His side turned an opening quarter tackle-a-thon into a free-flowing points spree last weekend, but Perth Spirit coach Dwayne Nestor knows that his team’s consistency has to greatly improve over the final three rounds of the Buildcorp NRC.
After a reasonable start against Melbourne Rising, the Spirit followed up with two up-and-down performances against the Sydney Rays and Western Sydney Rams, before last weekend’s try-fest against Queensland Country. The wins are on the board, but in terms of 80-minute performances, Nestor knows there’s a long way to go.
“That’s probably the thing where we’ve got to become a lot more consistent at,” he told rugby.com.au this week.
“For 80 minutes, we need to be able to defend like we did in that first 25 minutes against Queensland Country. Because if we do that, we know we’re going to be very, very difficult to beat, because we can turn opportunities into points.”
Nestor took on the Spirit’s Head Coach role this season, but has been involved in coaching in Western Australia since the inception of the Western Force more than a decade ago.
“Yeah, March 2005 I started. I’m almost part of the furniture now,” Nestor laughs.
Starting in a development capacity, Nestor has been overseeing the rugby pathways in the west as the Junior Elite Coach for much of that time, which in the past few years has had him looking after the RugbyWA Junior Gold Cup programs, as well as small involvements in the Future Force program for the players hoping to transition into the Western Force set-up.
Though the junior development has been his main focus, Nestor over the years has also dabbled as an assistant coach in the Perth Gold representative side that played in the old Australian Rugby Shield, and has been an assistant in the Spirit program in the last few seasons, too. When the chance to take the Spirit Head Coach role presented itself, Nestor jumped at it.
“As an assistant coach, you naturally have your ideas on what you think would work, and how you could get it to work, and when I was given the opportunity to take the Head Coach role, I thought, ‘I can have an influence on this team’, particularly around the attitude we go in with,” he said.
“And as much as the Western Force had disappointing results this year, that actually assisted in the message I wanted to get across, because I wanted the boys to just genuinely enjoy their rugby, and to play a type of footy that would enable them to do that, where they can let the ball do a fair bit of the work for them.
“I think they’ve taken to that pretty well, and they are enjoying playing for Perth Spirit. I basically said to them, ‘I’m not going to come down on you hard if make an error trying something. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, and if you do make a mistake, I want you to turn around and try it again because I back their abilities as players and I want them to enjoy playing to their ability.”
Of course, players playing to their ability, and playing to enjoy their rugby brings with it a risk of inconsistency, which in a seven-week competition like the National Rugby Championship, is something a head coach would prefer to keep to a minimum.
So how can a coach minimise that inconsistency? And remembering that it comes from two different directions: consistency of selection, and then consistency of performance.
In terms of selection, Nestor is yet to name the same matchday 23 from one week to the next. And that’s before you consider situations such as last week, where on the day he named his side, he found out that Wallabies Ben McCalman and Luke Morahan would be released to pull on the Perth jumper. It can’t be easy.
“One thing is to just not make anything of the changes, just make them a normal part of the week. If you make a big deal out of it, then it starts to become an issue in the forefront of players’ minds. If you don’t make an issue of it, then their focus comes back to what they have to do in their individual role, and what the team is looking for them to do on that weekend.
“It’s the messages you give to players; if you give them the right messages which relate to their role and the team’s game plan, rather than which individual is in, and which individual is out, then those messages reinforce something that is consistent,” Nestor said.
“Even the Wallabies coming back I look at as a positive, and if you do that, then the boys react positively to that. It becomes an issue for the bloke who is forced out of the squad, but once again, if you have good communication with those players, they understand the situation, and they’re able to see it for what it is, and everyone else in the side says, ‘great, we’ve got Big Dog (McCalman) back, and we’ve got ‘Mozza’ back’, and they grow an extra foot and find an extra yard of pace because they’re playing with those players.”
The other aspect to it is the consistency on the field, and Nestor is the first to admit that it’s the biggest single thing a coach can’t control. The best game plans still need the players to execute it, and this is where Perth have often found themselves starting games well – they’ve led their last three games at halftime – but not necessarily able to finish them off.
“I think it comes down to the bench sometimes, as well,” Nestor ponders. “If you can’t get that impact off the bench that you need to finish a game, then you can fall off a bit in the second half.
“We weren’t too bad against the Rising in Round One, but then we were pretty ordinary against the Rays the following week. I actually questioned the players, whether the wet weather (at North Sydney Oval in Round Two) had an effect, but they couldn't really put their finger on whether it did or it didn’t. And I’m starting to get the impression that we are a team that is going to love dry-weather rugby.
“We were a little inconsistent against the Rams in the second half, but as we saw last week against Queensland Country, we’re obviously a team that invests a lot in our start. We’ve started all our games fairly well – when we’ve had the ball; that wasn’t the situation against Queensland Country! – and we’ve been able to put pressure on teams when we do have the ball.
“We invest a lot in the first half, and we’ve just got to learn how to finish off games.”
And there’s probably no better time to learn that skill than this weekend, where the Spirit will take on the unbeaten NSW Country side. The Eagles have found a way to grind into games, and it’s no fluke they’re on top of the Buildcorp NRC table.
“You’re exactly right, and we are going to have to concentrate in this game for the full 80 minutes on Saturday to be a chance,” Nestor says, of the enormity of the challenge facing his side. “They are a quality team; they’re looking very good, NSW Country.”
“For us, it’s about making sure our concentration is on for the 80 minutes, and that we actually stay in the game and in the moment for 80 minutes, because we can’t afford to have any of the fifteen blokes on the field anything less than fully switched on and on the same page.
“If we’re all on the same page, then I’d back us to go well, but if we have a number of them floating in and out of the game, then that consistency starts to struggle a bit.
“One of the messages this week will be to play 80 minutes of rugby. That’s as simple as it needs to be.”