I’ve never been able to understand the psychology behind coaches who insist on making their teams the underdog, even when this is palpably not the case – and even when it is the case, for that matter.
Sometimes it works, as it did for Des Hasler when he made the insistent claim before the Bulldogs’ preliminary final match that Manly had to be regarded as the favourites to win. As it happens, the Bulldogs won, as the records of the two teams this season suggested they would.
But, in my opinion anyway, Hasler could have been impeding the chances of his team with his attack on their credibility. The history of sport has shown many times, what coaches say about their teams and what the players say they have bought into often have a self-fulfilling prophecy aspect to them.
A classic case of this self-fulfilling prophecy was coach John Hart’s assertion, made repeatedly in 1998, that his All Blacks were the total underdogs in their Test against the Wallabies at Melbourne. The year before, 1997, the All Blacks were rampant in defeating the Wallabies at Christchurch 30-13, at Melbourne 33-18, and at Dunedin 36-24.
But so incessant was the Hart harangues about how vulnerable the All Blacks were, how they were the underdogs without the teeth to match it with the Wallabies that the All Blacks themselves believed the nonsense. They played all three Tests as if they were going to lose, which they did 24-16 against the Wallabies at Melbourne, 27-23 at Christchurch and 19-14 at Sydney.
The scorelines in 1998 were tight. But I’m convinced the All Blacks (or at least their garrulous coach) talked themselves into these defeats.
The very positive statement made by the Wallabies yesterday when announcing the team to play the Pumas at the Gold Coast on Saturday was exactly the right tone to take.
The statement could have gone on and on and on about the awful run of injuries the Wallabies are currently having to endure, with Will Genia the third Wallaby captain struck down this season.
Instead the statement was positive. Nathan Sharpe talked about the “privilege” of captaining the Wallabies in his last Test in Australia. Hopefully the coaching staff will tell him in no uncertain fashion that his stupid ‘faux mongrel’ play against the Springboks (which could have lost the Test for the Wallabies) is to be discarded.
There is positive stuff about the new second-rower Kane Douglas, “he’s a big man who will help anchor the scrum on the tight head side…” And Nick Phipps, “He’s had a good grounding,” Robbie Deans noted, “knows our methods and has worked hard … his enthusiasm is infectious … he’s ready to go.”
It is a positive move, too, to bring back Pat McCabe at inside centre, even though he has had only 33 minutes of play in the last month. Conrad Smith was in a similar situation for the All Blacks and he played splendidly last Saturday against the Pumas. I expect McCabe to play his usual robust game, which is based on running and tackling hard rather than kicking away the ball.
McCabe at inside centre allows Berrick Barnes to go back to fullback in place of the hopelessly out of form Kurtley Beale. The Wallabies need Barnes’ goal-kicking. He has kicked 88 per cent in the Tests this season with 25 goals from 29 attempts.
This goal-kicking accuracy could well be a factor in the outcome of the Test, as the referee is the Englishman Wayne Barnes who is inclined to referee for penalties, with the exception of the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarter-final between France and New Zealand.
In contrast with the positive attitude taken by the Wallabies, we have the Springboks talking about how they are being written off by the pundits (and themselves) against the All Blacks on Saturday at Dunedin.
The embattled Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer is saying about the All Blacks, “They are a very difficult team to play against. They are almost unbeatable.”
This is the sort of statement which should be made after a Test and never before it.
With this defeatist approach, the Springboks are risking a hiding if the All Blacks get away from them early on.
This test, too, is being overseen by a northern hemisphere referee, the Irishman George Clancy, a negative journeyman who has little sympathy it seems, or understanding, for the modern fast-moving, high-skilled game the All Blacks are trying to play.
But rather than the Springboks coaching staff and players wanting to win the Test with positive play, they seem to want to rely on a pedantic, slow-moving referee to even things up for them with his nit-picking, penalty-obsessed style of refereeing.
This defeatist way is never a long-term winning way, I believe. The Italian poet Petrarch summed up the futility of selling yourself short in any endeavour, “Many have not become what they might have because they believed they were what people mistakenly said they were.”
Put into a modern context, what the poet is saying is that if a team wants to be great it has to dare to be great.