THERE is a general belief in professional sport that to get better an athlete simply has to work harder, but the message spread around the Glasgow Warriors camp ahead of their return to RaboDirect PRO12 action tomorrow night is quite the opposite.
At least, while they are working to solve problems thrown up in a run of three successive home defeats, there is a recognition that players need to chill a bit, too. That is the feeling of Alex Dunbar, a player who has worked his way through the ranks patiently and is now developing a confidence to help lead his side on and off the park.
The 6ft 3in, 16-stone centre grasped his opportunity with both hands last season and went on to join the international ranks on the South Africa tour in the summer, only to then be hit with a shoulder nerve injury two months ago that gave others the chance to take his place with club and country.
Intriguingly, when asked what difference becoming an internationalist in 2013 might have made to his game, the Lockerbie Academy and Annan product shrugs and seems unable to think of anything specific.
“It’s a great honour to be capped by your country,” he said, “but it’s the same every week I go out there. I just focus on doing the basics well and concentrating on my individual role in the team. It’s the same goal, making the team a winning team.”
He is still just 23 and younger than that in pro rugby terms, having only gained his first regular starting spot last season, but when asked about the malaise afflicting his team he shows the maturity that has come with the step up. He understands that battering oneself about the head, spending more time on the training ground and in the gym, and rushing into the next game, the next play full of determination to “get it right”, is not always the right response.
Asked where the frequent errors now blighting Glasgow’s performances were coming from, he replied: “We have spoken about it in training and I think the boys just need to hold their depth a bit; they’re a bit over-eager.
“We’ve had a few changes, but it’s just that really: boys being a bit more composed and if you make a mistake just concentrate on your next job. We’re not playing that badly. We are playing quite well in parts and creating chances, but there are details we need to sort out in the coming weeks.
“It’s composure. Sometimes boys try to force things and that’s when the little mistakes come in, so it’s relaxing really and knowing that you’re good enough to play.”
That is a wise head talking. It goes to the heart of the Warriors issues at present and is typical of the psychology necessary in good teams when they hit rough patches.
Where last season coach Gregor Townsend’s desire to change his side regularly was great for squad morale, especially in those players left on the sidelines regularly in previous seasons, it worked because the team kept on winning.
Now, with a few losses creeping in, there is the potential for changing combinations, and new faces eager to prove their worth in a side where confidence has been dented, to add to the error count. It is inevitably more difficult to find and maintain a smooth rhythm. That is the challenge for Townsend and his coaches as tomorrow’s game against Treviso begins a testing run of three games in 12 days.
Dunbar remains confident that the team will pick up again, and finds reassurance from looking back to this time last season where the team had lost four league games – they have lost two this term – and all Heineken Cup matches but then began a run of seven league wins that drove them to the play-offs.
“We played really well last year and towards the end of the season almost everything was coming off, every off-load, every chance we got we were scoring, whereas this season teams have come up and defences we have played against have been better, which has meant we’ve had to go through more phases and put more pressure on.
“Last season, the brand of rugby we were playing was what we want to do, quick ball, off-loading and getting in behind teams, and it’s obviously not quite all clicked the same this year, but the boys are working hard to get back to that level and it will come in time.
“Everyone is still looking forward to going out and play; they want to attack and enjoy themselves and sometimes the weather plays a part in that. But it’s the same as anything – if it’s not on then don’t give it, and if it’s on and the support is there, fair enough.
“Everything we’re doing at training is about doing the basics and doing them well. That’s the focus – the basics of running and carrying hard, creating space and creating quick ball for everyone else to play off.
“The boys are looking good and working very hard, but we need to relax a little when we play and it will come.”
As Glasgow seek players who keep a cool head when others may be losing theirs, it is timely that Dunbar is back and showing a lead.
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH GINGER GROUSE