It’s all in the head

Written by Morné Nortier (Morné)

Posted in :Original Content on 3 Dec 2010 at 11:24
Tagged with : , , ,

Much has been made lately of the ‘style’ of rugby different nations play. It is a topic I always found interesting because this moves away from the general rugby analysis we are used to and touches on the very thing that makes us uniquely South African.

At the time when the Springboks kick-chase game was highly criticised by the rest of the rugby world, many also believed the Springboks stumbled onto a winning formula, or style to dominate rugby. I did not quite buy into that, the same way I don’t buy into the criticism by South Africans that our continued use of this ploy in 2010 has taken us from the team that dominates, to the team that is left behind. I said at the time the Springboks in my mind have played a type of game they have largely played for the last 30 years since I started following the game.

That said, I have been a huge critic in the past in South African teams general inability to use or create/manipulate space in the game of union, a trend I noticed not only at professional level but also at club and junior levels.

When I stumbled into coaching in union (and believe me, I literally stumbled into it) I became increasingly aware on how coaches and players limit themselves. Having grown up in a conservative Afrikaans home myself, it became very obvious to me how we as South Africans take that same conservatism and conservative approach to the game of rugby – it was something I actually could relate to in my own life and challenges I faced and how I dealt, and still deal with them. It is what we are seemingly most comfortable with, and like anything for individuals who grew up in similar circumstances, we do not like being taken out of our comfort zones, I suppose nobody does not matter what that comfort zone is.

All of this is of course a ‘soft science’ approach or analysis of the game in South Africa and mainly relates to my personal experiences.

But I realised that as South Africans, we are not generally taught to think, we are taught what to think.

I have seen this in rugby at all levels, from the very junior teams in primary school right through to club rugby. Structure, discipline and receiving orders. Whether this be from parents on the side of the field or teacher/coaches.

In my days of theatre we also had a term for when you are casted into a certain role all the time, where you are either seen or believed to be a certain character, be it comical, dramatic or musical actor and because of that, almost every single production you are successfully casted for, is either a comedy, drama or musical.

This happens in rugby too especially, and wrongly, at junior age-group and junior levels. The tall guy will always be told to play lock, the fattie, prop, the quickest kid will always end up on the wing and the shortest at scrumhalf.

You are made to believe this is your destiny in the game, and effectively made to ‘specialise’ into a position from age 9!

This inevitably leads to certain players never developing certain skills that are not associated to their type-casted position. A prop or lock will for instance not work as hard on his passing, running (evading) and kicking skills as a scrumhalf or wing, and similarly backline players are never taught the right techniques to clear rucks, or tackle effectively or make contact.

You are not ever taught or coached to think, you are coached what to think, and what to do.

To experience what I am talking about firsthand, I invite you to visit your local club or school and see what happens on a training pitch.

Take a moment to consider the drills practiced, the set moves practiced and the (match) variables, if any, that are applied to these sessions. More often than not, these drills are repetitive and robotic and never challenges the player to apply or adopt to the ever changing dynamics a match situation provides. Ask yourself then, how much ‘thinking’ goes into what these players do for 6 to 8 hours per week to prepare them for the 80 minutes where they have to apply what they practiced, in a match.

I once took it upon myself to challenge a junior team in this regard. It is a story I shared before but it illustrated to me personally just how much and how often we are getting it wrong.

It was a simple tackle drill we did. But before I started or instructed the players to do anything physical I challenged them to explain to me the purpose of a tackle in rugby union. It was a ‘theoretical’ session that lasted 25 minutes where the first 5 minutes about 3 players gave their views and opinions and by the 20th minute the whole group started discussing the dynamics of something as simple as a tackle – something they have been taught and coached to do for 10 to 15 years prior.

In the end, the actual drill took 10 minutes.

This was for a team which on average leaked 5 tries a game in their last 10 games, but following that initial, and subsequent more technical and skills and structural defensive drills, averaged only 2 tries per game against them in the following 6 games while I was still involved with them.

This to me, was as they would say, the proof in the pudding.

Now just imagine that if we can do this with something as simple and as common in rugby as the tackle, to get them to ‘think’ about what they are doing, what we can achieve when we coach players to ‘think’ about distribution/passing, spaces in front, next to and behind defenders, reading and thinking about support lines for ball carriers and so many other things?

