The mental aspect of the
Springbok World Cup victory - Tim Goodenough
Jake White’s first speech as Springbok coach to his players 4 years ago, wasn’t about the forthcoming Irish test match, but instead it was about winning the World Cup in 2007. He asked the players to look around, as many of them would be there, together in 4 years time, to lift the coveted trophy. The players sat dumbfounded, thinking he was mad. Many of them were part of the squad that crashed out of the 2003 world cup in the Quarter Finals, one of the low lights of recent Springbok history. Nevertheless, the seed was planted, a seed that supported these players (9 of which started the match in the final) in coming to terms with the enormity of what they could achieve, and fortunately they had 4 years to get their head around the idea.
Jake White was the first Springbok coach to employ a full time Sports Psychologist for the Springboks in the form of Dr Henning Gericke. Having known, worked with, and learnt from Henning in the last few years, I have seldom met anyone who has finer distinctions and instincts around team dynamics, a critical component when molding distinctly provincial players into a new national team.
Dr Sherylle Calder joined the team in 2005, spending long hours with the players supporting their visual skills development. One of the secondary gains of her work is the complimentary mental development required to successfully go through her intense development programmes. Whilst developing their visual skills, the Boks got mentally stronger, and this combination with Dr Gericke meant that there was an ample opportunity to develop the type of world class resilience required to play and perform in our politically dominated and often very amateur game.
Springbok players and management have faced some of the toughest challenges in world rugby, with many of them being of our own (South Africa’s) making. Politicians threatening to withhold passports before the World Cup, administrators overruling the coach on selection of players, administrators recalling the coach home in mid-tour to give him a performance review, concerted media campaigns to fire the coach and chastising the team, record losses (49-0 to Australia for instance in 2006), the team going without a Manager for most of a season, Jake White publicly sharing his discussions with another rugby playing nation about coaching their team in the middle of his Springbok contract. To name but a few, not to mention the incredibly important, yet contentious subject of transformation in rugby. The team and the coach have been regularly derided for not being representative enough, and when you look at the facts transformation in rugby has not been successful, yet – however these pressures don’t support winning a rugby world cup.
In 2006 national opinion of Jake White was at an all time low, scribes, fans and the public who are so loudly cheering now were baying for his blood. Credit to him and his team that they stuck to their guns, and rode out the storm. The Springboks developed a level of “mental toughness” from the adversity they had to endure, and having a vision painted so clearly about 2007 by their coach, meant they had an aspirational goal to focus on.
Graham Henry decided to withdraw his All Blacks from the majority of the 2007 Super 14 tournament and the number of South African victories away from home rose dramatically, many of those games that were won and lost in the last moments, were now won by South African teams. South Africans learnt to win away from home and in big games, often through the bounce of the ball, or an important moment in the match, but they still won. No game is a more dramatic example of this then the Sharks vs. Crusaders game in Durban. The defining moment was a 50 metre dash to score a glorious try after the final hooter had sounded (to end the game) by a Sharks player who had dropped the ball over the try line minutes before, squandering a certain try. The Try was followed by a successful kick from the corner, by a player who happened to be practicing pressure kicks the week before as a game with some of his team mates. It was his first kick of the match, in the final minute, to win the game. These ‘fortuitous’ circumstances based on (physical and mental) skill and some luck meant the Sharks won by 1 point, and was a contributing factor to the first ever home Super 14 final in South Africa. Two South African teams (Sharks and the Bulls) played each other on that day and for the first time in over 10 years a South African team won the Super 14. 9 of those players who played in that final started the World Cup final on October 20. Two games before the final the Bulls started a game in the toughest provincial rugby tournament in the world requiring a winning margin of 72 points to secure a home semi-final and ended up winning 92-3. Throughout the year what South Africans previously thought was impossible was disputed and then disproved and ultimately shattered.
In the final weeks before the World Cup, first Rassie Erasmus for a brief period, and then former Australian coach Eddie Jones arrived as the latest of several specialists called in to support the squad. Having Eddie Jones there from a mental perspective was very important, for the first time Jake had someone he considered a peer as his council, rather than trusted and talented support. This took a lot of pressure off Jake, as well as providing an important foil to some of Jakes restless energy. As a combination, there was a measured, calm and practical approach to the final stages of executing Jake’s World Cup plan. The lasting image of Jake during the world cup was a man who visibly looked a lot calmer and at ease, more so than for most of his Springbok coaching career.
The side individually and as a unit had sufficient mental toughness to take advantage of the opportunities that was presented to them, and had the resilience to bounce back in a very short space of time, when things didn't go there way. When considering all the myriad of permutations of sport, it is always a bit of a lottery to try to isolate factors, however mentally, I would consider these to be part of the 'tipping point' of success.
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