Published Letters

Another watershed

The 2013 Rugby League World Cup Final was a watershed moment. Australia have just set another standard.

Every now and again, you witness a near-perfect performance in sport. Too often the hype exceeds that which is warranted. But on Saturday, no amount of praise for Australia’s display is undeserved. The Kangaroos played a near-perfect game, almost without error. Quite simply, as their predecessors did in 1982, 1997, and 2004, their demolition of New Zealand caused a paradigm shift.

The Australians are, essentially, playing a different game to everybody else. They showed how the game can, and ought to, be played: with a staggering level of efficiency, a personal responsibility from each player for his own contribution to the team, and accountability to each other.

If I were a coach of any sports team, I would be showing my athletes a recording of Saturday’s game. Australia gave a sumptuous display of game and occasion management. They made a difficult game, with complex skills, look ridiculously easy. They have so many options during open play because their players are adept at any number of the game’s core skills. And each is able to execute these consistently at an incredibly high level of efficiency. Passes are accurate, support play is effective, tackles are seldom missed, kicks are rarely wasted, the ball rarely runs dead, fullbacks are put under pressure, and the chase is energetic.

It just goes to show that sufficient incentives (viz., proving you are the best at what you do; an appropriate mindset) coupled with high skills equates to success.
I still believe that England’s problems at the international level are rooted in mental weakness: in a failure to concentrate for sufficiently long periods, to think in small amounts of time, to focus on doing the small things really well, and to have the self-belief to try something different. The skills are there, but it is fear that holds back their expression. The solution does not lie in a cosmetic re-structuring of the domestic league competitions.

There exists a perfect storm in the English game – dominated by a cabal of clubs whose senior management must be questioned as to their genuine support for the national side – of the absence of widespread high-level advanced skills coaching, and the lack of opportunities for English youngsters.

PS. For all Old Trafford is a magnificent sporting arena, it looks increasingly unsuitable for rugby league. The problem is, quite simply, the lack of space behind the in-goal areas. Safety pads must be installed in front of the advertising hoardings for its next game. It is only a matter of time before a player is seriously injured.

Letter to Rugby Leaguer & League Express, published 2 December 2013


Sportsmanship

Sir, Stuart Broad confuses the England team’s purported mental toughness with dedication to the philosophy of winning at all costs. The present Ashes series has shown that such a philosophy inevitably has entertained, and even condoned, acts of cheating (“Broad defends his stance and points finger at the Australians”, Aug 20).

Broad should remember that although fans do like winning teams, results are not the only currency in which sport trades. Some fans recognise that winning at all costs is not winning at all; that mentally tough performers compete, and strive to win, with integrity and remain honourable. These are the fans who know that sport is about a great deal more than winning.

Letter to The Times, published 22 August 2013


The mindset of a sporting champ

Drawing on his own experience of 2005 and, in particular, of his struggle to deal with Andrew Flintoff, Adam Gilchrist (25 July) articulates support for my long-held view that of the two attributes necessary to succeed at sport, though talent is a prerequisite, it is the suitability of an athlete’s mindset – his or her mental toughness – that affords that talent’s desirable expression.

Letter to The Independent, published 30 July 2013


Smokescreen?

What a shocker! Talk about taking one step forward and two back. What a terrible interview given by the new Director of Match Officials on Sky’s Boots n’ All.

Jon Sharp talked a lot, but said nothing in the wake of the scandalous officiating mistakes in Magic Weekend’s matches between Hull vs. Hull KR, Salford vs. Widnes, and Leeds vs. Wigan. Instead, viewers were treated to phrases such as “crisis management” and “moving forward” – dreadful and inane corporate-speak. Are these people sent to media training seminars to appear more inept? In one breath Sharp talked about “transparency”, the next he refused to enlighten viewers as to the content and outcome of discussions with the rightly aggrieved Hull KR chairman Neill Hudgell.

Sadly, Sharp obfuscated on each question, and his delivery reeked of hubris. It was a pretty ordinary effort that also reflected badly on the Match Officials Department. A lot spoken; nothing said. The RFL personified. Such a pity after the excellent commentary performance of Stuart Cummings. But why wasn’t the video referee ‘talk-through’ facility used at the Magic Weekend as it is each Thursday night for the Kingstone Press Championship on Premier Sports? For goodness sake, the Super League trumpets the Magic Weekend as a festival of top class rugby league, yet cannot even employ a facility that is used routinely in a supposedly lesser competition.