To me, a player’s levels of skills and how this improves has always been directly related to how critical that player is of his own game and aspects of his game. For instance if an inside center analyse or assess his distribution game and finds that 95% of his passes are great because they are fielded, he will never look to improve that aspect of his game. However, if the same player looks or assesses how many of his passes has put his team mates in space, and was eventually converted into points, his critical analysis of the dynamics of this area of his game changes completely.

But that requires that player to think.

It is a basic human defense mechanism to take a low risk, low reward approach to anything in life, but that is also why less than 10% of people of any generation, in any aspect of life turn out to be the greats that are remembered for whatever they achieved.

Allowing our players the freedoms and responsibilities to challenge themselves, and the norm, will allow them to express these freedoms on the pitch. And if only 10% of our players catches onto this, it will at least be a 10% improvement to what we currently have.


  • I wish the boks can play watchable rugby week in and out,they play the most boring type of rugby in the SH imo.

  • Comment 1, posted at 03.12.10 12:22:51 by Honey Badger Reply
    Honey BadgerCurrie Cup player
  • Totally agree with your assesment of ‘tall guy is a lock,fastest kid a winger,fat kid is prop’..

  • Comment 2, posted at 03.12.10 12:23:17 by bergshark Reply
    bergsharkSuper Rugby player
  • Would settle for boring if it insures victory game after game :-)

  • Comment 3, posted at 03.12.10 12:24:24 by bergshark Reply
    bergsharkSuper Rugby player
  • Interesting article Morne. It touches on a broader topic of national character or cultural mindset.

    Its the kind of thing that drives the Japanese economy, defines Indian ingenuity, or defines the output of any particular nation, and it has little to do with genetics, and everything to do with socialisation, geography, diversity, political landscape and a host of issues.

    I am very interested in this topic and feel the effect in my work all the time. Recently Discovery aired an excellent program on how the Japanese geography (40% uninhabitable) influenced their culture – touches on a similar topic.

  • Comment 4, posted at 03.12.10 12:40:33 by Big Fish Reply
    Big FishAssistant coach
  • Guts heart sweat courage…rugby is fundamentally the same across rules and generations…poses ion is based on go far ward, distribution on quality poses ion and finishing on space created from inside play or forward play…there is no game plan in rugby that will ever dominate…execution of these basics based on whatever recipe the team relies on can create a win for any team on the day…the best 2 teams in the world has one thing in comman they have been doing the basics exceptionally well for a number of years..

  • Comment 5, posted at 03.12.10 12:50:07 by BoerSeun Reply

    BoerSeunCurrie Cup player
  • Great article Morne!

    I got involved in coaching Ultimate Frisbee of all things during this year (also stumbled into it) which places heavy emphasis on running into gaps and passing into space.

    We also ran a lot of standard Ultimate drills until two of us decided to add a dynamic element to each of the drills which would force players to think. Some of the players were so intimidated by this that they didn’t pitch up to practice for week’s afterwards!

    The ‘soft science’ is as necessary as all the other components in coaching and unfortunately most school coaches could use a lot more training. I suspect that those parent-coaches you sometimes see on the fields with their kids when everyone else has left are oft times so effective because they take such a personal interest in their kid’s games.

  • Comment 6, posted at 03.12.10 13:33:16 by vanmartin Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld Author
    vanmartinAssistant coach
  • @bergshark (Comment 3) : I’m on the fence with that,can’t make up my mind.

  • Comment 7, posted at 03.12.10 13:41:51 by Honey Badger Reply

    Honey BadgerCurrie Cup player
  • This thread might just go south if we don’t watch our comments(once you go into sociology,cultural antrophology,genetics,etc)..let’s just blame the refs lol ;-)

  • Comment 8, posted at 03.12.10 13:56:10 by bergshark Reply

    bergsharkSuper Rugby player
  • @Honey Badger: try this little excercise..boks win rwc ’11 vs abs with 3 drop goals to one converted try!! Or : boks score seven tries in losing rwc’11 by a single point vs abs!!

