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Mind Games Posted about 2 years ago

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Photo: The Telegraph

The triumphant exit from the field with arms aloft and smile filling his face said so much.

Stuart Lancaster had navigated a more significant challenge than any he is likely to face this year – including at the Rugby World Cup.

But his joy did not just emanate from the fact his injury-ravaged side had defied their doubters with victory over Wales in the cauldron-like Millennium Stadium, it was the manner in which they did it.

A side that we were led to believe were vulnerable proved to be anything but with a gutsy and courageous performance that began well before the final whistle.

The events in the tunnel told us so much about the mental strength that is sure to serve England well in the coming months as the pressure that comes with being World Cup hosts intensifies.

England were lured out of their changing room and urged to take to the field but they were wise to any ploy that would leave them alone on the pitch on a freezing Cardiff night and at the mercy of a fired up home crowd and a dazzling if questionable light show.

Captain Chris Robshaw slammed on the brakes and an enthralling stand-off ensued that immediately sparked memories of former skipper Martin Johnson’s refusal to move at the request of Irish officials on a memorable day in Dublin in 2003.

As entertaining as prickly England fullback Mike Brown was as he prowled around Robshaw in the tunnel silencing officials demanding that the visitors comply with instruction, his skipper was the most impressive figure in this Oscar-worthy drama.

Robshaw has never looked more assured and comfortable with the responsibility of being England captain and in that moment silenced any doubters who insist he is not up to the task.

Many have questioned both Robshaw’s place in the side and his ability to lead since he was handed the honour of leading his country – but never the two who arguably know him best, Lancaster and Quins’ director of rugby Conor O’Shea.

At times he has appeared a little fragile, most notably back in 2012 when his authority was challenged by one of his own players. Fly-half Owen Farrell questioned Robshaw’s decision to go for the posts rather than the corner when England were trailing South Africa by four points with just two minutes to play.

His plea forced a re-think from Robshaw but it was deemed too late for him to change his mind and an unfortunate incident became embarrassing.

He has since worked hard to restore his reputation, backed by the unstinting support of his coaches, and the result is the steely-eyed and resolute Robshaw that would not be moved until he was ready.

In that moment Robshaw nailed down the captaincy for the forthcoming World Cup.

Mind games are common place in sport and can take many forms such as toilet breaks in tennis or sledging in cricket while New Zealand’s haka is seen by some as the most blatant example.

The success of these tactics often depends on how well prepared the intended target is for such an eventuality and Robshaw’s response suggested England were ready for such an assault.

Former England coach Sir Clive Woodward is one of those who believes you must prepare for pressure and be ready to deal with every possible situation – both positive and negative. “If you prepare properly then there is a good chance you will handle the response correctly,” says the World Cup winning coach.

And England knew their foe all too well.

Wales boss Warren Gatland is no stranger to minds games and is particularly adept at throwing the odd verbal grenade in the build-up to big games.

His decision to name his side for the clash ahead of schedule and dismiss any possible combination England could have been planning was seen by some as an attempt to unsettle their opposition while his assistant Shaun Edwards’ plea to officials to watch out for their rivals’ dirty tricks was another for the collection.

As notable England’s refusal to succumb to Wales’ mind games prior to kick off and clear their belief and unity, it would have meant little had they not backed it up on the field of play.

A blistering opening from Wales propelled them into a 10-0 lead and tested England’s resolve but there was no panic and their composure and ability to execute under increasing pressure underlined their mental strength.

Wales turned the screw once more but again England weathered the storm and conjured a superb second half comeback while shutting out their rivals.

Such a performance from a much-changed side will only heighten the self-belief that threatens to propel England to the pinnacle of the game later this year.

But it will pay dividends long before then with their ability to deliver under pressure along with their refusal to be bullied sure to sow a seed of doubt in the heads of their World Cup rivals.

Those are the kind of mind games that really matter.

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Graham Jenkins is a freelance sports journalist and former editor of the leading rugby union website Scrum.com. He has been reporting on sport for over 20 years for various media outlets including the BBC and ESPN with the majority dedicated to the game they play in heaven. A veteran of four World Cups, England's 2003 triumph remains the most memorable moment of his professional career closely followed by a night out with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal

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