The AB’s are in a unique position but one that they are not entirely unfamiliar with. There is sheer confidence running through this squad at the moment, but how does Steve Hansen ensure that doesn’t spill into complacency? It would certainly be a difficult aspect of managing success for many squads, but the New Zealand coach is lucky to have a group that appears to be grounded.
There has always been arrogance to New Zealand’s international rugby sides, a justified belief that they are the best rugby-playing nation in the world. That is part of what makes them such a successful team – their inner confidence. It’s not a bad thing for a team to have in their mental make-up, as long as it doesn’t spill into over-confidence and a subsequent reduction in work rate.
That New Zealand are the best team in the world at present is beyond doubt. They are better than the three European teams they will face over the coming weekends, whatever the results. Their winning streak will come to an end at some stage, although it seems unlikely that will happen if Hansen can ensure his men stay focused. On form, they are too good for what France, England and Ireland can offer at their varying stages of development.
Anyone who has been on a winning streak in rugby will know the feeling of invincibility it brings, the energy it seems continually to create. But the feeling of that success slipping away is also hard to understand. Where is the line between confidence and a loss of focus, a slipping of standards? There are clearly hugely important mental aspects to the All Blacks’ ability to keep winning, but this streak is underpinned by a constant desire to improve performances.
It’s easy for a coach to say that performances are more important than results, that development of his players is the most important aspect of his job. However, the reality is that those sentiments are often forgotten about in condensed periods of games week after week. Instead, the focus shifts to winning, the talk before games will be about the results, why the team needs to win, who they need to win for, and so on.
This All Blacks team seems to be totally focused on the process. Hansen and his excellent coaching staff are bringing improvement from their players every time they take to the field. With each passing game, the handling skills of forwards like Brodie Retallick, Charlie Faumuina and Sam Cane get better. Kieran Read has demonstrated that he has been working on his kicking in recent times. Charles Piutau has been tackling like a flanker, while Dane Coles threw an incredibly skillful offload against Japan last weekend.
Without being a part of the squad, it is hard to know what the All Blacks speak about in their team meetings but it would not be surprising if an almost total majority of the subject matter was technical and tactical in nature. Do the players even care about the winning streak? Of course they do; everyone wants to make history after all. But there is a real sense that this squad has become engrossed in the process.
The joy the All Blacks show after so many of their tries is an indicator of that. For many players, the sheer delight of scoring by using some of the skills, plays and tactics you have been working on in training is the best feeling in rugby. This squad wants to keep improving, to keep pushing their game and to find out exactly how good they can be. By building this mindset, Hansen and his senior players take the pressure off the squad to keep winning.
Pressure is only there if you are made aware of it. Of course the All Blacks know they are expected to simply keep winning, but they will also be aware that all streaks like this have to come to an end at some stage. When that happens, it is quite likely that supporters will be just as, if not more, disappointed than the squad. The players know that occasionally losing is part of professional sport and their reaction will be to ensure they fix whatever went wrong.
The idea of ‘performance before results’ is quite commonly spoken about, but it does appear that the All Blacks are pursuing that route wholeheartedly. I have referenced Dutch total football in a previous article on this site, and there are similarities to the All Blacks style of play at the moment. Players are showing skills that would not normally be associated with someone in their position and there is a sense of interchangeability between everyone involved.
The Dutch footballers all bought into their total football system for the 1974 World Cup with 100% commitment. In a similar manner, the All Blacks squad seem to be utterly engrossed in what they are doing. The Dutch lost that tournament at the final hurdle and the All Blacks winning streak will come to an end. Still, there is a lesson in their success for all of us.
Can the All Black keep winning? Comments below…