  • Comment 9, posted at 03.12.10 14:02:30 by bergshark Reply

    bergsharkSuper Rugby player
  • @BoerSeun:well said!

  • Comment 10, posted at 03.12.10 14:12:17 by bergshark Reply

    bergsharkSuper Rugby player
  • @vanmartin (Comment 6) : Ultimate – what an awesome game. Only played it once and it nearly killed me, but man! What fun

  • Comment 11, posted at 03.12.10 14:45:26 by robdylan Reply
    Competition Winner Administrator
    robdylanHead Coach
  • @robdylan (Comment 11) : I am a fan of many sports but there are only two I truly love : Ultimate Frisbee and Rugby.

  • Comment 12, posted at 03.12.10 15:13:00 by vanmartin Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld Author
    vanmartinAssistant coach
  • @bergshark (Comment 9) : I’d probably say what a great game even though we lost :twisted:

    But I know what you mean,got a sinking feeling when a compared that with the bulls and sharks.

  • Comment 13, posted at 03.12.10 15:20:02 by Honey Badger Reply

    Honey BadgerCurrie Cup player
  • Wow, u know I don’t think my coach during my school years ever asked us that rob,and I matriculated in 2008! When I think about it now I would have loved to know how the ruck works and what to do rather than shout at the loosies,I was a scrumhalf by the way rob

  • Comment 14, posted at 03.12.10 16:07:18 by Poisy Reply
    PoisyTeam captain
  • Sorry ment morne not rob

  • Comment 15, posted at 03.12.10 16:09:40 by Poisy Reply
    PoisyTeam captain
  • I love the high energy games, love to watch the AB games, plus lets face it they are entertaining on the field. Northern Hemisphere rugby probably the most boring to watch as most of the time the fields are wet and makes the game slow and messy. This year i didn’t miss a single Sharks game and most of them was rather entertaining especially of course the Currie Cup final. I don’t really watch any other sport due to the fact that i do not have DSTV and watch all my Rugby in the Pub (yes i am a beer downing Pub Jock). But i would love to See the Boks bringing a bit more flair to their game, but if boring wins games, then boring is fine by me.

  • Comment 16, posted at 03.12.10 16:28:12 by G West Reply
    Competition Winner Author
    G WestVodacom Cup player
  • @Poisy:terrible standard of rugby coaching at schools

  • Comment 17, posted at 03.12.10 17:09:42 by bergshark Reply

    bergsharkSuper Rugby player
  • Dolphins just lost out of a final because the ref doesnt want to give lbw decisions to the dolphins that is plum,but give 2 dolphin batsmen out lbw that was clearly not hitting the stumps,would have been easy but the ref made it almost impossible with those crucial decisions :evil: so pissed….

  • Comment 18, posted at 03.12.10 22:49:42 by Honey Badger Reply

    Honey BadgerCurrie Cup player
  • Fascinating insight……remember pass it, don’t kick it ! :lol:

  • Comment 19, posted at 03.12.10 23:22:46 by Hertford Highlander Reply
    Competition WinnerCompetition WinnerCompetition Winner Author
    Hertford HighlanderSuper Rugby player
  • @Big Fish (Comment 4) : If that kind of thing piques your interest, might I recommend Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond? Examines on a macro scale both the proximate and ultimate causes for the way the world’s civilizations have developed. Although it’s rather a broader view than the study of national cultures, there’s a degree of overlap, and it’s a fascinating read nonetheless.

  • Comment 20, posted at 04.12.10 07:15:40 by Culling Song Reply
    Friend of Sharksworld Author
    Culling SongTeam captain
  • @Culling Song (Comment 20) :
    Thanks: I’m a big fan of Diamond’s work, although I’m embarrassed to say I know his work mostly through documentaries, rather than having read them.

    He also wrote “Collapse”, which is about what causes societial dynasties like the Mayans and Easter Islanders to fall. Similarly, he looks at environmental factors.

  • Comment 21, posted at 04.12.10 07:33:19 by Big Fish Reply
    Big FishAssistant coach
  • another great one Morne :mrgreen:

  • Comment 22, posted at 05.12.10 16:45:59 by chaz Reply

    ChazTeam captain

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