The NRL Round 6 Rubdown

I don’t know about you, but the Dr needs a rubdown. Bad. Longer runs means a sorer back, and while my Runkeeper is effusive in its praise, it’s hardly likely to turn into a 6ft blonde. More’s the pity. Still, there’s plenty to talk about from NRL left field (where this blog resides, along with the pixies). Having had the opportunity to read the Guardian’s Things We Learned and Le Mascord’s Set of Six, we’ll take a typical detour and approach from a different angle.

The Competition is very even – deal with it

The Dr has swum against the tide of the bombastically propounded idea that the competition is uneven throughout the life of this blog. Even when the Tigers were beating Melbourne last year (15th v 2nd, which wasn’t the only example in 2013), the drums were still beating about the haves and have nots. It didn’t make sense then, it doesn’t make sense now, and this season’s results prove it. And for the same reasons … The physical attributes of the modern player are astounding and fairly uniform across the NRL. Fitness levels are high, and players are even directed what to eat or drink, and when, right up until kick-off (though probably not on the night after a game when there’s more trippin’ than a Bunnies-Panthers game).

Mental preparation is by far the biggest contributor to the success or otherwise of a team. We’ve seen it countless times, most notably every round this year so far, and it was quite obvious to Peter Sharp on the weekend from very early in the match that his charges just ‘weren’t there’. When you’re playing a team like Manly, who are always ‘there’, a half-time 0-20 scoreline was very fortunate indeed.

Compare recent Sharks’ performances with last year, where the absence of Paul Gallen had players putting their hands up faster than a schoolgirl in the front row of class. Back then they were unfashionable, but were always close to the top. This year, they will almost certainly miss the finals (sorry, Sharks fans – it saddens me too). The salary cap has taken the place of the (now outlawed) draft to equalise playing talent. Sure, there will be instances where a group of special and influential players group together within a team in important positions (think Storm Big 3), but by and large, it’s pretty even, and it’s amazing how many of the game’s top players sit out the semi finals because their team hasn’t squeezed in.

What’s not amazing is how the absence of key players proves detrimental to performance. See last year’s Round 19 Rubdown for more on that topic! Always remember – if a club can’t afford to pay the cap, then it can’t exist. At the other end of the spectrum, clubs can’t pay more than the salary cap. So, the ends of the spectrum are the same point! It is therefore irrelevant to talk about rich and poor clubs in this sense – we’re talking about the same salary pool, available to every club, who are all limited by it.

So, what does a modern coach need to be?

Clearly, coaches need to be part analyst, part strategist, part old hand with horse sense, part man manager, and partly an authority figure who commands respect. But mostly these days, they need to be an effective motivator. This carries on from the above idea that teams are relatively even in the cattle department. If he can’t be a motivator, get someone who can – eg. The Wests Tigers and Blocker. This particular example is fascinating given Matt Elliot’s recent departure, and the well known problems with Mick Potter and the dotty Wests Tigers board last year. Look, it doesn’t make it right, but playing group wields a lot of power in the success vs failure equation. In a real world workplace, mutinous behaviour or consistent lack of 100% effort would have them being quietly shown the door. Rugby league (and team sports) are different as pointed out here repeatedly due to contracts rather than open-ended tenure, the importance of combinations and a hyper-competitive competition. As pointed out above, teams don’t win in this environment unless they have full commitment. And even then there’s no guarantee! So coaches need to win the team over early and maintain it. They have to be both hunter AND gatherer. They cannot lose the opportunity when it presents itself. Mick Potter seems to have somehow managed this feat this year, and there’s no better way to solidify any relationship than success. It’s possibly a leaf many other coaches can take from his book. And if they can work it out the secret set of ingredients, it may just save them their job, even when facing the sack as Potter was.

What do warriors need as a game plan?

The most prolific opinion on the Warriors is that they cannot play structured football. They don’t like it, it bores them, and their performance is affected as a result. That’s true to an extent, but it will NEVER deliver them a premiership. If the weekend’s match against the Bulldogs can’t teach them this lesson (finally, and after many other opportunities), then it was another wasted game.