Letter to Rugby Leaguer & League Express, published 3 June 2013


Video referee

I was delighted to read RFL Match Officials coach Ian Smith’s explanations of a couple of contentious decisions in a televised Northern Rail Cup game (“Why I disallowed those tries”, May 20). I hope this will be extended to include Super League, Championship, Challenge Cup, International, and World Cup matches where a video referee is in attendance, and that this will become a permanent policy of the RFL Match Officials department.

As I have previously advocated, a further development could be a ‘You are the Ref’ column with illustrations, similar to the soccer version used by The Observer newspaper.

In the wake of Gary Hetherington’s call for clubs to accept greater central control of the game, it is crucial that such management encompasses another stakeholder without whom rugby league could not function – its officials.

Letter to Rugby Leaguer & League Express, published 27 May 2013


Those were the days

The photograph of Wigan players celebrating their 1989 Challenge Cup success (On this day…Apr 29) set off a train of nostalgic thoughts. Things I miss about rugby league (from not that long ago):

• Starting with the photograph, Wigan’s alternative strip – simple, yet iconic. The cherry and white version even more so. Other teams, similarly so.
• The players’ physiques. There seemed to be less emphasis on tattoos and bulging biceps. Though powerfully built, not one of the players in that photograph resembles a bodybuilder.
• The Stones Bitter Championship. For all the endless rounds of Super League (an awful, cheap name for a competition), and a ludicrously expanded play-off system, we can more or less assume that the Grand Final, wonderful occasion though it is, will be contested by teams whose berths we could have predicted at the beginning of the season. Sport needs genuine, fulfilled surprises.
• The John Player/Regal Trophy. A welcome distraction coming halfway through the season.
• Hearing the likes of Halifax, Featherstone Rovers, Workington Town, Sheffield Eagles (with apologies to other similarly neglected clubs) mentioned in the same breath as today’s Super Leaguers.
• The Puma ball with the black rings at the end.
• Loose-fitting jerseys with three-quarter length sleeves. I seem to remember Bradford Bulls pioneering the skin-tight shirt for the 1997 Challenge Cup final. Pity it stuck.
• Referees wearing a black uniform. You don’t see NFL or NBA officials doing their job in anything other than the traditional uniform. Pink and sky blue? Please.
• Great Britain. What is the point of England and Wales, let alone Scotland and Ireland, when competing against Australia and New Zealand?
• The Kangaroo and Kiwi tours of our shores. Three-test series against Australia and New Zealand, interspersed with games against our top club sides (all matches played on a Saturday afternoon), were so much more interesting and meaningful than a “World’ Cup competition which, for all its marketing and well-intentioned trumpeting, is a private battle between Australia and New Zealand.

I certainly do not miss Wigan’s hegemony of rugby league, which many readers may recognise as coinciding with the points above. But I do miss the less hyped and less overtly gladiatorial version of the great game.

Letter to Rugby Leaguer & League Express, published 13 May 2013


Get on with it

Shaun Wane and Danny McGuire’s comments defending the two-game Easter programme were reflected in their teams’ performances and results. Wigan’s record score demolition of Hull KR, with 14 of their squad playing both Friday and Monday, and Leeds’s same-day ‘in and out’ job in Perpignan, including the inconvenience of a daybreak flight, coach journey, and playing the final 30 minutes with 12 men, were inspiring demonstrations of mental toughness.

The fixture schedule is an ‘uncontrollable’ for coaches and players. It is what it is for the purposes of adhering to tradition and for financial reasons. Scientific advances in players’ physical recovery and the willingness of spectators to pay to watch two games in quick succession justify this one-off event. In sport, success is as much, arguably more, about psychology as physiology. Complaining to journalists or on social media is counter-productive. The mindset of the coach and players should always be to just get on with it.

Letter to Rugby Leaguer & League Express, published 15 April 2013


Beyond reproach

Having worked in a professional capacity with the RFL’s Match Officials department, I can assuage Messrs Roberts and Clough’s (Mailbag, Apr 1) doubts as to the ability and integrity of Grade 1 referees.
With media scrutiny, criticism by coaches, and increased levels of accountability, they work under similarly stressful conditions to the performers whom they are officiating.
Arguably, there is a case for touch judges to be more involved, and to greater effect; perhaps, as in the NFL, where the officials operate as a team.
Also, the Match Officials Director may very well consider writing a piece each week, whereby decisions from the previous week are explained.
A ‘You are the Ref’ column with illustrations is no so radical, and may help to dismantle perceived barriers – a ‘them and us’ mentality – between the officials’ department and the people who pay at the turnstiles each week. Without either referees or fans, we have no game.
Rugby league belongs to everyone: its players, coaches, directors, owners, administrators, journalists, sponsors, officials, and fans. Each has a stake, and each, occasionally, makes poor decisions.
But few are exposed and analysed more than those of the referee.
The referees’ probity, however, is beyond reproach.

