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Lynne Cantwell: BOD and D'Arcy had it, All Blacks Nonu and Smith have it too

Our World Cup columnist looks at the strength of the All Blacks’ centre pairing.

ONE OF MY favourite examples of an understanding between two players came in Australia’s 1991 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand at Lansdowne Road.

In open play, the great Michael Lynagh chipped over the top of the Kiwis’ defence and David Campese ran onto it and gathered in the ball.

Campese evaded a couple of tackles and then threw this brilliant unsighted pass over his right shoulder to Tim Horan, a wonderful moment of skill that allowed the Australian centre to score in the right corner.

David Campese 1991 Campese linked brilliantly with Horan in 1991. Source: INPHO

Afterwards, the reaction from the commentators and pundits involved phrases like ‘genius’, ‘improvisation’ and ‘this cannot be practiced.’ That was nonsense according to Campese.

At the post-match press conference, it was put to the 101-cap Australian wing that his pass had been a flash of that genius produced from nowhere.

“Rubbish!” responded Campese. “There is nothing that I do in a match that has not been practised. I have performed that skill many times in practice with Tim. The movement may not have been exactly the same, but I have performed so many similar movements.”

Horan reported the same when he was interviewed later. He understood what Campese would do with the ball, while Campese understood that Horan would run the support line he did. With the best combinations, these things don’t just happen by chance.

Performing at such a high level in rugby involves an incredible level of understanding between players. When I look at the teams for Saturday’s World Cup final in Twickenham, the pairing of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith in New Zealand’s midfield stands out in this regard.

That duo have an amazing understanding, one so strong that even the unique skillset of Sonny Bill Williams can’t break it up.

It’s worth noting that developing such a connection doesn’t naturally happen for every combination trialled and it doesn’t just automatically happen with time. The science can be inexact.

It’s something Stuart Lancaster struggled to find in his English backline, but the matter wasn’t helped by his constant chopping and changing of their midfield. Joe Schmidt had strong combinations across the pitch but injuries broke some of them up in this World Cup.

Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu line up for the National Anthem New Zealand have strong combinations across the park. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Strong combinations can be constructed differently and excel for different reasons, but the outcome is the same: the players are highly effective together. Smith and Nonu are the world’s best centre combination.

The Kiwi centres, together with Dan Carter at out-half, regularly produce jaw-dropping displays of phenomenally-timed offloads, pin-point support lines and seemingly instinctive decisions in play. Their defensive understanding is on another level.

It’s this level of accuracy as a collective that creates such an effective centre stage for New Zealand.

Social psychologist Gary Klein stresses the recognition of subtle cues as key to making good decisions under pressure and in complex situations. Swift recognition of the most subtle of cues allows players to bypass longer thought processes.

In other words, Conrad Smith doesn’t sit back and watch Ma’a Nonu run a line and then decide what to do.

Smith is already reading cues that are beyond our (and possibly his own) conscious awareness as Nonu shapes to carry in a particular fashion. Those cues then immediately trigger Smith’s body into doing what it needs to do to support the play. These are milliseconds we’re talking about.

In this recognition-primed decision making model, experience is a big aid. Experienced players can produce quicker decisions because the cues they’re seeing match a prototypical cue they have seen many times before. Multiply that effect when we’re talking about an experienced combination, as we are here.

Nonu and Smith’s reading of each other in attack and defence is a living example of it. Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy had it too. Sometimes these combinations don’t even need to verbally communicate, they just read each other’s movements, even when it’s with their peripheral vision.

Lynne Cantwell presents the jersey to Niamh Briggs Presenting a World Cup jersey to Niamh Briggs in 2014. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

In my playing career, I have experienced this type of instinctive playing connection with three players: Ireland centres Grace Davitt and Jenny Murphy, as well as my fullback for the last five years, Niamh Briggs.

I felt an ease playing with those three, always having a deeper awareness of what they were going to do, how they were going to do it and how react to it.

The biggest headache for defenders is not having that insight into the teammate beside them and therefore reacting slower during play. That’s why someone like Brad Barritt would have been uneasy with Sam Burgess being pitched in beside him in a World Cup; he simply had no understanding whatsoever of the rugby league convert’s cues.

It’s a nightmare playing alongside a centre when you don’t know how they are going to react, when you can’t read their body language in order to make your own decision. New Zealand’s midfield on Saturday will be entirely at ease with each other and I think it’s one major advantage for Steve Hansen’s men.

Matt Giteau and Tevita Kuridrani have performed well as individuals, but I don’t think they are at Nonu and Smith’s level as a combination yet.

The midfield match-up is just one part of a fascinating game. To be one of the last two standing is a sign of superior ability, mindset and understanding as a collective. New Zealand and Australia have both shown those things more than any other sides in this tournament.

As much as we all wish Ireland were involved on Saturday in Twickenham, the thought of seeing the number one and number two teams on this planet go head-to-head in a World Cup final for the first time in history is exciting.

It will be a huge mental challenge for players and management to control their thoughts and stop their minds wandering to visions of lifting the Webb Ellis trophy. It’s tempting to think about that outcome before you’ve gone through the process needed to get there.

Performing under high pressure is a skill that needs to be practiced like any other, and my understanding is that the All Blacks have incorporated that into their training over the last number of years. It could be the difference.

Steve Hansen Hansen has a mentally tough group of players. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

I’m intrigued to see how Australia handle this occasion mentally. The Wallabies never appear to fear the Kiwis and possibly lack the respect other nations have for them.

I played New Zealand only once in my Ireland career and it ended up being a special day at the 2014 World Cup.

It was quite straightforward for us to mentally prepare for playing New Zealand because we had never played them before. As a result, we had no memories of failure and nothing to be afraid of.

Whether by choice or not, this forced us to focus only on ourselves and what we could bring to the game. I think this is the approach most teams try to take preparing for big games. Control the controllables.

There was a fair bit of talk in the build-up about what to do during the Black Ferns’ Haka and whether to react or not. We decided to enjoy the experience and for some of us it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The Australians will almost certainly be planning to stay focused on themselves and what they can do on Saturday. It’s the ultimate act of mental toughness staying steady for this big finale. It should be epic.

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About the author:

Lynne Cantwell  / Ireland's most-capped women's international, played in five World Cups.

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