Times Column 20/11/04
Last week, South African coach Jake White supposedly gifted the Irish a winning psychological advantage by publicly criticising the quality of the men in green. This week, the Welsh management have avoided the term ‘All Blacks’ in favour of ‘New Zealand’, helpfully pointing out that the former suggests a rugby superpower while the latter is a ‘poxy little Island in the Pacific.’
Uh-oh. This doesn’t seem a very sound approach, but pre-match psycho-scuffles can actually work Most famously, David Campese and his big mouth, two of Australia’s all-time great performers, managed to talk England out of their ‘boring’ game plan before the 1991 World Cup final. In the same decade, Brian Moore would annually reduce the French to incompetent frenzy simply by reminding them that they were prone to frenzied behaviour, and therefore incompetent.
This type of playful provocation fell out of favour after the Lions Tour in 2001, when on the eve of the final Test Austin Healey decided to call Wallaby lock-forward Justin Harrison a plank. This may well have been true, but Harrison went on to play an inspired game and robbed the decisive lineout ball that deprived the Lions of a series victory.
Since then, coaches have preferred a pre-match creed of respect to all God’s creatures, down to and including the opposition kit-man. Under this camouflaged blanket of respect, the very same coaches can then get to work on the possibly more rewarding task of nurdling the mind of the ref.
So thank goodness for Jake White, putting an end to this hypocrisy by stating openly that he preferred most of his own players to those on the other team. (And New Zealand is a small island in the Pacific, even if it isn’t poxy). In the lead-up to a major international, players have to discover a fierceness equal to or greater than that of their opposite number. Ideally, they will then go out and crush him. It seems unlikely that respect is the dominant mood.
Even at the highest level, ghosts still drift by from Michael Green’s The Art of Coarse Rugby, a bestseller that set the game back thirty years but which is still very funny. Green’s Law states that the opposition team will always look bigger, whatever their actual size.
This autumn’s pre-match psychology has been the coaching equivalent of quoshing the rumour that the other school has a prop with a moustache (in the under 11’s). Jake White was merely saying, in his opinion, that the South Africans were the ones with moustaches and metal studs, and hoping that after 40 years of Springbok dominance the Irish would quail in their boots.
How else was he supposed to approach this? Aiming to inspire belief in a selection of players, any coach has a limited motivational set. He can tell his boys they’re the best. On the other hand, he can try telling them they’re the worst. In a one-off match involving only two sides, one of these outcomes will almost certainly turn out to be true.
The trick is to work the territory between the two extremes. ‘You’re the best, but you’ve been playing like the worst,’ or ‘You’re the worst, but you could be the best.’ Or even, to give credit to the influence of the media, ‘Everyone says you’re the worst, but I think you’re the best.’ And so on.
One of the joys of the period between World Cups is that we never know for sure who actually is the best. In these glorious days of parity between the hemispheres, the result may well be decided by attitude alone. Which side has the greatest belief, and is therefore the best on the day?
On last Saturday’s evidence, the answer is France, but it’s not quite so simple. After the old-fashioned psych-up, we now have the new-fangled psych-down. For Jake White, this means a week of blaming the referee, which sustains Springbok morale by deflecting the possibility that South Africa were simply outplayed. For Australia’s Eddie Jones, it means praising France as the world’s best, justifying his team’s defeat while at the same time getting in a pre-emptive dig at England.
If France are truly the best in the world, then the World Champions are impostors and a far less daunting prospect for Australia in eight days’ time. At which point, just as it will this afternoon at Twickenham, the talk gives way to the walk.