By Matthew Burke, The Sun Herald
You beauty: Alofa Alofa is swamped by Waratahs teammates after scoring against the Brumbies. Photo: Getty Images

When you are out in front of a race, leading the pack, what is your state of mind? Do you look to the finish line and say, “Catch me if you can”, or do you look over your shoulder concerned by those chasing you?

This is the Waratahs’ predicament this weekend, as they found themselves coming into the round with No.1 beside their name. From what I can sense, however, the coach’s perspective is that he would rather see his team have the confidence to play and keep challenging themselves, chancing their arm, rather than closing up shop and being conservative.

There was an interesting comment from Michael Cheika last week after the five-try mauling of the Brumbies when he mentioned he thought the team had been a little tight, a little tense and not themselves. Perhaps the team is looking at the ladder and getting distracted by seeing the Waratahs’ name up in lights.

Five tries suggests otherwise, but I imagine some of the players are daring to dream. The coach’s responsibility is to keep the fire burning, but on a very low heat until you can say you’ve accomplished something. Then you can set off the fireworks. Basically, the coach is telling his players: don’t go down wondering what could have been.

On Sunday, the Waratahs come up against an outfit that have had a similar history. The Highlanders have never tasted success in Super Rugby. They have had competitive teams in the past, and poor teams as well. Their current outfit is on the better side.

Coming into the penultimate round and sitting second in a congested New Zealand conference, the Highlanders will see the game as a good opportunity to pressure one of the competition favourites on their home turf and define their own season.

Their miserable outing last year was greeted with shakes of the head from experts who said they were too good not to win games. This year has been a different story. Contributing to that has been consistency in their team selection, self-belief, a powerful scrum and lethal backs – throw in a couple of guys called Smith: Aaron and Ben.

So what is at stake for the home team? It is a danger game, but if you are going to win the competition, you need to beat the best. Firstly, it is a chance for the Tahs to extend their lead on the competition; and secondly to keep refining the skills and game play that is becoming a joy to watch.

Then there is the afternoon kick-off. As could be seen in the success of the Wallabies in their comprehensive win over France at the same venue two weeks back, the afternoon kick-off often makes for entertaining rugby. As a player, you can’t quantify the advantage of an afternoon kick-off in front of a packed home ground. It should provide the catalyst for more positive rugby – from both teams. The weather forecast did warn of possible showers, but the easy way is to look up. If it’s dry, game on.

Day games are few and far between these days. It has to be one of the best ways to experience playing rugby. Yes, a massive night game has a unique sense of theatre, but playing before a full Allianz Stadium is on a par. The fans are well versed and there is a real carnival atmosphere. The kids are there, the families are there. But the irony of day games as a professional player is that you are used to training through the day and playing at night. Conversely, in the amateur days, you trained at night and played in the day. Seems a little out of sync, practising in the wrong environment.

As a player, the game is on you so much quicker. You miss out on three hours’ preparation, but sometimes that extra time can be a killer; you’ve run your race before the first whistle. A day game is about preparation. Get to bed early and rise early. A day game gets you in the moment much quicker, so you need to get your body right. It sounds simple, but getting ready for a night game means late to bed, sleep in, breakfast, have a stretch mid-morning, eat lunch, sleep again, afternoon snack, maybe a catnap, and then up and at them. There is a lot of wasted time and energy.

Playing in the afternoon, you tend to forget all the extras – the thinking that can cloud your judgment – and be ready for kick-off. Perhaps for a team like the Waratahs, where expectations are high, being able to push aside some of the extraneous nonsense will be of benefit. The afternoon game will sit well with the mountain of fans streaming into Allianz Stadium. Time will tell whether the Tahs are fans of the sun setting as well.

Matthew Burke is exclusively managed by The Fordham Company.

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