that having put a heavy emphasis on their mental skills in late 2004 they had their decision-making process all sussed out in big tests by the time they arrived in France for the 2007 World Cup.

But they found out in the quarter-final that their key leaders still didn't have the ability to stay calm and clear-headed when it really mattered and that mental strength isn't built in the classroom or in one-off sessions with the team psychologist.

After the indignity of 2007, the All Blacks deepened their resolve to become a team that could dig their way out of the deepest holes based on their ability to play without anxiety and emotion regardless of what the scoreboard was telling them.

They decided that if a lack of good leadership was their biggest problem they needed to throw everything they had into fixing it.

Experts were consulted, ideas from a diverse range of organisations were adopted and what the All Blacks learned is that mental strength is not an abstract term or a skill practised in isolation.

The All Blacks take the view, having delved deeper into the art of leadership than any other rugby team, that effective decision-making has to be practised as an all pervasive philosophy.

Winning the 2011 World Cup was validation they were on the right track, while the follow-up victory in 2015 gave weight to this belief that the All Blacks have built the skills and culture so well that it enables new players to come into the team and relatively quickly develop and improve their decision-making.

All Black Ben Smith in action against England. Photo / Photosport
All Black Ben Smith in action against England. Photo / Photosport

The current squad doesn't have the same depth of experience or breadth of strong, astute personnel as the 2015 group, but they have still been able to show a similar fortitude and practical ability to scramble victories in the face of adversity.

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They beat Australia in 2017 with a miracle try in the last few minutes. That same year it took extreme composure and clarity to execute the critical plays that beat a spirited Scotland side at Murrayfield.

The victory in Pretoria last year was an incredible triumph for their mental strength as much as it was their fitness – finding a way to claw their way back from being 31-13 down in the final quarter.

And perhaps the most heartening victory of all was secured at Twickenham when at 15-0 down after 25 minutes, the All Blacks found a way to reverse the tide, get back into the game and hang on for a one-point win.

The current squad is not infallible by any means but they have shown enough in the last three years for everyone to be confident the All Blacks wouldn't blow a 31-0 lead the way England did against Scotland.

They have invested so much in their leadership in the past 12 years that there is some certainty that the All Blacks, should they fail in their mission to win a third World Cup, it won't be because they cracked under pressure and played dumb rugby.

England fans don't have the same assurance and nor should they believe that their team can find a solution to their glaring flaw between now and the World Cup.

They want to become as mentally strong as the All Blacks but haven't invested the same time and resource and of all the credible World Cup challengers, they look the most likely to disintegrate in a knock-out game and six months does not feel like it will be enough time for England to build the requisite mental strength they will need in Japan.

They are, judging by the number of times in the last few years that they have blown big leads and frozen in the metaphoric headlights, miles away from having the sorts of leaders that can rescue a game once the momentum is slipping away from them.

Owen Farrell appears to be the sort of captain who is brilliant for England when everything is going his way and then a potential red card when it's not.

Halfback Ben Youngs is a damaging attacking force when England are humming along, but under pressure, his go-to tactic is to incessantly box kick and not particularly well either.

And how many times in the last 18 months has England's vaunted pack wilted?

The answer is enough at least for coach Eddie Jones to be obviously spooked at how mentally frail his team is and the fact he is warning that the problem can't be quickly fixed is proof he knows that he has to condition fans to the prospect of their World Cup campaign ending in disappointment.