How often to you hear teams toward the top of a competition table, and often after a lengthy run of wins – or very few losses at least – admit that they still haven’t played the perfect game yet?
All the time.
How often do teams actually play their perfect game? It would have to be very rarely. Some teams, even those who win titles, may never do it.
But the pursuit of the perfect game is what keeps players coming to training every week, and it’s what keeps coaches up at night.
And that’s why I often find post-match press conferences fascinating.
Don’t get me wrong, often they’re mundane, box-ticking exercises which draw out pretty standard answers from pretty standard questions.
But every so often you get a glimpse into how a team thinks, or a bit too much honesty, which in turn gives you a snapshot of not just how a team is going, but how they think they’re going.
The weekend gave us a couple of good examples of those fascinating glimpses.
“We came here to do a job, and we did that,” Queensland Reds skipper James O’Connor opened up with, after their 44-19 win over the Melbourne Rebels. Huge, if true.
“We’ve had a big emphasis on fast starts the last few weeks, and it was good to get one.
“I can’t really say too much more, it was just a clinical performance by the tight five, and I thought a few guys in the backline – Hamish Stewart and Bryce Hegarty – were huge for us tonight,” O’Connor said.
The voluntary singling out of Stewart and Hegarty was interesting, with both coming into the Reds side forcing something of a changed approach. Certainly, Stewart’s presence added a missing starch to their midfield defence, but he also gave Hunter Paisami that little bit more room, which made him that little bit more dangerous.
Hegarty as well, proved not just to Jock Campbell that there’s a bit more to playing fullback than popping up here and there in the backline, but also to anyone thinking Jordan Petaia has a future there. And if that’s not enough to convince you, evidence of Petaia’s defensive positioning on the wing should definitely mean the end of the debate.
Certainly, 24-0 after 19 minutes is about as perfect a start as a team could hope for, though it was interesting to see how well the Rebels were able to hit back as possession evened out in the first half.
“We got ourselves into the game at halftime, to be fair, but we needed to be first to score in that second half and once we weren’t it was tough,” Rebels Captain Matt To’omua explained.
“But I just think emotionally within our team, we needed to be better, and as leaders we probably take that to heart a lot because it’s our job to drive the team there.
“I think anyone watching that game would say it wasn’t something technical that won the game. I think it was definitely the top few inches, so that’s disappointing.”
It’s hard to argue with that line of thinking and Dave Wessels was of a similar mind, who after telling our own Geoff Parkes, “that one stings a lot, if I’m honest”, went on to say he thought the Rebels were “half a yard off the pace in everything we did”.
Why that might be drew a very interesting admission: “Sometimes when that happens, you reflect on the week and you put words in the mouth of the week, you know what I mean? You think, ‘oh, I saw this, I saw that’ in the week, and so we’ve got to have a look and see if that is something that has maybe crept into our team?” Wessels said.
“I thought every week we’d got better and better and we had a good win, and then we went onto the bye and we were feeling good about ourselves – were we feeling maybe too good about ourselves? That’s probably something we have to ask ourselves.
“If that’s the case, I reckon this lesson has come at a pretty good time. We’ve played some good rugby up to this point, but we weren’t good today at all. Credit to the Reds, obviously, they played well and I have a sneaking suspicion we’ll see them again in the year and we’ve got to win the one that counts, which is the one we play later. We’ve got to take some lessons out of this and we’ve got to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
It makes this week’s clash with the Western Force in Melbourne all that more tantalising. I’m quite sure Tim Sampson following along over in Perth would have been a very interested observer, and it’s fair to assume there won’t be an easy Rebels training session this week.
Back on the Reds, what I’ve found interesting about their post-match pressers this season is how O’Connor and Brad Thorn interact, defer to each other on answers, and even the nodding along in agreement. This is clearly the brains trust of a team in complete sync as they work toward a common goal.
“A pleasing thing tonight was our turnover rate. we pretty much halved it, it was down around nine or eight, from 19 or 20 last week. We’ve had a lot of errors in us,” Thorn said.
It’s a good point he made. Despite running in more than 40 points in three of their last four wins, the Reds before Saturday night in Melbourne conceded nine turnovers against the Brumbies in Canberra, 14 against the Force, and 17 in the 46-14 win over the Waratahs. Their season average is 14 per game.
Against the Rebels? Back to nine.
“We’ve known there’s been lots of positives (this season), but we haven’t been happy with stuff. It’s not really a focus on that, it’s still this team… we know there’s a real potential, and we’re trying to reach that,” Thorn went on, with O’Connor nodding along beside him.
“Tonight was a far better performance, but we’ve got last year’s grand final winners coming up, and they’ll be a tough assignment again,”
And speaking of the Brumbies, the relief in Dan McKellar practically poured out of him after they got away with their two-point win over the Waratahs, who did indeed produce the typical dead coach bounce performance after a rough week.
“Oh, that we won,” McKellar said, to the question of what positives could be drawn out of the win. And only that they won, he added.
Stand-in captain Nic White was singing from a similar song sheet when he explained that as brutal and honest as reviewing the Waratahs game had to be, they could at least be brutal and honest with themselves knowing they still gained four competition points.
“We need to remember that we won, but we also have to remember that we were well off the pace tonight. Did some nice things in attack, scored some really nice tries, but defensively we had no sting,” McKellar said.
“And they did. They turned that around, and you’ve got to take your hat off to them, they’ve had a tough week.”
The Reds might have found it, but clearly the perfect game remains out of reach for the Brumbies and Rebels currently, who as is the custom after a disappointing performance vowed immediately “we’ll be better next week”.
“I feel like we got a real smack tonight, and sometimes that’s healthy,” Wessels said.
I have a sneaking suspicion Dan McKellar is in full agreement, as the biggest game of 2021 looms in Brisbane on Saturday night.