In the last round of the British Open at Royal Portrush, Shane Lowry had a four-stroke lead. Guys in the chasing pack were hoping for bad weather to even things out and give them a chance to catch him.
At the time, I thought that the only way Lowry would lose is if he panicked and made a few mistakes. He went on to extend that lead to six shots and clinched his first major title.
In rugby, one of the things that you want to do as a coach is to create an aura about your team and to do that, you’ve got to find ways to improve things that can’t be measured.
People in sport know what it feels like in the changeroom before a match when you know you’re on top. But you can’t measure it.
The other side of that is the feeling of knowing when you’re not on top, and the pressure that comes with that.
Pressure does amazing things. The All Blacks couldn’t win a Rugby World Cup between 1991 and 2007 and were labelled as chokers. They’ve obviously turned the corner now and people are expecting them to win three world championships in a row.
When I was asked at the time about Rassie’s plan to rest guys for this week’s Test in Wellington, I said it was a great idea. It’s all about building pressure and this plan can have a positive, long-term effect for SA Rugby.
My view was and is that South African rugby generally sees the glass as being half-empty instead of half-full. What I mean is that all we see is what could go wrong, but what about if the Boks follow up last week’s win by beating the All Blacks? The value of that to the Bok aura will be priceless going into the World Cup and the only way to make those gains is to take these kinds of risks.
When I was a youngster, a friend of mine had a plaque in his office that said, “The biggest risk in life is taking no risk.” I’m not talking about being gung-ho and having no perception of what’s happening around you; the risks I’m talking about are calculated and worked out, and the gains are worth it.
In New Zealand, when they send a second-rate team to Argentina it’s seen as visionary; in SA, it’s seen as panic and a guarantee that we’re not going to win either match.
Rassie must be applauded for a very clever idea because it puts pressure on the number one team in the world. This All Blacks group was born out of a brainstorming session after the 2007 Rugby World Cup. They haven’t really been tested as a group, but now we’re in position to test them, and that’s why this is so exciting.
If the Boks pull it off this weekend, they will ramp up the pressure on the All Blacks, and New Zealand will have to respond.
For example, people say Beauden Barrett’s goal-kicking isn’t that bad, and they’re right when his team scores five tries and he converts two. But it will be a different picture when the All Blacks only score two tries and he misses both, and that’s what happens when there’s pressure.
The Boks can only gain from what they’re doing now. Instead of thinking about what will happen if the Boks lose in Wellington, we should appreciate that we’ve got New Zealand taking us so seriously they decided to leave players out of the match against Argentina – that’s already a win for us and it shows we’re in a position of strength.
One of the greatest highlights of my coaching career was that New Zealand chose to do the new haka, the Kapa O Pango, against the Boks in Dunedin in 2005. We narrowly lost the game, but the fact that they chose to do that haka against us, of all their opponents, meant that they held us in higher regard.
Subsequently, Richie McCaw said that the best team he played against was the 2007 Boks and, to me, the fact that his group of All Blacks saved their new haka for us meant that they took us seriously as a threat.
We lost that game, but we got a lot more positive than negative things out of it. Right at the end, the All Blacks scored a maul try against us because Joe van Niekerk was in doubt about whether he should go hard off the back of the lineout or stay in to lift Juan Smith. I remember Juan was upset after the game because he didn’t get up like he wanted to and he felt that he could have won that lineout and stopped them from scoring. The lesson we learnt there meant that we caught teams at the back of the lineout later on.
It’s impossible to measure the value of those learnings, and the confirmation we got from seeing we were deemed so formidable that the All Blacks saved a special haka for us.
It was priceless. Those are the things that happen in a team that help you get to the Rugby World Cup final, and then the trophy.