Los Pumas lack mental strength
OPINION: The image speaks a thousand words. The fixed camera, agreed prior to kick-off that will have no sound, captures all that happens in the small changing room.
There is a team with heads hanging from tired shoulders and a coach clearly getting stuck into them. What he says can only be imagined. And the imagination says that he might be using all his menu of four-lettered words.
The team walks on to the field for a second half trailing by a big score. In the ensuing forty minutes, they go from 8-31 down to win 45-34 in one of the biggest ever test-turnarounds.
By the final whistle the hanging heads were from Los Pumas, the team that should have won that night in Salta.
Fast forward four more years and Los Pumas were leading by a smaller margin, but putting the Wallabies under pressure and forcing them to give away some unnecessary penalties – eleven in the first half.
The changing room was similar in size and the camera position almost the same. It was the Pumas’ shed where Michael Cheika, no longer in the Wallaby camp but now with Argentina, was taking a much softer approach during his half-time talk.
When asked by RugbyPass earlier in the previous week what language would he use in a similar situation, he smiled and said that “I’ll say all I can in Spanish; there are moments when I want to speak in Spanish but sometimes I don’t have the words.”
“When I speak in English, players translate to each other which is better than having a translator as they speak and communicate amongst themselves.”
Would his new team have understood his half-time speech in 2018? “They understand tone very well.”
With the team leading, maybe there wasn’t need for harsh words, only reminders of what had to be done in the final forty minutes.
Maybe the tone wasn’t right as Los Pumas were one team in the opening forty minutes, another team in the following twenty and seemed to lose the plot in the final twenty, when the Wallaby bench proved stronger than the Argentine.
Much of this seems to come down to the mental strength that seemed absent when it was most needed.
Mental health was overflying the opening weekend of The Rugby Championship as Wallaby captain Michael Hooper found it in him to voice his need for a break from the pressures of the game.
His valiant, and quiet decision spoke loudly about the pressures for players at the highest echelons.
As much as fitness, tactical capacity and technical prowess is needed, not being able to close down a game has more to do with the mind than the standard of an individual player or the team.
With staffs growing in numbers, few have an in-house professional to lead the much-needed mental aspects.
Players do work on mental skills but, is it enough? Los Pumas travelled on tour last year with a mental coach, probably too late for an unhappy squad; it showed on the field of play.
Whatever is done, it seems insufficient for the real needs.
From a distance, watching the All Blacks being pushed and shoved right, left and centre by a motivated Springbok side smelling blood, was clear.
Have players such as Beauden Barrett, Sam Cane or Sam Whitelock, to name three, forgotten how to play the game? Reaching that high standard takes an uncommon dedication and effort over many years.
If the mind is not right, all of this can be lost in a couple of games, even a couple of minutes and the downward spiral hard to stop.
The All Blacks could be back to their best on Saturday at Ellis Park. If it happens, will it mean they re-learnt how to play the game? No.
Probably it will have been because their mindset was back to where it had to be to play at this standard. Or they were mentally stronger than an always mentally strong Springboks.
There is, of course, too much noise around them, which doesn’t help. And knowing it can get louder puts them under even more pressure.
Not with Argentina. The pressure is of course there, but not in the way it is put on player’s shoulders in other countries. Much loved and supported, and always constantly punching above their weight, some losses are expected.
Yet, they did not find it in them to win the game against a Wallaby side that was there for the taking, at least on the evidence available in the opening half. That hurts.
They’d gone to the changing room with a penalty count of only three and got to double digits in the second.
Their kick-offs were not very imaginative and giving away soft penalties after almost each one of them, only gave Australia momentum.
Wanting to send a get-well-soon message to their captain Michael Hooper, the Wallabies were let out of jail a few times. Penalties that were kicked to touch provided two maul tries and a penalty try with a yellow try as bonus.
“Unacceptable,” said Cheika at the end of the game.
Australia took their opportunities, showed hunger and came through.
Mentally strong, with the clock in the red, they still wanted the winning bonus point. In a seesaw couple of minutes that seemed like an untidy training session, they got that try.
What seemed a forward pass in the game’s last pass was not deemed so and moving to the next game, Australia are in the right frame of mind and Argentina, that left the Malvinas Argentinas Stadium with heads hanging, need to work on how to raise themselves and go for the win.
They are all good players, many have beaten the Wallabies before. It will come down to have well prepared they are mentally prepared.
By Frankie Deges, @Rugbypass