Every time you step on the field as an All Black, you’re representing your country. You’re representing yourself. You’re representing your friends and your family. You’re also representing New Zealand’s economy.
If you lose – I’ve heard a stat – that New Zealand’s GDP drops by something like 20 percent over the coming days.
We don’t like losing. We don’t want to lose, we want to win and win well. But when we do lose, the pressure is one that we put mostly on ourselves – which is then backed up by an entire nation. We’re four and a half million people, we’re all engaged and it’s our national game.
When you lose as a player you bear that responsibility. Myself and a lot of other All Blacks – past and present – think that pressure is a privilege given to those that want to accept it. That’s why those guys are wearing the black jersey – because they want that pressure on their shoulders and they flourish under that set of circumstances.
Losing as an All Black does have a knock-on effect off the park. You can be walking down the street and someone will come up and say ‘hey mate, can we talk about that lineout in the 36th minute’ and you’re thinking geez, I can’t even remember walking down here. Everyone is so knowledgeable and passionate about our game and I think it’s the knowledge that takes them outside the realm of supporter and into the position of the critic.
The week after is the hard part because people are constantly pointing out areas or facets of the game where we were horrific or failed to deliver.
With fan reaction in general, there isn’t much of a middle ground. I remember I was playing rugby with some young kids, one of them came up to me and said ‘you’re Ali Williams, right? My dad thinks you suck’. I said ‘that’s great mate, where’s your dad?’. The kid turned around and pointed to his dad, I gave him and a wave and the young fella then said ‘don’t worry, he thinks Sione Lauaki’s even worse.’
I personally think it’s a great thing that everyone’s got their view. The flipside of that is the older crowd or the younger kids that have in their mind that you are the All Blacks and you are what they love, cherish and aspire to be. One blip isn’t going to hold you back.
In terms of dealing with a loss as a team, the general focus will be to look at yourself. It starts not by how you played the game, but how your week before played out. Did you prepare well, were you conditioned, did you do your extras, did you know your opposition, was the gameplan right?
Everyone does that individually. The coaches have their view on it and then the players have their view on it. The senior group would then come together to understand how the working week was as a collective, and then we dilute and go through the game and analyse the areas we could have been better.
Like any good problem, you find a solution at the end.
You can imagine that’s on a Monday or Tuesday – working on your solutions – so Saturday night and Sunday can contain a bit of soul searching and brutal honesty. We talk about something called bone-deep and skin-deep. If it’s going into your bones then you’re doing it properly, if it’s going into your skin then people can perceive that you’re doing it correctly, but only you know if you’re doing enough or not.
The obvious big loss in my career came in 2007. The worst ever result for an All Blacks team at a World Cup, knocked out by France in the quarterfinal. I got a text message from a mate saying ‘congrats mate, you’ve just increased household violence’ so people see the actual physical impact it has on the country and then the individual impact it has on you personally.
To be honest with you, we felt it more than anyone else. We had to constantly remind ourselves to walk around with our heads held high. One of the special things about that time was the reception we got when we got home. Everyone understood what had happened. We can look and blame other things but at the end of the day, it was us as a squad that didn’t deliver. They beat us. I think it’s a critical moment in All Blacks history. It turned us and changed our mindset from where we were to where they are now. It constantly drives people.
Losses like that shape a nation and a sporting team’s legacy that they create afterward. You go one of two ways, you go underneath or you rise above it. We can clearly see now that the guys are going above it.
Sure, the loss in 2007 created doubt but in response we selected the same coaches so we didn’t make the same mistakes. We all looked at ourselves individually and those that wanted to commit committed. Those that didn’t walked out. That’s still one of the beauties of that team. If you want to be there there’s every opportunity you can be, but if you don’t want to be there we’re not going to make you. We’ll find someone else that wants to be because that’s more important.
In my mind, both in rugby and in life, losses can be a great help. Those that come back from adversity stronger and better are the ones that accept things that are challenging. A fear of failure is not a bad thing. A fear of failure is a great thing, and you learn from it. Failure is pretty powerful if you look at it in the right way. If you don’t, it can be soul destroying.
I would say that the best thing about a loss is this: it can tell you exactly where you are. You can say whatever you want, but at the end of the day you lost. How you respond is what defines you. Do we come together or do we go the other way? I think with the All Blacks, the strength of that team is that after the Saturday night and beers in the changing room, you say right, we’re coming together. You have to. There’s no other option.
You’ve got to grieve and accept a loss because if you don’t it loses meaning. After that, it turns quickly to how we get better and what more do we need to do.
I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and I think at the end of the day, losing in 2007 was ultimately for a good reason, even though someone asks about it every other interview you do.
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