Rugby: Quarter Finals and The Pitfalls of Pressure

Facing into this weekend against Argentina, it's likely that Ireland are more psychologically robust this time around, but the Pumas are a quality side who know how to play it tough and smart. Irish supporters won't have forgotten how well Juan Martín Hernández can build a score for his team...

Ahead of the four big RWC games this weekend, it's worth looking at an area of the game that receives such a small amount of coverage, but carries an increasingly oversized significance, yet it remains mostly intangible. It's a bit like climate change, in that it's real and affects things, but attributing it directly to any particular outcome isn't doable. Perhaps that's what makes it so fascinating.

All games are equal, but some are more equal than others. What separates them is the consequences of winning or losing, or to put it another way, the 'occasion'. While it might not seem like a powerful force when set against a changing climate, it can cause a few tornados to spin inside the minds of players. As the occasion becomes greater, so too does the associated pressure and this changes things dramatically. Whether it's the stress of kicking the winning goal, making a perfectly timed pass, or just looking good on TV, pressure can be omnipresent and omnipotent, so it's best to have it on your side if at all possible.

In knock out matches such as the looming quarter finals, mental skills to pacify this unyielding pressure will be more important than ever. Without such mental traits, maintaining poise and making quality decisions becomes less and less likely. Favourites can quickly become failures, just like did New Zealand in 2007 when firstly they lost themselves, and then the match.

Winning knock out matches is more about doing to opponents what they would least like to receive, rather than doing what your team would most like to do. Surprisingly, these two ideals aren't always aligned. Also, given the exaggerated fear of losing in these games, the mental anguish of conceding scores is magnified somewhat. So while three points might not seem like much to the scoring side, its impact on the opponents is a better determinant of its true value. Just look at how many drop-goals are attempted in cup matches compared to league games. Equally, these same drop-goals are adjudged to be signs of composure in knock out matches, but of impatience in league games, yet nothing has really changed except the mind-set.

Cup matches are all about momentum and it requires putting points on the scoreboard. Rugby is a zero-sum game, and failing to convert guilt edged opportunities into points is like allowing your opponents to score. While it's not always evident from the scoreboard, every attack always results in a victory, whether it's for the attackers or the defenders. Wales' loss to Australia last weekend was a perfect example of this. For a period during the second half, Wales temporarily had a two man advantage and yet still couldn't score. The scoreboard hadn't changed, but everything else had. Welsh dejection and Australian invigoration seemed to be poles apart and from that point onwards, the result was never in doubt.

Four years ago when Ireland lost to Wales in the RWC 2011 quarter final, the Irish team came asunder mostly as a result of the pressurized situation that caused plenty of wayward decision making. After Wales had run into an early 7-0 lead, Ireland were stunned and compounded this by unnecessarily rolling the dice and consecutively kicking to the corner instead of attempting three points. Although it was windy, making the kicks trickier than normal, this suited the Welsh for several reasons:

  • Doubling down on losses so early in the game indicated to Wales that they could probably infringe more than usual without conceding points.
  • Driven lineouts are actually quite rarely successful, and especially so when both teams are still fresh.
  • Rebuffing Ireland would greatly erode Irish confidence, sowing regret and raising doubts.

That last point isn't nonsense either. Daniel Kahneman - the Nobel Laureate and Behavioural Psychologist - suggests that 'loss aversion' is a cognitive bias wired into nearly all of us. It implies that the despair from losing something is greater than the joy from winning something equal, and it's this discontent that causes an overreaction to gamble and chase sunk-costs, whatever the odds. As such, regular folk can quickly go from being risk averse to risk seeking, just because they hate losing, even temporarily. In cup rugby, avoiding these emotional pitfalls is as important as catching and passing.

Considering the alternative to what actually happened on that day, had Ireland relentlessly chipped away at the Welsh lead, perhaps they could have diluted their initial superiority where it mattered, on the scoreboard. A 10-3 deficit at half time in the RWC 2011 quarterfinal could plausibly have been 7-6 or indeed 7-9 greatly altering how the game unfolded in terms of tactics and pressures. Despite being under huge stress physically and territorially, Wales were never under pressure on the scoreboard. While the final score of 22-10 didn't reflect Ireland's efforts, it did reflect their awareness and intellect on the day.

Facing into this weekend against Argentina, it's likely that Ireland are more psychologically robust this time around, but the Pumas are a quality side who know how to play it tough and smart. Irish supporters won't have forgotten how well Juan Martín Hernández can build a score for his team. Back in 2007, he notched up three drop goals, two of which game in the first half as Argentina steam rolled Ireland 30-15. This weekend is set to be a game of many intriguing battles, but as ever, the winner will likely be the team that stays focused on winning the war.


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