"We got to do it better than we’ve been doing."
The New Zealand rugby team are always in any conversation around the greatest teams in world sport. The aura of the All Blacks stretches beyond the lines of a rugby pitch: the selflessness and sacrifice that the jersey embodies is often lauded as being the correct mentality with which to prosper in any sport. But it stretches deeper than that.
New Zealand were mercilessly dumped out of the Rugby World Cup by a rampant England side in last week's semi-final. They were utterly outplayed, outthought, out-muscled in every facet of the game. Such a complete loss for a side as storied and heralded as the All Blacks carries with it its own strain. They had to face their media and their public who are often unforgiving in these situations. Perhaps more difficultly, they had to face themselves.
At a press conference prior to their Bronze Final win over Wales, Head Coach Steve Hansen was joined by Richie Mo'unga and Aaron Smith to field the usual questions from the usual media about the usual things before a relatively pointless game. But, when a question was posed to Aaron Smith about dealing with the loss, and whether the group had any learnings for young men in New Zealand in managing hard times, he spoke with searing honesty;
"I think for us it started at the review. Coach asked us all individually how we were feeling, there was a lot of pain there, a lot of honesty. You've got grown men pouring their hearts out, and that's showing real, massive vulnerability. Whether that would have happened a while back, maybe not. But I know Coach pushes it pretty hard at our leadership meetings, we have them after every week to check where each person's at. People who aren't selected and people who are, they're on different scales. But, you know, I just think we really care about each other a lot, we check in on each other. You can see people having the little convos. I'm really proud of our boys to show the emotion they did. A lot of people won't know what was seen in the changing room or what we did on Monday and how honest we are to each other and with each other. And sometimes to be that honest in a really tough situation is hard to take. But we all did it, and probably left the room feeling a lot better. Not happy, but better."
It would have been so easy for Smith to give the usual answer. To provide journalists with their required soundbite. To talk about learnings and work-ons. But he didn't, he spoke from the heart and revealed something about the All Blacks' psyche that should speak to all young people.
As we have so often seen him do at these top-table sessions, Steve Hansen then took the opportunity to add something further to Smith's comments, and again hammered home the point of being vulnerable with those closest to you;
"It is a massive problem in New Zealand, and our biggest problem is we don’t give those people that are struggling the permission to say they’re struggling. We think we have to hide it, and as a result of hiding it, it bottles up and bottles up and bottles up and then it’s like a big volcano, when it gets too hot it blows. Our job as parents, as work colleagues is to support people, but first of all you’ve got to know that they need the support and to know that you’ve got to know your people and then you’ve got to allow them to be vulnerable. It takes a lot to be vulnerable, because how people react to your vulnerability is going to allow you to do it again or shut you down, so giving them the permission I think is key and then just letting them be vulnerable. It’s no different in sport, families, or work and we got to do it better than we’ve been doing."
As the days get darker, as certain sporting seasons wind down and some enter endless weeks of cancelled games or gruelling pre-seasons, bear this in mind. Being indestructible on the pitch doesn't mean you have to be off it. As always, we can all take learnings from the All Blacks.
We can all be a little kinder to one another.