Quick Tap

It’s 75 minutes into the match. The score is 15-all. The team hasn’t been playing that well, truth be told.

Awarded a kickable penalty, Aaron Cruden (25 – currently starting first-five, but really second choice behind Dan Carter who is currently on sabbatical) along with Beauden Barrett (23 – up-and-coming, but on the night a replacement fullback) and Victor Vito (27, another reserve, back for his first game after last year being told he wasn’t up to the standard expected of an All Black) together spot an opportunity and decide, without even consulting Richie McCaw (33 – the captain on the field), to instead take the quick tap and go. It leads, a few minutes later, to the match winning try.

This is what Richie had to say afterwards:

“You’ve got to back the guys to have a crack. If they’re always looking to me they’ll never take an opportunity. I was ready to point at the posts but he thought better of it, and it paid off.”

And, the coach, Steve Hansen (55, for consistency):

“It was one of those games where someone had to take it by the scruff of the neck.”

We can only speculate about what might have been said all around if that decision hadn’t lead to a try and the match had ended a draw, or a loss. As it was the headline was “All Blacks lucky against inspired England” (really, that was luck?)

There is a massive organisation that exists to support the All Blacks – the NZRU board, CEO and high performance staff, the All Blacks selectors, coaching and management teams, including specialist coaches, media liaison, medical support staff etc, not to mention the many stakeholders (including all of us as fans).

But, I’m fascinated by how accountability and responsibility is delegated down to the youngest and least experienced, and the culture that is created within the team as a result. We would consider it remarkable for a 25 year old team member or 33 year old executive to be making big decisions in a large company, where the leaders tend to be much older and tenured. But, in the All Blacks, by the time you’re over 30 you’re as experienced as they get, and certainly considered old enough to handle the pressure of making decisions in the moment on the field.

How about In the organisation where you work? Do your junior staff have the freedom to respond to opportunities when they spot them? Or, do they do as they are told until they’ve done their time?

World Class

I love watching elite sports people competing under pressure.

This photo is taken from the London Olympics 10,000m final. The expressions on the three medalists’ faces tell the story…

MoFarrah

First: WTF, did that really happen?
Second: OMG, I’m a white dude winning a medal in a long-distance race at the Olympics!
Third: FML

The bronze medalist on this occasion was Kenenisa Bekele from Ethopia. The reason he’s looking a bit glum is that he was, and still is, the world record holder for this event, so no doubt was expecting more of himself on that evening.

(Interestingly, according to research, bronze medalists are usually happier than silver medalists – one possible explanation for this is that silver medalists compare themselves to the gold medal winner and wonder what could have been, where as bronze medalists compare themselves to the lower place getters and are happy to have a medal at all – success is all relative!)

Pace

It’s nearly impossible for the average person, watching on TV, to appreciate the speed that world class long distance runners run.

Bekele’s 10,000m world record is 27 min 17 sec, which is the equivalent of 100 consecutive 15.8 second 100m races. I doubt many people reading this could run a single 100m at that pace, if sprinting.

He ran the final kilometre of that race in 2 min 32 sec. Again, probably twice as fast as the average runner could go at full speed starting fresh, and he had already run 9km at world record pace before then!

There are only a handful of people on the planet who can sustain that sort of pace. If you watch any of the elite marathons you’ll see the leading group contains some designated pacemakers for the first 20 or 30km. They are themselves very, very good athletes, running at an eye watering pace, but they peel away eventually unable to stick with that speed over the critical final third of the race.

It’s difficult to find words to describe the gap between these guys and you and me.

The most obvious difference is genetic. Mo Farrah, the gold medalist above, is 1.75m (my height) but 58kg (somewhat less than my weight!) The world record holder, Bekele, is 54kg. That physiological difference is telling. Fewer than 40 people have ever run sub-27 mins for the 10,000m, and Chris Solinsky, at 74kg, is the only one heavier than 65kg.

But, of course, it’s much more than that. There are plenty of people born with the same genetics as those guys who never go on to athletic greatness. It takes half a lifetime of hard work to get to the start line capable of running at that pace. The media loves stories about people who come from nowhere to win, but these days those sort of performances are more than likely to attract suspicion rather than admiration. Most champions are well signposted, with a long history of improving performances from a very young age.

For example, Usain Bolt ran the 200m in 21.81sec in 2001, when he was 15, seven years before setting the world record of 19.30sec at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, with small but consistent improvement every year in between.

