Coach’s Corner Issue 9: Can old – or small – dogs learn new tricks?
Thanks once more to all who contributed questions, or thoughts after questions, in the callout this week. We are constantly reminded that players are getting bigger and heavier. What is the future for the ‘wee man’ in the modern international game? – Mzilikazi Were players in the amateur era far more skilful in terms of […]
Thanks once more to all who contributed questions, or thoughts after questions, in the callout this week.
We are constantly reminded that players are getting bigger and heavier. What is the future for the ‘wee man’ in the modern international game?
Were players in the amateur era far more skilful in terms of basic passing and kicking? For example, distance gained with torpedo kicks.
I suspect Dave Alred’s presence at the Reds is bearing fruit. I heard he has actually been on site this season too… Have you noticed any difference in the kicking game?
The relationship between the amateur and the professional games continues to be a source of fascination to anybody involved in rugby – at least, those of us of a certain vintage who still have vivid memory of the old days!
The easiest way to get ahead in the professional game is by developing players physically – through weights, nutrition and aerobic conditioning. These advances have changed the complexion of rugby. Where the ratio of set-pieces to breakdowns used to be roughly 3:1, now it is more like 1:5. Ball-in-play time has nearly tripled.
In the amateur days in Wales, the rugby educators were grammar school teachers who taught skills. Now the emphasis is firmly on the ability to win collisions on a field which is far more congested than it used to be.
So, what is the place of the small man in the modern game, and what skills can be salvaged from previous eras?
Paradoxically, the value of a really good small man has increased as players have learnt to handle ever more demanding physical impacts. They can represent x-factor: Shane Williams was arguably the most influential Welsh player of the professional era, and Cheslin Kolbe was one of the three most influential Springboks at the 2019 World Cup.
There are two important provisos: first, that the wee man finds a position where he can adapt to the physical demands; and second, that he builds his body up to the point where they are manageable.
My article written earlier this week on Damian McKenzie is apt in respect of the first point. I don’t believe D-Mac has the tools to succeed at fullback at the highest level, but he does at number ten.
Both Kolbe and Williams built up their bodies by around 5-10 kilos of solid muscle in order to cope with the physical stresses of the modern game. Kolbe was like one of the before-and-after ads after moving to France from the Western Province. He was just too wee at WP.
Now, he can handle the stress in the air and at the contact points without losing any of his elusiveness as a runner:
In this example, he is able to remove a much bigger man (all 6’4 and 112 kilos of Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey) one-on-one at the tackle.
I put together a .
The second part of the question is equally fascinating. There are techniques that were commonplace in the amateur era which have been unjustly neglected in the past 25 years of professionalism.
One such example is the six o‘clock, or end-over-end pass. Another is the so-called spiral bomb, which has been around for at least 40 years (and probably longer) but has recently been re-enlisted for action by George Ford at Leicester Tigers.
Dave Alred was coaching the spiral bomb back during the 1980s in rugby league in the UK. Phil Larder told me he had already seen the technique in Australia, coached by Aussie rules expert Peter Phipps for Jack Gibson’s great Parramatta teams.
“Dave demonstrated what happened when a spiral bomb was kicked high, with a hang time of four seconds or more,” he said.
“It turned at the top of its apex, and came down in a circular pattern, drifting and swirling unexpectedly.
“The Great Britain wing Henderson Gill reckoned he could handle Dave’s punts at one training session, but when one perfectly struck spiral bomb spun high into the sky before stopping dead at its apex like some kind of World War II doodlebug, ‘Hendo’ lost it completely. It came crashing down out of the blue, landing yards and yards away from him!”
It is this technique Ford used to torment England and Lions outside back Anthony Watson earlier this season. Watson is one of the best kick-receivers in the world, but on the day, he could only take two of Ford’s seven spirals securely:
All three kicks dip unexpectedly at Watson’s feet and the one catch is an outstanding grab off his bootlaces. Maybe the Reds’ kickers can persuade Dave Alred to share his secrets!
The Rebels now have a decent forward pack, lineout, scrum, kicking game and defence. With so many pieces of the puzzle, why are they not converting more games to wins?
Do the Rebels need another playmaker outside Matt To’omua to be his eyes and ears in attack?
Matt To’omua is excellent at 12, but as a flyhalf he just doesn’t make that attack work like a flyhalf would.
There’s lots of interest in the sense of underachievement at the Rebels this season, and we can look at this topic in two parts.
The Matt To’omua part of the equation can be answered with reference to this previous article. In it, I quoted George Ford, who was glowing in his praise about his old teammate.
“Matt To’omua is by far the best 12 I have played with… His communication is brilliant and his vision gives us an extra set of eyes close by to give me information,” Ford said.
“It’s the best I have ever experienced…
“What makes Matt such a good player and distributor is that when he gets the ball, nine times out of a ten, he makes the right decision with what to do with it.
“For a flyhalf to have someone like that outside of me is an unbelievable help.”
To’omua can do a job at first five, but he is much, much better at inside centre – and especially when playing in combination with a ten who, like Ford for Leicester Tigers and James O’Connor for the Wallabies, enjoys taking the ball to the line and making decisions in the teeth of the defence.
In terms of combinations, the injury to Reece Hodge cut short the promise of that playmaking axis just as there were signs that the two players were beginning to gel.
The second part of the topic is this: are the Rebels’ players showing enough significant improvement?
I want to answer that question in relation to one of the biggest talents in Melbourne (both literally and figuratively), Pone Fa’amausili. Pone is a huge man at 6’5 and well over his advertised weight of 130 kilos – you can probably add at least another ten kegs of solid muscle to that figure.
Fa’amausili also a great skillset: he can steal the ball at defensive rucks, and he can be used as a ball-handler from lineouts:
He has great hands, he has great feet, and he can blast the toughest enforcers out of the road on kick returns:
But it all counts for far less than it should do, because he has not been taught a basic technique to stand in the scrum:
Tom Robertson is probably giving away the better part of 30 kilos to Fa’amausili at scrum time, but his superior technique enables him to pop the big man out of the roof of a retreating scrum in the first example.
It is symbolic of where the Rebels are as a team. They have the athletic talent (some of it outstanding) but it is being developed unevenly and with insufficient value placed on the core skills of each position.
The Melbourne scrum actually improved last weekend with their bench replacements scrumming against the Brumbies’ starters, and a natural loosehead – Cabous Eloff – playing out of position on the other side. That should never happen:
Most of the Springbok players are scattered around the globe – hence a series of separate regional alignment camps in South Africa for locally-based players, and mostly online interaction with others abroad. Are the Boks setting up a new trend in the way international teams are coached with others possibly set to follow, minimising team get-togethers until the last moment?
– Just Nuisance
If you were drawing up a plan for Gatland to beat South Africa, what would it be?
– Harry Jones
We may have to establish a permanent ‘Lions watch’ feature in this column in the weeks to come! I see those regional and online camps as a case of needs must when the devil drives. I have yet to encounter a coach who prefers a remote or virtual meeting to a real gathering of all his forces in one place, at one single time.
The truth is that, with the massive hiatus in international rugby for South Africa since their 2019 World Cup victory, they cannot be sure who is really up to the mark and who isn’t. They may think they know who will start for the Bokke in the Lions series, but they cannot know because it is the better part of two years since they played together as one team.
I’ve no doubt Warren Gatland has a plan to beat the Boks, but I am concerned that so many of the top coaches in the UK and Ireland will be missing from the trip. Will those who have taken their place be able to manufacture the ammo for the troops to fire on the field? I am more worried about the coaching intellect being able to find the right strategies than I am about the strength of the Lions’ playing personnel on the field now.