The Super Rugby competition returns after its first mid-season hibernation and its impact remains to be seen.
It’s interesting to note the different approaches teams have taken: some do nothing in terms of games, others compete in internal trials and the rest feature in full games in an effort to replicate the intensity of the competition proper.
Who is right? We will probably never know, but it’s a period we have put a lot of time and thought into.
For the Reds, we played an exhibition match against the Hurricanes, a match that will be remembered more for the season-ending injury to their halfback TJ Perenara. While this is an unfortunate consequence, I think Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett and I were looking for the same outcome from the match – the replication of Super Rugby-level intensity.
The scoreline was not flattering for the Reds but every knock, tackle and bump was important to keep the minds of players tuned into that level of rugby because it will be instantly required this weekend.
So what exactly are the challenges for the teams playing this week?
For me, it’s primarily about assimilation and making sure everyone is on the same page when they run out in Melbourne tomorrow night. The reality is we only have a limited amount of time to prepare and the short preparation, along with travel, leaves us with only two proper sessions together and also a short captain’s run.
We can’t do much about this as our Wallabies only returned on Sunday and the Australian under-20s from South Africa that night.
With this in mind, assimilation is the most important thing we have control over.
What does this involve? Primarily, finding a balance between the fatigue, frustration, elation and stress levels of the playing group. Every player returning has a different story.
We have Will Genia coming from a successful man-of-the-series effort against Wales to a James Slipper who has been in Wallabies camp for a month without a game. We also have Liam Gill, who played the most minutes in the Australian under-20s playing halfway around the world. Further to this, Quade Cooper was at Ballymore in rehabilitation for the past five weeks. It’s a mixed bag, so as a coach, the worst thing you can do is add to their stress levels.
Under these circumstances, tailor-made training preparations are important for individuals.
That will ensure players are prepared physically, but you can also minimise their mental stress by ensuring the cerebral part of our team preparation is done in advance. We have worked hard on the game plan with the players who were here in previous weeks and it now requires the players coming back to accept and trust its credibility.
For this to occur, you must pitch the game plan in pragmatic terms and understand what the players will be able to digest and replicate under pressure in such a short space of time.
If you transfer this across the park, there is a lot of room for error and stress. As we prepare this week, it is important we get the level of knowledge right, without overdoing it.
Generally, good players are good for a reason so a simple framework is all that is needed to get them going again.
Once you have everyone up to speed on the knowledge component, we hit the training paddock.
The greatest thing a coach can do is work out what needs to be left out of a training session.
This is particularly difficult as you automatically feel that if you don’t run through certain elements, then it won’t happen in a game.
This is generally true and therefore you need to be brutally pragmatic and seize upon the areas you feel will have the biggest influence on the game.
But importantly, there has to be fun. Nothing brings the camaraderie back faster than fun.
If you have a good group of guys then the natural competitive juices begin to flow quickly and the banter among the squad returns. With this, familiarity also returns and so does a high level of positivity.
When you are deciding what needs to be left out, you don’t leave out the fun – the players love it.
Trust is also a key ingredient and when you are working out the dynamics of training and team selection, you need to have faith that the players haven’t forgotten how to play.
If you have a strong ‘base’ game then this is your crutch. It gets you through the tough times in matches and during weeks where there is a lot of uncertainty.
If you get this bit sorted and the players are ready to play, it comes down to one final element. This is attitude.
Attitude in sport and the value of a seven-day preparation was on show in the recent All Blacks v Ireland Test series.
For Ireland to lose by 40 points, be a minute away from victory seven days later, and then get toppled by 60 a week after that shows that if the top two inches aren’t right then the rest doesn’t matter.
Making sure your players have a positive head space is about the best thing you can coach at this point of the season – hopefully we have got ours right as we can’t afford a bad day at the office.