If you haven’t watched the Wales versus England Six Nations match from the weekend I suggest that you hunt it down.
It was full of incident, with both teams trying to run the ball – even much maligned Eddie Jones’ England, who of late had been as toothless as a granny with her dentures out.
In many ways England were the better team technically and physically. They probably won the gainline, had a smoother attack with faster ball and had the more solid defence. So why did they comfortably lose?
Many have pointed to the referee and two controversial first half Welsh tries. However, England subsequently drew level at 24-all. The real difference between the teams was in the top four inches, so this article will concentrate on the mental skills of the two teams.
1. The most important brain on the field is that of the person in charge – the referee. If you want to influence that brain in the right way, you need to have an idea of how it works – what it likes to see and how it likes to be treated. And conversely what makes that brain go red.
Rassie Erasmus famously had a dossier on each ref, and tended to get his dignified skipper to treat them with respect, while others chatted away in the background.
But even if you don’t have such a file, it’s probably not wise to hector a ref, looking and sounding like you’re about to lamp him in the gob with a Greenhalgh’s beefsteak pie.
2. A quarter to five kick off isn’t that late and there’s no excuse for trying to catch forty winks whenever your opponent is awarded a kickable penalty. England need to follow the example of Wales, who were on the lookout for the slightest opportunity.
Take for example Dan Biggar, who was a distant observer of England’s summit conference under their sticks. He subtly encouraged the ref to whistle time on, and perfectly executed a cross kick to his equally wide awake left wing Josh Adams.
Or Liam Williams, who could so easily have stopped playing when it looked for all money like Louis Rees-Zammit had knocked the ball on.
Or rookie half back Kieran Hardy, who immediately took the tap and raced to the try line, while Elliott Daly wandered over to the posts expecting a shot and his teammates milled around aimlessly.
I know Donald Trump calls Joe Biden “Sleepy Joe,” but even in his mid 70s he’d have been more awake to the need to keep an eye on the bloke with the ball.
3. However, after the two controversial tries England showed a cool, steely determination and levelled the scores. They need to remember how they did that, because it’s how close matches are won.
4. However in those championship minutes those cool heads went hot and England gave away three needless kickable penalties and several others.
Chief culprit was that half back in a supremely gifted lock’s body Maro Itoje, who conceded five of them in the game. Lions captain he isn’t. Meanwhile, his opposite number Alun Wyn Jones had Wales calmly doing what they rehearsed and the match was won and lost.
In many ways England were the better team, but not in the way that mattered – mentally. Wales treated the ref with respect, England annoyed him.
Wales were alert to opportunities, England just assumed that Wales would follow the script. And in the final quarter England were rash while Wales kept calm and carried on playing solid rugby.
England showed either side of halftime that they are capable of playing with a strong, calm determination when the chips are down. They now need to carry that through to the end of close games. It’s what really top teams do.