Or, consider Tiger Woods as a 2 year old:

Then a 14 year old (already a junior world champion, and scratch handicapper):

Then a 30 year old:

According to the video title this is the best shot ever played, which is a big claim, but possibly true – it was the 16th hole, in the final round of a major tournament and in an amazing setting. Imagine being Tom DiMarco who had to putt immediately after this! As it happened, he missed his gettable birdie putt and when on to lose to Tiger in a playoff.

Confidence

Standing on the breakwater, in front of the Golden Gate Yacht Club in San Francisco, on the morning of 7th September earlier this year waiting for race one of the Americas Cup to start, my heart rate was noticeably higher than it normally is. It’s hard to comprehend how the team themselves must have felt, given what they had personally invested in the whole event. Up close the fragility and bespoke-ness of the boat is much more obvious. They are designed and constructed to sail right on the limits.

Somehow those on board continue to operate and hold it all together despite those nerves. The very best actually seem to thrive on the pressure.

And, it wasn’t just physical. There was an amazing moment in the press conference after day four of racing. Team NZ were dominating the event at that stage, winning both races that day, and leading 6 to 1 overall in the first to 9 series (actually 6 to -1, as Oracle didn’t get to count their first two wins due to a penalty). Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill is asked how he was dealing with the pressure, and replies:

“I think the question is: imagine if these guys lost from here. What an upset that would be. They’ve almost got it in the bag. So, that’s my motivation. That would be one hell of a story, one hell of a comeback. And that’s the kind of thing that I’d like to be a part of. I’ve been involved in some big fight backs, with some big challenges, facing a lot of adversity. That would be the kind of thing I’d love to be involved in.”

You can see it starting around 21mins into this video:

Huge words, and with the benefit of hindsight quite prophetic. That’s a remarkable level of self-confidence bordering on cockiness. And it was a deliberate strategy. I’d love to know how much he actually believed himself deep down, that day.

Watch the video and imagine yourself in Dean Barker’s position, and wonder how you would respond to that sort of comment – not just immediately, but lying in bed trying to get to sleep that night and then looking across the water on the start-line the next day with him smiling back at you.

Bonus: Dean Barker, interviewed on Radio NZ recently about his experience in San Francisco.

Executing the Basics

If you get a chance to go to an All Blacks game be sure to get there early and watch the team warming up. Take some binoculars and just follow one player. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find it mesmerising to watch them run though a very methodical set of exercises as they prepare for the game.

There are hundreds of thousands of kids who grow up dreaming of being an All Black. There are thousands who play at 1st XV level, and every year there are a couple of hundred who play professionally and are eligible for selection. The breadth of that pyramid and the competition for places and desire to be part of the team that results probably goes a long way to explaining why the level of performance is so high at the very top.

It’s tempting to imagine that those who are picked have something magical that sets them apart from mere mortals. But, actually it’s not magic.

It was fascinating last year to work with some of the All Blacks and see them describe some of their roles in their own words, and understand the thinking and preparation that goes into the performances we all get to watch and enjoy (and heavily criticise when things, occasionally, don’t fall their way):

They are talking about the same skills that any weekend warrior has – passing, tackling, kicking – but these guys are able to perform those skills consistently under extreme pressure of time and space.

Or, as eloquently put by the NZ Herald after the Bledisloe Cup match in Wellington earlier this year:

“They are the rugby equivalent of the great Dutch football team of the 1970s, seemingly full of genius ploys when really, their whole game is about supreme execution of the basics.”
NZ Herald

It’s very easy to talk about executing the basics. But, actually, just doing that consistently and despite all that is happening around you is enough to set you apart from nearly everybody else in the world.

Are you really?

The expression “world class” gets casually thrown around, like a frisbee at the beach on a sunny afternoon. But most people who use it actually have no concept.

In sport there is an obvious and massive gap between the elite few and everybody else. It’s tempting to bridge that gap in your mind and imagine that you could be a contender, but that doesn’t often stand up to much scrutiny.

And likewise in business. And especially in start-up businesses.

It seems so possible to start a company and dream big. Anybody could do it, right? I have a great idea for an app, if only I could find a developer to build it for me. Or, I’ve built this amazing dingus and just need to find some way to sell it (or even more delusionaly, I just need to get it out there and it will sell itself).

It is worth taking the time to ask yourself at the outset if you can be world class.

Do you have the desire to put in the years of hard slog and dedicated focus, to be able to push yourself to match the performance of the very best out there (keeping in mind that every founder thinks they can do in two years what always takes at least five, often seven, sometime even longer)?

