Handling the pressure. Winning Origins, Olympic Gold and Group Ones. Could you do it?

July 7, 2012

Have you ever kicked a field goal?

I have. A wobbly effort from in front of the posts, about twenty-five years ago. Before a crowd of around fifty.

I missed a few hundred others. Mainly at training sessions. Time and again, they’d go wide, or fail to get off the ground.

Try one yourself. Grab a footy, head down to the park, and have a go.

If you nail it, give yourself a pat on the back. Then imagine that you were kicking in front of 50-thousand screaming fans, at league headquarters. Minutes to go in the game’s biggest showpiece. With the hopes and dreams of a state riding on your effort.

If you are still on your feet, you may have scratched the surface of what Cooper Cronk achieved this week. A pressure situation that he’d been training for all his life.

Pressure. We all handle it in different ways. On different stages. Some run a mile to avoid it. Others, like the Maroons half-back, eat it for breakfast.

Minutes earlier in the Origin classic, there was another example of a bloke dealing with a pressure situation that would have turned others into quivering wrecks.

I’m no fan of Todd Carney. But his kick from the sideline to keep his side, and his state, in the game, was career-defining.

Miss it, and they would have had his head. He knew that. Easier kicks had been missed throughout the series. He knew that too.

So what does he do? Hits it sweetly. Never looked like missing. You won’t see too many more impressive efforts.

It’s what they train to do, these blokes. They want the big moments. They yearn for the play that will win the contest.

Plenty was made of Luke Nolen’s effort on Black Caviar at Ascot a few weekends ago. A winning effort, mind you. But one that almost ended in tears.

The thing about Nolen is that he has dealt with pressure like no-one else these past few racing seasons.

Time and again, he’s ridden the perfect race on the Mighty Mare. With a nation watching his every move.

Every win brought added attention. Which he handled with total professionalism, and a splash of humour.

Don’t under-estimate just how tough his job is. Trainer and connections expect perfection every time. The price of steering one of the world’s greatest ever racehorses. And Nolen wouldn’t swap the gig for anything.

Glen Boss was the same. Listen to his interviews about riding the great Makybe Diva into the record books.

When they stepped out to win their third Melbourne Cup, the weight of expectation was enough to suffocate mere mortals. Boss thrived on it. A moment he’d worked for his whole career.

Cathy Freeman could have identified with all of them. Very few can say they’ve carried the hopes of a nation. Phar Lap. Bradman. Laver. And our Cathy.

It was the event we wanted to win at the Sydney Olympics. Actually, it was more than that. We expected to win it. When the girl from Mackay lined up in the 400 that night, she must have heard every one of us cheering.

Can you imagine how that would have felt? What it would have been like to let us down?

She didn’t, of course. Because champions make that pressure work for them, not against them.

We’ll see similar efforts at the London Olympics. And we’ll see someone else step up in Origin next year. And at Randwick or Flemington. Those special people, who want to shine, when others are looking for somewhere to hide.

If you miss that field goal, have another try. And another. That’s what Cooper Cronk did. Funny how the harder you work, the luckier you get.

Tips on how to enjoy State of Origin night. Wear a beanie, avoid other people, and give me your ticket.

May 22, 2012

A bloke’s life story can be told through his viewing of Origin.

There are phases we go through. Early on, the experience could last for days.

Now, the smart money suggests I’ll be asleep before they announce the man of the match

So many ways it can be done. With huge crowds, or home alone.

As you chill the drinks and prepare the dip ahead of tomorrow night, let’s reflect on how to make the most of the big event.

#Go To The Game – (highly recommended).

Everyone has to experience at least one Origin at the ground. It’s the ultimate for any footy fan. And I’m talking all codes here.

You will breathe in the colour, the noise, and the passion. Come kick-off, your heartbeat will match the players.

If you’re lucky enough to watch a win, you will be overcome with a desire to celebrate, as if you scored the winning try yourself. On the way out of the ground, you will share that joy with fellow fans. And make life hell for the opposition. Like I said, everyone has to do it once in their lifetime.

#Go To The Game And Sit In A Corporate Box – (very highly recommended).

If you’re lucky enough to jag an invite to an Origin box, we officially hate you.

You’ll enjoy all of the above, as well as sampling free drinks and lashings of decent tucker.

There is also the added bonus of boasting to workmates before, during and after the event.

A word of warning though. You might end up with people who have absolutely no interest in sport. They are easy to identify, because they have their back to the field, and talk about things that you don’t care about.

If this is the case, you have permission to ask security to eject them. Or, if the discussion moves to shoe shopping, do the job yourself. No court in the land will convict you.

#Go To A Pub With A Huge Crowd Of Drunks – (recommended only for the young and foolhardy).

There was a time when this option held great appeal. In fact, it’s how I watched many Origin games in my youth.

We would be stuck in the middle of hundreds of drunken, sweaty fans in footy jumpers. Of course, the availability of cool drinks played a part.

These days, I would rather remove my toenails with rusty tools while listening to Andre Rieu’s latest CD.

The problem is, you can’t hear the game. You’ll be bumped. And have a colourful cocktail splashed all over you.

There will be a fight nearby, you’ll spend the first half stuck in a line for the bar/toilet/hot chips, and when it’s done and dusted, you have absolutely no chance of finding a taxi.

If all that appeals to you, good luck, and see you next week.

#Go To A Party Hosted By A Neighbour Or Friend – (recommended if you have no food left at home, or your tv is on the blink).

