South Africa’s victory at the 2019 Rugby World Cup is one of those occasions when sport’s script really does seem written by higher forces.
Led by inspirational captain Siya Kolisi, the Springboks arrived in Japan on the back of a rough few years – in rugby terms. But they had a secret strength that bonded them together: playing to unite a nation that had endured a rough few decades.
The speeches coach Rassie Erasmus gave in the build-up to the final against England sum up this approach. What is pressure? It’s not having a job, or not knowing where the next meal is coming from. Rugby pales into insignificance by comparison. Those were the people this team was playing for – and it led to a unity rare in sport.
At this month’s Laureus World Sports Awards in Berlin, where the Springboks earned the Team of the Year award, it was a huge privilege to quiz Kolisi about how his team generated such collective belief ahead of the biggest day of their lives.
‘We had a coach who believed in us,’ Kolisi told me. ‘Coach Rassie knew what we wanted to achieve, as did all the management, the physios, everyone. All we had to do was work as hard we could to make sure we played the best game on Saturday. We watched tapes every day so we saw every player on the opposition and knew how they played. Doing that over and over again makes you start believing in yourself. Then you don’t have to worry about anything… By Thursday you’re already psyching yourself up mentally – because we’d prepared throughout the whole week. That gave us a lot of confidence, so we went into the game without fear. We just wanted to focus on doing our best.’
The result was one of the most dominant ever World Cup Final performances. Indeed such was the physicality of the first 15 minutes that scrum-half Faf de Klerk recalls feeling such ‘intensity’ from the team – even when things weren’t going right – that he was already convinced they could pull it off.
Did it feel written? Not quite. Kolisi offered me the gentle reminder that: ‘We still had to play’. But by midway through the second half they were running riot.
If you want a good laugh, check out Francois Louw’s answer to my press conference question about how that really felt on the pitch in the YouTube video below. Then gain some perspective from Schalk Brits on what the eventual result meant to the nation of South Africa…
“Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!”
These words – Maori for “It is death! It is death! It is life! It is life!” – begin the most traditional version of the haka, the daunting pre-match challenge laid down by New Zealand’s All Blacks. They have the power to reduce your average 18-stone mountain of muscle to jelly.
Next up come the British and Irish Lions, who’d better grasp the true meaning of ‘strong and stable’ from the very start of the second Test. To face 15 large men puffing out their chests, slapping their thighs, stamping their feet, sticking out their tongues and shouting at you is hardly ideal preparation to get in the Zone – unless, that is, you’re one of them.
“It’s a pretty powerful way to start work,” says long-serving All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick in an interview for In The Zone. “But it’s not for the impact it has on opponents. Sure, it’s about throwing down a challenge to you, but it’s more about us coming together. It’s the power and unity it generates, for our country, friends, family and the players who have been before us. The haka is about us feeling good.”
No wonder the All Blacks are the greatest team in rugby union history. Yes, it is their national sport, but the impact of this public declaration of collective force is immense. It’s similar to Muhammad Ali’s “I am the Greatest” mantra – which he recited before he beat Sonny Liston and knew it to be true – or Michael Johnson’s gold shoes, worn before he’d won any individual Olympic medal. Say anything loud and proud enough and the result is an uncanny increase in its likelihood of becoming reality.
Read In The Zone for a full investigation into the power of the haka with contributions from current All Blacks Head Coach Steve Hansen and record-breaking captain Richie McCaw.
Find out more in my article from the London Evening Standard earlier this month...
On what would have been New Zealand rugby legend Jonah Lomu's 42nd birthday, I wanted to share a quick snapshot of this much-missed sporting giant.
During the All Blacks rugby tour of Britain in 2002, Lomu was the only star name who came on the trip. And what pressure he was under. Not only was he already suffering with his kidney illness, coach John Mitchell said it was long overdue that he started to show some form.
Did Lomu let the heat get to him? Well, when New Zealand prepared for their test with England at Richmond rugby ground a few days before the game, it had been pre-publicised and the stands were packed with screaming schoolkids. After a full training session, the players were wheeled out for an autograph session. Lomu, being the undoubted star, was swamped.
I'd read that Lomu had always said he was happy to sign autographs, as he wanted to give something back for all he had, so I decided to follow him and just watch. Lomu stayed, and stayed, and stayed. He was out there for a full hour, in which time I estimate he must have signed his name close to a thousand times. All of it with a smile on his face.
An announcement came over the tannoy, saying the session was over, as the players had to move on. Most stars would take that as a gilt-edged chance to evacuate the scene. But not Lomu. He sped up. He kept signing, and signing, edging his way back towards the now pitch-dark players' tunnel. Even as the doors closed around him, the requests kept coming, and he did not let anyone down.
He appeared out of the other side of the clubhouse for the five-yard journey to the team bus, and there was another gauntlet of shirts, programmes and balls to run. All his team-mates were sitting waiting for him on the steadily overheating bus, but they must have been used to it. Lomu just kept at it. No wonder his arms were so bloody big.
Finally on the bus, he slumped down into his seat at the back, exhausted. But he kept waving until the bus was out of sight, and even managed to raise a smile when a couple of kids jumped up and smacked the window his head was leaning on - millimetres from his ear - as the bus finally made it onto the A316.
Now you may think this is par for the course. You're famous, deal with it. But I've watched a lot of big names sign autographs. If there's a small group, they normally get through them. But there comes a point where the number of people lining up, shoving photographs in your face becomes way too much. At that point it's normally a question of dealing with a handful of the nearest ones, then it's 'adios'.
At one point during the melee, I asked Lomu where his patience came from. He thought for a while, and replied, "Mum". It takes a big guy to give an answer like that in front of a crowd. But then Lomu was always one of the best examples world sport has of a superhuman - a giant in every sense.
In The Zone features insights on the All Blacks' dominance from Lomu's fellow legends Sean Fitzpatrick and Richie McCaw plus current head coach Steve Hansen.
Clyde Brolin spent over a decade working in F1 before moving on to the wider world of sport - all in a bid to discover the untapped power of the human mind.