Mind Games: Maintain the pace and plan for Polly Shortts

2015-03-15 15:00

In an endurance race there is really only one rule: it is not how you start, but how you finish that counts.

We South Africans have an annual reminder of this when the Comrades Marathon is run, but it is relevant to almost any sport, as they all have a starting point and a goal.

It is especially true for the Vodacom Super Rugby competition, which exercise physiologist and high-performance expert Dr Ross Tucker reminded us recently was a marathon and not a sprint.

Only five of the 18 rounds of league play in Super Rugby have been completed, but already there is talk of disaster for some, like the Sharks after their poor start – and potential glory for others, like the quick-out-of-the-starting-blocks Stormers.

It is obviously better to get off to a good start and begin compiling points on the log.

Statistics of the last four years of the Super XV (the latest incarnation of a concept that started out as the Super 10), show that the team that topped the league table won the tournament – although a late challenge is possible.

In 2011, the Reds were the leading side going into the play-offs and took the trophy – this was also the case for the Chiefs and Waratahs in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

Significantly, the only team that topped the log – but did not go on to take the title – were the Stormers in 2012.

The men from the Cape know only too well the abject disappointment of making all the running but stumbling at the last hurdle – as was first shown in 2011, when they reached the knockout stages in second place, though the disappointment of 2012 was even worse.

Also interesting is that they lost both their semifinals, one to the Crusaders and the other to the Sharks, at what is said to be their impregnable Newlands stronghold.

The challenge for the Stormers this season must be to maintain the pace or find a formula that gets them through when “Polly Shortts” challenges arrive. (Polly Shortts is the toughest hill near the end of the up-run Comrades from Durban to Maritzburg.)

According to sports physicians, the first option is almost impossible because of the length and punishing nature of the tournament.

It is a concern that the Stormers are still not achieving the try-scoring rate expected of a team with their capabilities – bonus points for tries could prove to be crucial in determining the final standings.

But the upside is that they have returned to the running-rugby traditions of Western Province, rather than the constricting, defensive mind-set of a few seasons ago.

All is not lost for the teams that find themselves trailing. In the four previous Super XVs, the sides claiming fourth, fifth and sixth in the qualifying spots have averaged six defeats out of their 16 fixtures, while the Highlanders last year qualified despite losing eight games.

So, when a coach resorts to the old “we’ll take it game by game” cliché, he is nearer to the mark than it might seem.

The key, it seems, is to apply the Comrades maxim of continuing to move forward or, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, “fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run”.

Knowing Super Rugby, unforgiving it will be!

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