Not a time to rest on laurels!
THE LIAM BOTHAM COLUMN
A racing fan asked me yesterday if a rugby coach prepares his team like a racehorse trainer would get a horse ready for a big occasion – step-by-step, or race-by-race, for one big moment.
In racing terms, we’d be in the last furlong for both the Gallagher Premierships (three rounds to go) and the United Rugby Championship (two rounds to go) and now it’s a question of determination, fitness and will to win.
My answer was no, you can’t equate the two, because a horse trainer will ordinarily use two, maybe three prep runs to get his horse to a peak in the major race he was aimed at. The rugby coach, too, has to employ specific player management to give tired players a rest when needed, but, generally, he wants the best 15 men on the pitch for every game.
Rugby coaches, too, look at the schedules of different tournaments, the number of games to be played and the international breaks in between. But they don’t field unfit players with a view of getting them fit with game time. With competitions as tight and competitive as they are and brilliant players competing all around, no team can afford to run onto any field thinking they’re having an extra practice exercise. If that were to be their attitudes, they’d be toppled time and again by weaker opposition trying as hard as they can. One slip can cost any team a chance at building momentum. ‘On’ and ‘off’ switches don’t work at this high level.
The best coaches get their best available team on the field and motivate them to perform to the best of their ability, every time. Leicester’s Steve Borthwick fits this mould. They’ve been tremendous, all season, barring a slip to the inspired and quality outfit, Harlequins, last week. Leicester retains a four-point advantage at the top of the table and should hold that going into the playoffs six weeks down the line, when they are likely to face Harlequins again.
The Leicester squad would have learnt from their losing experience last week. Last year, Harlequins were in exactly this position when they toppled long-time log-leaders Bristol in the play-offs to clinch a place in the final against Exeter. The absolute last thing Borthwick will want is a repeat of that result with Leicester at the receiving end, which will reduce a brilliant season down to, well, nothing! Bristol fell so hard last season, they haven’t been a force this year and are probably already focusing on better things next season, with this term written off.
So, I am pretty sure that Leicester won’t be loafing when they play the very Bristol in Round 24 of 26 of the Premiership tomorrow. A win will virtually guarantee they finish on top of the log, this is their time to focus fully and to pretend that their three remaining ‘easier’ games – Bristol, Newcastle and Wasps – are played with the same enthusiasm as they would approach the 1st vs 3rd playoff on 11 June.
Harlequins, secure in third, are in a similar situation against Northampton. They can’t afford to back down and take it easy, because the Saints hold a narrow fourth place on the table with a barrage of pressure coming from five other teams right on their heels – they have home advantage and will be throwing everything they’ve got at Quins. This game will probably come down to a fine margin, and it’s exciting.
If you were a Gloucester player (one game in hand and a single point behind Northampton), you’d be hoping at the back of your mind that Harlequins defeat the Saints and that your home encounter against Bath will be the formality it looks. Again, if you take it easy, you may get unexpectedly hammered.
London Irish, Wasps and Sale are in more or less similar situations and every match now is a crunch match. Win, and they’ll be in with a chance of getting into fourth. Lose, and it’s season over. This makes Sunday’s LI-Wasps clash one of the most interesting games of the weekend. Sale, at home to battling Newcastle, will fancy their chances of staying in the hunt, but the wounded Falcons can strike an unexpected blow if they lift their game and deliver what they’ve shown they are capable of. Once again, this is not a time for Sale to rest on any laurels. A win is essential to bring them in play-off contention.
Gavin Rich writes on the Supersport website: “If you’d offered the South African teams the positions they currently occupy on the Vodacom United Rugby Championship log when they were struggling away from home in September/October, they’d have probably bought it.”
He’s dead right. We’ve seen the South Africans play far better rugby at home in the last few months and this calls for a debate on the format of this tournament in future. Their participation has brought an interesting dimension, the crowds in SA seem to be catching on, and with some tweaks this could become a very popular annual tournament.
With two rounds of the regular season left, the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls have good chances of Champions Cup placings or the play-offs. If the Stormers can do to Leinster on Saturday what the Sharks did to those opponents last week, they will be one win away from an astounding second placed finish, which would secure home ground advantage for both their quarterfinal and semi-final, should they get that far.
The Stormers vs Leinster game is a Saturday highlight -the clash between 1st and 2nd on this log. Leicester were outplayed in Durban last week, maybe they needed more time to settle so I’m expecting a better performance, but they’ll have to be at their best to beat the rampant Capetonians.
Until next week!