In the knockout matches, it is all about nerves. Some people can control theirs and others can’t.
This will be the major preoccupation of the large battalions of support staff around the teams heading into the play-offs – keeping the players optimistic and focussed only on delivering when the chips are down.
All this might sound a bit ephemeral but make no mistake – it plays a very big part in the margins between winning and losing. The horror of finding yourselves collectively choking when things begin to go wrong is one that all coaches and those who provide mental advice must now focus on. It can have disastrous effects as several All Blacks teams in the past have found.
Interestingly, the risk of a collective choke is greatest for those who are most expected to win. The sudden realisation that defeat could be a real possibility can produce a kind of fatigue that almost always gets worse as the tension mounts.
The All Blacks are well aware of this phenomenon. They are the favourites no matter how hard people might try and persuade themselves that the Wallabies should now carry that mantle. The Wallabies don’t want that, don’t need it and for reasons of history wouldn’t believe it anyway.
The other teams in the play-offs have less to lose. They are grateful to have made it this far and know that from here on it is little more than a lottery. And they know that whatever the outcome their fans will be satisfied that they got this far.
For the All Blacks the mindset is very different. They have everything to lose by a single defeat whether it is a quarter, semi or final.
A huge amount of work has gone in from experts like Gilbert Enoka or Gary Hermansson, the sports psychologists closest to this squad of players, who have explored the depths of each player’s psyche when it comes to dealing with the pressure of facing the prospect of defeat when the opposition begin to get the better of them. Nobody talks about this very much publicly but it’s arguably the most important preparation of all.
Then fact is, some players have an inbuilt ability to turn adversity into an asset rather than letting fear of defeat overwhelm them and impair their judgement. And some don’t. And it’s those individuals who need to be carefully schooled in the art of refocussing on essentials.
In the infamous matches against France – in 1994, 1999 and again in 2007 – the same thing happened. An All Blacks team which was far superior in talent and athleticism and an understandably hot favourite, slowly sacrificed its composure because a number of key players, at key moments, lost their ability to make the right judgement call. Shock set in.
And the sense of helplessness began to spread to the extent that, toward the end of each of those matches, the All Blacks gameplan had all but vanished. The players had effectively forgotten what it took to steady the ship.
Over the years this question has continued to hover around every All Blacks team. Will they choke?
It was a question Australians thoroughly enjoyed asking. In the 2011 final, again against their perpetual tormentor – France – some of the same symptoms began to appear as the second half wore on and the French began to realise they had a chance of winning and began to go for broke.
But that time we discovered that the lessons of the past had been learnt. The tactical plan was reimposed, the New Zealanders effectively shut the game down and ground their way to victory.
A lot of work has gone into building this mental fortitude over the last four years and there isn’t the slightest doubt that we are going to see that sorely tested in at least one of these play-off games.
Old hands like Conrad Smith, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter give this All Blacks team a remarkable maturity. They are savvy, self-contained individuals who are very unlikely to succumb to the choking disease.
They have learned through hard experience what it takes to retain composure when it really counts. And if they do that successfully nobody will beat them.
It’s as simple as that.