To make a difficult skill look easy is to be a true master of it. In claiming this year’s World Cup, New Zealand have mastered the simplest yet most difficult and elusive skill of all; winning.
The good news for them is that they are uniquely positioned to continue this mastery for at least the next World Cup cycle because what New Zealand have cannot be created by new coaches, talented players or review boards. The secret, if it is really a secret at all, is experience of winning.
Whether playing chess, passing a rugby ball, kicking a football or, in the case of the All Blacks, winning, the simple truth of mastering a skill is that the more you practice, the better you get. Everyone remembers Gary Player’s quip that the more he practiced the luckier he got and New Zealand have spent the last seven years reminding the world just how right he was; the more they win, the luckier they get.
With the time running out in October’s final, the otherwise faultless Australian winger Drew Mitchell knocked on in New Zealand’s 22. Ben Smith collected the ball, kicked it forward and Beauden Barrett outpaced Man of the Tournament David Pocock to dot down under the posts and rubber stamp New Zealand’s victory. Good fortune? To an extent.
Watch the incident back and you’ll see All Black lock Sam Whitelock on the ground having just tackled Kurtley Beale. As Mitchell comes past him he lifts his leg almost imperceptibly, thereby tripping Mitchell and causing the knock on. Foul play? Yes. Too small and subtle to notice? Almost certainly. An experienced player making a split second decision based on huge experience at the highest level? Undoubtedly.
Even then, what looked easy – Ben Smith’s gather of the ball and kick through – was anything but. Smith could have kicked the ball as soon as he gained control of it but instead he looked up, sidestepped a visibly tired Dean Mumm, attracted four more Australians and then found space with his kick, leaving Barrett with the relatively easy job of exploiting his “luck”. The effect of experience has such a subtle tone that it can be easy to miss but make no mistake – very few teams in world rugby would have converted that knock on into a try.
In 2007 the All Blacks blew a World Cup that seemed destined for their trophy cabinet because they only knew how to win when the opposition allowed them to play their game. Thinking, and winning, when all around them was falling apart proved to be impossible.
Fast forward to 2011 and onto 2015 and the contrast couldn’t be more stark. Clive Woodward famously talked of T-CUP (Thinking Clearly Under Pressure) and whilst his England team managed it for a few years, it has become a deeply ingrained habit for this group of All Blacks.
They impose their most appropriate game plan on the opposition and then tailor it minute by minute, second by second, to the conditions and the scoreline. In the semi-final against South Africa, Dan Carter chased a Springbok kick back into his own 22 and calmly volleyed it into the Twickenham stands rather than risking trying to re-gather it in the torrential rain that was hammering down over west London that afternoon.
His forwards chose not to compete at the resulting lineout but instead waited for the South Africans to form a maul and then repelled it. Carter knew what was required and he knew that his forwards would too.
No need to panic, no need to chase the game, just do one job at a time, count on others doing likewise and then, only when the time is right, strike with devastating ferocity.
So it was in the final, when Australia looked like they might stage the most unlikely of comebacks. With the gap closed from 18 points to four, Carter slotted a drop goal out of nowhere and five minutes later his captain, Richie McCaw, backed him to kick a penalty from virtually the halfway line. Carter, calmness personified, obliged and Australia were finished. That, right there, is what 112 caps looks like – there were no frills, Carter just got the job done.
He and McCaw might be finishing their All Black careers but the culture that they have thrived in transcends individual players and the loss of those two titans will be the cause not of despair, merely sadness. The coaches and the union that employs them are too savvy to let the winning juggernaut be derailed by sentiment.
Steve Hansen’s decision to take off Conrad Smith – a legend playing his last game in Black – and replace him with Sonny Bill Williams at half time was a brutal call, especially given that Smith had just set up New Zealand’s first try, but within five minutes of the restart Williams had created one try and almost manufactured a second. A tough decision from Hansen but a good one, made with only one goal in mind – victory.
The All Black way is simple: bring young players into the squad and let them learn from the best, then put them in the team and back them to the hilt. When they in turn become great players, let them teach others. When it’s over, applaud them and move on.
It sounds so easy but it’s true mastery.
Charlie Boscoe, Pundit Arena