Rest is best. That’s the conclusion from the first weekend of the NRL play-offs and a pointer to future finals.
The two top-four teams who rested players in the last round of the premiership – the Storm and Rabbitohs – both won through to the preliminary finals.
The two top-four teams who fielded their best possible teams in the final NRL round – the Sea Eagles and Panthers – both lost and must back up again next weekend.
Melbourne and South Sydney, risking further loss of cohesion through resting their top combinations in round 25, displayed far more fluidity against Manly and Penrith respectively, opponents who were intent on maintaining momentum.
In other words, the “resting teams”, the Storm and Rabbitohs, showed more evidence of telepathic teamwork than the teams seeking to further fine-tune full-strength combinations.
OK, the Sea Eagles were forced to field their top team against the Cowboys in Townsville in round 25 to secure a top-four finish and a double chance.
South Sydney’s Blake Taaffe and Cody Walker celebrate victory over the Rabbitohs.Credit:Getty
The Panthers, in defeating a weakened Parramatta in the final round, probably had their eye on a second successive minor premiership, which would have been theirs if a depleted Storm had lost.
Rest versus momentum has been a vexing issue for coaches, even back to the 1970s and 1980s when some minor premiers were given two rest weekends and lost the decider, while others won after playing each weekend, including a drawn grand final.
However, after two years of resting their top team in the final-round match and winning another weekend off before the preliminary final, the Storm are convinced rest is critical.
Craig Bellamy stood down almost all his team in the final round match against the Dragons in 2020 and followed a similar course this year, despite risking defeat to a Cronulla side desperately seeking a top-eight place.
The Storm, last year’s champions and favourites for the 2021 title, believe this is the way of the future. Perhaps other top-eight clubs will follow their lead and stand down entire teams, prompting the NRL to restore integrity to the play-offs by mandating a vacant weekend after the final round, as the AFL have done in past seasons.
However, these past two years have been like no other, with COVID-19 forcing clubs to re-locate to Queensland.
Given there are only so many hours in a day players are required to train, while living in resort hotels with catered meals, it could be expected they already enjoy ample rest.
But living away from home, some with families, imposes its own stresses. Bellamy has been public in declaring the second year on the road has been more difficult than 2020.
He has one advantage, however. Usually, on the eve of the semis, an opposition club will seed stories with the media about the Storm wrestling.
The two clubs with form for this media manipulation did not make the top eight this year and, in any case, Penrith’s Ivan Cleary and Souths Wayne Bennett, made another tactic public.
It certainly suited the “Skinny Coach” to have raised the issue of Penrith players impeding Souths defenders seeking to rush Panther kickers. While the Panthers were not penalised for illegal blocking, there were signs Saturday night’s referee warned their players on the run for this tactic, one which they have been employing for two years.
It made a difference, as did South’s defence, while the form of fullback, Ryan Papenhuyzen, with two tries either side of half-time against Manly, was critical in the Storm’s win.
Recovery time was important for Papenhuyzen to regain confidence after that nasty head knock in mid May, in the same way September rest is critical for those who scarcely missed a match in 2021.
Just as the great religions of the world teach us there are many ways to heaven, so it is with the path to the premiership.
Preliminary final coaches Bennett and Bellamy, having acquired almost godlike status in the game, are obviously believers in rest. However, should they win though to a Sunday grand final, it’s unlikely either will follow the sabbatical: “On the seventh day He rested.”
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