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.Tweet