As he prepared to kick off Saturday’s win over Ireland, Beauden Barrett looked around and smiled. In the moments after he had been named man of the match in a 46-14 win, the full-back spoke about how much fun he had in the Tokyo Stadium.
As he grinned, the Irish players retreated into themselves and the haunted look never left their faces.
The best team in the world are even better because they embrace the pressure and don’t shrink from the occasion of a World Cup knockout game.
In the aftermath, Steve Hansen pointedly said that his players’ experience was of winning quarter-finals and Ireland’s was of losing.
This week, it’s England’s turn to go up against the world’s greatest team. No doubt, they’ll do a better job than Ireland, but mentally this will be a challenge like no other.
And if they allow the All Blacks to enjoy themselves, then they’re going to be in trouble.
“I’ve talked about pressure ever since I became All Black coach because we’re under pressure all the time,” said Hansen. “I think early in our history, we ran away from it so it was chasing us down the street.
“But the days we’ve had to acknowledge it’s there; now we’re expected to win every game, whether it’s a quarter-final, a semi-final or just an ordinary Test match.
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“So, there is pressure; it’s a big game. But it would be naive to think that there is not pressure on both sides and when you can publicly acknowledge that it’s on you, then there’s an awareness – and that same pressure’s running down the same street he’s on.”
With his talk of spying and amping up the All Blacks’ attempt at making history with a three-peat, England coach Eddie Jones is trying to put pressure on tomorrow’s opposition. But as Hansen says, they are used to feeling the heat and have learnt to embrace it.
“He’s trying to take pressure off his own side by getting everyone to talk to us about being under pressure,” Hansen said. “Again, smart move, but I’m not buying into it. Our players aren’t buying into it.
“We know we’re under pressure, we don’t need Eddie to tell us that.
“What he needs to work out is what are England going to do about the pressure they’re under.
“Because they’ll have memories about a tournament four years ago that didn’t go that good – so they’ll be under immense pressure themselves.
“So, to say they’ve got nothing to lose; Eddie doesn’t believe that either.
“They’ve got a whole four years of work resting on one outcome, so they get the opportunity to go and play another game which will have the same amount of pressure on them.”
For Barrett, who spent Wednesday mixing with professional golfers, including Rory McIlroy, looking as relaxed as ever, these big games are a challenge to be met with relish.
“As the pressure comes on, you have to take a moment to remind yourself and realise where you are,” the full-back said.
“Ultimately, you’re playing a game that you love, so enjoying those moments as much as possible is so important.
“At the end of the day, it’s just a game and we’re out there giving it our best, hopefully having fun doing it.”
Both coaches tweaked their teams yesterday, with Jones restoring George Ford at out-half and Hansen going for Scott Barrett’s lineout prowess on the blindside.
With Ford, England have set themselves up to play wider while Hansen is clearly looking for the tallest Barrett to cause the same kind of disruption he managed in Twickenham last November.
Jones was asked if, like Alex Ferguson all those years ago, this is an opportunity for England to knock the All Blacks off their perch.
“That’s what we’ve got the opportunity to do,” he said. “When you’ve been involved in rugby the country you want to knock off is New Zealand, because they’ve been the best.”
To do so, his players must take the All Blacks to a place where they’re no longer enjoying themselves by embracing the moment themselves.
“It’s not about relaxing players, it’s about not adding stress. When you’re a coach in these sort of games you want to get everything right,” Jones added.
“Then one of the things you learn is you don’t have to get everything right. There are a few key areas that we have to get right and we have to predict what those areas are, work on them hard at training, and that’s all we can do.”
One of these teams have been there and done it all before, the other have been building towards this point.
England have the players to stress New Zealand, but the All Blacks have match-winners in every department and their attacking play is too good for Jones’s men to stop. They’ll embrace the occasion and take the next step on a seemingly inevitable march to the final.
Verdict: New Zealand
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