After a sparkling series of victories, New South Wales has come crashing back to reality with a performance dripping in complacency and overreach. And that was just in the rugby league.
As the state of origin of a Covid outbreak that has sent half the nation into lockdown and shut state borders, the Premier State is now well out of pandemic premiership contention, fracturing what remained of the national consensus and creating fresh headaches for the prime minister.
Deploying all the subtlety of a Maroons front-rower, Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk has dubbed the latest outbreak “the Sydney strain”, while returning Victorian custodian Dan Andrews has taken vindication in his own defensive style while calling out match officials for their double standards.
It’s quite the turnaround. NSW captain Gladys Berejiklian had been committed to a new open style where players had maximum freedom and minimal restriction. It worked stunningly through the summer preseason, where short, sharp local interventions had kept the ball in motion.
As confidence grew, calls went out for an even more expansive game plan, bringing in extra personnel from overseas hotspots even while local facilities were still under construction.
Now that strategy is in tatters after Berejiklian chanced her arm with a much faster, harder to contain opponent, one that is particularly difficult to defend against without the appropriate protective equipment.
The rest of the nation is now dealing with the fallout from this misjudgment and reminding themselves why the Blues have always been the team they love to hate.
But even as NSW moves into an extended period of extra time, match data from this week’s Essential Report suggests local fans are still cheering their team on, with a majority of locals giving their leader a leave pass for her open style of play. Not even the local opposition has been prepared to boo.
More glaring is how out of line these self-assessments are with the views of punters in other states who see the delay in shutting things down as a crucial unforced handling error. The Victorians and Western Australians are particularly scathing.
Fuelling these fractious divisions is the perception that the national skipper has been playing favourites, sniping at the game plan of the more defensive coaches while holding NSW out as an exemplar of his preferred match aesthetic.
This came to a head when NSW received bigger and faster support when team members were subbed out, leading southerners to cry foul and call the national leader “the prime minister for NSW”.
Handicapped by the bungled rollout of vaccinations and the leakages from hotel quarantine, many in the game are now losing faith in the current administration’s capacity to lead the code into next season.
It’s worth noting there has been a discernible shift in tone over recent months, with regard for local outfits significantly higher than support for the national team. These match stats show that widening gap, and while the gloss is wearing off the code in general, its rubbing off Canberra faster.
But beyond the preferential financial treatment, there are growing suspicions that Canberra prefers NSW’s one-out style of play for the simple reason that when the focus is on the individual, there really isn’t much responsibility for the national coach.
If it’s up to you to decide whether to strap on the mask; if you decide whether your role in the team is essential; if you decide whether to have a jab before you take the field, then you really can’t blame us. In NSW there is an “I” in team, after all.
A real tell is the way the public safety is being promoted in the code’s national advertising campaign. The “Arm Yourself” advertisements are all about going it alone, a lonely disembodied bicep a stark contrast to the team-based messaging from other nations like France and Singapore and the delightful offering from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
With the pandemic, as with footy, the game is always changing, what worked last season doesn’t always translate. After seeming like world-beaters in 2020 we are lagging way behind the international pack this year because we failed to get our fundamentals right in the preseason. Now winter has bought fresh challenges which are hard to address in the heat of the contest.
What’s clear is we need a fresh game plan to get our game back on track, based on player safety, trust in each other and a leadership group that gives the opposition its dues.
In pandemics, as in footy, chaos is never a winning strategy.