The greatest pleasures in footy

05/09/2013

The greatest pleasures in footy

I remember once reading something about the greatest pleasures in life are often the most difficult to put a label on or to categorise. Having spent the past 40 years specialising in teaching and coaching, it’s not a difficult jump for me to seek pleasure and beauty in sporting occasions and footy in particular.

Watching footy for me right now is really great fun. I am loving some matches and finding myself cheering for teams I used to find very difficult to even like, for professional reasons, as an indication of respect for being difficult to beat, I guess, now as I look back as a detached observer.

The cheering for me is based on the quality in the performance; sometimes in individuals but more often in team performances. They are not alone but in recent weeks the Sea Eagles have had me cheering more often than any other.

Perhaps it’s “the old silvertail image”, surely long outmoded, that blocks the minds of many who may be inclined to miss all that they offer. Perhaps the style of coach Geoff Toovey who will never miss an opportunity to take down the officials, praise the opposition or at least make time to point out how unlucky they were in losing that deflects many of us from recognising what a tremendous team they are and what an outstanding season they are having. Not to mention the string of emphatic performances they are rattling up at the “right end” of the season.

The demolition job they did on Melbourne last weekend was really some performance. Aggressive defence is synonymous with this Eagles era. But to categorise them as physical and combative and great defensively does not do them justice.

It’s like that old phrase an old coach once used (and a thousand younger ones have followed) when asked about his team’s big focus on defence. “I can’t see what else we should be focussed on when we don’t have the ball. Do you?”

But the reverse applies also and observant footy followers (and perhaps my old mate blind Freddie) cannot miss the focus on quality in the Eagles attack. “What else should we be focussed on when we do have the ball”?

The development of their team play as well as the confidence improvement for many individuals I find enthralling to watch. They do not seem afraid to make errors; that doesn’t mean they are playing in a crazy flamboyant manner but it does mean they are not playing in fear of making an error. They know the difference and dare to test themselves – and their opponents defensive limits are stretched as a result.

This shows itself in a not so obvious way based on energy expenditure.

While many of their opponents are trying to win the battle of possession and position Manly are too. But they also want to win those age old landmarks by modern and well-practiced means. Through skilful passing exchanges from many places on the field they suck way more energy out of many more members of the opposition by going about their attack in this way.

They also get down the other end much quicker because of that skilled play in yardage situations and often with plays left in the set to be able to offer the ball back to the opposition only if they are good enough to beat them to a contested kick rather than a long ranger which the opposition always gets and then starts its sets comfortably with a kick return carry. The former method takes more energy out of the opposition than the “billy basic, crash it up the middle for a down town” variety.

The other big difference to many of their opponents is Manly’s “attacking attack” in good field position starts (they play attacking defence quite often as well). Whenever they get possession in the “good ball” end I get the feeling they might score on the first play such is the quality of their first play much of the time. The same goes for any other play number you wish to nominate.

“So are they like the Roosters, Smithy” you may ask. “No emphasis on trying for goal line drop outs and repeat sets”.

My answer is that like a very good team should, they are capable of using each play in every set to build pressure through skilful passing and catching combinations and powerful running throughout the whole possession set. They then can go for repeat sets if that’s the best play available and they obviously have worked hard in training at how to recognise and execute what’s available. Cherry-E vans and Foran have developed a real excellence in this aspect of attacking play and the unheralded hooker Ballin has become an accomplice in recent times too. The Stewart brothers who don’t need any licence for their attack minded instincts are superb also at strategic kicking. Oh yeah and Jamie Lyon at centre gives them another terrific ad libber for kicks for repeats!

Why have all that at your disposal and not use it by restricting the thinking of the whole crew to “be patient, hold the ball, build possession and position pressure”.

And for all their opponents – Why look at that each week as opposition and not go back and work towards that as a new standard to aspire to in your own teams development!

Occasionally Manly appear to plan early for a repeat set, perhaps to run down the clock or to give themselves a breather. Like a very good team should be capable of they can drop into a different mode – not all-out attack, a measured tactical approach to suit the many situations footy tosses up.

For comparison only, both Souths and the Roosters don’t yet possess this important aspect of footy at this point of their development under their newer coaches. The ability to execute is one thing but the clear mindedness to recognise “what is required when” is the key component missing at times.

The Eagles can do this because they dare to be and are that good.  They are that good because they have players who are highly skilled and confident to be able to play what’s in front of them for play after play without worrying about getting organised for a repeat set type play in the middle of what is a great chance to score now!

This, by the way, is so much more energy sapping for the D. So they get two bigger bites at the cherry than the weaker minded possession retention only proponents.

The break given to the defending team for the goal line drop almost negates any pressure built through low quality pre plays before the repeat set kick, then long goal line drop to half way and chase.

That is the big difference in the thinking in some clubs compared to others. Some experts (we hear them every week emphasising the need to play patiently for a repeat set) are driving this old school thinking. Truly good footy teams need to be better than that in today’s world – or at least be capable of better when it’s required or on offer.

Rather than categorising playing with patience as playing with lack of skill or lack of risk taking, Manly seem to be willing to accept the occasional extra error as a result of playing with more skill. They can, more often than not, play with patience in a skilful yet non-risk-taking way.

What a difference it makes. Apart from being a much more enjoyable to play that way, it most definitely is far more enjoyable for this relaxed spectator to watch.

And just a reminder in case you get caught up watching those skilful attacking plays of the Eagles, batten down the hatches as they come at you with outstanding defence and kicking and chasing and catching ……… With this crew it’s all on in minute of every match.

You can’t find a single label to attach to this team, they are far better than that. And in this age of professional full time footy I don’t think that’s too much to expect of almost every team at some stage of in its development.

Where the problem may lay for some teams is the difference in expectations between players and coaches and the rest of us.