A Dog's Life

?There?s no need to fear, Underdog is here!? (Underdog, 1964)

So simple, yet so poignant. In professional sport, there is no tag sought after more than that of the underdog. Worn like a badge of honour, and often with such a significance that in the lead-up to a big match, it is not uncommon for both sides to claim it. Queensland are the masters of this sales pitch. When favoured to win the State of Origin series, they so deftly point out that the New South Welshman are fitter, faster, stronger. Cue a healthy betting plunge on the Cockroaches and once more the Cane Toads are the underdogs, parity restored to the universe.

Favouritism, it seems, is for losers. Logic would dictate that to be favoured in a contest would be something to be proud of; you are seen as the stronger unit, you have the greater chance of victory. Yet, as evidenced most strongly in the recent preliminary finals, favouritism can end up getting the better of sportsmen. Complacency sadly walks hand in hand down the aisle with the favouritism tag more often than not. Parramatta?s performance could not have been a better example had they had the word 'complacent' tattooed across their foreheads. Nathan Hindmarsh was rested so he would be fit for the grand final. History will tell us, of course, that he never got there.

Sometimes it?s the pressure of expectation. When you are expected by all and sundry to wipe the floor with the other mob, things can go awry quickly. 'Quicksand' is an apt description for what happens in these situations. Something goes wrong, so you try even harder next time to make up for it. That, too, goes wrong, so you try harder. No matter how hard you try, it just keeps getting worse until eventually, you?re gone.

Pressure can lead to nerves. Nerves are a natural thing, but terrible for a footballer. One dropped ball, one missed tackle, and you?re in the quicksand up to your neck. Nerves are not, however, exclusive to favourites. Underdogs will have them as well, but somehow they appear not to show it. The absence of expectation on their shoulders appears to act like a sedative, and often a care-free, open brand of football is the result. There is no better example than the forthcoming grand final. Two excitement machines are ready to go head to head in a battle to the death. One will lift the trophy, one will be so despondent they can barely see for the tears.

Who will be in which position is the question that will be raised all week. Not who will hold the trophy aloft, but who will be installed as favourites? Who are the underdogs? Both will try to claim the other is the favourite while being quietly confident themselves, but it appears the public won't be fooled. The Tigers have been installed as strong favourites, the Cowboys distant outsiders. So early in grand final week things are favouring the Cowboys - they will revel in their underdog status, and it may allow them to produce their best football, for the second week in a row.

Being the underdog is a massive psychological boost. If you can hold the favourites scoreless for a while, your confidence grows while theirs wanes. If you happen to lose, you were never expected to win anyway - disappointment aside. If you happen to win, it is a magnificent story that is sure to be retold for years to come. Favourites don?t have it so easy. If they lose, they are chokers. Failed. Bombed out. If they win, they did was what was expected of them. A lose-lose situation, trophy aside (although admittedly, it is a massive aside).

As the 2005 season comes to a close, we have been blessed with many fond memories. Every supporter has had a reason to cheer, whether it be a great start, an amazing finish, or a fantastic run in the middle. When the full time whistle is blown on Sunday night, it will not matter who won and who lost (although try telling that to Tigers and Cowboys fans!). More than a maiden grand final win for either side, more than the players who starred or the players who disappointed, 2005 will be remembered as the year the underdog came out on top.

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