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All Blacks - Learning to Deliver Under Pressure

by Christopher Lyles

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For Gazing Performance Systems, perhaps the most significant words spoken at the 2011 Rugby World Cup were delivered at Eden Park, Auckland in the immediate aftermath of a nerve-jangling final in which New Zealand, the overwhelming pre-match favourites, edged past France 8-7 to exorcize two decades of national World Cup frustration and disappointment.

Amid the outpouring of collective delight and relief in New Zealand, possibly the calmest person in the whole country was Richie McCaw, the All Blacks captain and flanker extraordinaire. Interviewed almost as soon as the final whistle had sounded, he commented with astonishing sang-froid: “We couldn’t have been under more pressure at times, but we stuck to our guns and got there in the end. I think the key [to winning the tournament] was expecting things to happen. If you hope for the best and don’t prepare for it when adversity comes, you’re not ready for it.” At the 2011 World Cup, the All Blacks were ‘ready for it’.

The All Blacks have long been regarded as the finest rugby union team on earth, but they also developed a reputation for being serial World Cup ‘chokers’, repeatedly failing to cope with the pressure they found themselves under when an opposition occasionally produced unexpected ‘things’. Such as in 1999, when rank underdogs France turned a 24-10 deficit into a 43-31 victory against an All Blacks team that imploded when the pressure valve was turned up. Or in 2007, when the French again defied the odds to beat a rudderless New Zealand side 20-18, with the All Blacks lacking such clarity of thought under pressure that they were unable to create a dropped-goal chance in the last few minutes despite having plenty of opportunities. And then there were defeats by Australia in 1991 and 2003, by South Africa in 1995………

And here is where Gazing – whose fundamental tenet is to provide the framework and tools that help people to think clearly and correctly under pressure by stripping away any mystique and complexity – fits in. With the 2011 World Cup still a year and a half away, the All Blacks management team, partucularly their mental skills coach enlisted Gazing directors and founding partners Ceri Evans and Renzie Hanham to develop a team to build on existing structures and to assist in mentally preparing the All Blacks – not just in readiness for the World Cup, but during the course of the tournament itself, too. Henry, who was also the New Zealand head coach at the 2007 World Cup, was conspicuously aware that the ability of the players to think clearly and correctly under pressure – and for the players to be prepared for the unexpected – could well prove to be the difference between winning the 2011 World Cup or not.

So much so that, prior to the tournament, Henry said of the 2007 debacle against France: “We wondered if we’d been stronger mentally whether we would have knocked over the French in that Test. That’s a biggie – performing under immense pressure and doing it when things you don’t expect to happen, [do] happen.”

After advancing to the last four of the 2011 World Cup with ease and then producing a thoroughly controlled performance to see off arch rivals Australia 20-6 in the semi-finals (and how cathartic that must have been for the All Blacks), would New Zealand be able to hold their nerve under pressure in the final in the seemingly unlikely event that the underperforming French could actually give them a half-close game?

As events transpired, France confounded their critics by playing magnificently – and particularly so in a second half they dominated. Having closed the deficit from 8-0 to 8-7 with more than half an hour remaining, however, the French were unable to add to their tally as the All Blacks performed with cool, calm precision, limiting the opposition to one long-range penalty goal attempt. There was no sign of the panic button that New Zealand had pressed so readily in previous tournaments. Rather, McCaw and his cohorts were able to think clearly and correctly under pressure, executing the skills they possessed and doing the simple things well. They were prepared for the unexpected and they responded accordingly.

And so the All Blacks were, once again, the champions of the world, 24 years after their last triumph. No one doubted for a moment that they possessed the technical skills and the tactical ability to win the World Cup once more. But their mental strength in adversity would continue to be repeatedly scrutinised until they did regain the Webb Ellis Cup. No longer.