Can you look your competitors in the eye and confidently know that you are mentally stronger and able to execute better when it counts? And, even if you don’t believe that, are you able to talk it up anyway, so at least they believe you do?

Are the basics so ingrained, due to consistent and repeated execution over time, that you’re able to repeat them almost mindlessly, even when time and other constraints are working against you?

Are you world class? Really?

Of course you can be world class. Don’t let me convince you otherwise.

But, you don’t achieve that by calling yourself world class.

You achieve that by competing with, and beating, the best in the world.

A Game of Two Halves

So, 4 weeks and 40 games later we’re left with the quarter finalists that were pretty easily predicted nearly three years ago when the draw was made. All that’s left are the 7 games that matter (+ the 3rd/4th play-off).

The top 20 ranked teams qualified for the tournament, and the top 8 ranked teams have made the quarter finals. Scotland (ranked 9) and Italy (ranked 11) are gone as are Tonga (ranked 13) who, like Samoa and Fiji in previous World Cups, managed to beat one of the top-ranked teams but unfortunately miss out after losing to Canada (ranked 12).

However, the 8 teams that progress are not in the order that we all expected. Thanks to the Ireland vs Australia result, the All Blacks (ranked 1) vs Argentina (ranked 8) match is the only quarter final game where there is a clear favourite. The other three could all go either way. History would suggest that the semi-finals will be All Blacks vs South Africa and England vs Ireland (no team who has lost a match in pool play has ever won the World Cup).

But, rather than try and predict the result of this weekend’s games I thought it would be interesting to look a couple of weeks ahead and anticipate some potential final match-ups:

All Blacks vs France

This would be a repeat of the 1987 final, also played at Eden Park.

We all thought we’d seen off the French threat after beating them earlier in the tournament, but as the 1999 All Blacks discovered the French are not beaten at a World Cup until the whistle has blown (and their fans are whistling their disapproval at the team as they walk off).

It’s not right, somehow, that France has not yet won a World Cup (especially since they’ve twice knocked us out). But I don’t think this French team is the one to change that. Indeed, were it not for the bonus point system they’d already be home and we’d be contemplating an England vs Tonga quarter final in Auckland on Saturday night (how good would that have been!)

Still, should they make it that far themselves, I think the All Blacks would probably choose the French last of the four possible opponents for the final.

– or –

Australia vs England

The worst of all possible combinations and painful to even contemplate.

I was living in the UK during the 2003 Rugby World Cup, and controversially chose to support England in the final after Australia knocked out the All Blacks in the semi-final. An old friend from New Zealand, who was staying with us at the time and watched the game with me that Sunday morning local time, struggled to understand my logic. But my preference then was that I’d rather England win their first World Cup than have Australia win their third.

If they were to meet again this time around, I don’t know that I could even bring myself to watch.

So … vive la France and go Bokke!

– or –

South Africa vs Wales

The pool match between these two teams was one of the games of the tournament so far for me. The atmosphere at the game was great – two passionate and vocal groups of supporters. To be honest, I don’t even think the Welsh in attendance expected their team to compete, but in the end they could have … should have … won.

And the Wayne Barnes fan club grows ever bigger.

The Welsh are under-rated by just about everybody – neutrals will no doubt end up supporting the Irish this weekend even though they won’t be the underdogs this time around. But, all of a sudden they find themselves in the quarter-finals, on the easy side of the draw and they might just sneak under the radar all the way to the final, where anything can happen.

– or –

All Blacks vs Ireland

I’d love to see this. I think we all would … for several reasons. Not the least because the Irish have never beaten the All Blacks!

We were in the crowd on 17 November 2001 when one Richard McCaw made his international debut vs Ireland at Lansdowne Road in Dublin. He was the man of the match. I can’t think of a more appropriate opponent for him to face in what would be the biggest game, and (hopefully) pinnacle of his career.

Hopefully he can hang in there over the next couple of weeks. It will either be a great night for us all to celebrate, or as George Greegan so eloquently put it in the closing minutes of the 2003 semi-final “four more years, boys!”.

When technology gets out of the way

I’m a sucker for sport generally and live sport especially – see previous posts here on Olympics, Football World Cup & European Championships and even previous Rugby World Cup events.

If they keep score I’ll probably watch it, and might even get up in the middle of the night to make sure I can influence the outcome.

Indeed one of the all-time top posts on this blog is Just tell them it’s sport – although that appears to have more to do with the fact that it contains the words “shower naked with a group of men” and “dress up in lycra” which are apparently both popular Google search terms!

