‘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
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