Any fan would be glad to have players with the intensity of Brad Sewell or Scott Pendlebury on their team. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
In a modern football world, where statistical measurement of team performance is just the touch of a computer button away, there is one critical aspect that remains frustratingly impossible to measure or predict. That is a team’s, or individual’s, level of intensity.
And the more football I watch, the more convinced I am that the ability to bring it to each game is what separates the contenders from the pretenders.
While analysts will use key indicators such as contested football, tackles and pressure acts in an attempt to come up with a formula to measure intensity levels, the reality is the reasons for the wild fluctuations in a team’s intensity are far more complicated and harder to identify than a number on a page.
As I watched one of the most riveting contests of the year unfold last Sunday, the Showdown between Adelaide and Port, it was patently obvious that if coach Brenton Sanderson could rely on the Crows to play the passionate, high-energy, high-pressure football they produced in their upset victory, week in, week out, then they would not only contend in September but provide enormous headaches for most opponents.
But then I was reminded of their performance against Melbourne, on the same ground, a couple of months earlier. They were jumped that day and played with an air of indifference that suggested they thought they were capable of closing the gap at the push of the button. The contrast between the two performances was stark, and I would suggest it had little to do with a variance in skill.
The Adelaide victory came a day after North Melbourne gave up a 22-point lead in the first quarter to the struggling Brisbane Lions, who had managed a solitary point in a half of footy the previous week against Fremantle, only to concede 10 of the next 11 goals of the game. The Lions went on to win by four points, and the Kangaroo supporters were left to wonder whether their team was a fraud or a finals contender.
How could a team capitulate in such a dramatic fashion, in the space of 10 minutes, even allowing for the improved output of the opposition? A look at the Roos’ 2014 season suggests they are incapable of producing the required intensity, on a weekly basis, to warrant being discussed as a genuine contender this year.
How else do you explain the fact that they can produce the most inspiring, team-oriented, four-quarter, intense football and dispense of Port Adelaide, Sydney and Fremantle, yet completely fail to mirror that sort of effort and go down meekly to the Gold Coast, Adelaide and the Bombers.
Let’s not forget the Roos belted the Lions by 87 points, just six weeks ago, with 16 of Saturday’s team playing in that game.
If you were to watch a tape of the game against the Swans, and follow it with the performance against Brisbane on Saturday night, you would swear you were watching two different teams.
Coaches are constantly asked if they are able to predict, based on the pre-game preparation, whether their team will play with the fierce intensity and desire that they demand. They invariably answer no, and therein lies the problem.
And while coaches will manfully accept responsibility for a team’s fortunes, ultimately it is up to the individual to determine whether they are capable of playing with a "life or death" attitude every time they take the field.
All sorts of external motivations can be used, but the responsibility must lie with the athlete. And tapping into whatever it is that gets them to that required arousal level is an ongoing challenge that only the elite performers seem capable of acquiring.
Getting "up" for a blockbuster game in front of big crowds and large television audiences is not a great challenge. The circumstances surrounding such events sharpen the focus of even the most distracted footballer. Of course, in no way does it guarantee success, for the reality is, if both teams play with the required intensity, one may prevail simply due to better skill execution or greater talent. But most supporters can live with that and walk away, regardless of the result, content in the knowledge their team "had a go". But far too often they are left to scratch their heads at the end of a game and wonder why their side is capable of playing tough, committed football one week, only to turn up seven days later and witness a meek and mild outfit that has no appetite for the types of acts that they so admired previously.
The very best footballers in the game are able to motivate themselves to compete with that warrior mentality every time they take the field. Even when the planets are not perfectly aligned, they still will themselves to produce an intensity that defines them and guarantees their standing in the game.
They are the sorts of players I admire the most, and would select every single time, ahead of the more comprehensively skilled footballer who chooses to be more selective with his intent.
Joel Selwood is the epitome of intensity. His appetite for the contest is as close to unconditional as you could hope to see. It is well known in football circles that he is playing sore at the moment, yet his approach to each game is largely uncompromised.
He has spent more time in recent weeks away from the middle of the ground, a concession to the wear and tear on his body, yet his mind refuses to concede any ground. Rarely can I remember a time when he has been less than manic in his attack on the ball or the opposition.
It is an unbelievable mental strength, shared by his elite contemporaries. Class and skill are the words that spring to mind when we think about Scott Pendlebury, but when you have the privilege of watching him play live, he is as competitive as any player in the game. Regardless of the state of play, whether the Pies are up or down by five goals, Pendlebury’s intensity in the way he plays rarely wavers.
Rory Sloane, Nathan Fyfe, Jobe Watson, Brad Sewell, Kane Cornes, Matt Priddis, Kieran Jack, Callan Ward and Liam Picken. Yes, superstars, ageing veterans and honest battlers, but you know what you are going to get from each and every one of these players in terms of their intensity levels each time they take the field.
Which is why you would happily go to war with port’s Ollie Wines every single day of the year. No matter the weather conditions, the opponent, the score in the match, his physical well-being, whether he’s had a fight with his girlfriend or was stuck in traffic for too long on the way to the ground. (And trust me, any one of these things can claim the minds of footballers and result in them barely showing up to play.) You can be guaranteed of the intensity levels of this young man every week, and what a great endorsement that is for a young man in just his second year.
As you read this and prepare to watch your team perform this weekend, ask yourself if you can be certain that your team, regardless of the result, will be the intense, competitive animal that it needs to be in this ruthless competition.
I can’t with my team, Melbourne. It’s getting better, but the first 40 minutes of the game against the Bulldogs last week were as far removed from the inspiring intensity they showed against Essendon, when they chased them down a couple of weeks ago, as you could possibly imagine.
Why? Well, that’s another challenge for Paul Roos to work through. He and most other coaches, at some stage this year. John Longmire would still, in a quiet moment, wonder where his player’s minds were at in the round-one loss to the Giants.
To witness guaranteed intensity is a rare luxury afforded to the fortunate supporters of the very best sides in the competition. If that is you, you are blessed. For the rest of us, we will watch this weekend with our hearts in our mouths, and merely hope for it.