OPINION: What can happen in a single week that turns a possible victory into a 60-point loss?
The human mind is a strange tool indeed. Having control over it is a mystery that every coach would love to solve. From complaining that New Zealanders didn't show enough respect for their performance in the second test, and probably rightly so, Ireland capitulated in the third test just when they should have climbed in boots and all.
The first sign that they were not confident of doing so well in the third test was Brian O'Driscoll coming out with the obvious statement that they would need to start really well if the All Blacks weren't to get away from them.
They were already focused on what the All Blacks might do.
If that was the case, why didn't they throw everything into the first quarter of the game? Why didn't they keep their own counsel and focus in on what had to be done? More than 100 years of history suggested they should have played possum and admit that they had missed their opportunity in the second test.
Instead a team filled with anxiety and tension took the field hoping more than anything that things would go well.
The previous week every individual took responsibility and believed in their team-mates and the game plan, but on Saturday the negative messages were sitting foremost in their minds. In the professional era you have to wonder how such a thing can happen.
This team needed a coaching panel and a leadership group to provide a positive and confident lead-up to this clash. Every angle should have been covered and every opportunity seized.
John Hart was probably the best All Blacks coach at sending the media and opposition off on a false scent by talking about issues that weren't issues at all. Ireland's leadership had no John Hart about them. The seeds of doubt were obviously sown unwittingly.
So this brings us back to the Super rugby competition and how the coaches will handle the injuries, the extra games several key All Blacks have had and the break in the competition programme. The mental game is huge from here on in.
The Chiefs, who have named key orchestrator Aaron Cruden to play despite his Achilles problem, need to beat the Highlanders, Crusaders and Hurricanes to stay at the top, and a slightly depleted Crusaders squad need to beat the Hurricanes, Chiefs and Force if they are to stay in the top four and have a home quarterfinal.
Who will have the most belief?
Historically, the Crusaders would be odds-on to win these crucial games at the sharp end of the season, but can they overcome the loss of Dan Carter, Kieran Read and Israel Dagg – and can the regular All Blacks Sam Whitelock and Ben Franks produce three more quality games? They have a strong squad with the likes of Andy Ellis, Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett and Tom Donnelly all trying desperately to catch the All Blacks selectors' eyes, but deep down do they think they have too much to do without the big three?
On the other hand, if the Chiefs are to stay at the top ahead of the Stormers they will need to look at winning all three games.
Historically, you'd think they couldn't do this and they will be hoping that the three-week break hasn't upset their rhythm, and that regular All Blacks midfielder Sonny Bill Williams maintains his form. This is going to be a real test of their mental strength.
There will be some hugely interesting games coming up over the next three weeks, after which time I'm picking the Chiefs and Stormers to have the first week off being the top two; the Brumbies to play the Reds in Canberra and the Crusaders to play the Bulls in Christchurch.
After that, it will be down to the team who best handles their anxieties.
Ian Snook has coached professionally for the past 25 years in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, Ireland, Japan and Italy.
- Taranaki Daily News
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