Ruthless and tough: Inside New Zealand's World Cup review
Written by Simon Austin — December 11, 2019
NEW ZEALAND scrum-half Aaron Smith has lifted the lid on the “ruthless” review process that followed his side’s Rugby World Cup semi-final defeat by England in October.
The All Blacks went into the tournament as hot favourites to lift the trophy for an unprecedented third consecutive time, but were humbled 19-7 by Eddie Jones’ men in Yokohama.
Defeat is not something either Smith or his team are used to - the 31-year-old has 92 caps and an 87% winning percentage. The review started when Smith and the leadership group met Head Coach Steve Hansen two days after the game.
“We had our leadership meeting with the coaches and it was tough,” Smith told the Rugby Bricks podcast. “Steve Hansen asked straight away, ‘how do you feel right now?’
“We all told each other how we felt and you can imagine it was pretty sombre. One thing I love about rugby players is that we won’t take the glory, but one thing I hate about rugby players is that we all fall on the sword, ‘it was because of me’.
“There were some of the best players in the world saying, ‘it was my fault.’ The coach was like, ‘cut that, we all did our part and we all lost.’ After talking, we felt a bit better.”
The following day, on Tuesday, the entire playing and backroom staff gathered together for a full debrief.
“There were 51 of us there - management, physios, everyone,” Smith remembered. “Steve did it with the whole room and everyone got their one or two minutes to say how they felt.
“You’ve got guys who haven’t been playing much, guys who are at their last World Cup, guys who have experienced their first loss as an All Black. We went round the whole room.
“The review process was ruthless, it was tough. You’re watching one of the worst games we’ve ever played and you’re part of some ugly stuff. There was not much more pain you could deal out, though, it was big picture.
“There was no name calling, it was, ‘we needed to be better there, here’s a big moment that we mucked up, here’s a chance we could have made’. With the review, it’s critical that you go back to what you’d said you wanted to do before the game.
"'We are going to have LQB (lightening quick ball), we want to have 80% accuracy from set piece, PQB (poor quality ball) from defence,' and always refer back to that.
“And one thing we got real clear was 'we have another game'. 'How do we want that to look and what does it mean to you to play for the All Blacks?' We’d let the country down by not doing what we wanted to do and what we had said we would, but here was a chance to finish well, be humble and, by shit, show them what it means.”
The following weekend, Smith and the All Blacks took on Wales in the third-fourth place play-off game and triumphed 40-17.
“That was what we got - we got the bronze medal, great, but we played the way All Blacks should play,” Smith said.
The scrum-half said it is also crucial that every review session ends on a positive note.
“With the Highlanders, we finish with MOPs - moments of perfection. It could be something no-one saw on TV, but we saw it. They’re the things we reward, the little things that no-one sees.
“I remember one game Lima (Sopoaga) got bunted by someone, made a try-saving tackle and did his hammy. People probably thought ‘embarrassing’, but stuff like that you have to reward.
“You know the shit’s coming, but in the good reviews they finish with the good, ‘look at this try though boys.’
"Before the game, I look at MOPs as well. I have three YouTube videos I watch of myself. It may sound corny, but the last thing you want to do going into a game is feel, ‘oh.’
“No, go and watch the best things you have done. Make a video, get your best kicks, passes and tackles, a few tries, because when you go out there you want to feel a million bucks.
"I watch a couple of videos just before I get to the stadium and feel, ‘yep.’”
Smith said the review process is a lot less brutal than it was when he started out in professional rugby.
“Reviews are way better than they were," he said. “Young kids these days can’t even handle half a smack on the nose, so they are a lot softer than in my early days, when it was ‘bang bang bang.’
“There was one coach and we had 13 penalties in a game. In the review, he had a word for each penalty, ‘dumb, silly, idiot’ for every clip.”