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The psychology of being contenders

Considering some of the flak I’ve taken from some Cheetahs fans for my tendency to back the opposition against them in really big games, it is tempting to point out that Newlands this past weekend underlined why there was initially a lack of faith in the men from Bloemfontein.

As someone else pointed out to me in an SMS, if you can’t beat a Stormers team as depleted as the Stormers are right now, even at Newlands, then you really don’t have any right to see yourselves as title contenders. And when you lose to that Stormers team 28-3… Ouch!

Certainly if you had flown in from Mars to Newlands and had watched the game in isolation before getting back onto you spaceship and flying away again, you would have flown through space quite sure that you knew which team was in contention for Super Rugby honours and which wasn’t.

The Cheetahs have improved their defence, there is no doubt about that, and their coaching staff deserves immense credit for what they have achieved in terms of game improvement. But I would be being dishonest if I told you I thought they were a great team.

Their relative success this season, to my mind, has been because the South African conference, with the tough home and away derbies, has just become more of a survival course than a rugby competition.

The Sharks and Stormers have been victims of their own success in that they’ve been involved in almost all the playoff rounds in both Currie Cup and Super Rugby over the past few seasons.

Meaning their players haven’t had the break afforded to players from franchises where appearances in playoff games has been less frequent. It’s why they have so many injuries.

But I would disagree with any contention that the Cheetahs aren’t playoff material just because, if if you look at the log, they quite clearly are playoff material. They’re up in the top six, they’ve played 15 tough games to get there, and they will deserve their place in the playoffs.

For me, their poor performance at Newlands was down to the psychology of being a team in contention playing against a team that is out of the running for silverware.

The one team at Newlands knew it had a playoff phase to look forward to, and thus individual players had reason to fear injury more and perhaps be more tentative, whereas the other could go for broke as they know the season will probably be over in two weeks.

I’ve seen it from the Stormers in the past when they’ve got to this stage of the competition and are almost assured of a playoff spot.

One example came way back in 1999, when a tentative Stormers team lost to a very average Cats team at Newlands in a game where the visitors went for broke and the hosts appeared to have their minds on other things.

And the boot was also on the other foot for the Stormers as recently as 2010. That was the year they went to Durban to play a struggling Sharks team in the penultimate game of the league phase when they were already assured of a top two position. If ever a team failed to pitch it was the Stormers that day at Kings Park, and they were out of the game by halftime.

It would be understandable if the Cheetahs are starting to think too far ahead, and the Sharks win over the Blues earlier on Saturday had virtually assured them of a place in the extended playoffs.

Sometimes being in contention introduces tentativeness, not to mention fear of failure, against a team that has nothing to lose, and you can just ask the Springboks about their experience against Samoa at the last World Cup for confirmation of that.

If the Cheetahs want to make something of this season and prove people like myself wrong, which I hope they do, they are going to have to lose that tentativeness against the Blues this weekend and play as if they are going for broke.

The only way for them to be successful is for them to rely on what has got them this far, and that means they mustn’t fear failure.

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