The Psychology of Rugby: The Underachievers

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In this second of two articles looking at the psychology of Rugby, Last Word On Rugby looks at the underachievers of the game.

You can read the first article on the ‘high flyers’ here.

Sleeping Giants: Gloucester and Bristol

This season in particular, Gloucester have given pundits many opportunities to question their mental strength. Round One of the Aviva Premiership saw a 31-7 lead result in defeat to Leicester. Round Six saw a 27-14 lead slip at Exeter, amongst other disappointments. Another home capitulation to close rivals Harlequins saw Head Coach Laurie Fisher resign.  With those results, he felt he didn’t have the answers to Gloucester’s inability to ‘close out games’.

Fisher is not the first coach to depart Kingsholm in recent times who has been unable to match previous table-topping exploits. This suggests a long-term and heavily embedded culture problem that is not limited to the current crop of players. Next season Gloucester are looking to the Connacht/Exeter/La Rochelle formula–in utilizing modern fascets of the game, including the Psychology of Rugby–by putting young coach Johan Ackermann in charge. Whether this will bring the same on-field success is the big question.

Just down the road in the West Country, Bristol Rugby have just been relegated straight back to the Championship. They famously failed several times to navigate the promotion play-offs and this was not down to on-the-pitch quality. The club has the resources and they eventually recruited enough quality players to survive. But did the squad truly believe they could compete in the Premiership?

Once Director of Rugby Andy Robinson had departed in November, performances did improve and some wins followed. Was this perhaps because of the spirit injected by local hero Mark Tainton? Much will have been down to a ‘change in thinking’ which is now so important in professional sport.

Frail Heavyweights: Wasps and Clermont

On the face of it, labeling Wasps and Clermont underachievers may seem a little odd. But, their ‘big game’ results would suggest that when the pressure is on to win trophies, the mentality goes missing.

Wasps have stormed to the top of the Premiership this year mainly due to a long unbeaten home record, and a brand of exciting, attacking rugby. However two Champions Cup knockout defeats and a Premiership semi-final loss suggests they still need to toughen up to progress in knockout rugby. Dai Young (below) needs his players to better handle the pressure ‘up here’ and shake any labels the club has previously had.

Dai Young, Director of Rugby of Wasps looks on ahead of the European Rugby Champions Cup match between Wasps and Connacht Rugby at the Ricoh Arena on December 11, 2016 in Coventry. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

These games were all away from home and their attacking flair alone wasn’t enough to see them through. Should this season’s Premiership Final to be a Wasps vs Saracens affair [on past experiences] it is the latter who would surely be favourites.

Falling at the Final Hurdle: the Psychology of Rugby

The forerunners to the current Wasps side are Clermont Auvergne. Les Jaunards have been Top 14 runners-up four times and Champions Cup losing finalists twice over the past ten years. They are perhaps the most high-profile ‘chokers’ in European Rugby.

Their multinational squad packed full of internationals somehow manages to fall short right at the final hurdle. Just like Wasps, their fierce home record carries them through the regular season but the one-off, knockout pressure prevents them from winning trophies.


Editors Note: Between the high flyers, and the underachievers, the proof is clear to see. Rugby is now more than physicality alone. The forethought and planning during the week are pivotal to success. It may apply to club rugby, representative rugby and now in the amateur grades, that the psychology of rugby is a tool that benefits the players decision making, and the game in general.

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