SMITHY: The eternal challenge of picking the best team

Brian Smith Columnist

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Former Sydney Roosters coach Brian Smith speaks with his players. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

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It’s not easy selecting teams. I’ve been doing it for a very long time and I can tell you it’s one of the things that I don’t have to do in 2013 that I am very pleased about.

Let me say that a little differently.

Picking a team is actually easy, but picking a team that you believe is THE best for this week’s match is much tougher.

Picking the best team for this week but also being aware of next week’s and next year’s best interest of the player team and club often becomes very very difficult.

Explaining to all who feel they deserve to know why and how you arrived at that decision is in a whole new ball park and it’s not just a matter of being honest about it that causes the heartache.

Listening to the rotation cricket debate in recent times has created some smiles for this relaxed coach.

Responses from those with vested interests or rose coloured glasses about the good old days go along party lines with those in footy, I reckon.

Whilst we all have our preferences on what we look for in a player in our sport, it never ceases to amaze me that even great minds on the games we love struggle to move with the new demands of it as it inevitably becomes more professional and competitive.

Still they know more than the coaches or selectors, in cricket’s case.

Without being in the dressing rooms, without being at all the training and practice sessions, and without meeting and discussing in depth with doctors, physios and coaching staff. And, most notably, without the input of the players themselves.

Out goes the need for knowledge from the medical crew of the niggle that’s become just a little worse, meaning your gun youngster can’t train at all this week but might be right by game day.

“That’s ok, just play him, toughen him up. Oh, so if he plays on with this type of injury, he could miss six to eight weeks, or at worst, it could limit his ability to be able to develop his full strength or speed potential because of permanent restriction. You just stuffed up the career potential of our most promising player”!

Or what about the need that the coaches and players have decided is vital for rapid form improvement.

Number one priority is building combinations at training and player X can’t train for the week but his understudy can.

It’s not about who is the best player, it’s about building what the team feels is the most necessary to win this game and get the season on track.

If that player X is Cameron Smith, it may well be a different selection come game time.

But again, these are calls from those with the most information, not fans or former greats who played with a broken leg in 1969 but don’t understand the demands of today’s game.

The heat caused from rotation policy is just a little trickier.

If rotation means that player X has played and trained consecutive days, weeks, or months, but does not have an injury, then this is where more guess work – or as we coaches like to call it, gut feel – cuts in.

The scientists will provide numbers about volumes and intensity and total loads which may clarify or confuse. In the end for the coach, it becomes a matter of “is player X with that extra load likely to perform better this week than a fresher player Y”.

This is a minefield at times, with no correct answer until what I used to call “quarter to five decisions” when footy was played with a 3 o’clock kick off.

You guessed it: the decisions were a lot easier at a quarter to five when it’s all over.

Sometimes a coach or selector just has a gut feel that even he can’t verbalise with accuracy at the time. That’s when you just have to be strong, make the call and live with it.

Otherwise you join those quarter to five experts outside the coaches box who think they all have the answers.

Brian Smith joins The Roar as a regular NRL columnist in 2013. This is his first column for the site. Smithy is a former player with St. George and South Sydney and first grade coach at Illawarra, St. George Dragons, Bradford Bulls, Parramatta, the Knights and the Sydney Roosters. He is currently an assistant coach to Jake White at the Brumbies.

Brian Smith is a former player with St. George and South Sydney and first grade coach at Illawarra, St. George Dragons, Bradford Bulls, Parramatta, the Knights and the Roosters. He has taken teams to the NRL Grand Final on four occasions. He is a weekly columnist on The Roar, but to read more of his writing on rugby league, check out his website, Smithy Speaks.
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