‘In 2007 we couldn’t han­dle pres­sure, now we’re most com­posed’

Sir Gra­ham Henry tells Daniel Schofield how New Zealand gained new men­tal tough­ness

The Daily Telegraph - Rugby World Cup - - Sport Rugby World Cup 2015 - Sir Gra­ham Henry was speak­ing cour­tesy of AIG, the of­fi­cial in­sur­ance part­ner of New Zealand Rugby. Go to AIG.com/Haka360

Pres­sure, as Sir Gra­ham Henry is fond of say­ing, is a priv­i­lege earned. No two teams have had to deal with greater scru­tiny and ex­pec­ta­tion over the past four years than New Zealand, the world cham­pi­ons, and England, the World Cup hosts, who boast more play­ing and financial resources than any other coun­try.

The re­sults tell their own story. England have fallen one hur­dle short of win­ning the Six Na­tions four sea­sons run­ning be­fore fail­ing to clear the group stage of their own World Cup; New Zealand have lost just three times in four years in their jour­ney back to the fi­nal.

This, re­mem­ber, was the team of sup­posed “chok­ers” who would ha­bit­u­ally crum­ble un­der the weight of ex­pec­ta­tion. Not any­more. The last 20 min­utes of their 20-18 semi-fi­nal vic­tory against South Africa was a mas­ter­class in cal­cu­lated com­po­sure.

That trans­for­ma­tion has oc­curred over eight years since the har­row­ing 2007 quar­ter-fi­nal de­feat by France. “We could not han­dle the pres­sure that day,” Henry said. “That was the most dif­fi­cult ex­pe­ri­ence of my life, but the big­gest learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for us as a group. We had to find so­lu­tion and part of that so­lu­tion de­vel­oped over the last eight years.

“Men­tal strength is a dif­fi­cult thing to un­der­stand and to ex­e­cute. We had to get out­side help to come up to speed in that area. The phys­i­cal things are easy. Ev­ery­one can sweat. We all know what hard work and skill de­vel­op­ment are, but men­tal skill de­vel­op­ment is a rel­a­tively new area. You look at the All Blacks now, they are the most com­posed team play­ing.”

The first part of that process came in recog­nis­ing pres­sure or rather how play­ers re­acted to it. Af­ter that aware­ness has been cul­ti­vated, lit­tle trig­gers have been de­vel­oped to snap them back into the present. Th­ese were all unique to the in­di­vid­ual. Dur­ing the World Cup fi­nal, look out for Richie McCaw stamp­ing his feet while Kieran Read stares into the dis­tance.

“When you are un­der pres­sure your brain goes into a dif­fer­ent state and you end up run­ning around like a head­less chicken,” Henry said. “The me­dia call that chok­ing.

“All the play­ers have in­di­vid­ual cues to stay in the now on the field. If they feel them­selves slip­ping they click on with that in­di­vid­ual men­tal trig­ger to make them stay in the now. They prac­tise that all the time. The coaches will try to put them un­der pres­sure so they choke in train­ing by over­load­ing them.”

A se­nior lead­er­ship group set up in 2004 was given more re­spon­si­bil­ity to run team af­fairs. Hence Henry re­vealed that Steve Hansen and the other coaches would have had rel­a­tively lit­tle in­volve­ment in the prepa­ra­tion for the fi­nal af­ter their main mes­sages were im­parted on Tues­day. “By Wed­nes­day the play­ers take over,” Henry said. “Thurs­day train­ing will be done by Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and the coaches take a back­wards step. The coach still holds the reins but you are do­ing it from the back of the bus rather than the front of the bus.

“You can’t em­power play­ers with­out giv­ing them the power. That’s im­por­tant be­cause they play the game. Steve Hansen and I don’t play the game. The more skin they have got in the ac­tion, the bet­ter they will play.”

De­spite the mag­ni­tude of what is at stake tonight, the week of the World Cup will have looked and sounded like any other. “There is a rit­ual of prepa­ra­tion,” Henry said. “This is a big oc­ca­sion and a very emo­tional oc­ca­sion, but it is very im­por­tant that you don’t let the oc­ca­sion con­trol the rit­ual and the build-up. There are cer­tain steps that you need to take, cer­tain boxes you need to tick so you are to­tally pre­pared for the game.”

If there is a par­al­lel with England’s ex­pe­ri­ence – and Henry cau­tions against copy­ing the All Blacks – it is with the fall­out of 2007 and the New Zealand Rugby Union’s de­ci­sion to go against pub­lic opin­ion by keep­ing Henry on. Four years later he re­paid that faith by de­liv­er­ing the sec­ond World Cup.

“You can’t just keep shoot­ing your coach be­cause you have to start again,” Henry said. “It is two years wasted be­cause it takes two years to get your feet un­der the ta­ble and to know what the job in­volves. That 2007 ex­pe­ri­ence was the cat­a­lyst of our change.”

Golden mem­ory: Sir Gra­ham Henry with the Rugby World Cup in 2011

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