WOLLOGONG, AUSTRALIA – A fortnight or so ago I wrote an article relating to the difference between the best team(s) in the world and the chasing pack constantly clamoring for their chance to knock them off their mantle. While the obvious answers are skills and application and depth and the degree of competition for position, I chose to highlight the often overlooked aspect that separates the likes of the All Blacks and the rest of the rugby world: the importance of a positive attitude and a winning mentality.
Some may have found themselves questioning the existence or actual tangible benefit of either of (in my opinion) the key attributes to any successful endeavour. And I can certainly understand where someone would be coming from. But I was raised with the mantra that practice makes perfect and that the difference between potential and success was the degree of effort you were committed to invest in any undertaking. You cannot argue with that logic and I doubt there’s a professional Rugby player that doesn’t devote his day to improving his skill levels to the point they became second nature embedded in their muscle memory.
However, in the cauldron of Test Rugby where everyone is a gifted athlete, it’s the intangibles that count to etch out the often two or three per cent needed to break the will of the opposing warriors. Thankfully, I was provided with the necessary case studies this past weekend in the form of the three major Southern powers and their struggles against their Northern opponents.
In all three cases, each team was faced with a situation where the need to call on cool heads and positive play under period of immense pressure.The Wallabies found themselves walking into a hostile Murrayfield with the knowledge that in the previous two encounters they were left the worse for wear. Adding to that fact, they were still reeling from a tumultuous lead in with the self-imposed suspension of 6 members of the dominant performance over the Irish the week before, the reprimanding of another nine, the 8 week IRB imposed ban of 13 Tevita Kuridrani for a tip tackle and the unfortunately hamstring injury of second five’s Matt Toomua.
By any account a week to forget leading into a fixture that has proven problematic in recent history. While Scotland weren’t quite at 100% themselves, the nature of the lead in for the Wallabies placed serious questions in regards to team unity and cohesion.
For the All Blacks, they would have been right to believe that an Irish squad that surrendered so comprehensively to a resurgent but still relatively raw Wallaby side. One was largely written off by its own press as a threat. Wouldn’t be waiting in the wings preparing to spring an ambush but spring one they did. So astounding was this line of events that the All Blacks were caught on the back foot and being blindsided by a green wall early in the first half. Such was the pressure produced any lesser team would have buckled and wilted as the match worn on. But not the All Blacks.
In the case of France v Springboks it wasn’t a case of a surprise attack. The French are quite renowned for their enthusiasm in confronting the Southern powers. In fact, they revel in it and more often than not rise to the occasion. While some may have had it inked in as a Springbok win well before the game. There was no telling the French to merely lay done and play dead. Sure their performances this year in the Six Nations and June tests were poor and this flowed on to the Spring/Autumn tours but when confronted with a chance to get physical with a Southern opponent, one that we need to remember had been experiencing quite a drought in terms of wins on French soil. The fire in the belly of each and every Frenchmen wearing the famous Les Bleus jersey would have been boiling for an upset.
In all three cases, it wasn’t superior skill or fitness that turned events. It was the ability of each team to dig deep, keep up moral and stay true to a game plan that they knew if executed to the letter (or as near as humanly possible) would see them emerge with the win . And win they did.
At the end of the day, training and development will only get you so far. Same can be said of size – particularly in a sport where at the top levels the players increasingly resemble power-lifters. While both are hugely beneficial to getting to a level where your talents will be noticed, it’s the extra intangible inner strength. Mind over matter that determines winners from losers and greatness from mediocrity.
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