Rugby League Expert & Columnist
Brian Carney: Mental strength key to Super League success
Last Updated: 12/02/18 8:39pm
Two rounds into the new Betfred Super League season and mental frailties are already starting to show. In this week's column, Sky Sports' Brian Carney gives his assessment of the psychological battle testing the league's top teams.
We are only two rounds into the Super League season but already the nature of some of the performances, and the manner of some of the results, offers an insight into the mental battle that teams must overcome if they are to challenge for the title.
The obvious starting point is Castleford Tigers who were outstanding last season, but who are now struggling to play with the same accuracy and precision that marked them out last year.
I found it fascinating to hear Mike Shenton talk about the Widnes' game as a 'must-win' encounter.
That's responsibility I admire; that Shenton would welcome that pressure of saying Castleford could not afford to lose the tie, following on from a tough defeat to St Helens in Round 1.
In the end, Tigers came away with two points and Widnes with zero points and coach Daryl Powell was left to express his relief. But this wasn't vintage Castleford by any means.
Widnes could have tied or won the game and they would have been getting on the bus home feeling like they, not Castleford, were closer to where they need to be this season.
So, Castleford have the comfort of the win but the discomfort of knowing that they've yet to click and not really knowing why.
If I was a Castleford player I know I'd be thinking: 'It's good we got the win, but I know something isn't right?'
The thing about winning when you are not playing well is that in my experience the same rigour is not applied to assessing your performance and what's gone wrong.
If you win seven times in a row playing below your potential, then the same address is not made of your mistakes as it would if the same performances were ending in defeat.
Castleford are now going to have to flog a team before people say "yeah they're back".
Their defence was good last year but they haven't been as good with the ball in attack. And when you are not as good with the ball in attack, then you have more defence to do.
And a defence that's under pressure makes mistakes. My question mark is why is the attack so off in terms of precision and accuracy?
Being 'off' is a matter of inches. It's putting a pass to a player so they don't have to break stride or have to adjust to take it.
A good player can take a bad pass and turn it into a good pass. A bad player will take a bad pass and make a worse one.
Last year, Castleford passed with great precision. They were quicker, cleaner and more accurate in their distribution and it's not there yet this season.
If you know you have the players who can do it you tend to be less concerned and what Castleford did last year was transfer what they did on the training pitch onto the field.
They can take some solace from that.
But they have to step up now when they are playing bad, not when they are getting slaps on the back.
When it's not happening you can inadvertently pump the tyres of the opposition team by forcing plays and making mistakes that buoy your opponent and their support.
Focusing on the first two rounds of Super League is a small sample size admittedly, but there's been enough action to get an early energy rating of teams and the purpose of this column is to make a distinction between the mental bounce a team can get from a performance rather than a result.
Maybe it's a hangover from last season? Maybe it's the same problem facing Warrington and they are almost indistinguishable from the team that got dragged into the Middle 8s, and last week was not just another defeat but a sizeable 20-6 loss to Huddersfield.
But like Widnes, Catalans Dragons will have felt they got a foothold despite defeat to St Helens who were travelling after that comprehensive win against Castleford in Round 1.
Catalans were abject against Widnes in the opening round and the team that arrived to town next was the most clinical in St Helens. And while they lost the game they have gotten a psychological benefit from it.
Most importantly, they can take that to Hull Kingston Rovers in the next round.