With twenty-five minutes on the clock in the highest-profile game of rugby in months, the Crusaders went down six points. Rieko Ioane had just demonstrated his trademark finishing ability, by carrying two Crusaders with him as he muscled his way over the tryline for the Blues. Ioane’s try had handed his team the ascendancy, (with a conversion to come) as the game moved into its final quarter.
The chance at an eight-point lead in a match that had hitherto been tighter than a duck’s arse could have sealed the victory then and there for the Blues. Indeed, against most sides, it probably would have. But, not the Crusaders.
Crusaders a Cut Above
A charge down from the attempted conversion denied the Blues a precious more-than-one-converted-try buffer. Some sublime skill by Richie Mo’unga off the ensuing restart to re-gather his own kick and then spin out of the tackle set up a Crusaders attacking opportunity deep in Blues territory. In the space of one minute the Crusaders had wrested ascendancy away from the Blues. In the space of one minute the momentum had shifted. The Crusaders had entered their ‘final 20’ mode.
The rest of the game proceeded as expected. Mo’unga threads the perfect ball to Bridge who passes inside for Drummond to score. Conversion is good. 16-15. The Crusaders are in the lead. A penalty and another converted try later and the final scoreline reads 26-15. The men in red have done it again. From the outside it seemed as though the Crusaders had just burgled another unlikely win. Masters at snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Kings of the comeback.
✅ 👍👏👋🙌 Razor celebrating the fans
✅ The fans celebrating the team by running out onto the field after the game
✅ @crusadersrugby celebrating yet another @superrugbynz Aotearoa victory
✅ You love to see it! 🏉 #CRUvBLU pic.twitter.com/ROOoXsRMiX
— Sky Sport NZ (@skysportnz) July 11, 2020
This impression, though, is misleading. There was nothing accidental or fortunate about this Crusaders win. Time and again we have seen the Crusaders engineer similar ‘comeback’ victories in the final twenty minutes. Do something once and it can be written off as luck; a handful of times and it becomes a habit; but when you win in the final 20 minutes as consistently as the Crusaders do it’s a culture.
In racing terms, the Crusaders are a champion thoroughbred. The team and its coaches have worked out just how to pace their race so that they stay in contention throughout and then come good in the final furlong. They have developed a near infallible strategy it seems: stay in the fight and peak late when the opposition is physically and mentally at their most tired and therefore most vulnerable.
It seems so easy in the abstract, but this strategy is contingent upon the Crusaders players having incredible mental toughness. It requires them not to panic even when going behind to a side as classy as the Blues. Moreover, the strategy demands that the players have exceptional mental agility even under fatigue. The ability to spot and exploit every half-chance afforded to them. The charged down conversion to prevent the Blues going more than a score ahead followed by Mo’unga’s genius off the restart are evidence of this agility.
The Crusaders appear to ‘find a fifth gear’ not because they are physically better conditioned than their opponents; the Blues did not drop off physically in the final twenty minutes. They find this fifth gear because they are mentally and psychologically better conditioned than their opposition.
Playing Catchup with the Kiwi winning mentality
It is not just the Crusaders who possess this mental fortitude – the All Blacks have been snatching comeback victories for years in the same fashion. Just ask South African and Irish fans. Though the rest of the rugby playing world are catching up to the All Blacks in terms of conditioning and skill levels, New Zealand will always retain an edge as long as they remain mentally the toughest and most agile team in the world.
Whereas players can be conditioned and skills are eminently coachable, developing that killer psychological edge is more difficult. It relies on a complete belief amongst players and coaches in their strategy and sustained success in employing it. ‘Winning is a habit’, so the saying goes, but in New Zealand its more than that, it’s a mindset; the Kiwi winning mentality.
Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images