How mental fortitude brought an end to the longest premiership drought in Queensland rugby

By Liam Cook

The 2021 season ended in heartbreak for Wests.

A last-minute Jason Hofmeyr conversion evaporated the Bulldog’s hopes of finally returning to a Grand Final after fifteen years in the wilderness.

Twelve months on, the boys from Sylvan Road not only reached the final game of the year, they won it in resounding fashion.

Contrasting the distraught scenes of that preliminary final loss to GPS with the jubilation of last Sunday’s premiership win, reveals the Bulldog’s major growth in a single year.

Speaking to new head coach Elwee Prinsloo after round two of the 2022 season, he made a concerted effort to mention that his side would be leaning heavily on the mental side of the game in an attempt to improve.

“There have been good Wests’ teams in the last three or four years who just can’t nail these tight games,” Prinsloo told Rugby News.

“The biggest challenge is the mentality and learning how winners approach the game. It’s all between the ears for us to be honest, we just have to be mentally tougher.”

Wests would need all their newly honed mental toughness to come to the fore after losing the first two games of the season and three of their first six.

Narrowly losing the opening two contests to UQ and Brothers may have seen Wests revert back to old ways and fold under pressure.

But this new team took stock and kept calm, harnessing the painful lessons they endured in the previous year’s preliminary final loss to move forward with purpose.

As Wests’ form picked up, so to did their confidence and belief.

Impressive victories against UQ in round ten, Brothers in round eleven as well as away wins over GPS and Bond, saw the Bulldogs hitting their straps toward the back end of the year.

Conor Anderson, the Alec Evans medallist for player of the year, noted this shift in the conviction of his side.

Talking to Rugby News mid-way through the season, the No.8 again referenced how Wests’ enhanced mental application could take them to the next level.

“The way that Elwee’s trying to train us is to be physically tough and mentally tough as well,” he said.

“If we can get that mental toughness correct and put it together for a full eighty, then we should be able to compete with these top teams.”

Soon enough, Wests weren’t just competing with the top teams, they were the top team.

Despite the sluggish start to the season, the Bulldog’s stormed home to claim the minor premiership.

Wests’ captain Latu Talakai spoke to Rugby News on the eve of finals.

The hulking prop was confident that his side’s excellent home and away form could be replicated in September, primarily because of the noticeable resilience they had already shown all season.

“We are just concentrating on these little, minor learnings in our game in terms of tough minutes and tough phases of the game that we need to execute from what we didn’t quite achieve last year.”

“I’ve got full confidence in our preparation and within the team that we will get the job done come this weekend.”

Talakai’s confidence was well-founded as Wests would go on to secure an epic comeback semi-final victory over UQ.

At the very ground they had lost the preliminary final at the year prior, Wests found finals redemption at Yoku Road.

Trailing by ten points with less than five minutes to play, the Bulldogs rallied to score two more tries and ultimately give themselves their first Grand Final berth in sixteen long years.

Wests emphatic Grand Final victory over UQ at Suncorp Stadium was not just a formality.

Although it seemed as though fate was shining on them, the Bulldog’s didn’t win this years’ competition through dumb luck.

Their mental fortitude would once again be called upon throughout the Grand Final, and unlike twelve months ago, the boys from Sylvan Road rose to the occasion.

UQ scored an easy try in the opening minutes and led 17-13 at the main break.

In any other year, the Bulldogs might have collapsed under the weight of expectation.

Led by coach Elwee Prinsloo, captain Latu Talakai, player of the year Conor Anderson and player of the Grand Final Seru Uru, Wests’ produced an almighty second half performance, piling on thirty-one points to UQ’s ten.

Wests ran over the top of the reigning premiers, but they also ran over any doubts they ever had about standing up in the big moments.