A Tale of Two Attitudes?

Thursday night’s Super League match up between Castleford Tigers and Widnes Vikings was always going to be an interesting game.

Castleford, still smarting after the defeat by Wigan two weeks ago, were expecting a good turn around at home; not least of which because Widnes hadn’t won at the Mend-a-Hose Jungle for fourteen years and there was no Ben Thaler to give all the decisions to the opposition.

Widnes were coming into the game gaining in confidence, despite last week’s defeat to table toppers Hull FC.

And the referee had never been in charge of a Super League game before.

First of all, hats off to the ref. He was confident, talked to the players all of the time, and backed his own decisions – especially on the attempted onside kick by the Tigers in the second half.

Widnes had a plan and they played with purpose. They were helped out in the first half by a number of Castleford errors but these came mostly from the Vikings’ pressure. Across the park they stuck to the game plan and worked hard for each other. Their attitude was positive and supportive.

Castleford, again, seemed like a team who thought they deserved better and started to lose their way, believing that the score line should have been the other way around. Their second half comeback showed why the Tigers can be a very dangerous side and it was more the off the cuff plays which the Widnes defence struggled to match up to on their man for man tackling.

Daryl Powell’s subsequent comments about his side’s performance as ‘terrible’ might have been an honest appraisal but hardly constructive for team moral. For a moment I thought I was reading a post match report from Shaun Wane!

Was it just my imagination or did Castleford’s fightback begin after Denny Solomona slotted back in on the left wing. Defensively, he clearly was out of his depth and comfort zone at full-back in the first half. The whole Tigers side seemed much more comfortable going forward after that move.

A great win for Denis Betts and the Widnes lads, but maybe Castleford could have done with making the decision to switch Solomona back out to the left much sooner.

Laws and Referees.

Former Wigan and Great Britain great, Phil Clarke, has opened up a debate in his Sky Sports column about the game and referees. He bravely through it open to comments from the readers and got a lot of interesting responses accordingly. But he felt that many people had misunderstood the point he was making.

His general view is that the game has become ‘managed’ by referees, to become a ‘spectacle’ and attract new supporters/viewers of the wonderful game of Rugby League. The same argument also works for Union as well, without a doubt. Certain laws get more of a focus one week than the next; announcements are even made at the start of seasons that certain areas of the game will be in the sights of the referees.

Surely, a referee’s role is to enforce the laws of the game? If one side or another persistently concede penalties then that side should be held responsible and not the referee, but how many times do fans/commentators/journalist criticise them for ‘killing’ the game? The players and coaches know the laws so there is no excuse for persistently being off-side or lying on in the tackle too long.

Phil Clarke details how there has been a 100% increase in the number of off-side, at the play-of-the-ball, already this season. A 50% increase in penalties for markers not standing square at the play of the ball. A 20% increase in penalties overall. Is the referees’ fault? Or is it the fault of the players who are off-side or not standing square, or whatever else the penalties are for?

I am sure those penalty percentages would be significantly higher if referees policed the playing of the the ball properly. I am still trying to work out which has been the longest – seeing a player play the ball by touching it with their foot or a referee giving a partly for not doing so? Before anybody asks, yes it is a penalty if the ball isn’t played correctly.

In an interview in the last couple of days Shaun Wane, Wigan Head Coach, called for the NRL ‘shot clock’ for setting scrums and restarts from under the posts. I am in complete agreement. Get two referees on the pitch as well and then the ‘man in the middle’ might have to rely less on the video-ref.

Watch any NRL game and you see a cleaner and faster game than Super League at the moment. The players are clear about what they should be doing in the tackle area and they know they are going to get penalised if they don’t. The shot clock definitely keeps the game ticking over and the basics are done right by the players.

For me the NRL is a cleaner and faster game and better because of it.

Get our game cleaner and faster and it won’t just be the Kiwis England beats in a major test series.

Eddie Jones – ‘Rugby League is not a skilful game’.

There are already some interesting responses to Eddie Jone’s comments in an interview in the Telegraph today.

I’m not going to get in to whether League or Union is more skilful, per se. Let’s face it, Leaguers will say League and Unionists will say Union, and you won’t convince either the other way around. From coaching both codes I am happy to stand closer to one code than the other.

But two interesting points come out of Eddie Jones’ comment.

First, if League lacks skill and is just a game where you just ‘hurt’ the opposition, why has Jones’ been such a converter of League players to Union, during his career? Why are so many International Union coaches ex-League players/coaches? Why do the majority of teams use League-style defences? Why are so many teams using the League-style block-plays in attack?

Second as, in the same interview, he is lording the ability of Ben Te’o (former South Sydney Rabbitohs and Origin player) to run, hit the line, and off-load; why can’t he find a true-Union player to do that? Why does he need a skill-less ex-League player to provide the ‘x-factor’ for his superior-skilled Union team?

