Written 12 April 2016

The question is valid and important: how does a coach of a champion team prepare his players mentally before a match against a team which is at the bottom of their league? Answer: with difficulty.

The problem lies with ‘over-confidence’. Success has its dark side : there is a terrible temptation to think that if it worked before, it’ll work again against any opposition. Why fix what ain’t broke, as the saying goes? But, every match is different. The psychology of preparing for each game has to be tweaked. No match is the same as the one before it.

I’m certain the coach will say things like ‘don’t take them for granted’, ‘there’s nothing more dangerous than a wounded ego’, ’ expect them to come out with all guns firing’ etc., etc. All of these statements or approximations thereof would have been said to the Highlanders before they ran on to the field in Brisbane to take on the Reds. As it turned out, to no avail. The Highlanders gave a first half display of arrogant over-confidence, of careless hubris. They deserved to lose – by a single point as it turned out.

Jamie Joseph must have been tearing his hair out during the first half. Sloppy basic skills – I saw on four occasions in the opposition red zone, hopelessly inept attempts to pass the ball along the line to the right wing. Passes went behind players, at their feet, at their shoulders and heads. Every scoring chance went begging. Until the second half, Sopoago, at flyhalf, was below par. It was his grubber in midfield off the inner i.e wrong foot which rebounded off an opponent and led to Gill’s try. Gift-wrapped. Well, you could say the Highlanders lost the game right there. Do I think Joseph and the backline coaches will have a word to Sopoago about how to kick a grubber properly? Of course not. He’s got away with it before so it can’t be that serious; but it was one of the mistakes which cost his side the match.

Luck played its part too, for example, when James McIntyre, the Reds’ flyhalf, using the wrong foot – again!!! – kicked a diagonal for his left wing with his right boot. This meant he had to swivel slightly inwards to kick in order not to hook it backwards. What happened? The opposition were close so he kicked hurriedly and the ball went slightly backwards and became an even tussle for both receivers. Lo and behold! From a series of amateur errors by the Highlanders, the Reds scored again. 

In the Highlanders camp there appeared to be no panic. I mean these were the no-hopers; there’s time. But in this first half, when the Reds gave him lots of ball, Kerevi at centre was devastatingly powerful in speed and agility. He tore them to shreds. Then, at one point, McIntyre kicked a splendid drop – called by the US-influenced commentators a ‘field goal’. (When the hell are we going to stop pretending rugby union is like American football with our statisticians counting ‘carries’ for God’s sake?  What is a ‘carry’ in our rugby?? Well these unthinking fools will award say fifteen metres of ‘carry‘ if a fullback runs from his goal line to the 22 and then kicks it. Some ‘carry’!! Any body with half a brain, knows forwards are going to ‘carry’ the ball forward when they can. That’s what they’re there for. The actual distance some forward lumbers to claim a few metres, means very little. Has he crossed the gain line? Where on the field is he ‘carrying’ the ball?) 

While I’m at it, when are these stupid commentators – not all of them – going to stop telling us that ‘so-and-so has now scored 350 points so far this season’. I mean, let’s be honest; if he’d said ‘250 or 374’ would any of us know the difference? What would be valuable would be to tell us who’d kicked the most over from near the touchline or under pressure. Will it happen? You’re kidding surely.)                                                                                  

Well, that drop from McIntyre also qualifies as a ‘turning point’;  it could also be a candidate for ‘what eventually won the game’. Now, I’d love to know what and how Jamie Joseph spoke to his men at half time. He doesn’t come across as temperamental and moody. But, clearly, his players needed a smart kick up their collective arse. And they got it. So, after the break, the inevitable happened. 

The Highlanders came out firing on all cylinders. They concentrated on possession, ran hard and straight at their opponents. They seldom kicked possession away. They began to look like the first class outfit they usually are. As for the Reds, what was said to them by their ‘new’ coach?

I hope he told them to expect an attacking surge from the visitors who would be smarting after their poor performance in the first half. I trust he said, therefore, ‘Now look chaps, the secret now is to keep the ball as much as you can. Don’t kick it away. These are the best counter-attackers in the competition. If necessary, slow the game down in the first fifteen minutes of the second half, even to the point of allowing the tight forwards to ‘muscle’ the ball upfield. On no account, give them space. Tackling must be the best you’ve ever done. Be ruthless in the turnovers. Now go out and win it!’

So, the Reds went out and......did none of the above. They gave the ball away, they tackled erratically, they gave the brilliant Highlanders backs space to run into. They stayed resolutely in their own half, apart from a few skop-and-hope kicks downfield. They committed the cardinal sin of ‘protecting a lead’. It is a sure way to disaster. And it nearly came to that. They were clearly not expecting the tsunami-like attack launched at them. And they did not anticipate the ferocity of the Highlanders in those vital first fifteen minutes after half time. Aaron Smith’s try from a well-worked lineout move was a beauty. But, who was the clown who tried to wrench a Reds’ forward’s head off his shoulders in a fine exhibition of the unlawful ‘neck roll’? I don’t know but his stupidity cost his team the game. The consequent penalty went over.

Presumably then, their coach had not said any of the suggested remarks above, but probably committed that so common mistake of thinking because tactics worked in the first half, they would work just as well in the second. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! As a coach you simply have to read the other side’s thinking as well. Did the home coach really think the Highlanders would continue playing well below their best? Maybe. I mean people can be so ‘dof’.

So the Reds were shocking in the latter half and nearly gave the game away. How they didn’t give what little ball they got to the dynamic Kerevi in the latter stages, only Albert Einstein could work out. (I think he played a few games at scrumhalf for Post Office in Geneva in his youth. Or so the story goes.) When they did get the ball, the confident Reds of the first half were tentative.

You could almost hear them whispering, ‘I musn’t make a’ . And so they did, plenty of them. The worst for me was another poor pass to the right where Sopoago from fullback scooped up the ball and sprinted seventy metres to score a try, which he then converted to bring his team’s score to within one point of the opposition. Where the hell, the Reds’ coach may ask, was the defence? Who was captain? James Slipper? Did he detect a turn in his side’s fortunes? What did he say? It looked like ‘nothing’. And he’ll probably say, ‘We knew we had it in the bag. One point? A win’s a win.”                                                                                 

The Lions were full value for their victory against the Sharks, even if the latter tackled their hearts out. What seems clear to me is that they have not worked hard enough at planning for attack. Swanepoel has pace, Mvovo is lightning quick, Esterhuize is huge but, on current form, ineffective. Le Roux, correctly used, is a match winner. Of course it must be said that the Lions scrummaging was disciplined and powerful. In this match, as in few others, the ‘front five’ won a critical psychological battle against a disjointed Sharks outfit. Mtawarira looked bewildered and took his role as captain to ridiculous lengths in his exchanges with the ref. I’m surprised he didn’t get a yellow card for slowing the game down.

To end, the Chiefs, with Cruden playing some brilliant rugby, were too strong for the Blues. In a less interesting match, the Hurricanes eventually overcame a spirited Jaguares team – two yellow cards. Sometimes they were too ‘spirited’. Did you see how the Jaguares player placed the ball carefully behind an advertising board thus preventing the Hurricanes from executing a quick throw-in? Outrageous! And not seen by the ref or his assistants. Julian Savea was in awesome form. 

Neil Jardine

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