The big downside of watching these big events live on TV is having to deal with adverts, which I otherwise mostly manage to avoid.

Here in NZ we haven’t quite descended to the depths of US sports coverage, where networks have the ability to call time-outs during the game if they are not getting enough stoppages. But, we are slowly getting closer.

The latest slippage is the insertion of a 90 second ad break between the anthems/hakas and the start of the game. It’s an annoying intrusion after all the ceremony is completed and everybody is ready to get going. Even more so at the ground, where all of the players are left standing in position waiting for the referee to get the signal from their TV overlords so they can start the match.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the ads themselves weren’t so terrible.

For example, this horrible “advertisement” for a Panasonic television, which is featuring here during the Rugby World Cup:

The first 20 seconds are a long list of irrelevant and intimidating technical jargon.

The last 10 seconds are even worse, portraying their target customer as a freak who is more than a few biscuits short of a full packet.

The number of people who care if their television has a “built in high definition SD card viewer for media playback and program recording” is infinitesimally small.

Rather than trying to impress with the advanced componetry they should focus on what the technology allows real people to do – surely the manufacturer can think of something more inspiring than barking at your dog over Skype?

The benchmark in this area continues to be set by Apple. The repeated message in the iPad adverts is “it’s going to change the way we do things everyday” – in other words: it’s not what the software/hardware does, it’s what the user does.

So, I’m agitated that Panasonic have chosen to intrude into an event I’m excited about watching and having been force fed their marketing I’m left with the impression that the Viera is a complicated overspec’d piece of technology that only propeller heads and nutbags will love.

Nice job!

Previous Rugby & World Cup Posts:

  • Are the All Blacks winning more than ever? July 2007 – yes!
  • Dark Days October 2007 – thoughts following our exit from the previous World Cup in 2007, in which I pin the blame on all of us (see also: Whatever makes you nervous) and also predict a NZ vs Australia final in 2011 based on historical patterns – before the draw was even made.
  • Re-invigorating the All Blacks December 2007 – more is less and variety is the spice of life.
  • Third Largest? September 2008 – yes, it’s exciting to have it here, but let’s not get carried away!
  • Rugby World Cup 2011 December 2008 – after the draw was made, in which I predict the semi-finalists and finalists three years out (not actually looking too bad at this point, with the exception of under-estimating Australia)
  • 31-December December 2008 – further proof that Richie McCaw is exceptional.

Cameron Brown, You Are An Ironman

Photo: Allan Lee

Today in Taupo Cameron Brown won NZ Ironman for the 10th time.

He finished this year with a 2hr 52m marathon – pretty slow by his standards if you can believe that.

He has raced in Taupo 13 times, winning 10 times and finishing second on the other three occasions. That’s an amazing record. This is the first time that anybody has won the same race 10 times, anywhere in the world. When he won last year it was the first time that anybody had won nine times.

He would probably have won 10 in a row but for a shortened course due to weather conditions in 2006.

It’s hard to think of another individual kiwi sportsperson who has totally dominated their event over the last decade like he has.

I wonder what are the odds of a swan song win at the World Championships in Kona later in the year – a la Hamish Carter at the end of his career? Here’s hoping.

Meanwhile, congratulations to everybody who completed the event today, in what sounds like pretty atrocious conditions, including some who will still be out on the course as I type this.

You are all Iron-people!

We Hate Argentina

One of my more vivid memories of our time in the UK is watching England v Denmark in the first knock-out round of the 2002 World Cup at our local pub.

The game was played in the middle of the day on a Saturday, UK time, and England went on to win 3-nil.  But, that’s not what I remember.

By the time we arrived shortly before kick-off there was already small but vocal group of keen fans who had been drinking all morning.  They were getting ready for the match by singing a song which had the simple lyrics: “We hate Argentina! We hate Argentina!”  This was all the more curious because England had already knocked Argentina out in the group stages, so this time around they weren’t going to be able to blame Argentina for their eventual exit.

Why do English fans hate Argentina?  It’s complicated, but part of the reason is that Argentina has a history of cheating and getting away with it, whereas England does not.

Cheating and getting away with it isn’t sport, yet the “art” of diving, faking injury, pushing and shoving and pulling shirts to impede opponents, handling the ball and intimidating the referee have somehow become an integral part of football.

