The mental game

Written by Pierre McLeod (pierre_mackie)

Posted in :Original Content, Reader Submissions on 7 May 2012 at 09:54
Tagged with : , , , , , ,

As much as you need to be physically tough to play a contact sport like rugby, you also need to be mentally tough.

Like they say “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

“Only the strong will survive”, surely they are not only talking about being physically strong?

What causes teams and players to buckle under the pressure or for failing to get over that final hurdle?

I took a few teams that have the ability to reach the final, but not always having the BMT to win the final.

The All Blacks must be a classic example of such a team and their record speaks for itself, but when it comes to that final 100m they just don’t have enough steam to take them over the finish line.

New Zealand vs World Cup:

The All Blacks are rated as the No 1 rugby side in the world and yet have only managed to win the World Cup twice out of a possible 7 times (1987 & 2011).

After winning the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 on home soil, they lost their semi-final to Australia in 1991 before winning the playoff for third. In 1995, they improved by reaching the final but losing in extra time to hosts South Africa. They finished in fourth place in 1999, after losing their semi-final and then the third place playoff game. In 2003, The All Blacks were knocked out by hosts Australia in the semi-final, before finishing third. The 2007 World Cup saw their worst tournament, being knocked out in the quarter finals by the host nation France. In 2011 the All Blacks won their second World Cup after 24 years. (almost every World Cup being knocked out by the host, it seems like they can only win the World Cup when it’s in New Zealand)

New Zealand hold several World Cup records: most World Cup Matches (43), most points in one match (145 versus Japan in 1995), most cumulative points over all World Cups (2,012), most tries overall (272), and most conversions (198). Several individual players also hold World Cup records; Jonah Lomu for most World Cup tries (15 over two World Cups), Marc Ellis with most tries in a match (6 versus Japan in 1995), Grant Fox with most points in one tournament (126 in 1987), and Simon Culhane with most points in a single game (45 versus Japan in 1995) and the most conversions in a single game (20 versus Japan in 1995).

New Zealand has the best record of all teams in the World Cup having a record of 2 (1st), 1 (2nd), 2 (3rd), 1 (4th). New Zealand is the only team to top their pool in every World Cup so far and not to lose a pool match.

With a record like this you would think they would win every World Cup.

You find the same in soccer. England being one of the top ranked soccer playing countries in the world, and probably being among the favourites in every World Cup, have only managed to walk away with the cup once.

England vs Soccer World Cup

Currently ranked 7th, and playing in World Cups for 60 years (1950 – 2010) England have only managed to lift the cup once in 1966 and a 4th place finish in 1990.

Our beloved Proteas. Ranked 2nd in ODI’s and T20’s enter every international tournament among the favourites, but always ending in disappointment.

South Africa vs Cricket World Cup

1992: Semi Finals – vs England
1996: Quarter Finals – vs West Indies
1999: Semi Finals – vs Australia
2003: First round
2007: Semi Finals – vs Australia
2011: Quarter finals – vs New Zealand

ICC World Twenty20

2007: Super 8
2009: Semi-Finals vs Pakistan
2010: Super 8

ICC Champions Trophy

1998: Winners
2000: Semi Finals
2002: Semi Finals
2004: First round
2006: Semi Finals
2009: First round

Then there is a team like the Lions, always a strong contender in the Currie Cup and always featuring in the play offs, but when it comes to Super Rugby it’s another story. Why?

Lions Honours:

SUPER 10: 1993.

Super Rugby 1996-2011 standings

1996 10th, 1997 5th, 1998* 12th, 1999 *11th, 2000* 4th, 2001* 3rd, 2002* 11th, 2003* 12th, 2004* 12th, 2005* 11th, 2006* 13th, 2007 12th, 2008 14th, 2009 12th, 2010 14th, 2011 14th.
*Played as the Cats

CURRIE CUP (10): 1922, 1939, 1950, 1952, 1971 (shared), 1972, 1993, 1994, 1999, 2011.


Year (pos): 2003 (4) 2004 (4) 2005 (2) 2006 (5) 2007 (3) 2008 (4) 2009 (6) 2010 (5) 2011 (1)

We always have high hopes for The Sharks before Super Rugby season and yet they only manage to scrape through to the play offs, depending on what happens in the final rounds.

Sharks Honours:

Super 12/14

Runners-up: 1996, 2001, 2007
Semi-finalists: 1997, 1998, 2008

Super Rugby

Play-offs: 2011

CURRIE CUP (6): 1990, 1992, 1995, 1996, 2008, 2010


Year (pos): 2003 (2) 2004 (5) 2005 (3) 2006 (4) 2007 (2) 2008 (1) 2009 (1) 2010 (1) 2011 (2)

And also just to throw this one in the mix, it’s not just teams that struggle with, call it BMT, pressure, mental blockage to overcome your opponent, but there are also individual battles going on.

Darryl Cullinan vs Shane Warne

Despite a first-class career spanning almost 20 years, sources such as the Herald Sun quote Cullinan as being Shane Warne’s bunny. Cullinan averaged 12.75 against Australia, falling to Shane Warne on four occasions. Cullinan also fell to Warne eight times in One-Day Internationals.

By winning the Rugby World Cup in 2011 will the All Blacks be unstoppable going forward, having that monkey off their backs, overcoming the so called chokers label of World Cup Rugby or was it just a mental block they had to get through, backing themselves as the best rugby team in the world and believing in themselves.

Would we say the Lions are mentally strong enough to compete in Super Rugby? If not strong enough to beat the NZ and Australian teams why can’t they beat the SA teams, every year they play the same players managing to reach the semi finals of the Currie Cup, they play them twice in Super Rugby and twice in the Currie Cup, they play at the same stadiums, but as soon as the play under the Super Rugby banner, they cant manage to win?

