It’s official: the NRL goes mental
John Sutton had a blinder last weekend. That sentence alone should convince you that something is rotten in Denmark, that the world has turned upside down.
But there’s more. Parramatta are beating premiership contenders. Melbourne and Brisbane are sinking down the ladder. Souths are finally putting it all together.
The last few weeks prove the aphorism that, all talent being relatively equal, most sporting events come down to who is most psychologically fit.
The South Sydney club is fielding its most dangerous attacking team in my lifetime, with gamebreakers spread across the park. They even found a way to win without their two most influential players against the Wests Tigers, thanks to an elevated performance by a player whose emotional commitment has been previously questioned by this writer, the aforementioned John Sutton.
Absorbing personnel losses while finding other avenues through which to dominate requires mental strength. Souths, surely thanks to Michael Maguire, have achieved a high level in this area and therefore will be there for the big games at season’s end.
Brisbane failed a similar test against a team whose psyche must have transformed profoundly over the last six weeks, Parramatta.
Peter Sterling stated that Stephen Kearney had a right to be angry given the Eels’ turnaround in form since Kearney was fired.
But that doesn’t take into account the mental and emotional relief that can flood a club when management changes.
I have no idea how the players felt about Kearney- except for what I saw on the field. For whatever reason, they clearly had no desire to excel for their coach.
Kearney was renowned for his unflagging belief in structures; it is no coincidence that Chris Sandow is starting to surprise defenders with his running game in recent weeks, as Kearney’s influence and control have waned.
Sandow’s ‘confidence’ has returned – a word that could just as easily denote a changing bias; instead of assuming failure, Sandow may be starting to develop a bias that presumes success when he runs the football and chances his arm.
He, along with Joseph Paulo, Ryan Morgan and debutant Jake Mullaney, is reaping the benefits of a psychologically changed football team.
Then we have a team that I’ve recently spoken of, the Melbourne Storm. Melbourne right now don’t seem to trust in their core, and with good reason: Billy Slater isn’t himself yet and Cam Smith and Cooper Cronk have lost form.
While this team doesn’t have the support crew that Souths have in order to win despite the loss of form of their big three, they are also clearly psychologically vulnerable. Recent games show a forward pack with no confidence (diminished aggression in their running game). Members of their backline are also avoiding high involvement, clearly waiting for someone else to create opportunities.
Craig Bellamy is in many ways the modern iteration of Warren Ryan: a coach who demands absolute adherence to innovative tactics and structure. Due to sustained success, his players have been ready to commit.
However, as in Ryan’s later years with Balmain and then Wests and Newcastle, things can fall apart quickly if the psychological commitment starts to weaken.
Bellamy’s strength is his intellect, but he’s not beloved by his players. They may not give him as much latitude as other coaches if they begin to doubt his approach. Having said that, I expect this team to regroup.
Psychological approach, preparation and training is still largely an unexplored terrain for most players and coaches in the NRL. The best players naturally have high levels of mental strength and acuity.
The best coaches manage to bring their support crews up to a similar standard.
With physical exhaustion at its peak before the anticipation of the finals starts to build, it’s the stuff between the players’ ears that is causing the massive fluctuations of form we’re currently witnessing in the world’s most unpredictable sporting competition.
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