'The play-offs are time to create history for your club'
May 9, 2014
Dylan Hartley spurs his Northampton team on after victory against Saracens in the 2013 Premiership semi-finals © Getty Images
The professional rugby season seems to be getting longer and longer. When I first started playing more than 15 years ago, it wasn't unheard of to have more than five weeks off during the summer before pre-season. Now, that's a rarity. Toulon are having a whole six weeks this summer but I bet none of the British clubs get that luxury.
Professionalism has seen the season structure change several times. The play-off system has come into the equation, adding more fixtures to the regular league campaign. Many will say the club who wins the league should be the team crowned Champions. There are arguments for and against the system but the fact is it is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Play-offs add excitement to the final few weeks of a long season, even if this means more games to play for the players.
Cup rugby used to be one of the highlights during the season. Whatever the cup, the games had a huge buzz about them, as knockout rugby always tends to have. No matter what level of rugby, the buzz is the same. You get one shot. Get it wrong and all the work you have put in through the previous weeks and months goes down the drain. I thought the old national cup competitions were fantastic - the FA Cups of the rugby world. These have gone and the value placed on the current LV= Cup by some clubs is half-hearted at best. Even European competition is devalued by teams who see league survival as more important. The play-offs in the Aviva Premiership and the RaboDirect PRO12 have therefore become more and more exciting for the clubs and staff involved. They replace old cup competitions, the traditional knockout rugby valued hugely by players and clubs alike.
When the regular season finishes, clubs know where they are going to finish up. There might be one or two variations in places but most know if they are going to be involved in the post-season games. The structure of the training week won't change - it's too late for that - but there is certainly a change of feeling within clubs reaching this stage. Now is the most important point of the season: form must be good, the fitness of players is vital, and managing of their training load is huge - energy levels need to be at a high. Coaches are tempted to work the players harder by doing more specific drills aimed at undoing opposition, but a balance needs to be found between work load and rest. Gone are the days where working harder and 'beasting' players leads to better performance - I'm not sure there was much evidence that it made much of a difference anyway!
Players, coaching staff and medical teams all know that play-off games could be the last of the season. You could be on holiday on Monday or you could be preparing for another game, which may well be a final. The carrot of reaching a final with your mates who you have worked so hard with means a huge amount to players. Career highlights depend on success in play-off games.
At Newcastle we didn't reach the play-offs that often and the way you feel as a player in that situation is very different from players at the top clubs. My time at Toulon and Northampton allowed me to experience that on a regular basis, through league semi-finals and finals. You don't get the opportunity to switch off at these clubs, summer holidays aren't even thought of, everyone is fully concentrated on playing, winning something together and ending the year on a high.
That's probably the biggest difference being involved in play-offs - you know you are 160 minutes away from doing something that no one can take away from you, ever. Yes it adds pressure but it is these games that you want to be involved in as a player. Pressurized games matter. There is something at stake. Intensity goes up as the week builds and training sessions have that little bit extra in them. Not in terms of the content, but certainly in terms of the contact. 'Healthy grab' in defence normally ends up in a full bore tackle and there is a higher probability of a little scrap or two… Nothing that is going to worry the likes of Carl Froch but good enough for rugby players!
Of course, this season sees the seventh-placed team in the Top 14 play against their counterparts in the Aviva Premiership. Stade Francais will play Wasps in a play-off for the last available European spot. There are more and more opportunities for clubs and players to experience the buzz of knockout rugby and I think this is really important. It is something that the professional game has lost, the removal of traditional cup fixtures. Play-offs provide exciting match ups for players and fans alike. As much as governing bodies are trying to take more money from adding in games, I feel the trade-off is worth it as the excitement of being involved is totally worth the extra graft.
You sense the change in situation from regular league games. If you filmed week to week you wouldn't notice much of a difference but in terms of the messages put across from leaders and coaches, there is way more at stake, you can tell that. This is transferred to intensity on the training pitch. Players are always trying to be as good as they can be but the attention to detail during play-off week is amazing. Every little aspect of your own team and the opposition is looked at - it might make the difference. It's an exciting time of the season where players can create history for their clubs and win trophies with the people they put their bodies on the line for during the year. Look out for the intensity of the upcoming games. No doubt it will be through the roof, physicality of a different kind - it all adds to the excitement though, right?
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