All Blacks anchors primed for pressure

The more you understand it the better you cope with it, says veteran Kevin Mealamu

When the word is mentioned, Keven Mealamu and Sam Whitelock inhale deeply, glance down at their feet for a second, then lock eyes with the one guaranteed problem coming straight at them once they enter Twickenham on Saturday afternoon.

The World Cup final brings a pressure that compares with nothing else in Mealamu's 375 first-class games, even the 2005 Lions tour. Four years ago in Eden Park, the place where the All Blacks are seemingly invincible, they looked very beatable as France threw absolutely everything at them from the kick-off.

“The more you accept it and understand it, the better you cope with it,” said Mealamu. “When you are new to it, you are trying it find a strategy to handle it.

“Luckily enough, we have been in that situation before, but it’s a different situation. It will present new things, new challenges for us.”


Whether it actually is better the devil you know will only be revealed in due course.

Still, we felt we should ask if there is any type of pressure that can be comparable.

“Every team that plays a competitive sport has pressure, but in a World Cup final it obviously is more increased,” said Whitelock, who has grown from 23-year-old giraffe in 2011 to one of the best Test locks in the world.

“We are aware of that and have got some systems in place to deal with that.”

Mental skills

Gilbert Enoka

is the Enda McNulty in New Zealand’s camp. The mental skills coach first came across the All Blacks when current defence coach

Wayne Smith

was head coach for one brief season in 2000.

Current head coach Steve Hansen has previously called Enoka the glue that mentally binds this group together.

"The brain is made up of three parts: instinct, emotion and thinking," Enoka told the Daily Telegraph last year. "What often happens under pressure is that the thinking shuts down, so you are relying on emotion and instinct. That in turn means you can no longer pick up the cues and information to make good decisions."

Players need an anchor to refocus attention and find clarity of thought. McCaw stamps his feet, while Kieran Read stares at the farthest point in the stadium. Really, Hansen is the All Blacks glue, or the link to the past, having been part of the 2007 and 2011 coaching ticket. McCaw and Dan Carter hardly lack for experience and calm under pressure either.

The other survivors from that nervy night in Auckland are Conrad Smith, Ben Franks, Owen Franks Sonny Bill Williams, Ma'a Nonu, Read and Jerome Kaino.

A simple motivation that may outweigh the huge pressure could simply be that Saturday will be the last time four of the greatest rugby players – McCaw, Carter, Smith and Nonu – suit up in black.

Good space

The same goes for Mealamu. “We are in really good space at the moment. [The retirements] will be a time to reflect, when we get there,” he says. “Obviously that time is coming, but we will look at those times when we get there, and while we are here in finals week, this is where our minds are, this is what we are concentrating on. It’s Test week as normal for us.”

Sky Sports roars in: “Keven, Pennyhill Park – England have poured millions into it. What do you make of it?”

Mealamu says things about English rugby HQ. It is a comfortable, peaceful environment an hour or so outside London, and incidentally where the 1999 All Blacks also stayed before losing to France in the World Cup semi-final.

There is always that memory, as well as the 2003 and 1991 semi-final defeats to Australia and that harrowing Auckland night four years ago when they squeezed out the ugliest 8-7 victory over France.

“There are obviously a few things that are transferable,” Mealamu adds. “Putting the opposition aside, just playing in a final and knowing what comes with it and how people are feeling.

“But it’s a new challenge for us, in a new place, different opposition. All these things play a part. It’s a new situation for us.”

A great unknown that will require clear minds. And the stamping of McCaw’s feet.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent