The sporting comeback. How glorious. The dip and rise of conquest. From impossible to possible; from broken to fixed; lost to found; we all love a good sporting comeback.
Well, I say all of us. There are those whom it beats. If there is nothing better than a comeback, it follows that there can be nothing worse than being overcome by one. Possible turns impossible, fixed becomes broken, found makes way for heartbreakingly lost.
There were two comebacks this weekend in the Aviva Premiership. Both exacted by two sides who possess an unnerving ability to overturn a score. Two sides whose sporting psychology includes words like ‘fat lady’ and ‘not singing’. Two sides possessing players of unabating confidence and an almost arrogant belligerence. You wouldn’t get long odds on Saracens and Leicester contesting the Premiership Final come May. Victories like they affected in round 10 are the evidence on which the bookies will be basing their calculations.
But what of the fallen? Gloucester and Bath trudged from their respective fields with the same feeling. Bath’s inability to win is starker because of last season’s heroics but Gloucester have been doing this sort of thing for a long time. In fact, looking at the way the Cherry and Whites controlled the majority of the game against Leicester, you’d argue theirs is a bigger problem: this is a skill they’ve been honing. Bath were away at the league leaders, defending heavily for the majority of the game. Gloucester were at home, in front of their ‘Shed’; with ten minutes to go they had the seemingly blunted Tigers pinned in their own 22; they were eight points clear.
News this week tells of a new owner taking over at Kingsholm. The Walkinshaws, a name integral to nearly 20 years of PRL history, are selling their stake. Saturday afternoon showcased what was being purchased. A team with a dormant potential but a realised ability to underachieve. How do you go about turning that around? As much as Leicester have embraced a new expansive game plan, nothing has changed their ability to win when they shouldn’t. How Gloucester would love that. Everything else is in place. Does it come from the players or is it something management can instill? Is it something you only get with practice; does one good victory beget another?
Which is greater, a winning habit or a losing one? Surely they are different ends of the same stick. Much like Leicester and Saracens have developed a winning mentality, Gloucester, and more recently Bath, have cultivated a rut. Sport is not so much about skill sets and physical talent, it is about a force of mind. A winning mentality allows you to ride out a process, to recognise pressure points, to pause and nod and allow an opposition’s self doubt to grow within that space. Both West Country clubs are really battling two foes at the moment; an opposition on the field, and self doubt. When you are in a winning habit, there is only one focus. At half time in Barnet, as the whistle blew, the Bath players didn’t run for the changing room. They stayed out and formed a huddle. They were trying to stay together, protecting themselves from what they knew was coming. Because of previous results, the Bath players knew what questions would be asked in the second half. They gathered as one trying to keep out the doubt.
Mike Ford’s eyes said it all. As the game ebbed away, he loitered aside the Allianz Park pitch, looking like a man hoping against hope that the sun wouldn’t rise. As Charlie Hodgson’s boot lifted the ball up and through the posts, Ford turned, his finger and thumb stretched either side of his forehead, massaging his temples. If rugby did headaches, Bath are down with a mighty migraine. Shorn of their supposed best players, they did everything right in the first half in North London. They filled the spaces, fronted up, tucked in all their loose bits. There were heroic endeavours in defeat. Is there a better openside than Francois Louw at the moment? What on earth do you say to him on Monday morning? Mike Ford’s eyes said it all.
As a fan of either club, the concern must be how and when it will change. The longer you stay there, as Gloucester are finding, the more difficult it becomes to throw off the shackles. Something needs to break. There is a switch, somewhere, that needs to be flicked. Finding it is everything at the moment. Friday night’s game between the two clubs should be more than interesting.
It is perhaps the greatest of sporting challenges. To banish doubt and turn a losing mentality into a winning one; to beat your own demons into submission. That would be a comeback. And as I say, everyone loves a comeback.
Sam Roberts © 2016. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.