Big Game Mentality: It Starts At Club Level

Name me a more iconic duo than “Scottish rugby team” and “underperforming in a big game”; I’ll wait.

Now that the dust has settled on Edinburgh’s disappointing loss to Ulster in their Pro14 semi final, it’s time for Scottish Rugby to address their biggest problem: the mentality needed to win on the biggest stage.

There has been a lot of praise for Richard Cockerill’s improving Edinburgh side. He has taken the club from a struggling, mid-table side, to a club that should now have the firepower to win silverware. All in just three seasons. However, it can’t be overlooked that of the four knockout games during his tenure, Edinburgh have lost all four.

Even with putting the two losses in the 2017/18 season down to teething problems, the loss to Munster in the Champions Cup last season and this game against Ulster were both eminently winnable games.

This is a well documented and deep rooted issue in Scottish Rugby. The fact that Glasgow actually won one of their three visits to the Pro12/14 final is slightly amazing. But that win aside, Glasgow have been one of the top two or three teams in the league in all but one season between 2012 and 2019. Only one win could be considered slightly disappointing, especially considering Connacht won one.

Glasgow have also had major issues in the Champions Cup. They have only qualified twice from their group in the same period and been convincingly defeated at the first hurdle on both occasions.

Much has been said of the lack of emphasis on the psychological side of the game at a national level. Jason O’Halloran has publicly criticised the lack of development in this area, stating that Scotland are 20 years behind in this area. This must be improved and it must start at club level.

The national team is predominantly made up of Edinburgh and Glasgow players. If that mentality isn’t there at club level, it definitely won’t be there at test level. Edinburgh had a 12 point lead with 23 minutes to go against an Ulster that weren’t at full strength.

In an interview with the BBC in 2018, Stuart Hogg stated that seeing a sports psychologist made him a “better player and a better person” but that “some boys don’t believe in it”. There remains a stigma about admitting any weakness mentally, and Matt Smith’s interview with Jamie Lyall revealed the woeful conditions surrounding access to psychologists at Glasgow.

A winning mentality doesn’t begin and end with psychologists. Some players naturally have that edge. The SRU need to make the most of the resources at their disposal. At Edinburgh they had a leader and a winner in John Barclay who led the Scarlets to a Pro14 title. Instead of keeping a player with his experience of these moments around, the SRU cast him aside.

I appreciate that his playing days were numbered, but having someone like Barclay around to teach the likes of Ritchie, Bradbury, Crosbie, Graham and Chamberlain is priceless. Also, outside of the front row, the average age of Edinburgh’s bench against Ulster was 22.4 years old. If Cockerill was able to bring Barclay on at the 60 minute mark, with all his experience and leadership, I could have been writing a much cheerier article right now.

I am 25 years old. I don’t say that to make anyone feel old, merely to make a point that I am yet to see a winning Scotland team. Obviously Scotland won in 1999 but I was four and can’t remember it. What I’m trying to say is I’m used to seeing Scottish teams lose. There were eight Scottish players younger than me in Edinburgh’s team at the weekend. All of those players have grown up watching Scotland lose as I have. That’s hardly a breeding ground for a winning mentality. On paper, Edinburgh had a far stronger squad than Ulster, but there was always that doubt because it is a Scottish team.

There is much progress to be made in Scotland. Breaking that losing mentality won’t be easy, but it must start soon or we face slipping even further behind. Perhaps we should speak to the Irish. They went 34 years between Six Nations titles before 2009 and now they can’t stop winning the bloody things.

How can we turn it around?

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16 comments on “Big Game Mentality: It Starts At Club Level

  1. Pegj on

    It’s down to grassroots.

    We need more kids playing more games, and we need more games played at a competitive level.

    Male youth rugby competitions were restructured to put emphasis on schools conferences to encourage more kids to play (a good thing), but a huge %age of those games have been unfulfilled – they either were not played or played as a kick about.

    And Murrayfield also brought in the stupid rule that kids weren’t allowed to play more than 1 game in 48 hours (every other Union uses World Rugby one game in 24 hours), which means if they played a kick around for the school on the Saturday they couldn’t play for the Club on the Sunday.

    As a result, kids have had to choose between school or Club – so we have schools rugby that for many is now non-competitive, and Club rugby reducing cause kids are being encouraged to play for school by teachers.

    Increase the number of kids playing (schools), and then direct those who are keen to Clubs where we can increase the competitiveness (and therefore mental toughness as they learn how to win (and lose)).

