Victory is a state of mind for best teams in the world

WAS it the familiarity of Wales that caught Ireland off guard on Saturday?

Sometimes, knowing your opponent well makes it more difficult to focus on what you need to do to win and you revert to ways of stopping their game plan as you perceive it.

Wales have been the most organised side at this Rugby World Cup to date and in the quarter-final the team played at a level that was well above the standard Ireland was used to. The Welsh matched a strong attacking game with an even stronger defence and it was on that rock that Ireland foundered. Ireland dominated for long periods in the game but failed to take, or even create, chances.

Against Australia, the Ireland runners came with urgency from deep and they ran straight. The ball was taken on the gain line and Ireland were going forward continually to the next breakdown.

Saturday’s game was different. The Wales of old would have meant the runners were flat, taking the ball standing still and they would have often been driven back in the tackle. Sean O’Brien, who has been outstanding playing number seven in this tournament, was often going backwards in the breakdown and his effectiveness was lost.

Ireland’s success in pool play revolved around winning the contact areas but in Wellington on Saturday they were totally outplayed in that phase.

In 1995, New Zealand introduced the era of the giant winger with Jonah Lomu destroying all in front of him. Everyone wanted to find big wingers until it was proved four years later by Christophe Dominici of France against the All Blacks that there is no substitute for pace. Shane Williams on the wing for Wales continues to fly the flag for speed.

In 2011 it has been the era of the giant centre. The pace and guile of the likes of Brian O’Driscoll is no match for the muscle and power of the heavyweights. Wales had two big centres in Jamie Roberts at 110kg and Jonathan Davies at a ‘slight’ 105kg.

Looking at the teams in the last four, New Zealand have Ma’a Nonu at 106kg and Sonny Bill Williams at 110kg. France have Rougerie at 104kg. Australia are the only team of the four left without a big centre. The results of the next fortnight will justify — or not — the big men playing in the key midfield back positions. All these men are no longer just big, strong runners. They all possess the ability to step, pass and have the vision to create space and opportunities for the players around them.

THERE is no doubt that mental preparation is extremely important too. Last week look at how ‘up’ Ireland seemed and the slapping of teammates’ backs and the urging on was evident for all to see. On Saturday that self-belief was missing and the team looked much more like a group of individuals.

Conversely we watched France, who last week against Tonga barely turned up to play, come out displaying real commitment to defeat England. The players were the same but the type of rugby and the desire to win were poles apart.

Having played and coached in France, I don’t buy into the French flair theory, as they seldom play open rugby at any level. They do play with real enthusiasm on those days when they want to and they also have the ability to score some mercurial tries. For the French the game is entirely mental, and the differences in their performances are like night and day. After the match against England even assistant coach Emile Ntamack joked that you never know which French team will turn up. How will they perform against Wales in the semi-final? It’s like picking your lottery numbers.

Australia also showed that when the stakes are high it is attitude that wins matches. While Saturday’s quarter-finals produced eight tries, Sunday’s games played by supposedly more attack-minded southern hemisphere teams yielded only four.

The RWC does strange things to teams and at knockout stage it is easy to slip into a ‘not lose’ mentality rather than playing to win.

Unfortunately the laws of the game have allowed teams to commit few players to the breakdown and therefore leave a strong line of defence.

Although defence has the ability to stifle the game of rugby, I am intrigued to watch the defensive patterns of teams and appreciate the hours of training that have gone into making them effective. To the New Age purist it is no less exciting than attack. Players must know their role, they must certainly trust their teammates to stick to the system and, most of all, they need that already discussed ingredient — mental attitude.

Next weekend won’t be for the faint-hearted: two match-ups where the opposition know each other intimately.

Wales are a team on the rise and have yet to play their mental final in this tournament. France, on the other hand, turned up in force to prove they were better than predicted against England, so maybe they have already played their final.

As a Kiwi, I would like to think that Australia have done the same by pulling out a massive defensive performance to beat South Africa. On the other hand, the All Blacks had a hard match against Argentina without really having to play at full throttle.

What chances Wales v New Zealand in the final?

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