Every golfer in the world will have empathised with Ireland’s replacement fly-half Billy Burns in those closing seconds at the Principality Stadium. It was the rugby equivalent of standing on the 18th tee with the outcome still in the balance. The middle of the fairway is suddenly a postage stamp, the hands and chest tighten, the worst-case scenario creeps into view. Don’t hit it right. Whatever you do, don’t hit it right. Aaaarrggh!
We have all done it and the unfortunate Burns will not be the last Six Nations player to wish the ground could swallow him up. All he had to do, in theory, was prod the ball into touch anywhere between five and 10 metres out from the Welsh line. With the score at 21-16, Ireland would then have had one final attacking lineout. One last chance to catch and drive, one last tilt at securing a famous 14-man win. Alas for Billy, the ball faded away right of the corner flag and flew dead. Game over, thanks for coming.
The subsequent boneheaded social media abuse merely underlines the tightrope upon which every high-profile sportsperson now walks. At least Burns has instant access to a seasoned expert on the subject. When his older brother Freddie dropped the ball over the line while prematurely celebrating scoring a try that would have helped Bath to a significant European win over Toulouse in 2018, the ‘banter’ went on for weeks. As he recalled ruefully: “I was in the pub on Christmas Eve, knocked over a beer and some random bloke in the corner went: ‘Oh, he’s dropped another one.’”
It is important to note, however, that the older Burns felt the incident, in hindsight, was “one of the best things that’s happened to me” in terms of toughening him up as a player. It also opened a window of self-awareness that should also now console his brother. To quote Freddie once more “No one died. I just dropped the ball over the line in a rugby game. Earlier in the summer the family lost a very close family friend and when you put things in perspective like that it doesn’t mean a lot.”
Absolutely right. And for those still keen to throw personal Twitter stones, what about the inspiring precedent of Scotland’s Stuart Hogg? Last season he endured every captain’s ultimate nightmare, dropping the ball over the line as he tried to complete a certain score against Ireland in Dublin. Instead of allowing that moment to define him, he has bounced back to lead his country to one of their greatest Calcutta Cup wins. It is not the size of the error that defines an individual but how he or she responds to it.
All that said, there is not an international coach in captivity who will keep picking players who make a regular habit of such howlers. Had Burns found a safe touch and Ireland sneaked the win, Wayne Pivac would assuredly have had a few choice words with Wales’s replacement scrum-half Gareth Davies. In rugby there is no great mystery about the last 30 seconds when your side are ahead. The clock is your friend: a couple of simple, routine phases will eat up the remaining time. What you simply cannot do is send a mindless grubber kick back to the opposition and leave your head coach – and probably the watching British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland – feeling like a man whose car keys have just been thrown into the River Taff.
It is such moments that demonstrate just how clearly – or otherwise – players are thinking under pressure. There were loads of similar examples in England’s loss to Scotland: the pre-ordained kicks when moving the ball was clearly the better option, the unnecessary penalties conceded in key areas of the field. Kipling would have made a great rugby coach: if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, you’ll be a Lions fly-half, my son.
There are echoes here of England’s past for those with longish memories. Following another sobering Calcutta Cup defeat in 2000, Clive Woodward flew to Tel Aviv to consult a man named Yehuda Shinar, who had a background in the Israeli army and years of expertise in identifying the key mental differences between competitors and winners. Having studied more than 3,000 competitive individuals he had identified 11 high-performance trends which Woodward condensed into the acronym T-CUP: Thinking Correctly Under Pressure.
Three years later England were lifting a World Cup, no longer the team who had previously buckled under screeching pressure in tight Six Nations situations. As Woodward later said: “We started to leave players out who were very talented, but did I totally trust them to perform under pressure? The answer was no.”
This year’s Six Nations race has only just begun but the importance of cool, calm decision-making is already crystal clear.
ITV have reported healthy viewing figures following the first round of Six Nations games; far less edifying has been the pathetic sexist online trolling of female broadcasters and pundits covering the men’s game. Well done to the great England World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi for delivering a suitably withering response to the knuckle-draggers. “For those who continue to comment on my gender, I say, mine (and many other women’s voices) will never be silenced regardless of how hard they try to oppress it.” If you happen to know a sexist dinosaur, tell them to go and get a life.
One to watch
Another juicy Six Nations weekend awaits, with two away wins from three in round one. In the Premiership’s past three rounds, meanwhile, the home side has won six out of 17 fixtures. Is the ongoing lack of crowds in the grounds making an increasing difference? It is pushing it to foresee a second successive away win at Twickenham on Saturday with Italy the visitors, but Scotland and Ireland have been warned.