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Emotions boiling over in 2020 pressure cooker

Psychologists refer to the way Joey Leilua self-destructed or the reaction of Addin Fonua-Blake as an “amygdala hijacking”.

“Off goes the head, on goes the pumpkin and it’s too late,” explains leading sports psychologist Alan Mantle, who has previously worked with the Canterbury Bulldogs and NRL referees.

Mantle was speaking after a dramatic weekend of Round 8 matches, in which Fonua-Blake was sent off for dissent after full-time in Manly’s 14-12 defeat by Newcastle, Leilua received a four-match ban for a late off-the-ball tackle in Wests Tigers' 19-12 loss to Penrith and Brisbane players shed tears following their capitulation to the Warriors.

The round also featured a verbal exchange between an abusive Tigers fan and Panthers coach Ivan Cleary, while Sydney Roosters captain Jake Friend conceded an uncharacteristic 85th minute penalty against Melbourne that enabled the Storm to complete a stunning comeback win.

A week earlier, Canberra forward Corey Horsburgh had gestured at Parramatta players and gave Eels supporters the finger as he struggled to hold back tears after injuring his foot, while Broncos winger Corey Oates was charged for abusive comments towards a match official.

South Sydney star Latrell Mitchell also broke into tears in the dressing room after the Rabbitohs’ round 6 defeat of the Warriors, with the emotional toll of being stuck inside the NRL bubble and unable to visit his family later revealed as the reason. 

Dramatic finish ends with Fonua-Blake sent off

“Clearly the pressure and intensity has been ramped up due to a shortened season, which has amplified the importance of high performance each week,” said Kurt Wrigley, a former assistant coach at South Sydney and Newcastle.

Wrigley, who worked alongside Michael Maguire in plotting the Rabbitohs' 2014 premiership win, is now a leadership facilitator for Leading Teams, a company that works on leadership and team culture with a number of NRL and AFL clubs including competition leaders Parramatta and the Sydney Swans.

He believes the increase in emotion-charged incidents since the resumption of the Telstra Premiership is due to two significant factors:

Increased speed of the game with the new six-again rule and return to one referee, as less players in tackles has resulted in more ad-lib or second phase football, and;
Players becoming more insular as the COVID-19 restrictions require them to stick largely with those in their team bubbles, while the mid-year State of Origin has been shifted to the end of the season.

"Maybe the players have become a bit more tribal due to the 'iso' rules as they only hang around their team mates,” Wrigley said.

“There is less cross pollination after games with other clubs. Also the fact that normally players from different clubs have mixed during rep footy but there is no City-Country and Origin.”

Performance psychologist Shayne Duncan agrees, saying: “The coronavirus has just added another level of psychological demand and it’s opened up the cracks a little bit”.

Cut-throat season has nerves on edge

Since the resumption of the Telstra Premiership six weeks ago, coaches and players have been under intense scrutiny as the shortened 20-round competitions increases the pressure to win.

Warriors coach Stephen Kearney has been sacked and St George Illawarra’s Paul McGregor, Canterbury’s Dean Pay, Cronulla’s John Morris, North Queensland’s Paul Green and Brisbane’s Anthony Seibold have all had to endure speculation about their jobs.

Players haven’t been immune from the pressure either, with Benji Marshall and veteran forward Chris Lawrence among six Tigers axed by Maguire last month, Jarrod Wallace, Nathan Peats and Bryce Cartwright dropped by Gold Coast coach Justin Holbrook and Ben Hunt benched for the Dragons.

Broncos captain Alex Glenn and halfback Brodie Croft.
Broncos captain Alex Glenn and halfback Brodie Croft. ©Paul Barkley/NRL.com

The stress on Broncos players was evident after captain Alex Glenn and halfback Brodie Croft broke into tears following Saturday night’s 26-16 loss to the Warriors – Brisbane’s sixth consecutive defeat.