  2. WD on

    Edinburgh and Glasgow A teams into the super 6. Too many players playing too few games, recent stories e.g Smith, Ashe show that these guys need game time and A teams means they still feel part of bigger picture rather than being sent off on a Tuesday night to amatuer club teams.
    If the SRU want to do things from the top down then the least they can do is protect/promote/improve the players they have invested in.

  3. TeamCam on

    Both Leinster and Ulster looking eminently beatable by a half-decent team tonight. Sad finale to the Pro14, and really highlights the missed opportunity for Edinburgh. Scottish Rugby’s next hires have got to be an army of awesome psychologists or something.

  4. Eli Walker on

    PRO14 needs a salary cap to improve competitiveness.

    I would change the PRO14 to 2 different levels (Involving promotion/relegation)
    – More competitive games
    – Better for player welfare (less games)
    – Have gaps for Derby games which are not involved in the league standings I.e. Scarlets vs Blues.
    – No finals of any kind, Winner is the team with the most points.

    PRO14 A

    – Leinster
    – Munster
    – Ulster
    – Edinburgh
    – Glasgow
    – Sharks
    -Stormers
    – Scarlets

    PRO14 B

    – Ospreys
    – Bulls
    – Lions
    – Connacht
    – Blues
    – Benetton
    – Dragons
    – Cheetahs

      • Eli Walker on

        Yes.. well it’s going to be the pro something anyway with the SA teams likely joining..

        Can always just add the Kings and Zebre back in, 9 teams in A & B, or they can have a break… not a big deal – I think 16/18 league games + Derby games taking it up to 20 is enough for a season. + the Europe games of course.

  5. James on

    I hadn’t appreciated that Edinburgh have a challenge cup quarterfinal next weekend. They’d better get cracking with their psychologists as there’s potentially 3 knockout games left to turn this into a good season. There’s some good teams in the challenge cup quarterfinals so Edinburgh will need to be focused for full 80 minutes: no stupid mistakes or penalties and definitely no compounding stupid mistakes/penalties by making more mistakes/giving away more penalties trying to make up for the first ones.

    If the players mentioned on the match report thread as potential lions want to have any chance of being on that trip they need to show they can respond to a disappointing loss by coming out blazing and put away all comers to lift the cup.

    If Edinburgh can play like we have seen them play at times (and all wish they’d play like consistently) then they can win the cup. But they’re going to have to be focused on winning and cutting out the mistakes.

  6. Ssrcem on

    Alex Dunbar in the news talking about having to look for a new club, surely Edinburgh could grab this guy cheap… He was playing very well for Brive before surgery and coronavirus denied him a longer contract.

  7. Ian on

    Cockerill’s interview immediately after the second Glasgow game was not good. He played down Edinburgh’s defeat by calling the game a “dead rubber”. There were a lot of things he could have said…..congratulating Danny Wilson on a first win would have been one of them. But dismissing the defeat as meaningless because he fielded a weaker team sets a tone and losing rapidly becomes a habit. So Edinburgh now join as Glasgow as the only Pro14 team to lose home semi. I remember Glasgow were on fire the year they lose theirs…..they were tearing it up all winter and qualified with games to spare. They then took their foot off the gas and never got it back it again. So “dead rubbers” are dangerous things and they mess with the mindset of the squad.

  8. Not rocket science on

    Always swings in momentum, but being consistently wrong side of the pendulum is pathological and hurts.

    Two things would be nice;

    1. Making not stupid decisions at the end of games under pressure.

    2. Trucking it forward with big forwards and protecting the ball to maintain possession when holding onto a slim margin of victory.

    If could do either of above it would be easier to close out games.

    I.e. not lob it to the back of a lineout at the end of a WC qf; boot it back to the opposition; or give away penalties in kickable positions because players are too tense.

    Percentage rugby when it counts. Cockerill feels like the right sort of person to address this given time.

    • TEMC on

      Cockerill ? Sure Townsend is the man for that , he is the most level headed man in Scottish rugby. The quicker they get away from the pro sides and get into the motivational arms of Toony the better. is the only coach that has ever won the Pro 14.

    • Scrummo on

      I sometimes think it’s not just mental weakness but sheer stupidity.

      The decision to go to the back of the line out stank of someone deciding to try and be clever and think that nobody will expect it and about ‘clutch’ they’ll look when it comes off. Except it didn’t.

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