Whether you are third or third last and out of finals contention with six rounds to go, every game is treated the same by the coaches and players.
You are dealing with highly motivated people who have a real inner desire to win games and a great deal of personal pride that will drive them to perform at their best - week in, week out - until the last game of the season.
In addition to that, before the season starts, the team and coach usually agree on an ethos or set of standards to play by every week. As a coach you can’t invent something every week to motivate your team; you need to constantly reinforce those standards set in the pre-season. It could be things like winning all home games, or completing 75% of sets, rather than just being about winning the premiership.
For teams like the Titans, Roosters, Eels and Raiders who are out of finals contention now, the coach would be reinforcing those positive messages, as well as relying on individual personal pride to keep turning up each week.
Spectators will pick up on that too if teams are not delivering on their pre-season promise. If players were diving on loose balls and slapping each other on the back when their team scored in the early rounds, and that drops off when they are out of finals contention, then their focus was obviously just about winning the premiership rather than maintaining the standards set and agreed to.
Maintaining that enthusiasm and drive each week for 26 rounds can be tough - and maybe some players can struggle with it at the back end of the season - but generally it's a matter of personal pride. Every team I have played with or coached have had that real individual desire ... not just for the game but for the little personal battles within the match.
As a coach, if you feel someone is not playing as well as they could and you are out of the finals race, you have the option to drop him and give a young bloke a chance to prove himself for next season. John Cartwright is taking the opportunity this weekend to trial a young winger (Dominique Peyroux). Last week Bulldogs caretaker coach Jim Dymock wanted to rattle the cage and send a message to his players and dropped Josh Morris, even though he’s played for Australia.
It certainly makes the teams at the bottom of the ladder dangerous … as was evident with the Dragons (3rd) and Raiders (13th) on Monday night, with Canberra causing an upset. There is no doubt Canberra coach David Furner would have reminded his team of their great record over the Dragons - who haven’t won in the national capital since 2000 - and, without labouring the point, talked about uphlolding what those before had done.
The Dragons would never admit it, but they probably didn’t want to play football on a cold winter’s night in Canberra. I know when I was coaching the Cowboys and we were in the bottom four or six teams, we would always give Parramatta a run for their money no matter where they were coming. They were not comfortable coming to North Queensland to play.
The competition is pretty close and you can’t predict the result you are going to get, even if you have the fourth team playing the second-last team. With six rounds to go until the finals, the top five won’t change, with the Sea Eagles, Storm, Dragons, Broncos and Cowboys all certain to make the cut. I would expect the Warriors, Wests Tigers and Knights to fill the other three spots.