We are all familiar with the fact that once you put a micro-phone in front of Eddie Jones, he starts talking without much care for what he says or how many times he contradicts himself. He’s having fun, and who can blame him with some of the inane questions he gets asked. But sometimes he says things that just make him seem ignorant.

Chucking insults at League players then being effusive about an ex-League player and the benefits of that player’s skill and previous experience in the League game is foolish at the very least.

Perhaps almost as foolish as thinking Manu Tuilagi was an instant shoe-in to the England mid-field after a long absence through injury to fulfil a role of smashing it up the midfield and off-loading; a skill he is particularly poor at?

Or picking Ford at 10 over Farrell (I’ve purposely not mentioned other players before you suggest someone different to either of those!)?

Or picking Farrell at 12 over Luther Burrell? Ironically, a player who can hit-up, step defenders, and off-load!

The list could go on and on . . .

Personally, I think Eddie Jones still needs to address a number of issues in his own team selection before he takes potshots at Rugby League, or simply ensure his team has the right skill set to mean he doesn’t have to hand caps to ex-League players.

All Out – Anderson, Cunningham, and McDermott?

Gary Schofield, whilst acknowledging that all three are good coaches, believes that it is time to call last orders on Paul Anderson (Huddersfield Giants), Kieran Cunningham (St. Helens), and Brian McDermott (Leeds Rhinos).

Almost from the first round the Giants and Rhinos have struggled and both are facing the Middle-Eight play-offs. Saints are better positioned but certainly not firing on all cylinders.

So should all three coaches get the ‘chop’ as Schofield states?

Kieran Cunningham is the newest of the three head coaches, being in place since October 2014. Saints only piece of silverware since then is the League Leader’s Shield, won just before his full-time appointment. Currently sitting in 5th place in the table and 6 points off 4th place rivals Wigan.

Paul Anderson has been the Giants head coach since 2013, in which they won the League Leader’s Shield. They are currently in 11th place and 6 points off 8th place, which is not impossible but very dependent on other teams losing and them winning every remaining match before the split.

Brian McDermott has been head coach of the Rhinos since 2011, in which the club has won 3 Super League titles, 2 Challenge Cups, 1 World Club Challenge title, and 1 League Leader’s Shield which constituted part of the famous ‘triple’ last season. They are currently bottom of the league and will definitely be in the play-offs.

Kieran Cunningham seems to be the coach being the most publicly criticised, mostly by the Saints fans. Essentially one and a half seasons at the helm and currently 5th placed in the table. Not a dominant performance even in the wins and not always losing by much, but hardly a cause to push the panic button. The players seem to switch off on the pitch at times – the match against Warrington was a clear case in point, when a Wolves kick was fielded and Saints players were still getting back onside as the 2nd tackle was being completed – and this is a worry, but they still have the personnel to turn key games on their head. I would let him get through this season and think about getting a better assistant coach – one who has a stronger coaching background to supplement Cunningham’s strong playing experience.

Paul Anderson has enjoyed a relatively stable squad, which looks very good on paper. They have turned up some good results over the last couple of years, including wins over all the top clubs, but they seem to struggle at the business end of the season. The loss of Luke Robinson and matches missed by Danny Brough clearly have had an impact on their season. Again, I don’t think there are any panic buttons to be pushed, and the Giants should come through the play-offs. A strong post-season review needs to be had and options looked at for correcting the problems of this year, but I don’t think this needs Anderson’s job.

Brian McDermott is undoubtedly the most decorated of the current crop of Super League coaches in the last five years. This makes Leeds’ current predicament all the more fascinating. It is like car-crash tv – it is almost too painful to watch but you can’t turn away. However, one season the domestic triple and the next season the sack – come on Mr. Schofield, this isn’t soccer! There are probably a dozen distinct reasons for the Rhinos’ position at the foot of the table but who would you want to get you out of that hole? Would you seriously get rid of a coach who has brought 3 League titles, 2 Challenge Cups, and a World Club Challenge for . . . ?

What are the alternatives? I’m not suggesting there aren’t good assistant coaches waiting out there in the wings but you have got to create some trust and stability in your coaching set up.

Is Paul Anderson’s recruiting and coaching the reason for the Giants current poor performance? Replacing him now helps the situation how? On my list he would have the most question marks against him for the future given the lack of finals and silverware in his tenure.

Kieran Cunningham’s Saints are 5th in the table. McDermott’s Rhino’s have won the Super League from that position and Wigan also did it from 5th or 4th place. The inconsistent form of the team needs attention but their ability to win the big matches is still there. Cunningham is a season and a half into his position and everything is still up for grabs in the second half of this season.