The Sharks have come close a couple of times, reaching play offs and finals, but again failing to reach the winners podium. Are the defeats in 1996, 2001 and 2007 to big for them to overcome, is the fear of failing causing them not to play to their full potential (as we know they can), are they scared to put themselves in that situation again?

Not having all the answers I asked a buddy of mine, Baldwin McBean.

A player that’s played various forms of the game from 15 man to international 7’s.

Baldwin played for Blue Bulls u19, u21, EP CC, Griquas CC, Springbok 7’s, Eagles CC and Southern Spears.

As a player you are constantly under the pressure of failing, causing you to not play to your full potential, having nothing to lose towards the buildup, but as soon as you reach the final you suddenly have everything to lose. There could be pressure from younger, bigger, faster players coming into the team, a fear of losing your place in the starting line up causing you to be more cautious rather than backing yourself to go for broke.

It seems like you can train your body to be physically strong for all those big hits week in and week out, but if the mind is not mentally strong you might find yourself at the back of the pack.


  • Horrible to see that even the Lions have had more Super rugby success than us. 🙄

  • Comment 1, posted at 07.05.12 10:25:32 by rhineshark Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld
    Spirit of Rugby
  • Good read 😎
    Mental strenght is a major factor no matter what you do, sports or other.

  • Comment 2, posted at 07.05.12 10:25:37 by JarsonX Reply
    Competition WinnerCompetition WinnerCompetition Winner
  • @JarsonX (Comment 2) : Agree. And here is a very good example: http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=43b_1336196213

  • Comment 3, posted at 07.05.12 10:37:52 by rhineshark Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld
    Spirit of Rugby
  • For my money, I’ll take a mentally strong but technically limited player over the reverse any day (e.g. the limited but tenacious Gary Kirsten vs. the extravagantly gifted yet flaky Daryll Culinan/Herschelle Gibbs). Of course, the bonus prize would be someone like Francois Hougard, with unshakeable self-belief AND oodles of talent. Whether anyone like that would want to play for the Sharks is another question… 🙁

  • Comment 4, posted at 07.05.12 10:56:54 by Culling Song Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld Author
    Culling Song
  • @Culling Song (Comment 4) : I would rather Hougaardt stays at the Bulls and helps the Boks become successful than moving to the Sharks and getting infected with whatever seems to whack all Sharks scrumhalves. I have no idea what it´s called, but it´s definitely viral with symptoms like sleepiness, anxiety, loss of concentration and even seizures (especially at rucks). 😛

  • Comment 5, posted at 07.05.12 11:12:12 by rhineshark Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld
    Spirit of Rugby
  • @rhineshark (Comment 5) : Never, ever thought I’d say this, but I agree. Things have reached a point where I support the Boks and take a mild interest in the Sharks.

  • Comment 6, posted at 07.05.12 11:16:21 by Culling Song Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld Author
    Culling Song
  • @rhineshark (Comment 5) : Although the seizure virus did seem to affect one of the great Bull and Bok scrumhalves in his latter years.

  • Comment 7, posted at 07.05.12 11:23:07 by Bokhoring Reply
  • @Culling Song (Comment 6) : Sad, but exactly how I feel too.

  • Comment 8, posted at 07.05.12 12:06:13 by rhineshark Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld
    Spirit of Rugby
  • @Bokhoring (Comment 7) : Yes, now that I think about it, maybe the seizure reference wasn´t too well thought through. Thinking now about Joost with his debilitating illness.

  • Comment 9, posted at 07.05.12 12:09:05 by rhineshark Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld
    Spirit of Rugby
  • I was talking about Fourie Dup with his hands in the air milking penalty thing – did not even think of Joost myself.

  • Comment 10, posted at 07.05.12 12:12:27 by Bokhoring Reply
  • @rhineshark (Comment 3) : amazing!

  • Comment 11, posted at 07.05.12 12:54:39 by robdylan Reply
    Competition Winner Administrator
  • @rhineshark (Comment 3) : Eggsack_ly :mrgreen:

  • Comment 12, posted at 07.05.12 13:50:02 by JarsonX Reply
    Competition WinnerCompetition WinnerCompetition Winner
  • Only stumbled upon this article now. Nice one Pierre!

    Mental strength is a huge success factor. Personally, when playing cricket, I saved my best batting for the nets – I always got a bit of the wobblies when I stood in the middle. Don’t know if I’d do any better now that I’m older – I hope so.

  • Comment 13, posted at 08.05.12 18:46:29 by Big Fish Reply
    Big Fish
  • @Culling Song (Comment 4) :
    Perfect example!

    Kirsten had True Grit. Cullinan and especially Gibbs didn’t. Both scored first-class centuries at 16 and had more talent than any of their peers, but never reached close to their potential.

    Gibbs especially, in my opinion, had as much, if not more, talent than the likes of Tendulkar, Lara, etc. Tendulkar is an example of someone with awesome drive and mental strength.

  • Comment 14, posted at 08.05.12 18:49:44 by Big Fish Reply
    Big Fish
  • Great article. The most important distance is the 6 inches between the ears (Bobby Jones). Another one who comes to mind is Wayne Ferreira – oodles of natural talent but could never seal the deal

  • Comment 15, posted at 08.05.12 19:12:55 by snakeslayer Reply

  • @Culling Song (Comment 4) : @Big Fish (Comment 14) : Many see Gibbs as a legend for what he did in that 438 game. But putting that aside he has been pretty much inconsistent through out his whole career.

  • Comment 16, posted at 08.05.12 22:37:45 by Ben Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld Author

Add Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.