It's pressure time, and pressure does some strange things to players and coaches.
Controlling the emotions, keeping the focus and trying to time things so they all come good at this time of the season are key components of playing and coaching.
While some revel in this environment, it can create a insulated mindset for others, making it difficult to climb outside the narrow vision of the inner mind into clear and open channels of thinking.
Along with this comes nervous performances from players and a lack of game vision from coaches. At one time or another, everyone goes through it.
So on one hand we have the Hurricanes, playing without their skipper Conrad Smith, and within 10 minutes of the kickoff losing influential players Victor Vito and Alapati Leiua, under a coach who will be judged on his next job and not this one. They're a team playing very well, without cluttered minds and under no pressure of expectation.
It was a formula for success. A group of people with their backs to the wall fighting for survival, but no real repercussions if they lost.
On the other hand, the Crusaders played in a confused state of mind for much of this game, being in a position on the ladder that is almost foreign to this group, and needing to stay there to secure an important home semifinal. This was pressure, aided in no small way by the completely crazy non-selection of current and former IRB Players of the Year in Kieran Read and Dan Carter.
These non-selections reeked of the usual Crusaders attitude - that their second best was good enough. Robbie Deans used it successfully when they were blasting every opponent aside, but those days are well gone.
So why add to the pressure by not selecting these leaders in the group?
Drip-feeding Read and Carter into the team, and having the world's best tighthead, Owen Franks, on the bench suggested that Todd Blackadder had expected a different outcome.
Likewise the Highlanders, an unheralded team under a coach that has already been reappointed for the next two seasons, played with a verve that suggested there was nothing to lose, and if they lost it would be in style. Funnily enough, they started their three All Blacks, and all had influential games.
The Chiefs, on the other hand, have had a season with constant changes in personnel, some forced and some instigated by the coaching staff.
These changes have obviously played a big part in their lack of real success, and even in this game one wonders why match-winner Tim Nanai-Williams and recent All Black Tawera Kerr-Barlow started off the bench.
Of course, the Blues had a big win, which is always a lot easier if it doesn't matter.
John Kirwan will now be judged on next season. He's a lucky coach.
One imagines that All Black supremo Steve Hansen will step down after the next World Cup (well, maybe he won't) which means the current crop of Super Rugby coaches are all on trial for the big job. It will be worth keeping an eye on how things are handled by these candidates over the next few weeks regarding selections, tactics, use of replacements, results and keeping their own counsel with the media.
It's a tough environment, the world of professional rugby coaching, and it's hard to keep smiling and say the right things under pressure. However, only one coach will still be smiling at the end of it all.
Ian Snook has coached professionally for the past 25 years in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, Ireland, Japan and Italy.
- Taranaki Daily News
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