Mantle, whose company Enhance Mind Performance has also worked with international cricketers and state sides, said the Broncos appeared to be focused too heavily on winning and treating every result like their entire season depended on it.

“When we become emotional like that, a lot of times it is because we have used up every ounce of emotional energy in playing the game,” Mantle said.

“When we are physically strong we can contain our emotions, when we are physically depleted there is no internal mechanism that prevents us from shedding tears or crying.

“I think it is probably a combination of them being mentally tired or fatigued and also they are trying their hardest. They are putting in more effort than what they were last year when they were winning games because their emphasis is on the outcome of the match.

“If we are outcome driven and all we are focusing on is winning a game, with that type of mindset comes enormous pressure. It is like a pressure cooker, we’ve got to let the steam off somewhere and that comes out in tears.”

Processing injustice and brain snaps

Manly is another club with high expectations and the Sea Eagles overcame injuries to three key backs, including star fullback Tom Trbojevic, to defeat Canberra three weeks ago in a win described by coach Des Hasler as one of the best in the club's history.

However, they have since slumped to consecutive losses against Cronulla and Newcastle, and are now in 10th place.

Had Manly beaten the Knights they would be seventh and if an incorrect decision had not been made to disallow a try to fullback Reuben Garrick in the dying minutes of last month’s match against Parramatta, the Sea Eagles could be equal second.

Duncan believes the decision in the Eels match may have been in Fonua-Blake’s mind when he abused referee Grant Atkins after the Sea Eagles were denied a penalty after the last play of Sunday’s game against Newcastle that would have given them a chance to level the scores.

Joseph Leilua sent to sin bin for high shot on Edwards

“We talk about injustice being the most difficult emotion to process and get rid of so that is going to sit in the back of their minds, especially when they are on the cusp of the eight and they have lost Turbo,” Duncan said.

“It’s hard to say it is not going to have an impact so when in the 80th minute there is a questionable decision they blow up. It will be like ‘not again’. It is very hard to process injustice and some guys will get stuck in the loop.”

Leilua lost his way against the Panthers after a high tackle by Penrith hooker Api Koroisau left his brother Luciano concussed, and he never regained his composure.

Despite the Tigers levelling the scores at 12-12 with a 60th minute penalty goal, Leilua was unsettled and he conceded back-to-back penalties before taking Penrith fullback Dylan Edwards high in an off-the ball tackle.

Mantle said Leilua and Fonua-Blake had both suffered “brain snaps”.

“These players are having a little amygdala hijacking of the brain,” he said. “The amygdala is the part of the brain which when we have a road-rage incident it just snaps and once it snaps it is hard to get it back.”

Coach, veteran show they are human

Even the usually cool, calm and collected Cleary struggled to control his emotions after an expletive-laden attack from a Tigers fan over his departure from the club two years ago and the Penrith coach responded by blowing kisses and pointing at the scoreboard.

It’s an incident Cleary regrets but Wrigley said: “That shows he is human”.

The usually unflappable Friend cost the Roosters victory against the Storm after Melbourne had scored two tries in three minutes and kicked a field goal to force the game into extra time.

With Sam Verrills and Victor Radley undergoing knee reconstructions last week the Roosters have no back-up hooker for Friend.

“It’s golden point so you have got the combination of fatigue, desire, adrenalin, risk, threat – they are in striking distance, they are wanting a quick play-the-ball,” Duncan said.

Cleary explains incident in coaches box

The Storm-Roosters match has been widely hailed as the best match of the season and the average margin in games between top eight teams since the resumption of the season is just 10 points compared to 15 points last year.

However, there is a growing gap between the top teams and those near the bottom of the ladder.

“I think the competition is polarised and lack of State of Origin will compound that further,” Wrigley said. “Sometimes Origin allows the lower clubs a chance to get some wins as normally they have less rep players,

“In the end, the clubs that are clear about their culture or identity will have an anchor for behaviour and performance."

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.