The Bulldogs were clinical, patient and relentless – just the type of performance we’ve come to expect from any Des Hasler-led team. The Warriors led the entire match aside the last few minutes, but at no time did they look like they had the game won. In fact, I had the feeling watching it that it was only the set of circumstances that would lead to the Bulldogs winning that were unknown. The fact that it turned out to be contentious adds to the theatre, but not really the result. The truth for the Warriors seems to be somewhere in the middle, a combination of structure and ad lib. Free wheeling alright within the overall context of a simple game plan, but they simply MUST have discipline and formation in the opposition’s 20-metre zone. They were found seriously wanting when close to the Bulldogs’ line. As soon as Ben Matulino went off late on the first half (a game changing event), plans A thru Z were exhausted. In fact, there was not plan B, let alone Z.

Shaun Johnson could have touched the ball and run to the line a hell of a lot more in this match, but he also needs the runners knowing their lines. Like any good actor, this needs practice and time. Seriously, can you imagine a Warriors side running you off your feet as well as being clinical in the red zone? The mind boggles at the possibilities. If they can hold the ball, that is …

Revisiting the idea of upsets – and who are the big dogs of 2014?

After Round 2 it was a reasonable question – just what will qualify as an upset? Sure, the bookies will have fairly clear favourites, but in reality (where the money-changers aren’t around, there don’t seem to be any! This competition is going to get a whole lot whackier before it’s done.

In the meantime, the Titans are on 10pts and lead the competition. It took them until Round 9 last year to reach that number. It seems inconceivable now that they will miss the Top 8.

Big statement? Not really. Given that 8th place last year required 28pts, and the Titans effectively have 14pts on the board (they have two byes coming, along with everybody else), they now require just a further 7 wins from 18 games to reach that level.

But are they a Big Dog? I would hesitate at that description just yet. They’ve lost the solitary match so far and beat the Storm, but they have still leaked too many points to be considered Premiership (Pensky??) material yet. But they’re at least on the way. Let’s wait until they play the true heavyweights like the Roosters (yes, still), Rabbitohs, Manly, Bulldogs and so on.

Parramatta didn’t reach their current 8 points until Round 12 last year, and that was with the assistance of a bye! However, this team reminds the Dr very much of the Roosters at this stage last year. Don’t get too excited – it’s not so much as genuine Premiership material (it’s far too early for that given the ‘relative’ inexperience in the squad), but is in the context of the way they are playing their football. The media, commentators and all sorts didn’t give the Roosters proper credit last year until it was staring them in the face, and the same applies to this year’s Eels. Anything can happen, but I wouldn’t be betting against them for the Top 8 now. I would actually rate their performance as superior to the Titans given their opposition faced so far. Apart from one hiccup, they have been brilliant.

This makes the bottom eight configuration very interesting, and will include some of last year’s Semi Finalists in all likelihood. More about that in coming weeks.

South Western Sydney NRL fans – do you even want a team?

It’s ironic that the Tigers and Cowboys attracted Campbelltown Stadium’s largest ever crowd (20,527 in 2005), yet here we stand with the NRL community up in arms at a paltry 6,000-odd this weekend. Lost in the glow of 2040 and suburban grounds is the fact that Leichhardt Oval attracted even less than this in Round 16 last year (against competition heavyweights the Storm).

Now, clearly too much is happening under the Wests Tigers’ hood at the moment to put it down to bad weather, though that was a distinct reason for the 5,000-strong crowd at Leichhardt. It comes at a bad time for the NRL, too, because crowd numbers are a topic of considerable debate.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, the fallout from boardroom acrimony is being felt on the pitch, and the Wests vs Tigers divide looks almost unsavable.

Let’s hope this doesn’t happen. The best way I can see to show the NRL that a region wants a team, whether it’s a joint venture with the Tigers or anybody else, or even a standalone once again, is to get bums on seats. In case South West Sydney fans haven’t noticed, expansion is another topic on the agenda (isn’t it always?). They would be well advised to show their support or be out of sight, out of mind.

Now, next week is West Tigers fans’ opportunity to show their support. Two months ago I couldnt have said this with a straight face, but the Easter Monday match at ANZ Stadium is nothing less than a blockbuster. Both teams are playing with amazing energy and even more irresistible enthusiasm. Their attack is pulsating, they can score impossible tries from anywhere, and yet their defences have taken on a pride shown by the Roosters and Manly in 2013.

If the Tigers fans can’t show up in numbers then there is an actual problem, not just a Campbelltown one. Anything less than 30,000 for this match must be seen as a disappointment, so both teams need to do whatever is required to get their fans there. Origin will have to wait – I’m late for the pub!

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