At some stage soon FIFA [1] are going to need to decide whether to introduce technology and/or new rules into the mix for future World Cups, to assist the referees and ensure a fair result.  There are lots of options, including the status quo of leaving it all to some poor bugger to decide in real time.

I think they could do a lot worse than consider these three changes, based on some ideas proposed by my brother:

Challenges. Each team would be given one challenge per half, which they could use to challenge any decision made by the referee – e.g. if they think the referee has missed a foul, or incorrectly awarded a free kick or penalty.  They would be reviewed by a television official.  If the challenge is successful then the decision is reversed and they maintain the challenge.  If not, they lose the ability to challenge for the remainder of the half.  Because they only have one challenge they will need to be careful to use it only when they are convinced the decision was wrong.

Red Cards for Simulation. If a player is caught diving or over-acting where there is a foul then they are sent off.  Given the ability to challenge (see above) it will no longer pay to try and play the referee and could be very expensive, so this should significantly reduce this behaviour.

Penalty Goals. If a goal would have been scored but for a foul then a goal can be awarded, rather than just a penalty.  (If this rule was in place then Uruguay would have lost the match to Ghana at the 2010 World Cup).

What do you think?

[1] Some trivia: it’s not actually FIFA who will decide on these changes.  The laws are maintained by a body called the International Football Association Board which is composed of four representatives from FIFA and one each from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Any changes need to be approved by 6 out of the 8 members.  So, all that whining from England about TV replays, but they really have nobody to blame but themselves!

Like Moldova Beating England

In December last year I wrote:

“Italy are ranked #4 in the world and are defending champions.  Expectations will correctly be low when we play them.

But, I fear, by the time the matches actually start there will be a number of people who will expect to see the All Whites compete against the other two teams in our pool.”

Olé Olé Olé

And, sure enough… after the stunning win against Serbia on the weekend some journalists here are starting to dream the dream.

For example, Tony Smith, in this mornings Dominion Post:

“Serbia are a better side than Slovakia, New Zealand’s first-up opponents in South Africa on June 15, and are probably at least the equal of Paraguay.

Could Ricki Herbert’s class of 2010 become the first New Zealand team to win a game at a Fifa senior tournament and qualify for the second round?

You wouldn’t have thought so a week ago. But bookmakers around the world may be rapidly revising their odds.”

Serbian millionaires made to look like paupers

Dylan Cleaver in the NZ Herald, with tongue firmly in cheek, goes further and outlines the All Whites’ path to glory:

“The All Whites’ path to the semifinals is relatively straightforward.

A 3-0 win over Slovakia (they’re not even as good as Serbia), in the opening group game will be followed by a gritty, Ryan Nelsen-inspired, goalless draw against an Italian team resting its best players.  Paraguay will be no match for the aerial assault and are brushed aside 3-1.”

All Whites’ path to World Cup title

I think it’s usually better to have low expectations and exceed them.  And, especially when it comes to World Cups.  You’d think that sports journalists, of all people, would have learnt that lesson by now. Or, perhaps, the headlines they can write when the team falls short of those massively inflated expectations are better as a result – who knows?

Either way, comparing this result to “Russia beating the All Blacks” (as Tony Smith does in the article linked above) seems fanciful if not hyperbolic.

Is it?  Here are some facts:

FIFA ranks 202 countries – from Brazil at #1 to Papua New Guinea at #202.

IRB ranks 95 countries by comparison – from the All Blacks somehow at #1 (how?) to mighty Finland at #95.

So, the All Whites (current FIFA ranking: #78) beating Serbia (current FIFA ranking: #15) is the football equivalent of Moldova (current IRB ranking: #36) beating England (current IRB ranking: #7) in rugby.  Imagine that!

Or, if you want to consider the gap in the rankings between the two teams, then it’s the equivalent of Tunisia (current IRB ranking: #29) beating the All Blacks.  Russia by comparison has an IRB ranking of #19.

Either of those would be an outrageous result, even in a friendly game, and especially a couple of weeks prior to a big tournament, would be big news.

And yet the All Whites remain 1000-to-1 to win the World Cup. :-)

Bring on Slovakia, I say!  I’ll be watching.  You?

(*) On the outside chance that you’re interested in and/or confused by my maths… I just adjusted the FIFA rankings to take into account that there are less than half as many teams represented in the IRB rankings, so a FIFA ranking of 78 out of 202 teams corresponds to an IRB ranking of 36 out of 95 teams, and a gap of 63 places out of 202 teams on the FIFA list corresponds to a gap of 29 places out of 95 teams on the IRB list.