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The night before the Springboks played the All Blacks at Athletic Park in Wellington during the 1998 Tri-Nations, Nick Mallett walked into the team room to give his pre-match talk. It would be the first time he had coached the Boks against New Zealand.
Fire and thunder were expected. One more unto the breach. Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.
Mallett looked around the room, then said, simply: “Tomorrow will be a very hard match.” Then he walked out. In his book Nick & I, Mallett’s friend and team manager Rob van der Valk remembers Joost van der Westhuizen looking at him with a raised eyebrow. It was a little less than they were expecting.
Mallett later told Van der Valk he thought he had over-psyched the players before the game against Australia, where they had not played as well as they could and had come away with a 14-13 win.
It worked. The Boks tackled the hell out of the All Blacks for 60 minutes on a blustery Wellington day in that old open-side stadium that overlooked the Pacific Ocean and Cook Strait. The main stand was incredibly steep and would sway in strong winds.
The Boks were 3-0 ahead through a Percy Montgomery penalty. Ten minutes from the end, a move Henry Honiball had dreamt up at training on Wednesday came together perfectly to put Pieter Rossouw clean through for the winning try.
In team talks, sometimes you say it best when you say nothing at all. The US Ryder Cup team captain Steve Stricker did just that before his team utterly dominated Europe over the weekend. In the past the team had brought in Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps and Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke University coach who has led the US to three Olympic golds.
This time around there was no speaker. Stricker cut out the noise, the pre-tournament hype. “Every one of those players has a better résumé than I do,” said Stricker. “We just tried to make sure that they had a good time.”
Confidence is a tricky beast built by coaches and players, but a good team talk never hurt. Before Liverpool overcame a three-goal deficit to beat a talent-heavy Barcelona 4-0 in the Champions League semifinal at Anfield in 2019, captain Jordan Henderson remembered Jurgen Klopp making them believe with his team talk: “From the talk he gave before the game before we came to the stadium, I think the players could see that the manager believed, which helped us believe in what he said. He said we can enjoy the night and maybe tell the grandkids one day it was a special night.
Dejan Lovren, the centre back, said: “Before the game he did an amazing speech. It was something brilliant and I think he lifted us so high. It was just ‘Believe! Put it in your mind that we can do it’. It was something that we’ve never heard before. He said, ‘Boys, believe. One or two goals, even if we don’t score in the first 15, 20 minutes, believe in the 65th, 66th, 67th minute that we can score, and then with Anfield behind us, trust me guys, we can do it. We did it once against Dortmund, we can do it tonight. Just show f**king balls tonight,’ And we did it!”
Klopp puts a high value on team talks. He lets James Milner, the team veteran and stand-in captain, handle those talks he cannot do.
“Millie is a sports guy, in each sport he does he is brilliant. Without Millie it wouldn’t have been possible [to have the same level of success]. His kind of a little bit dirty dressingroom talks I cannot do, these things you say in the dressing room that I am not allowed to say in public,” he told the team’s website.
Siya Kolisi and Jacques Nienaber will weigh their words carefully on the eve of their final match against the All Blacks on Saturday. They will speak of belief, of how things are almost there and the need for trust. They may say a lot, they may talk at length, or they may just say: “Tomorrow will be a very hard match.”
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.