Brian McDermott’s position is the most dire but should be the most secure. If you could pick any coach in Super League to dig you out of a bottom place position, he would have to be in your top two. A coach who creates an environment to win all the silverware he has doesn’t just implode overnight. There are difficulties with injuries and potentially McDermott should have hunted for a play-maker to replace Sinfield (the signs were there last season when Sinfield started from the bench for a number of matches) for this season, but I would let him finish what he started.

Don’t Look At The Table!

In the movie ‘Enter the Dragon’ Bruce Lee chastises a young student for focusing on a finger-pointing at the moon because, in doing so, they will miss the splendour of the moon itself.

In the same way the Widnes Vikings have apparently stopped focusing on their position in the Super League table.

Ironically, the Super League hierarchy have encouraged much ‘table-gazing’ by introducing all the ‘eights’ at two-thirds of way through the season, to make things more exciting. With this year’s competition perhaps the tightest ever, points difference is possibly more important than the big win-loss column.

Widnes set the League on fire with the way they began the season but have then dropped back into some tough losses subsequently.

To try and ease the psychological pressure, and therefore the physiological impact, the Vikings are ignoring the table. What has become important is their ability to perform on the pitch and get the right result. All the what-ifs of the other teams winning or losing has been removed. There are no excuses or safety-nets for the team’s own performance on the pitch.

Legendary San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh coined the phrase ‘the score will take care of itself’, to explain the same thing. If everyone in the organisation did their job to the best of their ability then the score will be the desired way by the end of the match. The focus on each individual to perform to their best in behaviour, training, and the matches themselves, should produce the desired team performance to register the win. If it did not the problems were identified and the solutions applied.

Bruce Lee, in his philosophy of Jeet Kune Do, always said that you should never consider the outcome of a fight/bout. In imagining either winning or losing, you become locked into a set of outcomes which can then become challenged and cause you to move away from your training and preparation. If you expect to lose, you probably will. If you expect to win, and start losing, you can change your behaviour which may then lead to self-defeat.

In any sports team/organisation there is a desired outcome. Once that outcome has been decided it must be communicated to everyone involved in that club (coaches/players/administrators/fans etc). If the performance then does not reflect the desired outcome, you identify what did not match the expectation and correct it.

Stop looking at the table, for this year or last year’s position, focus on the immediate in relation to the desired outcome. Everything around you can change, so all you can do is focus on what you can control., then the score will take care of itself.

A Coaching Lesson From Rick Stein.

Yes – the chef Rick Stein.

Last night I watched the latest episode of ‘Rick Stein’s Long Weekends . . . in Bologna’.

No rugby. Just food, cooking, coffee, and sight-seeing.

But most importantly, for any good coach, was the frequent shots of Rick Stein with a notebook and pen in his hand.

He wasn’t just watching other chefs cook, or simply eating lots of fantastic food. He was observing, asking questions, tasting, making notes, applying what he was learning to what he already knew and had experience of.

Rick frequently said, ‘What I’m picking up here . . .’

Then when he was back in Cornwall, he tried out some of his recipes with those new ideas.

A good rugby coach does just the same.

Carry your notebook and pen with you. Observe. Ask questions. Apply what you just learnt to what you already know.

If Rick Stein still doesn’t know it all, then I am pretty sure most rugby coaches don’t either.

Quitting Not An Option – Leeds Coach McDermott.

Eventually the question was going to be asked – no matter how polite, in general, the Rugby League press are.

Leeds Rhinos, seemingly, rooted to the bottom of the table and heading into the Middle-Eight Playoffs. No matter what their current predicament, I would expect the odds against them still being in Super League next season to be greater than those for Leicester City FC winning the Premiership title.

However, someone, decided to point the finger of blame for Leeds’ plight at Head Coach Brian McDermott. Why else would you ask the question about quitting/resigning?

I’m not saying the coach doesn’t shoulder some of the responsibility but he’s not the only cog in the wheel here. Plus, this is a coach who, since 2011, has led the club to 3 Super League titles, 1 League Leaders’ Shield, 2, Challenge Cups, and 1 World Club Challenge.

Clearly there are some pressing issues, but if McDermott quits who is likely to do a better job?

Maybe, we should get some match stats out and start asking the players if they are going to quit because they missed some tackles, or haven’t scored a try in the last couple of games? Interesting how those questions don’t get answered.

Dare I say it but it is terribly ‘football’ to start blaming everything on the coach!

If McDermott is to be blamed, maybe it isn’t too late for Leeds Rhinos to get Mourinho? If he doesn’t win the first six or seven matches of the season he might be available again!

Personally, I think Leeds Rhinos would be mad not to have faith in Brian McDermott and I am sure they will continue to support him, as they already are doing.