Monday 16 October 2017

Kiwis prove mind is the real master

David Kelly

David Kelly

An anatomy of sporting excellence must begin in the mind. The All Blacks act and react with the head first, then the heart. It is what separates them from mere sporting mortals.

Kieran Read dissects his side's incredible achievement in history with the utterly forensic detail with which his side have just created it.

It is like showing him out a copy of the Book of Kells – only for him to point out a spelling mistake.

The sport's most perfect player in this most perfect year can only see imperfection.

"Yeah, you guys are going to write about it," says this most formidable of sporting specimens, the epitome of the fire and ice that propels this seemingly unquenchable force.

"But, to be honest, I don't think of it as anything special. We might look back on it as an incredible achievement and tonight showed how hard it was to do. The feeling is we got a win and essentially finished our season well."

As it should, yesterday will be remembered for how a game was won and not lost. And, even though it was not a study in beauty, as a glimpse behind the curtain of sustained sporting excellence, it was at once so utterly revealing and captivating.

In James Kerr's superb, 'Legacy – what the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life', he relates allegorically to how the unacceptable performance of US Air Force fighter pilots during the Vietnam War, in comparison to previous wars, forced them to adopt Exercise Red Flag.

COMBAT

The exercise would show that a pilot's chances of survival in combat dramatically increased after he had completed 10 combat missions.

It isn't about doing it – it's about doing it when it matters. And more, doing it when it matters most.

As in life, so too in sport. This is the culture embraced by the All Blacks.

"It's about performing under pressure on the paddock," Kerr is told by their mind guru Gilbert Enoka, a man who is as integral to the team as Aaron Cruden's metronomic boot, Cory Jane's wand-like hands or Read's abrasive omniscience.

Yesterday's great escape demonstrated the most powerful tool the all-conquering All Blacks had at their disposal when they were forced to mine the deepest seam of all – their mind.

"To perform under pressure when it matters, you need to train that way," writes Kerr. "That way, when we do it for real, it's automatic. We don't think, we just do."

As Ireland flagged and tired and begged for the clock to tick faster, the All Blacks owned every single moment of those breath-thieving plays from when Ireland conceded possession for the fateful, final time. The decisive try-scorer Ryan Crotty is still wrapped in the moment as he relives it from that final tap and go.

"Guys working hard. Ball getting recycled. Very high tempo. Guys hitting rucks hard. Cleaning bodies. They're starting to get tired, that's why we go wide.

"Punch a hole here. Shift it the other way. Julian (Savea) did well. We found the width and ... "

Then he takes a breath.

"It was a good place to go."

Richie McCaw remembered a game from 12 years ago when his Canterbury side were 29-12 down to Wellington in a Ranfurly Shield game, the biggest club game in the country.

Their coach, Todd Blackadder, had one message.

"Never give up," McCaw relates. His side won 31-29 with the last kick of the game.

"I've never, ever given up since that moment. I've always been like that, you never stop believing you have a chance.

"It's amazing what can happen. Because the team on the other side start to get under pressure for different reasons."

Although performing poorly, the All Blacks still sensed their own strength and opposition weakness once they were offered a chance of salvation.

Crotty's try only levelled matters though. A draw would have suited nobody, least of all Ireland. "We didn't want to do what we'd done before," grimaced Joe Schmidt, a man who knows the All Blacks' mindset better than most.

Now Cruden must convert to ensure the perfect year. A shot at perfection. In the end, he needed the second invitation that Ireland managed to offer him.

"They would have been aware of my little stutter style so it's a shame for them that they charged early," relates Cruden, the effortless deputy for Dan Carter. "For us, I was pretty happy to get a second crack."

Crotty could only stand and stare, washed over with a confection of amazement and astonishment.

"They made the same mistake before with the charge-down so I don't know why they did that," he mused.

"You don't give a guy like Aaron a second chance with a kick like that, he's not going to miss. It was awesome to be under that pressure and nail it."

For Cruden, it was all about being so enmeshed in the moment that one doesn't have any sense how significant the moment really is.

The simple execution of a skill, routinely effected hundreds of times before.

"I just wanted to get back into my rhythm and try to stroke the ball," he says. "Full credit to the Irish who outplayed us for 70 minutes. We wanted to put in a quality performance to finish the tour and that probably wasn't it.

"The character shown from 12 months ago when we folded, this time we fought back with the heart that's under the silver fern of this All Black jersey.

"The talk was positive, we've self-belief and talent. If we hang in the fight, we know the momentum will turn which it did.

"It took a long time to wrest the momentum off the Irish. They beat us to the punch for a lot of the game. But we stayed true to our systems.

"But those dark moments do creep into your mind, where you think it might go against you.

"It would have been a tough ask if Johnny Sexton kicks that. I felt for him but we were still in with a sniff. So it was great to take that 22 and get the momentum in our favour.

"We work a lot on the mental side of the game. We know we're going to have moments in the opposition 22. So if we stay in the present, we know things will turn our way."

It is the All Blacks' code.

"We have clarity, accuracy, intensity," Kerr sums up.

"Train to win."

It should hardly come as a surprise that New Zealand continue to do this more often than most.

Twelve years and 124 caps ago, a fresh-faced Richie McCaw was present as his side responded from 21-7 behind to claim victory. Yesterday, they were 22-7 behind.

The script had the same ending.

"It doesn't matter what the scoreboard says, it's about mental fortitude and composure," McCaw says.

"There's still a chance. You won't always get there but there's still a chance. Even if it was pretty ugly, it took a special bunch of men to have that belief to get over the line."

It is all in the mind.

Irish Independent

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