Pre-match chat: can the match be won off the pitch?

In the wake of England rugby coach Eddie Jones’s calling out Wales fly-half Rhys Patchell before England’s 12-6 victory over Wales in round two of the 2018 Six Nations, this article assesses the importance of pre-match chat in sport.

Jones piled the pressure on the young Welsh fly-half in the days before the encounter, labelling him as “inexperienced” and claiming that getting the ball wide and playing the way Wales want to would be a “big job for him”. These claims were made by Jones on the premise that he would deploy England centre Jonathan Joseph to effectively scare Patchell and hassle him on the pitch.

This direct attack by the England coach was a clear tactic to put Patchell under pressure both before kick-off and during the match, which clearly achieved the desired effect to some extent, as Wales struggled to break England down with the free-flowing rugby that they exhibited in their victory against Scotland in round one.

This was not the first example of mind-games in the 2018 Six Nations and will not be the last, as the mental battle is a key part of rugby and is extremely prominent in the modern game.

Pre-match chat and mind games are in no sense exclusive to rugby and exist throughout the sporting world.

Football managers such as Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez immediately spring to mind with regards to mind games. Benitez’s famous “facts” rant, Ferguson’s hassling of referees and Mourinho’s verbal tussles with Arsene Wenger all sit memorably in the minds of football fans.

Even in the 2018 Winter Olympics at the moment, the Great Britain skeleton training outfit has caused a surge in mind games and pre-event controversy, as opponents have questioned the legality of their outfits and have called Britain out for having an unfair advantage.

Whilst the Olympic governing body have since verified the legality of the outfits, it is a great example of how mind-games are prevalent in all areas of sport.

The importance of mind games highlights how prominent mental attitudes are in sport.

This is particularly relevant for sports players who take part in high skill and high intensity events.

In the case of Rhys Patchell, an element of hesitation or doubt in his mind can be the difference between a win and a loss for his side.

In the case of the Great Britain skeleton team, the sense of an advantage over their competitors could give them the confidence to go for those extra split-seconds that could be the difference between Olympic gold and missing a podium position.

The same is true for football managers. When deciding upon their tactics for a game, they consider whether to go with confidence in attack or a more reserved defensive game, which has a direct impact on the result of football matches.

Mind games, however, do not always work in the favour of the speaker.

In 1996, Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan famously snapped on live television, claiming that Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson had gone down in his estimation for comments regarding how hard teams play against Manchester United in contrast to how they play against Newcastle.

Keegan’s rant has been remembered as a humorous moment for football fans, as he seems to have been unable to match the mind games of Ferguson and claimed he “would love it” if Newcastle beat Manchester United, which they ultimately never did.

Pre-match chat is extremely prevalent in modern sports, despite laws from various governing bodies that attempt to protect match officials and sporting figures from the verbal attacks of opponents.

The example of Eddie Jones’s targeting of Rhys Patchell shows just how effective mind games can be, as a few words can drastically shape the course of a sporting event.

 

Image courtesy of England Kath

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