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Maybe it’s a brain thing

Watching the Springboks struggle against Argentina in Mendoza the other night, it was hard for me to get out of my mind a conversation I had earlier in the week with former national coach Andre Markgraaff about the big role that attitude plays in determining match results.

Markgraaff was referring particularly to Super Rugby and the Currie Cup in making the point that finding a way to keep players switched on and focused in every match is becoming the biggest challenge confronted by coaches in their quest to become consistently successful.

To explain the theory, let’s use the example of the Brumbies being held to a draw by the Southern Kings in the recent Super Rugby season. The Kings played above themselves that day, but the Brumbies were at home and on their form building up to that game they should never have been challenged by the Kings.

The Brumbies appeared to see it as a form of "off" week, and the match illustrated the point that if one team is a few percentage points off focus, for instance only at 70% or 80% when it comes to being keyed up for the battle, and they come up against a side that is at 110% or 120%, then there is a problem regardless of the respective strengths of the teams.

Last year the Sharks smashed the top-of-the-log Stormers at Kings Park one week and then the following week, when everyone would have been expecting them to canter to an easy win, they got thumped by the Lions at Ellis Park.

Was that because the Sharks believed they had played their tough game the previous week and would win easily in Johannesburg? It probably was. The Lions were up for the challenge of being giant-killers, and played at 120%, whereas the Sharks were at maybe 80%.

The above might also explain the weird anomaly that appears to have become a pattern in the Crusaders’ season over the past few years. The multiple champions often drop games to teams you wouldn’t expect them to lose to, such as the Western Force and the Rebels, while winning the really big ones comfortably.

When the Bulls came to Newlands for their last match of the league phase of the Super Rugby season, it was probably also attitude that led to their unexpectedly big defeat to the Stormers. The Bulls had already won the South African conference and were assured of playing in the play-offs. So they were in a different place to the Stormers, who were playing their last game of the season and could afford to play like there was no tomorrow.

Conversely, after having beaten the Bulls' full-strength side so comprehensively three weeks earlier, Western Province ended up lamenting lack of focus as one of the reasons they were held to a draw by a much less experienced Blue Bulls team in the opening Currie Cup game.

The Bulls, after their chastening experience at the same venue on their last visit, were clearly up for that game, and they played above themselves. But as the Kings discovered in Super Rugby, you can only play above yourselves so many times in a season before the effort becomes too much – and it may explain why they got smashed by the Lions.

In Mendoza, Argentina did what the Kings did in the early season by playing well above themselves, and it nearly enabled them to pull off the greatest turnaround in rugby history.

The Boks spent the week talking about how they weren’t going to underestimate their opponents. That in itself was a bad sign. But while their opening to the game was soft, and it allowed the Pumas to score a galvanising early try, the adjustment of attitude on the Argentine side may have played a bigger role in the turnaround than any deficiency in the focus of the South Africans.

At FNB Stadium, with the Springboks playing for Madiba and driven by emotion, the Pumas were always up against it. They tried hard early in the game, but the Boks suffocated them in the tight phases, and gradually the Pumas just lost heart for the fight. They ended up doing what the Wallabies did at Loftus in 1997, when they lost 61-22 to the Boks – they just threw in the towel.

The last 50 minutes at FNB Stadium created a false impression as much for the supporters of the winning team as for the winning team themselves. The upshot though was that the Pumas went to Mendoza needing to redeem their pride while the Boks spoke about going to the next level.

I am not sure what in this instance “the next level” might have entailed, but an improvement on the performance at FNB Stadium was never going to happen in Mendoza against a team 30 or 40 percent more switched on than it had been the previous week. And try though they may have during the week to talk up their opposition, it would have been hard for the players to prepare themselves to be knocked back by the same guy who lay down and played dead just seven days earlier.

The Mendoza game was an example of why my usual response to people who ask me what is going to happen in a match is that you can’t really tell for certain unless you’re close enough to both teams to be able to read the attitude they are taking into the contest.

We’re in an age now where physical preparation has become fairly uniform for all teams and the coaching and development of skills levels have generally been improved across the board as the professional era has progressed. So perhaps people like Markgraaff are right – the successful coaches of the future are going to be those who find the answer to the obstacle posed by the human brain.

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