Push through the pain: Bernie's tip to winning finals in Africa

Super Rugby
by Iain Payten

History tells us it's a bloody tough ask to cross the Indian Ocean and win a Super Rugby playoff game. Not many do it.

In 39 attempts, only 10 teams have ever taken a flight to or from South Africa - lasting anywhere between 14 and 28 hours - and then got up five or six days later.

The rationale is pretty basic. Not only are there the enervating hours sitting in a tin-can, but the effects of crossing a handful of time zones too: jet-lag, disrupted sleep patterns, lost training days. 

Throw in an end destination at high altitude, where your lungs go out in protest after about 20 minutes of exercise, and you have yourself a steeply uphill assignment.

Or, to put it another way, the Waratahs’ next game.

On Sunday NSW flew out to Johannesburg to take on the Lions in the Super Rugby semi-final. 

At 1783 metres above sea level, Ellis Park is not a happy hunting ground for the Waratahs. They haven’t won there since 2009, and the most recent visit ended in a 55-36 thumping last year.

NSW have only ever played one playoff in Africa and it was a 25-6 loss to the Stormers in Cape Town in 2010.

But there is one Aussie team who has seemingly cracked the secret to winning playoffs in South Africa: the Brumbies.

The men from Canberra have done the post-season trip twice and won both times. They beat the Bulls in a semi-final in Pretoria - on the high-veldt - in 2013, and then beat the Stormers in Cape Town in a quarter-final in 2015.

How did they do it?

Stephen Larkham, who was the Brumbies assistant coach under Jake White in 2013 and head coach in 2015, said the wins were a combination of planning, awareness and, ultimately, sheer will power.

“You certainly don’t talk about the result or how difficult it is to win,” Larkham told RUGBY.com.au.

“You just talk about your prep and that the guys are focussed on your specific strategy for that game. Then just freshening up during the week, so they’re mentally and physically fresh.

“In all of those years you have that trip (to South Africa) in the season where you can learn a little bit more about the team and yourself and you take a little bit of that experience into the finals. 

“For us it was drawing on those experiences in the round games and fixing the errors we made in the round games. And then trying to get as good a prep as you can being over there. Depending on where it is you might have to adjust to the altitude but its about understanding and acknowledging the situation and just getting on with the job.”

The thin air of Johannesburg, Pretoria or Bloemfontein is a natural advantage for the home team gut many visiting rivals attempt to ignore the impact of altitude, believing if you focus on it you will talk yourself into succumbing to it.

Larkham, who is now Wallabies attack coach, says it’s important to acknowledge the impact of altitude but also to believe strongly that players can push through to a second-wind stage.

“Experience will tell you you are going to get gassed at some stage, and then it’s about your second wind,” Larkham said.

“Whether it is ten minutes into the game or twenty, it’s about how you push through that period. It’s about understanding that is going to happen, and getting on with it. 

“A lot of what we do here (with the Wallabies) and you hear it in Super Rugby teams, it is about playing with no fear and not worrying about the outcome. Yes, it is going to be tough and yes you will feel like you can’t breathe, but it is about understanding you can push through that.”

Tactically, a team will often decide between two strategies, said Larkham.

“One, to slow it down because of the altitude or two, try and speed the game up so you move their big forwards around,” he said.

“But if I look at the Lions pack, they’re a pretty mobile pack with some really good backs. They played there last week so they’re pretty acclimatised and used to conditions.”

Larkham believes the Waratahs will stick with their high-pace game, and back the levels of fitness that have seen them finishing over the top of rivals in many of their wins; including the quarter-final against the Highlanders. 

“There is no doubt the Waratahs have been a team who have finished in the last 20 minutes better than many others, so it is something they will keep in the back of their mind,” he said.

“I am sure coming out in the second half against the Highlanders knowing they weren’t going to leave anything in the tank is something they will use as 

“It will be interesting. If you look at the Lions, they generally finish games well too. Both teams attack really well, so it will be an exciting game to watch.

“The belief they would have got last week would be massive, but not just that game but the whole year they have come from behind in a number of games, and scored a number of tries in that second half and the last 20 minutes in particular. 

“There is a lot of belief they have grown over the season, and they’ll need it to get that win.”

There may some hope for the Waratahs fans in the fact the Hurricanes and the Crusaders have both travelled to Johannesburg in the last two years and won the final.

If you can look past the fact the Lions beat two Kiwi teams in home semi-finals a week earlier, that is.