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'Dress rehearsal without stars': The risk of resting players before finals

Renowned sports psychologist Phil Jauncey compares the last round before the finals to a dress rehearsal for an actor.

"If you stuff up your lines it doesn't really matter, but you want to make sure that when the curtain rises you get it right," Jauncey said.

With Parramatta, South Sydney and Melbourne deciding to rest stars from playing this weekend to freshen them up ahead of the final, there has never been so much debate about the best methods to prepare for the playoffs.

If they lose or perform below par but play well in the opening round of finals matches, the move will be viewed as a masterstroke.

However if they don't, the team will be seen to have lost momentum.

"It is like the debate about whether teams are better off, or not, to have a week off during the finals. There is no simple answer," said Jauncey, who has worked with Olympic teams, the Australian cricket team, the Brisbane Lions, the Broncos and the Rabbitohs.

After ending the Storm's record 19-match winning streak last weekend, the decision by Eels coach Brad Arthur to rest nine players for Friday night's match against second-placed Penrith has sparked the most controversy.

Arthur pays heed to health over top-four chance

Parramatta had lost four consecutive matches before edging North Queensland but roared back into premiership contention with their 22-10 defeat of Melbourne.

Yet there are concerns Arthur may be jeopardising the confidence the Eels gained from their win against the Storm by taking on the Panthers without the likes of Clint Gutherson, Mitchell Moses, Dylan Brown, Nathan Brown and Isaiah Papali'i.

Manly mindset coach John Novak, who was involved in the club's 2011 premiership win, as well as Canterbury's 2012 and 2014 grand final losses, and has worked with Olympic medallists Melissa Wu and James Magnussen, doesn't believe it should be a significant factor.

"Parramatta have just beaten the team who won 19 matches in a row so they can't go into the finals without thinking 'we've got something here', even if they had lost four games before that," Novak said.

"If any team gets beaten and you don't have nine of your top players you can say, 'it doesn't really matter'. You are going to come back and be stronger if the body is rested.

"The guys have been playing all year together so, unless there is a big change in personnel, they have still got confidence that the person they are playing with is able to throw a ball and catch it.

"One week isn't going to make any difference. It is not like tennis. There is a contagiousness of excellence based on confidence that we have done this before."

Eels v Panthers - Round 25

In effect, the Eels are on a high after toppling Melbourne – the only team to beat them twice this season – and by reducing the significance of their clash with Penrith they can carry that feeling into the finals.

"In their minds they can say 'we didn't have our stars playing so losing the game is not that big a deal'," Jauncey said.

"It's a gamble but the big thing that coaches and everyone are asking themselves is 'how can we be the best to play in the finals?'

"Some would rather have a bit of rust, lose a bit of momentum but be fresher physically. Others say no, it is really important that we keep the momentum going so everyone keeps playing and you risk injury or fatigue.

"There is no simple answer because it is a debate and it is across the game. I think a lot of teams are now saying the cost of resting some players is not too high because we want to get the gain of rested players.

"But if Penrith thrash Parramatta, what is the cost of that? Every team this weekend I think has had to ask that question. If the cost is not that high, then the gain of having rested players for the finals is probably worth it."

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After last year losing four stars to injury in Parramatta's opening finals match, Arthur said on Thursday he wanted to give his fringe players some game time in case the Eels are in a similar position this season.

With the cancellation of the NSW Cup due to COVID-19, those players have seen no on-field action for up to two months. 

Parramatta are also expected to be bolstered by the return of prop Reagan Campbell-Gillard (groin) and second-rower Ryan Matterson (suspension) for what is likely to be a sudden-death clash in the opening finals weekend. 

"There is no reason they wouldn't be confident, however, they have still got to play the game," Novak said. "It doesn't who you are playing or how much you are rested, you have still got a team against you that is there to defeat you.

"Every team is going through the same thing. 'How much do we believe, how much do we trust, how much do we believe in the guy next to us?' It's the same for everyone, 'do you believe in your structures, do you believe in your processes?'

"For Parramatta, the Melbourne game is very, very important. For any team to remember something that gives them strength is important."

Sharks v Storm - Round 25

Despite the high stakes and expectations in finals matches, Jauncey said it was important for teams to focus on their performance rather than the result.

"In sport we never want regret but we can handle disappointment," he said. "Generally, when teams don't play well they have regret. That means they didn't execute.

"Going into the finals you want to make sure you are executing well and if you do you have a chance but it may be that the other team executes better and you get disappointed.

"What you don't want in the finals is regret. You just want to make sure as a team, coaches, support staff that your team went out and executed the best they can.

With teams resting players this weekend, the question is, 'if you have a dress rehearsal without your stars, what happens when the curtain rises'. We won't know the answer for a few weeks."

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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