New Zealand reached their second Rugby World Cup final in a row due to their experience, discipline and composure in the second-half, beating South Africa 20-18 in an epic slog in Saturday’s semi-final. The All Blacks were five points behind at half-time with a man in the sin-bin as four penalties from Handre Pollard cancelled out Jerome Kaino's early try.
As coach Steve Hansen said, We had moments where we had to keep that self-belief. Then in those moments it's just about the process. It becomes the norm. It's a learned skill and self-belief is massive.
The All Blacks, aiming to become the first nation to retain the Webb Ellis Cup, trailed 12-7 at the break. They returned to the pitch five minutes early for the start of the second half, and captain Richie McCaw led an on-pitch discussion in a team huddle. The television cameras showed it was an intense talk from McCaw, animated, direct and composed. McCaw’s eyes were filled with passion, concentration and a facial expression that simply said, follow me.
Immediately Hansen's team tightened up, as the immaculate Dan Carter's 45th-minute drop-goal swung momentum in their favour to set up a brutal second-half encounter. The game swung in the 20 minutes after half-time, New Zealand beginning that period five points down and with Kaino off the pitch, but ending it five points up and with Springbok wing Bryan Habana in the sin-bin instead.
A five-point deficit at the break, nine penalties conceded, a key man in the sin-bin. All other teams would have worried at that point. Most would have felt a little shiver of panic: we're not going to mess this up, are we? What happens if this stays the same and we can’t knock them backwards? This All Blacks collective is not most teams. When you have lost just three games in four years, panic and self-doubt is not your immediate thought.
So it was once again. Out they came, into the torrential rain and cold of a proper English autumn evening, and went at the problem with the poise of men who simply knew what they had to do. The psychology and discipline of thinking was again summed up by Hansen: We talked about it at half-time. We talked about keeping composure and talked about winning the first 10 minutes. With 14 men.
Dan Carter's decision-making and kicking was once again peerless, his curling a conversion through the downpour and over the posts from an angle that offered him almost nothing was the moment for me that you knew this was their day. In that twenty-minute period from 40 minutes to 60 the game was wrestled away from the Springboks.
The second-half was a masterpiece of the little things done well, the Forwards hanging on to a slippery ball under pressure, Backs running intelligently, sucking in one defender and drawing another before off-loading with a simple, safe pass to hands.
And the composure in the crescendo, still the right decisions made with the noise deafening in the stadium and the anxiety of the occasion ramping up as the Springboks clawed their way back to within two points.
It was the decision-making, following good habits and knowing what to do under pressure that showed clearly the All Blacks were the masters of their game. When Carter chased back half the length of the pitch to snuff out the threat created by De Allende's sharp kick deep into the All Blacks half, never appearing to hurry even with Pietersen bearing down on the ball, not diving on it in desperation or hacking it straight into the stands but clipping it away on the bounce as if the pitch were dry and this just another game, that made you realise they are champions.
It was there in the Forwards punching their united physicality into the Springboks' guts with perfectly-timed sets and drives in scrums, rucks and then mauls to dissipate any South African momentum. And it was there in the final 10 minutes, the lead still so slender, never losing possession, never ceding territory, never giving a sniff. Just thinking correctly under pressure.
New Zealand made sure the last twelve minutes passed with no further scoring, and a shot at becoming the first three-time champions. Under slate-grey skies and in unrelenting rain, with just two points between the sides as they went toe to toe for the final 10 minutes, having spent half-time regrouping in the rain, they eventually showed grit to go alongside the guile that has led many to call this All Blacks side the best ever.
Everyone faces those pinch-point situations when the heat is on - from making a critical decision in-the-moment at a meeting, to keeping a cool head in the rugby scrum - those times when you need to function correctly under pressure. The reality is that most people fail in extreme situations. They choke, they get stage fright and their astute, high-wire decision-making skills fail them.
Given all the factors that contribute to performing – or choking - in high-pressure circumstances, what can you do to improve your performance? Steps you can take range from brief and immediate solutions for any situation to more advanced techniques that require considerable practice:
Step away from the situation If you’re too close to a situation, you may not see all your options. Step away, even for a minute, to allow your subconscious to process your circumstances. Approach the situation with a new perspective.
Speed up If you have a tendency to overanalyse a condition, the worst thing you can do is give yourself time. Act right away. Trust your instincts, and remember that you have the skills to perform the task. Leaping into the breach prevents your conscious mind from interfering.
Focus on the goal, not the obstacle In high-pressure situations, much can go wrong, and you can get stuck thinking about every negative possibility. Focus instead on what you want to do. Don’t think about potential errors, think about execution, do what you have to do.
Practice (under pressure) You are more likely to perform well under pressure if you prepare in stressful situations. Up the stakes so you have something on the line when practicing. To make your performance even stronger, rehearse areas you’re most likely to be required to do well in or skills that have the most consequences riding on them. For example, pilots might practice their planes suffering an engine malfunction.
Frame the future New situations can be difficult to make sense of or to comprehend. Feeling lost can spike your anxiety and make choking more likely. Ensure success by framing the future in specific, positive ways. In the business world, this may be as simple as making a strong first impression; in other circumstances, think through how you want to define a situation before it begins.
This wonderful All Blacks team has plenty about them in terms of talent, skills and tactical nouse, but so much more besides in terms of mental toughness, resilience and the ability to turn up when it matters as they showed in the semi-final.
New Zealand once again showed their ability to raise their game and maintain their composure just when their opponents should have been able to go in for the kill by actually reducing their deficit while Kano was in the sin bin. In fact it was the All Blacks who dominated those 10 minutes, with Dan Carter landing a sweetly-struck dropped goal to cut the deficit to two points. The psychological edge it gave the All Blacks inflicted serious damage to the Springboks.
The All Blacks made 398m with ball in hand, the Springboks just 146m. South Africa's 116 tackles tell the tale of heroic effort. They also reveal another narrative - a side with backs to the wall, whose immense effort could not ultimately be sustained in the face of a team finely tuned for the moment. Good teams have to come from behind sometimes. They know what to do. Make it count and take control when it matters most, inside your own head.
For the final blog in this rugby world cup series, click here.