The Psychology of Rugby: High Flyers

Connacht Rugby Squad Training and Press Conference
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England’s success under coach Eddie Jones has largely been credited to the belief and confidence the Australian has instilled in the players. Much of this could be attributed to the use of sports psychologist Jeremy Snape. So this raises the question: how much is success down to the psychology of Rugby?

Over two articles, Last Word On Rugby will look at the more successful teams and high flyers who have ‘nailed’ the psychological side of the game. Conversely, those who have struggled to cope with the pressure.

The opening analysis looks at the more successful sides in Northern Hemisphere rugby.

The Surprise Packages: Connacht, Exeter Chiefs and La Rochelle

Connacht have traditionally been the forgotten fourth Irish province in the Guinness Pro 12. Their better players often move to other provinces to fulfil international ambitions. In fact they were originally designated as a development team and deliberately given less funding.

In 2014/15 they reached their highest league position of 7th under Pat Lam. A year later and after a play-off final victory of Leinster they were suddenly Pro 12 champions. They still lacked investment and the star players that most league champions possess.

The same phenomenon is happening this season in France, where La Rochelle sit ten points clear at the top of the table. They also seem favourites to win the Challenge Cup. They have the third smallest budget in the Top 14 (according to Pundit Arena) yet outperform every side with more cash to spend.

Lyons French head coach Pierre Mignoni reacts before the French Top 14 rugby union match between Lyon Olympique and La Rochelle (Photo credit ROMAIN LAFABREGUE/AFP/Getty Images)

Like Connacht they have a relatively young coach in former prop Patrice Collazo. Does this coaching proximity to the modern game give an edge? Are they able to relate more easily to current players?

Having a Calm Coach in Control is Crucial

The equivalent side in the Aviva Premiership are of course Exeter Chiefs. Again, they have a relatively young coach in 46 year old Rob Baxter, who has been associated with the club as player or coach for over 20 years. They have yet to win a title but this increasingly seems like a matter of time. Indeed they are unbeaten in the league since October following a slow start to the season. Baxter is always a calm figure and still manages to shape and control his team’s ‘underdog’ status–despite now being a solid top four side.

Exeter head coach Rob Baxter ahead of the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 5 Round 5 match between Exeter Chiefs and Ulster at Sandy Park in Exeter, England. (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

All the above sides have found a winning formula with limited resources and quality coaching appears to make the difference. They have both thrived and survived in the white-hot heat of professional sport. By utilizing the psychology of Rugby, sustained success has led them to develop into feared sides. None more so, than the following two teams.

The Siege Mentality: Leicester Tigers and Saracens

Leicester Tigers have made the headlines many times this season, for heavy defeats, or for sacking both Richard Cockerill and Aaron Mauger. Yet they still look likely to reach the play-offs for the 13th successive season; a remarkable record. The Tigers have shaped Welford Road into an intimidating venue and base their culture around a tough forward pack. Regardless of who wears the shirts the culture of winning is evident in every player.

In recent years Saracens have fostered the same environment with their ‘wolfpack’ mentality. Just last weekend against Northampton a relatively youthful and inexperienced side came from 25-12 down to win away from home. Brendan Venter built this culture in the late 2000’s and it has seamlessly continued under Mark McCall.

In essence they have perfected the art of getting each player ‘to sing from the same hymn sheet’. Each of the sides listed above are devotees of the psychology of Rugby.

In part two of this article Last Word On Rugby will look at those who have not got it right off-the-field and examine the underachievers.


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