You look your team-mates in the eye, and you already know if you have won
Key to handling the pressure is to pretend that everything is normal. In 2003 we basically took Twickenham with us
In the midst of a World Cup final, there is a silence that stays with you. The emotional amplifier has been turned up to the max for the last 10 weeks and at times it is as if your heart will jump out of your chest. You fear failure, you dread coming up short, you fret over mistakes. But there is also hope. Stay alive, keep in the game. All it takes is a point.
Keep close, stay together. Then, somehow, you and your team are standing on the biggest stage of world rugby. You are 80 minutes away from the prize, the golden cup.
Suddenly, just as quickly as it built, the pressure drops away. The referee’s whistle is shrill. The crowd moves in slow motion. You see the kick-off sail into the air and it is quiet around you. There is a stillness and peace that is fleeting and all the more beautiful for it. This is the moment you were hoping for, dreaming of, living and reliving in your mind for days, months and years. It has arrived.
When the ball is caught, the bubble bursts and you are swamped in a wall of sound and emotion. It washes over you and is almost too much to take in so suddenly. You must now react and deal with what unfolds. Let emotions overcome you and, just as Argentina found out, you will come undone. That is why management teams try to do as much as they can to make the exceptional as mundane and everyday as possible.
Players will try to pretend that everything is the same as a normal game.
In 2003, England’s kit man, Dave Tennyson, took as much of the Twickenham changing room on the road with him as possible. No matter where we got changed, our usual plaques were in place, the locker room almost as it was at home. We knew it was a deception but it did not matter. It brought us normality.
Today’s professionals are used to being on the road, but the finalists are trying to win a World Cup about as far away from their homes as possible. They will take comfort from their match day routines. Wake up, eat, walk through moves, line-outs, a team run, back for a proper breakfast. Then some downtime. Find relaxation where you can.
Everyone has their thing, quiet walks, a game of pool, a snooze, some stretching. Cherish it and follow it. Never deviate from what makes you happy and what makes you tick as a team. This is what will bind you when the roar of a game comes.
New Zealand are the masters of routine, of understanding what it means to be a team. They draw on their culture and their national pride in their shirt. They are connected in every sense. Their captain and management team have been instrumental in rebuilding a rugby brand that was dented and underperforming. They have polished it into the most successful team the world has ever seen. All of the squad know what is expected. They are humble. They know the history they carry on their shoulders and in their hearts.
The aim of the All Black game plan is to get rid of chance. Instead they want to rely on the consistent application of pressure and error-free direct rugby. This does not mean they are boring, rather that they are relentless in what they do. Their skills allow them to adapt and deliver no matter what is thrown up. They have evolved and today’s team seem more pragmatic than before. When Dan Carter dropped the goal against South Africa, it was a key moment and it shocked a little. This was a team that we expect to have plenty of gears to go through whenever they need to get over a stumbling block. And yet here they were, nicking three-pointers? It was almost as if they were cheating. In fact they were showing that they had learnt from the near miss of 2007 and were living out their team narrative; the All Blacks win no matter what.
Every team require a narrative if they are to be successful. You have to buy into the culture, the spirit, the goals, the people around you.
The All Blacks’ destiny would seem to most people to have been written for a while; defending champions protect their title and become the first country to win two in a row. They know the storyline.
Unfortunately, the Australians have a habit of tearing up the script. Driven together by their new coach, Michael Cheika, and his blunt talking, Australia look ready to write their own page in history. He does not care what day of the week it is, nor what the weather is like. You turn up and you perform. You play rugby, and you win. Have a smile if needs be and do not take yourself too seriously; why worry about the changing room you pick, it does not matter, we are here to do a job.
And they have done it fantastically well. Four weeks, four wins in a row at Twickenham. The fortress that England were supposed to have built has become the stomping ground of a Wallabies team growing in confidence and ability. Their history may be very different to that of the All Blacks but it is no less powerful; short-term recovery versus longterm dominance, redemption stories on both sides. For the Australians, Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell. Men who seemed to be outside the squad, on the other side of the world in France. Then the change in leadership, the pragmatism and the call up. Two men who have the chance to deliver a third World Cup to their country.
Facing them is Carter, the best player to have missed out on a World Cup final. His chance to say goodbye to the All Blacks (he is heading to France and Racing 92 on the final whistle) at the top of his game, one final confirmation that he was as good as we thought.
All compelling stories, all acting as the glue that binds the team, one man to another because you need to care about your teammates if you are to win.
You cannot like them all, you are lucky if Glory day: Will Greenwood with Mike Tindall and the World Cup after the epic 2003 final you do. But you need to care about them. At some point this afternoon, you will need to tell yourself to get up and drive, chase for the corner, put the tackle in when you can hardly go another yard. You will need to push yourself to breaking. It is in these moments when the quiet descends upon you again. You hear your breath, you hear your heart, nothing else. You ask yourself a question: are you ready to give up?
The answer comes when you look around you, when you catch the eye of another team-mate. In that moment, you will know whether you will win or lose the match. Today will be no different.
At some point you must push yourself to breaking. You ask yourself the question: Am I ready to give up?