Letter to Rugby Leaguer & League Express, published 8 April 2013


Eight teams – it’s not serious

An eight-team play-off for a 14-team competition is ludicrous. Play-off qualification should be a reward – not an entitlement.

To have more than half the eligible teams qualify, in fact, disqualifies the system’s raison d’être, inviting ridicule due to the decreased meaningfulness of many games and the diluting effect of the inclusion of lower calibre teams.

A 14-team competition should have a six-berth play-off, where no team gets a week off. The intuition that suggests a week off is an advantage, affording more time for player rehabilitation and team preparation, is not borne out by the statistics. Leeds Rhinos’ last two Grand Final successes support the counter-suggestion that momentum is more important.

An eight-team play-off can only be warranted if at least 16 teams are trying to qualify (as in Australasian rugby league’s NRL). The NFL (American football) has a 12-berth post-season drawn from 32 teams. Far better either of these than a play-off system for which it is, numerically, harder not to qualify. Many may be called, but few should be chosen.

Letter to Rugby Leaguer & League Express, published 1 April 2013


Rugby league has got the scrums right

Rugby union is getting its knickers in a sorry twist. The fallout from the continuous fall downs of its scrum have been most illuminating: the amount of time wasted through resets and collapses approaches a staggering 20 minutes, or a quarter of the game; players now view the set play merely as a way to get a penalty decision in their team’s favour; and, judging by the number of perplexing officiating decisions, referees seemingly clueless as to what is actually going on.

For years, rugby union had laughed at rugby league’s use of the scrum. But at least it is fit for its sole purpose: to facilitate an effective, quick, and open restart of the game. Oh, and more thing, the ball emerges from the rugby league scrum.

Letter to Rugby Leaguer & League Express, published 25 March 2013


Strong men, strong minds

At half-time during the England v Australia rugby league Test match on Saturday, the legendary former Kangaroo, Arthur Beetson, exhorted England to start playing with a bit of “toughness”. Toughness of the mental, not physical, kind gave Australia a scare and England hope. There are two requisite qualities for superior performance: ability and mental toughness. Each was demonstrated in abundance. The ability of the Aussies in the first half was sensational. But in the second, England played without inhibition or respect for reputation.

Letter to The Guardian, published 4 November 2009


Testing times

Sir, How do you win a Test match having conceded 551 runs in your opponent’s first innings? Answer: You have a plan, stick to it (self-belief), execute it (determination), and impose your will to secure your desired outcome (unyielding attitude). Two words – mental toughness.

The ultimate component of mental toughness is being able to grow wiser from adversity and bounce back (resilience). In setting out to regain the Ashes, the Australian cricket team have satisfied all criteria. England must now do likewise to retain them.

Letter to The Times, published 6 December 2006


Soccer v gridiron?

Sir, What kind of competition is there where it is possible for a team to be eliminated from the League Cup in October, the FA Cup in January, and be mathematically incapable of winning the Premiership with just under half its fixtures remaining? There is a sub-Premiership title (finishing fourth!), but, generally, such a team will play out its remaining fixtures with promises of preparation and rebuilding for next season or will be dragged into the inevitably negative achievement mindset of avoiding relegation.

Roland Watson (Comment, Feb 4) is quite right. Though the NFL is not perfect, a competition based on eight divisions within two conferences means more teams have a realistic, and mathematical, chance of winning. This would be far more interesting, surely, than what passes for “competition” presently in the Premiership.

Letter to The Times, published 9 February 2006


How not to win at Wimbledon

Sir, Lest any performer or coach underestimate the power of mental toughness, there is much to be learnt from the manner of Greg Rusedski’s Wimbledon exit (reports, June 26).

Rusedski’s apparent loss of attention control (e.g., maintaining concentration) and negative energy control (e.g., keeping your temper under control despite poor officiating) demonstrates that success in sport is dependent upon a lot more than just being technically efficient and in good physical shape.

At the highest level, victory and defeat are often attributed to an athlete’s mental toughness. This was never more evident than on Wednesday evening. Rusedski exploded and Andy Roddick capitalised.

However, if you are determined to lose it (your temper, that is), then at least choose a potentially efficacious moment. Evidently, 5-2 up in the third set is not it.

Letter to The Times, published 27 June 2003

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