COMMENT - All Blacks try to digest 'inconvenient fact' of suffering rare defeat
John Hart, the former All Black coach, had his racehorse spat at on a visit to a track when he returned from the 1999 World Cup at which New Zealand had been knocked out by France in a semi-final thriller.
Eight years later when France were again the victors, winning a dramatic World Cup quarter-final in Cardiff, All Black captain Richie McCaw buried his head in his heads at a teary press conference and the country headed towards a cliff edge, with national domestic industrial output reported to have plummeted in the aftermath.
On Sunday morning one of the oldest bistros in Wellington, Caffe L’affare, was packed at 9am with chattering, laughing Kiwis, seemingly untroubled by the previous night’s defeat by the Lions, the All Blacks’ first defeat at home in eight years, while an hour or so later there was head coach Steve Hansen arguing that such occasions are “great for the game”. What has happened to the country?
Of course, Hansen also said that losing “sucks... and is no better just because you have been to bed and had a sleep”. But there is a maturity about New Zealand’s outlook, less deeply introspective and all-consuming, that will not only benefit them but the game as a whole. Their competitors will sniff vulnerability while the management will forever be able to point to Saturday night’s events as a yardstick moment, a reference point were any of them ever to get ahead of themselves and believe, like the rest of us do, that they are the world’s best.
Much as the hope of series victory was fizzing among the thousands of bleary-eyed Lions fans on Sunday, the signs within the New Zealand camp were that the defeat will galvanise rather than flatten them. “I definitely soaked up the defeat a bit last night, embraced that s--- feeling, and I’ll use that for the week ahead going into this Saturday,” said prop Joe Moody matter-of-factly.
The nation may no longer have a collective nervous breakdown after defeat but nor do the All Blacks take such matters lightly. They admit that they used ‘to choke’ at clutch moments in World Cups and former head coach Graham Henry made a point of enlisting a specialist mental skills coach, Gilbert Enoka, to help address such failings. Given that New Zealand have since won back-to-back World Cups (2011 and 2015), Enoka would seem to have made some progress. Henry revealed in The Daily Telegraph that all possible angles had been explored in an effort to steel players in moments of acute stress, either within matches or in the aftermath of (rare) defeats.
American military institutions have been visited at West Point, information picked up from Navy Seals as well as all three of New York’s professional sporting franchises, the Yankees, Knicks and Giants. The New Zealand Herald reported recently that a distinction picked up from the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, divides players into red heads and blue heads, those that go wobbly under pressure and those (blue) who remain calm and focused.
All of which will be fed into preparations for the series decider at Eden Park. One element of that psychological support system has already come into play.
“Losing sharpens the mind, sharpens the attitude,” said Hansen. “It is about what we call the Inconvenient Fact. Sometimes we brush over the cracks that are there. When you lose, the cracks get exposed because that is why you have lost. The crack that got exposed on Saturday night was that we didn’t know how to take that space that was downfield towards the end.”
This is an entirely different scenario to their last defeat when the All Blacks lost to Ireland for the first time in Chicago.
“The difference is that was an attitudinal problem,” said Hansen. “We had won 18 in a row, there was a big sigh of relief after getting the record and we may have been starting to get comfortable. The Chicago Cubs had won [baseball’s world series], the first in god knows how many years and we’d started to become tourists rather than a team on tour. Saturday night was totally different. We were one short [following Sonny Bill Williams’s dismissal] and we were playing a good side. What we have to learn is how to play a little smarter in those situations. So that if it happens again, primarily with a yellow card, how do we deal with it and how do we come out the right side?”
Hansen admits the learning process for “this young team” is continuing and, at some point, he will be able to appreciate that this setback may turn out for the greater good, experience in the flesh rather than from a self-help manual. He can see the broader picture.
“Our fans are a little bit more accepting of when things don’t go right [since winning back-to-back World Cups],” said Hansen. “I believe they are well educated in the art of the game and they understand that they saw their team give it everything they had. It’s when you lose and you feel like people haven’t turned up is when people get frustrated. Our guys turned up, they just didn’t get the job done.
“Rugby has been needing something like this for a while. It’s the first time I’ve had to come in and sit in here like this for a while. We haven’t done it a lot and people have got carried away, saying the All Blacks are this and the All Blacks are that. We have kept saying, actually we don’t believe that. Competition is good for everyone because it forces everyone to have to improve. You look at the World Cup in 2015 and the four home nations would be pretty disappointed with what happened there. We have seen them improve because of that. All of that is great for the game.
“The game is way bigger than all of us. If we want to be seeing our game continue to grow and foster the things that it does in the way of camaraderie and teach us lessons about life, good and bad, we have got to keep encouraging our game to be strong. It’s moments like this series that go down in history and excite young people to say ‘Hey, I want to be part of this’, not only as a player, but also as a fan. It wasn’t great conditions for watching, but who cares that it was raining. You ask any of those Lions fans whether they felt the rain, I bet they didn’t. Did ours? I don’t think they would have either.”