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by: Gavin Rich   ·    27 March 2015

Mind games

GAVIN RICH asks whether a mental coach will make the difference between the top teams as we head into the big pressure cooker in England.

The Proteas and their epic World Cup semi-final against New Zealand have been the talk of South African sport this week. And the aftermath of the cricket defeat has provided a reminder of how such a small margin can make such a difference to the national mood. What lessons can we learn ahead of the Rugby World Cup later this year? 

Perhaps for the first time in the history of that wonderful little land way down south, cricket dominated front, middle and back pages of New Zealand’s newspapers. And yet, in the end, it was a difference of millimetres, one or two small mistakes here and there, not to mention that untimely rain intervention, that separated the teams.

The 'c’ word has hovered in the background as it always has, yet the real story of the game wasn’t a South African choke. A team that chokes doesn’t make nearly 300 in 43 overs. Perhaps the real story of the game can be found in another ‘c’ word – composure.

The Kiwis had that; and that was why they won. The Proteas didn't always have it, and JP Duminy’s emulation of a DHL Stormers flanker thinking that Ferhaan Berhardien was a Vodacom Bulls fullback is going to be a nightmare that lingers.

With conditioning generally becoming fairly standard in most professional sporting codes around the world, it is the area between the ears where teams are going to seek the advantage in the future, which is why the employment of sports psychologists has started to become more prevalent across the Vodacom SupeRugby spectrum.

The first time I can recall a sports psychologist being introduced in rugby was in the 1990 Loftus Currie Cup final between Natal and Northern Transvaal, which I referred to in last week’s column. Ken Jennings, brother of former Transvaal wicketkeeper Ray Jennings, was used by Natal coach Ian McIntosh in the build-up to the match and was afterwards credited for the massive composure Craig Jamieson’s underdogs displayed that day.

However, coaches differ on when and how often a psychologist should be used. John Mitchell dispensed with Henning Gericke as the Lions’ permanent couch doctor because he felt it was his role as head coach to get into the players’ heads himself. Former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers had a similar attitude. Gericke, though, is a constant presence at Western Province/Stormers at the moment, where he has been employed by director of rugby Gert Smal as mental coach. And there is evidence that his influence has been positive, with a young and relatively inexperienced Stormers team showing great composure at critical stages of recent away matches that they won against the Vodacom Bulls and the Emirates Lions.

Of course, the mental side can't be all you work on. Stormers back-up flyhalf Kurt Coleman, who used to have a reputation for having a suspect temperament, is an excellent example of what a combination of mental and technical focus can bring you. The Vodacom Rugby App shows that Coleman has missed only two of his eight penalty kick attempts this season, which puts him fifth on the list in the entire competition when it comes to success percentage.

Granted, eight kicks isn’t a lot, but you need to take into account where they were from and when they were attempted. There was a difficult kick at a crucial stage of the opening match against the Bulls that Coleman slotted, and his conversion from the touchline of Siya Kolisi’s try against the Lions two weeks later made all the difference in the winning of that game.

Coleman has become a player that Stormers fans feel they can rely on when he lines up important kicks, and that hasn’t always been the case. The memory bank serves up a couple of instances in the past where he missed sitters. It is thanks to the contribution of both Gericke, who has worked on the all-important mental side of his game, and new kicking coach Vlok Cilliers, who has worked on his technique, that Coleman now appears to have matured.

Coleman is unlikely to play a role at the Rugby World Cup, but a player who is likely to be pivotal part of the South African challenge is Patrick Lambie. In his case it is less clear whether the dramatic improvements he has shown when it comes to kicking can be attributed to mental coaching. The reliability he is now showing as a place-kicker is probably more down to him finally being given ownership of his position after being backed for an extended run by both the coaches of the Sharks and the Springboks.

The Vodacom Rugby App shows that Lambie boasts the second highest points aggregate in SupeRugby so far, with 90 points, but more important is the fact that he has missed just eight attempts at posts in 38 kicks.

That means Heyneke Meyer can feel more confident about relying on him if, like he did at Ellis Park last year against the All Blacks, he is presented with a pressure penalty in a World Cup final. And it’s those pressure penalties that could make all the difference between the match setting the seal on a successful four year build-up or, like the Proteas were this past week, the Springboks being remembered as nearly men.

It’s likely to be as close in the knock-out stages of the Rugby World Cup as they were at Eden Park a few days ago. Composure, accuracy – it’s all going to count. And psychology as much as physiology may very well determine whether a nation mourns or celebrates.

Image credit: Kurt Coleman of the Stormers during the SupeRugby match between DHL Stormers and Chiefs at DHL Newlands on March 14, 2015 in Cape Town. Photo by Carl Fourie/Gallo Images.