As I watched the Super 15 matches over the weekend, my thoughts kept turning to the mental side of the game – the methods used by coaches, how much preparation goes into team talks, how carefully what the captain says on the field ‘gels’ with the overall game plan, how much attention is paid to possible and probable situations on the field which require strong, intelligent leadership, often at crucial times e.g. when a side is down 15 points or so in the first quarter, when players begin to ‘defend their lead’, when the ball needs to be kept and driven for the last ten minutes to prevent the opposition from stealing victory at the last minute? Planning for those sorts of things is critical.
Team talks before a match are not easy to pitch right. If, over a season, they become repetitive, it can have a negative effect...’oh god, here he goes again!’ If too little is said, the players may well enter the arena in a determined but unfocused state of mind. If the talk is too emotional, too hyped it can backfire. So it’s difficult but, nevertheless, very important to think through and apply for the whole team on the day and for each member of the squad.
It also means having an overarching strategy for the full season. Tactics and attention to detail can be and are worked over and rethought week by week but strategy is basic and general. All this has to do with discovering what motivates each player – some respond to anger and threat, some to a quieter spell of analysis, all to encouragement and positive reinforcement e.g. ‘You were brilliant last week, repeat the things you did well but remember your opponents are different. They may sidestep only one way. Last week you realised early on Ben Smith is one of the few who can step both sides. Remember, if Quade is back, he jinks only to the right......You know their tight head is likely to try to bind on your arm and pull you down. Be ready...... You put your body on the line last week. I am proud of you, but last week is history. I need to be even prouder this time.....Oh and by the way, I believe in you.’...etc
(Reminiscence: Why did Paul O’Connell’s British and Irish Lions lose the series on their last tour out here? One can argue for ages, but anyone who was watching closely and with post-series analysis knows it hinged on three inept and thoughtless errors at crucial moments in the tests:
First, in the opening test match in Durban, Ubogu, on the Lions’ left wing had an easy chance to score in his corner, about five metres to go. He is a big man. J.P Pietersen, from the opposite wing came across and brought off a brilliant tackle on the corner flag. No try. The reason Ubogu failed to score was because he held the ball in his right i.e. inside hand. When Pietersen hit him, he could not reach out to touch the ball down. With ball in his left hand, a try was more than possible. Why had Coach McGeechan or Ubogu’s England coach, for that matter, not picked up this basic fault? Inexcusable! It cost the Lions the match: Springboks 26- British Lions 21.
Second, in the same test, a vital turning-point occurred when three Lions defenders failed to tackle Jaques Fourie into touch when he was a mere metre from the touchline and three metres from the tryline. Jaques is a strong man and his effort to stay on field and cross the line successfully was massive. The ineffective tacklers did not know it then, of course, but after the next fatal error in Pretoria, the series was already gone as things turned out.
Third, at Loftus Versveld, in the second test, the visitors were leading or scores were level. A ball, aimed for touch, slid off the side of Rogan O’Gara’s boot down the centre of the field with a matter of minutes to go. In a fit of mindless passion, which he says haunts him to this day, O’Gara tackled the receiver in the air just inside the Springbok half. Morne Steyn kicked the penalty: 28-26 or perhaps 28-25, can’t remember. But the series was gone!
The British and Irish Lions won the third test handsomely but they had lost a series they should really have won.
( One other thing: after the tour, I watched a documentary on TV of the Lions tour, which included scenes in the dressing rooms before tests. I have never seen or heard such emotional , exaggerated motivational efforts to wind up a team. You can forget Dale Carnegie and Tom Robbins! McGeechan and Telfer never stopped shouting. The F-word was used with frenzied frequency: “Youre going to f..king f..k these f..king bastards up so f..king hard they won’t f..king know what’s f..king hit them...... F..k!’ It was incredible. Well, it must have had some value because the visitors had a good tour, but I think it also overworked them to the point where they could not sustain their efforts throughout. Oh well......
My overall impression of Super 15 matches over the last weekend is that there is still too much possession being kicked away, but there was improvement. Against the Waratahs, for the Blues of Auckland, in this ‘Tale of Two Cities’ match, it was a case of ‘the best of times, the worst of times’. They are so brilliant but so erratic and their own worst enemies.
Saili’s try was wonderful after a Mealamu break! But even when a sluggish Waratahs side gave away 6 of the first 7 penalties, the Blues failed to capitalise. They also had yet another change at flyhalf: Bowden in for West....and then, later...... on trotted Hickey! Where the hell has he been? He’s AWOL more often than Jacob Zuma. Is Kirwan attributing most of the Blues’ problems to the half-backs? The flyhalves must be nervous as hell. I think Kirwan needs to take a long hard look in the mirror. Something’s seriously wrong. Great tries from Phipps and Betham for the home side.
(Of all the huge men who play, I’d say the one I’d least like to meet in a dark alley, before or after the game, would be Will Skelton of the Waratahs; frightening. Word is the Sopranos have a talent scout heading South to track him down and make him an offer he can’t refuse.)
The Highlanders vs Stormers match was patchy with a fine overall performance by the home team. They had lost the previous six matches to the Stormers so it was a great win. I wonder what was said during training and in the team talks; certainly there was evidence of careful planning e.g. mental toughness, good discipline, avoid lineouts, keep possession etc. And their focus was impeccable. (Scrums were more or less ‘even’ in this match and so didn’t interfere too much with the run of play). The Highlanders also have two wings, in Naholo and Osborne who have no right to be on the field. They represent a physical threat of criminal-assault proportions: huge, ruthless, talented, and very dangerous. Kolbe was hit so hard by one of them, the NZ commentator said he’d been reduced to a ‘Swiss cheese’. (Last week an OZ commentator said of Luke Romano, ‘asking him to keep ‘off-the-ball fighting’ under control is like asking a rabbit to guard a piece of lettuce.’) The Stormers did not play badly but the Highlanders gave an awesome display of thinking rugby, backed by power and skill. H39-ST21.
The Lions have had a superb tour, one of the best by any South African outfit ever. Their nail-biting win over the hapless Reds made it three out of four, away from home. Brilliant!
What else? The Sharks’ scrum was too strong for the Force and at a crucial moment, Ebersohn missed a sitter of a penalty which led to a psychological dip resulting in a ten-point turn-around within the next two minutes, all in the blink of an eye. And then, even though the visitors were outplayed, they nearly came back to snatch victory or a chance of it, when Mafi went over, only to find MacAlman had stupidly obstructed a defender. Very, very poor discipline. (See me in my office Monday and wear three pairs of underpants.)
The Bulls were at their best against the Crusaders in a thrilling game with two great early tries out to the right wing for Hougaard, who trotted over from four metres and, later, for Burger Odendaal after a powerful run. Hattingh’s intercept try sealed the match. For the Bulls, now comes the hard part. Do it all again in the Antipodes. Forget their crowds. It’s all about the ball.
April, Ist 2015