It’s all in the mind
With Australian hopes sky high after Saturday’s game, the question is; just how much can we read into this victory? Already New Zealanders are putting their spin on it; from Graham Henry ‘the loss we needed to have, it’ll be good for us’. It was after all, a home game for the Wallabies and the All Blacks were half way through a grueling tour. Surely this is just a one game blip. Or is it?
First of all, what will this loss really mean to the All Blacks themselves? Anton Oliver gave a fascinating insight into this with an interview on the day before the game. In it he said
‘they (Australia) are somewhat more mature than other countries in that, if a performance doesn’t go their way, they are able to just flush that, pick themselves up and play the next week. It doesn’t sink them. If New Zealand were to lose a game, the economy goes skyrocketing down. Domestic violence goes up … well, I am not sure that happens. But we possibly take it far more seriously.’
This is the key to the All Black psyche, the pressure that they and all of New Zealand put on winning rugby games is like the pressure of water behind a dam – one small crack and the lot comes down. The water pressure for the 2007 RWC is unprecedented. In monetary terms alone the NZRFU have bet the farm on this cup; in just the 2006 financial year they are NZ$5 million in the red. It’s shit or bust.
However, it was not this pressure alone that defeated the 15 men in black at the G. On Saturday night the Wallabies did what the best Australian teams have done over the years, they soaked up (or more accurately coped with) what the opposition had to throw at them in the first half, learnt from it, and changed their game accordingly in the second. And what a change.
The All Blacks had not lost a game that they led at half time for 56 tests for good reason. Australia, however, ran two (almost three) unanswered tries straight through their centre in the second half. Much has been made of the Hayman yellow card, but this was the result of attacking pressure from the Wallabies in All Black territory. Hayman’s was the third All Black ruck infringement in the 3 minutes leading up to his sin-binning and there had been similar cynical penalties in the first 40.
But this was not the only pressure that Australia exerted. Leading up to the last World Cup, Clive Woodward said that it was a statistical certainty; the side that gave away the fewest penalties in their half of the field would win the cup. In the second half, Australia gave away no silly defensive penalties, denying Carter the chance to hone his kicking radar, and denying the All Blacks the chance to lift the pressure on themselves. Want to know why a quality and experienced player like Mauger spilt that pass and put that kick out on the full? You got it, pressure.
And then there’s the final piece in the All Black pressure jigsaw; learned behaviour. In big games over the years, Australia more than any other team, has shown how to beat New Zealand when they seem unbeatable. As with those big games – including two notable RWC semis – the All Blacks on saturday seem stunned, unable to find another plan or gear. You can’t tell me that this negative thought didn’t sneak into All Black minds when the tide turned on 61st minute. Not exactly what you need at a crucial time in a tight test.
For the Wallabies, although they wisely play this result down, it’s value is immeasurable. With it, Knuckles’ story of steady improvement hangs together and most importantly, in the Stade de France on the 13th October, there could well be an Australian team that still knows they can beat the All Blacks.
This article first appeared on The Roar