Rathbone: Great expectations on Wallabies

The Rugby Championship
Clyde Rathbone
by Clyde Rathbone

Bruce Lee is to have said that “You will never get any more out of life than you expect.”

Lee’s quote seems to capture a trope that has buried itself within the modern psyche - that blind faith in oneself is a virtue. Nowhere is this conventional wisdom more deeply embraced than in the world of professional sport.

From Muhammad Ali to Conor McGregor absolute self-confidence appears a prerequisite to every great sporting achievement. But for every Ali and McGregor there are countless athletes for whom blind faith in one’s ability is a slippery slope to delusion.

The Wallabies were confident going into the first Bledisloe. Since coming together four weeks ago they have sunk litres of sweat into training fields and chalked up endless kilometres pounding dreaded hill sprints in Sydney. In the interim they talked themselves into the much vaunted “winning mindset”.

Forty-two points later reality came crashing home in the form of a record loss to the All Blacks. The truth is pitiless, indifferent to all but the purity of its own self evidence. And the truth is that the All Blacks are a much better team than the Wallabies.

All of which shines a spotlight on our expectations. As fans of the men in gold what should be considered a reasonable outcome in matches against the All Blacks?

The Wallabies were hurting after their opening Bledisloe loss. Photo: ARU Media/Stu Walmsley

A simple way to think about this is to ask how many of our lot might reasonably be expected to appear in a combined ANZAC team. For mine it’s hard to make a case beyond Pocock and Folau. That leaves thirteen positions (not including the bench) in which the men in black have us covered for quality.

The Bledisloe Cup hasn’t resided in Australia since 2002. To put that in perspective consider that back then the most recent Wallaby, Allan Alaalatoa, was eight years old! And in the glittering careers of test match centurions, Moore, Giteau and Ashley-Cooper, none have won the Bledisloe Cup. It’s been an age since we had anything approaching parity with the AB’s, so why are we surprised by the latest shellacking?

Perhaps it’s because we play the same old trick on ourselves each year. Some part of our mind pushes the cold hard facts aside and commits itself to belief. Belief not that we can win, but that we will.

Allan Alaalatoa was just eight years old when the Wallabies last won the Bledisloe. Photo: Getty Images

In the aftermath of Saturday’s performance we’re getting an insight into just how powerful this kind of thinking can be. Nobody within the Wallabies ranks has come out and spoken plainly about our chances. What I would give for the coach or player who when addressing the media let rip with this kind of unprecedented truth bomb.

“Look, we’re almost certainly not going to win on Saturday. The last time we won in New Zealand was back in 2001 and our home record against the All Blacks isn’t great either.  They are one of the greatest sporting teams in History so we’ve got to play at our best and hope they have an off night if we’re going to steal a win. That’s the reality but we’re up for the challenge”

I think confirmation bias is part of the reason we almost never see this kind of honesty from athletes or coaches. When winners win we hear about their unwavering belief and confidence at the very moment they’re atop the podium - the same moment the media absorbs and broadcasts every word they say. This has led to a glorification of self confidence. In truth it is possible to perform at the highest level without believing anything that isn’t connected to evidence. In fact there is a rare kind of liberation that comes with accepting the truth warts and all.

The Wallabies struggle to win in New Zealand against the All Blacks, having not done so since 2001. Photo: Getty Images

I’ve personal experience with the tension between truth and faith. When after three years out of the game I announced my return to Rugby I made a conscious effort to choose my words carefully. I said “there are a lot of reasons why it might not work but I think that it can”. This is hardly the kind of motivational quote you’re likely to find plastered across a gym wall, or repeated ad nauseam as some kind of personal mantra. But it was the truth.

I was a thirty-one year old outside back with a long history of chronic injuries. I hadn’t played a game of rugby in over three years and I was about to embark on a gruelling six month pre-season. Would my body hold up? The truth is that it did not, at least not initially. Not three months into the pre-season I was back on operating table as the surgeon hacked some bone-spurs out of my ankle. At no point did I need to pretend that I was guaranteed anything. The universe didn’t owe me a successful comeback to sport. None of this thinking precluded me from working harder than I ever had. But it did foster a mental equanimity that made my return to rugby far more enjoyable than it might otherwise have been.

With the scoreboard the sole arbiter of success the Wallabies are likely to fail this Saturday. But they need concern themselves only with their ability to give everything they have to beat the odds. It is that simple.

Clyde Rathbone captained South Africa to a Junior Rugby World Cup in 2002 before immigrating to Australia, playing 73 matches with the ACT Brumbies and 26 for the Wallabies. He is co-founder technology of Karma.wiki

The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the ARU.