Watching the Tri-Nations final at Elland Road was a surreal experience. I had expected a close game, a gripping contest - as had many others. The British press had been rightly praising the national team following their defeat of the Kangaroos at Wigan two weeks earlier. The British crowd around Leeds that day and inside the ground were buzzing with anticipation. And come kick-off time, we got our gripping contest� for all of four minutes!
Which brings me to the question - exactly what does it take for a team to be mentally and tactically prepared for a big game? Great Britain clearly weren't ready on Saturday night. While the Australians played a near perfect first half of footy, where everything they touched turned to (green and) gold, I don't see that as an excuse for what seemed a total collapse in British pride with their side letting through seven tries in forty three minutes without reply.
Having been a lifelong Parramatta Eels fan, I've sat in the stands and witnessed a similar lack of mental or tactical preparation, with the Eels copping a flogging in important matches on numerous occasions. The 2001 Grand Final comes immediately to mind, where Newcastle led by Andrew Johns skilfully exploited a chink in the Eels previously durable armour. Round One in season 2004 was another, where the Dogs took Parramatta apart at Telstra Stadium. Elimination semi finals and other big where a team's season is on the line are further examples of times when preparation needs to be near its peak - not the opposite.
So what actually happens on these occasions when teams fail to play to their known ability, where they seem to "throw in the towel" or just "don't turn up"? Mental and tactical preparation must be a joint responsibility between the coaching staff and the team players. At elite level, both must be finely tuned toward game day to get the desired outcome on the field. The best tactics in the world won't win a game if the individual players aren't revved up and tuned in to carry out the tasks. Just as the most skilled individual athletes in the game will not win a game unless they've had effective group direction and organisation, and know how their talents can be best used for the team.
Watching the Tri Nations Final unfold, my mind fell upon a hypothetical pre-match scene in the Great Britain dressing room. Coach Noble is addressing the players. "Alright, this is the final, the big game. You've got yourselves here, you've done well throughout the series, and you've beaten this lot last time. Now if you can go out there tonight and score first, you'll blow the game wide open." If you can score first - the coach's words ring inside the players' heads. And then when this doesn't actually happen, the whole team drop their bundle and don't seem to know what to do?
Do sins like this against logic actually occur in preparation for big games? Could examples like this be the hidden reason behind unexpectedly poor team performances? To a fan, preparation and motivation doesn't seem like rocket science, but achieving the right balance at the right time has often proved elusive for people in rugby league and other sports. Quality coaches and players around the world look for simple answers to the equation of what always makes for a fully prepared side, and what could always give the desired result on the field. If you could bottle this answer, it would sell by the truckload. I'd even buy a case of it, just to have with me while watching games, in case the coach forgot his bottle and I could help out my team in any way!
But this simple formula or magic potion doesn't actually exist, and so our strongest expectations will always remain open to challenge. There was no way I would have expected Newcastle to win the 2001 Grand Final given the season's form. Just like there was no way I would have expected the Kangaroos to win Saturday's Final by 40 points. But what I love about our game is that it is a human game. Invented by humans, played by humans, and watched by humans! So there has been, there is, and there always will be unpredictability, and almost anything can happen in our game on a given day. So bring on league's next big game� will you (and your team) be ready?
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