Insomnia a reality for all NRL coaches
INCONSISTENCY is the coach’s greatest enemy. Injuries, suspensions, media, meddling directors, quarrelsome partners all cause angst, but the one aspect of a coach’s life sure to cause him to stare at the bedroom ceiling at 2am is a team that loses the easy games after winning the big ones.
The Rabbitohs can’t be called easybeats, but Roosters coach Trent Robinson wouldn’t have had much sleep after his apparently in-form Roosters were listless against Souths on Thursday night.
Today’s Sea Eagles versus Wests Tigers match pits an inconsistent team against a consistent one.
The Sea Eagles have gone loss, win, loss, win, loss to date, but what would frustrate coach Trent Barrett even more are the margins of victory and defeat: winning by 54 points against the Eels in round two and losing to the Rabbitohs by 28 points the next week.
Ditto for a 16-point win over the Raiders followed by a 12-point loss to the Titans.
Wests Tigers, however, are 4-1, having relied on a strong defensive effort and taken the few options available in attack to defeat the premiers, Melbourne, twice. Had the referee not erred in a game against the Broncos, they would be 5-0.
Complacency is the usual suspect for inconsistent form. A team coming off a strong performance adopts the attitude it merely has to turn up to get the same result. Yet it’s been long established that the ‘‘on any given Sunday’’ rule applies in the NRL. That is, the competition is so even, as a result of the salary cap, player transfers and coach movement, that any team is capable of causing an upset.
Still, it’s hard to beat that message into players’ heads.
The Storm have enjoyed great success in milestone games and probably assumed that Billy Slater’s 300th game and Craig Bellamy’s 400th game would get them home against Wests Tigers in rounds two and five, but they were beaten both times.
However, there is another factor that may explain inconsistency, and it’s often not admitted, nor addressed.
Top talent in the NRL is spread very thinly and all teams have weaknesses. If a team has no obvious deficiency in the starting 13, it will have a potential fragility on the bench. In other words, there are simply not enough players of first-grade standard in the NRL to supply 16 clubs with strong enough rosters to cover injury and the loss of talent to representative football.
When you see a player repeat the same mistakes, despite the corrective efforts of some of the code’s best coaches, you come to the conclusion expansion in the NRL is sheer folly.
A team may win three or four consecutive games, energising its supporters, but as the hype builds, and possibly the match preparation of the marginal player diminishes, his performance drops off.
They’re called ‘‘rocks and diamonds’’ players, meaning they have inbuilt flaws and are capable of sparkling moments, but the weaknesses are exposed when they fail to polish their preparation.
A smart coach will anticipate this and rest the player before he is caught out, but this is only possible if he has an able replacement.
Another contributor to the apparent inconsistency of results is the weather. A team playing on a hot day, so early in the season, risks dropping the sweaty ball. It’s convenient to say the conditions are the same for both teams, but momentum is a powerful force in rugby league.
The team that drops the ball early in the tackle count can be quickly under assault, expend energy in defence and have little left for attack. It then continues to drop the ball in a swiftly spinning vicious circle. In other words, a team enjoying 60:40 possession on a hot day rarely loses, irrespective of the talent difference with the opposition team.
The Sea Eagles played at Gladstone at 2pm last Sunday, losing to the Titans who would have trained for the full preseason in humid conditions on the Gold Coast.
They also lost to the Rabbitohs at 5.30pm at Homebush. Their record points win over Parramatta came in a round two game played in searing heat at Brookvale at 2pm, but a frustrated Eels conceded too many late-set piggy-back penalties, gifting Manly quality possession.
Wests Tigers have also played in hot conditions, defeating the Eels in a 4pm Easter Monday game, but their victories over the Storm have been in milder Melbourne and dewy Auckland.
Another contributor to the apparent inconsistency of results in the NRL is the improvement of the team beaten the previous week.
Wests Tigers coach Ivan Cleary may have noted a failure of Manly’s forwards to communicate in defence on their line, but if Barrett spent a week drilling his pack, the hoped for weaknesses don’t appear.
Solomone Kata makes a break for the Warriors during their loss to the Broncos.