After the Australian tests in June saw another series of near-misses by the Welsh team, following their failure to take their chances against France in the World Cup semi-final, it’s a valid question to ask whether our Wales stars, when it really matters, choke on the big occasion.
In the final game of this year’s Six Nations, it looked like the team had finally learned some lessons, valiantly clinching the Grand Slam with tight, up-the-jumper rugby in the final quarter against France to see out the win. But once again in Australia, missed kicks, poor decision-making and ill discipline arguably cost us an historic series win.
Choking has been defined by sporting academics as an acute performance failure under pressure, and there have been plenty of high-profile moments of choking in recent years across different sports, from Rory McIlroy throwing away a four-hole lead at the Masters, to England football’s penalty shoot-out miseries.
So what causes this breakdown in performance? There are two theories put forward as an explanation. The first is the ‘distraction’ theory, which maintains that, under stressful situations , an athlete’s attention is overloaded by stimuli such as worry and self-doubt. The second is the ‘self-focus’ theory, whereby performance deteriorates through an athlete consciously carrying out a skill that would normally be performed automatically. In other words, the athlete tries too hard.
Whilst, as a fan, it’s impossible to know exactly what was going through the minds of the Welsh players in the dying moments of the Australian tests, this second theory, that Wales are best when they play their ‘natural’ game, is worth considering. After all, despite Gatland’s successes, it’s not so long ago that accusations were made of Wales being ‘overcoached’, with Jeremy Guscott arguing back in 2011, that the team had “stopped trusting their natural Welsh ability”.
Halfpenny commented, after the final defeat in Sydney, that Australia know how to win and “how to close out a game.” After their Grand Slam success, it appeared that Wales did too. Now, it seems, it’s a case of back to the drawing board.