Some people think Origin is the ideal evening to host a party. They invite lots of people, who have to rush home from work and put proper clothes on.

The problem is, most of those people will want to talk to you throughout the game.

They’ll see it as the perfect opportunity to discuss the latest Walk-to-School initiative. Just as Billy Slater crosses for his second try.

In this instance, you are well within your rights to order everyone out of the room, except for those who are former State of Origin greats.

#Host A Party For Neighbours And Friends – (seriously, are you nuts?)

Don’t do this. Under any circumstance. You’ll see none of the game. Someone will drink your beer. And you’ll have to do the washing up when they finally go home.

#Stay At Home, Take The Phone Off The Hook And Eat Nachos – (if you’re REALLY lucky).

Yes, it’s come to this. If you can’t be at the game, the perfect Origin night is in your very own lounge room.

No disruptions. You can wear your warm pyjamas, and no-one will know. Just make sure you add your Queensland beanie.

Heat up the nachos at the end of the national anthem, grab a cool drink, and hit your comfy chair. You won’t miss a second of the action. And you can yell mindless insults as much as you like.

Wherever you plan to watch the game, good luck, and enjoy your night. Just don’t disturb me.

Farewell Locky, and thanks. From the next generation of Maroons.

July 5, 2011

I like my champions humble. No loudmouths required. No need for tyres to be pumped up. Guys that leave the game in better shape than when they started. And they give back, constantly.

For mine, the best ones are those special characters who work their entire career, craving the respect of their teammates. Young men and women who more often than not become leaders, on and off the field.

Sure, some of the better ones have egos you couldn’t jump over with a decent run up. Good luck to them. Just not my type.

I’m not using the term hero here. Because the people I’m talking about, athletes who perform feats that dazzle us each weekend, know they’re not heroes. They get embarrassed by the comparison.

A hero is a bloke like Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith. The Aussie soldier who was awarded the Victoria Cross earlier this year. Remember him? A giant of a man. Wouldn’t he do some damage running off Thurston? You’d rather be feeding him for a day than a week.

Instead of performing on the paddock, he gets the job done on the battle field. With bullets whizzing past his ears. He single-handedly stormed a machine gun post in Afghanistan, to save the lives of his fellow Diggers. Yep, that’s a hero.

Which brings me to Darren Lockyer. A special type if ever there was one. A gifted footballer with a rare talent, who would cringe at being on the same page as a VC winner.

He’ll captain his beloved Queensland for the final time tomorrow night. You may have read about it. The Origin Decider. Pretty big deal. In front of a sell out crowd at the home of rugby league. With every lounge room and every pub in Queensland screaming his nickname.

A crowded desk of Hollywood scriptwriters with access to a full bar couldn’t have come up with this script. The perfect farewell. At the perfect stadium. Against the perfect enemy.

It’s difficult to line Locky up with the greats who’ve gone before him. Not that he’d want you to anyway.

The King is the natural comparison. But he’s not Wally, who was larger than life. Tallis was larger than everyone else. I swear he grew a few inches when he stepped over the chalk.

Alfie was smaller than everyone else. With a heart larger than everyone else. And Gilly was tougher than everyone else. Humble too. But different again.

No, he’s not any of those legends. Because he’s his own man. And he’s a champion.

It’s hard enough to be number one in the world in one position. It’s easy to forget, the skipper has been the best in two. With a bit more hair and a clearer voice, Locky was the ultimate fullback. He wasn’t running through those holes. He was gliding. Twinkling toes barely touching the turf.

It’s the way old timers describe the great Dragon Reg Gasnier slicing through defences. Yes, I’m talking about people who are older than me. They do exist.

Locky could have played out his time in the Number One jersey, breaking try scoring records, and at the same time adding a few years to his career. But he didn’t.

He was given a challenge, and he accepted. Play a new role. Wear the six. Become a true leader. And a greater player. Yet another reason why he’s a champion.

You’ll never hear the bloke give himself a wrap. He’ll praise the team, and the coach, and sometimes even his opponents. But not himself. It’s not his style.

Darren is not one for extravagance. No crazy PR stunts. The hospital visits, the chats to others down on their luck, are done in private. And there are plenty of them. Sound like a champion to you?

You’ve heard him say he doesn’t want the decider to be about him. And he means that. With all his might. Because he doesn’t see himself bigger than anyone else. Certainly not more important than the others. And most of all, not bigger than the game itself.

What he wants to do tomorrow night is run, and tackle, and lead. He wants to make the right choices in attack, every play. He wants to defend like his life depends on it.  He’ll drive the big blokes, and keep emotions in check when the going gets tough. And he won’t niggle anyone. Not once.

I want him to be holding the shield above his head after fulltime. Yes, the perfect farewell. I want Mal to produce that toothy smile. I want big Sam to give him a bear hug, and Thurston to do that groovy hand shake.

It means all of Queensland will smile on Thursday. An entire state will be happy. Poor Gus and Ricky will go home, and complain about something. Making our smile even bigger.

And I reckon it will happen. I do.

As great as that is, there’s something even better. Because of Darren Lockyer, there’ll be a spring in the step of kids from Coolangatta to Coen.

In backyards, and parks, and playgrounds, they’ll be running with the footy, and laughing. Playing with their mates, and their brothers, and their dads. Running, and stepping, and scoring.

It’s how all those great names started. Those same neighborhood games.

This week, and for the weeks and months ahead, youngsters will be inspired by a bloke who plays the game for all the right reasons. Loves everything it stands for. A humble man, who just happens to be the best there is. A true champion.