More than a jersey

MARK KEOHANE, in his SA Rugby magazine column, looks at how the Springboks inspired Richie McCaw’s All Blacks in 2009.

Among the many fascinating aspects of Richie McCaw’s autobiography, The Real McCaw, was his telling of how a visit to the Springboks’ change room after a Test defeat in Durban in 2009 changed the mindset of the All Blacks coaching staff and himself, and what an impact it made on their preparations to win the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.

McCaw speaks of the Boks inviting the All Blacks to have a post-match beer in the change room. It’s something that’s not traditionally done in the modern era but in light of the result – a match McCaw describes as being comfortably won by the Boks – the All Blacks coaches and senior players felt accepting the invite was the right thing to do on the basis of the Boks’ performance in Durban and the previous week in Bloemfontein, where the All Blacks were also soundly beaten.

McCaw admits the coaches were also curious to have a sneak peek into the Boks’ world. This sneak peek turned into something greater when the coaches and McCaw realised that the Boks don’t just play for their jersey, but rather for a nation and its aspirations.

For the All Blacks, says McCaw, it had always been about a game of rugby and about the All Blacks jersey. For the South African players and management the Springboks represented so much more than just a rugby jersey.

‘As much as we appreciated the beer, the coaches also wanted to read what they had on their walls and generally have a wee nosey. It soon became apparent to us that the South Africans were playing for transformation, they were playing to advance the cause of the Rainbow Nation, they were playing for something bigger than themselves,’ writes McCaw.

‘It reinforced the need for us to meet them emotionally. The Boks were putting their bodies on the line for something other than the game, whereas we were very task-focused. So we began talking about using emotional triggers for big games.’

McCaw admits he had doubts the All Blacks should borrow from the Boks, given the different dynamics of the two countries, and it was his view the All Blacks should find sufficient motivation within themselves and from the All Blacks legacy.

He said others wanted to give it a try and find those emotional triggers that would be greater than just the All Blacks jersey.

The squad also recognised that playing hosts to the World Cup in 2011 would mean having to positively tap into those triggers, given New Zealand’s constant failure at World Cups since winning the inaugural tournament in 1987.

I was blessed to report on the 1995 World Cup experience in South Africa and while France 2007 remains my favourite tournament – because of the location and result – being in New Zealand in 2011 was as good as 1995 in terms of emotional intensity. In fact, the atmosphere was probably more intense because in 1995 there was no expectation of the Boks and it was all so new to South Africa. In 2011 it was just about the expectation of winning for the All Blacks.

McCaw and his mates certainly played for more than the All Blacks jersey in those final three minutes against France. The way they fought to hold on to the ball showed a resolve that those three minutes would mean more than a sporting victory. It would transcend just winning a rugby Test or a rugby tournament.

It was about nationalism. The courage, guts and refusal to be beaten went far deeper than a desire to be a great All Black or winning a Test.

It is incredible that it took a visit to the Springbok dressing room to inspire the professional All Blacks, but it is also deeply satisfying for those of us who still believe the rivalry between the two countries to be the greatest in the game. All Blacks teams pre-1992 knew the Boks played for a nationalism of a different kind, yet it was equally effective in the emotional fervour it created.

To read McCaw’s words was the biggest compliment in acknowledgement and recognition of what our Bok players have in their hearts when it comes to this country.

Politicians only look to black playing numbers to determine transformation in rugby, but they should simply be reading pages 155 and 156 of McCaw’s book.

Rugby sceptics in our country should also read those pages to have it affirmed that it’s not just our players and coaches who must learn from New Zealand, but that even the game’s best have learned from us when it comes to rugby and things greater than a rugby match.

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