New Zealand players react during their test against England
at Twickenham. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
If the All Blacks' collapse against England revealed
anything it was that the line between success and failure in
international rugby is a fine one - and the importance of
It was one of the reasons why All Black coach Steve Hansen
didn't appreciate the talk about his side, who up until last
weekend were unbeaten for 20 tests, being the best ever.
That sort of stuff can lead to complacency and short-cuts in
preparation, both of which are anathema to any coach. But the
question remains, were the All Blacks - regarded as the
fittest side in international rugby - mentally all there at
The 14th and final test of a long and demanding year against
an opponent with plenty to prove was always going to be
difficult, but the uncertain start and failure to kick on
once fighting back to trail 15-14, and associated defensive
disasters, was out of character in the extreme.
Last year's World Cup meant the All Blacks didn't tour the
north but in 2010 they played 14 tests and comfortably
accounted for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales at the
finish. The difference this year was the shoehorning of three
tests into the Super Rugby season, which meant it didn't
finish until August 4. The toll it and other factors took on
the All Blacks was plain to see last weekend.
"No excuses," Hansen said, when asked if the virus suffered
by many of his players during the week was to blame. But
something clearly wasn't right - whether physical, or mental.
Centre Conrad Smith gave an insight into his and his
teammates' thinking during the week when talking about
looking forward to a break.
And while he was only truthfully answering a reporter's
question, it might not have been the best policy, according
to sports psychologist Gary Hermansson.
It was significant too, that Smith, so consistent this year
for the All Blacks, had a poor game by his standards. His
defensive mix-up in the second half which gave up a try isn't
something we have come to expect from him.
Hermansson, who has helped New Zealand athletes at four
Olympic Games, said talking to the media about tiredness and
the prospect of a break could have been self perpetuating.
"Certainly acknowledge it within the unit, but with the
media, once you put that information into the ether, it's
gone, it's out there. Whereas if you say as a unit, 'okay
this is where we are vulnerable, so what are we going to do
to help counter that?'.
You could imagine a situation where you say, 'look at 4.30pm
on Saturday, this is when we stop our focus on being the best
team around and the best athletes around. But until 4.30pm on
Saturday all of our attention must be around our
"You create a rather symbolic marker where you say this is
the point where we have permission to shift our attention a
bit. If you have some way of identifying that marker and
containing your thinking within that space then that's going
to help counter that.
"Without it you're at a risk subconsciously of leaking that
intensity and once that starts to leak it flows out like a
balloon and you're left feeling flat."
The All Blacks looked extremely flat - much like their
defeats at previous World Cups, which Hermansson also has a
theory about. Like those losses, once England got a roll on,
the All Blacks looked powerless.
"From a mental point of view, you have to accept it was going
to be a hard ask for the All Blacks," he said.
"It seems to me it didn't matter when the last game was going
to be, they were always going to be vulnerable. You almost
see the light at the end of the tunnel, you're exhausted,
you've had a whole range of expectations to live up to, it
was almost tantalisingly close - mentally - the opportunity
to stop this treadmill."
Hermansson, 71, an author of several books, including Going
Mental In Sport, said the All Blacks' past World Cup
disappointments stemmed from fear of failure.
"We have always been vulnerable at World Cup knockout stages.
You could say the Australia [semifinal] game last year was
the only knockout World Cup match in which we have played
with that same ability. For the rest of the time we have just
managed to hang on and we've had some spectacular problems.
We get motivated more about the fear of failure rather than
the desire to win.
"Looking forward, the next time the All Blacks play England
the motivation shift will be evident but the real question is
going to be how that translates into World Cup situations
when we continue to be vulnerable in those knockout stages."
Clincial psychologist Karen Nimmo said physical fatigue
combined with illness would have impacted on the players'
mental state. "Mental and physical preparation are always
intertwined," she said.
"The All Blacks know how to prepare mentally and so they -
and Gilbert Enoka - would have been aiming to stay in the
present and just do their various jobs on the field. However,
thoughts of a break, 'one more game till it's over', 'we hate
losing to England' , and 'we can go unbeaten this season',
may have crowded their psyche. Those thoughts would have been
unhelpful because they put the focus on the outcome or result
which inhibits best performance."
- Patrick McKendry of APNZ