This weekend that was I went to a coaching course with a group of players. The course was generally speaking very informative. We rotated through different stations doing basic handling, rucking, tackling and kicking drills with lots of feedback to players and coaches.
At the end we played a game (10 players on each side) called touch and ruck. It is a really nice way to enforce some basic skills at the young age groups. Players learn about maintaining the offside line, to go up in a line on defence and on attack, to touch with both hands (essential to learn that you need to punch through with the arms when you tackle), to rip and place and to clean-out at the rucks.
One of the things that did annoy me during this touch and ruck game, however, was the session leader’s obsession with players holding the ball in both hands when they run with it. He constantly blew the boys up (resulting in turn-over ball) if they ran with the ball in one hand.
Now I can understand the need to learn to protect the ball when you go into contact and that having both hands on the ball allows you to pass to either the left or right side.
However, any natural runner with a rugby ball will tell you that they rarely have both hands on the ball. In fact they don’t even think (or know) what they do with the ball in their hands. Go and look at any footage of Danie Gerber and you’ll see that he rarely had both hands on the ball. It is unnatural to run with both hands on the ball. This is the reason why some forwards can’t handle a ball properly and why we see one dimensional if not poor handling skill with some senior rugby players. You can’t focus on holding the ball in both hands and play heads-up rugby at the same time.
If players need to be able to handle the ball with one hand (or at least the ability to move the ball from one hand to the other) once they start playing rugby, why this initial hair-splitting about carrying the ball in both hands?
Over-coaching is sometimes as bad as no or poor coaching. My belief is that you should work on something if a player has a problem with it but to change Sonny Bill Williams into somebody who carries the ball with both hands will kill his authenticity and reduce him to just another average player (which some might think he is but that is not the point here).
Finding balance between allowing the player to express himself and running a tight structure is probably the hardest thing to do when you coach or manage any group. Identifying the things that you need to be strict on and those things that you can ease up with is maybe the first step in being a good parent, coach or manager.
Danie Craven was too strict in 1956 and that touring group was extremely unhappy. The next tour in 1965 saw the management reluctant to take control and that tour was a huge failure in terms of results on the field. Peter de Villers inherited the most experienced Springbok side in history and being a ‘nice’ guy did not bring about the results we all wanted.
Some of the All Black coaches like Vic Cavanagh and Fred Allan are interesting individuals /coaches to look at in terms of getting too grips on how to be strict and relaxed at the same time and I’ll delve a little into that in the weeks to come.
Cavanagh and Allen had the tendency to break things down into steps and to start by doing skills whilst standing still, concentrating on feet, hands, shoulder and head positions. Next step would be to go through the sequence in slow motion, then at walking speed before taking it into jogging and match speed pace. Attention to detail was key in their coaching. The All Blacks under Graeme Henry did the same at the start of the 2010 season and turned their fortunes around after losing against South Africa in Hamilton in 2009.
Jake White’s influence on the Springboks was the structures he brought into the team (at set piece and on defence) and the fact that he stuck with the same players. The impact of that was clearly evident every time we fielded a B-team even during his tenure in 2007 but especially during last year’s Tri-Nations tournament. Rugby is a team sport and it’s about cohesion and team work therefore it normally takes a coach about two years to get his players to develop an understanding and cohesiveness at rucks, mauls, line-outs, scrums and on defence and attack (by the way Jake is showing once again that he knows what he is doing, considering how much better the Brumbies are performing this year).
It took John Mitchell about two years at the Lions to win the Currie Cup but they are still not really there if one looks at Super Rugby results. Frans Ludeke was a bit of a disaster in his first season at the Bulls and the Stormers have been there and thereabouts with Alistair Coetzee for the last four years but have yet to win the Currie Cup or a Super Rugby trophy.
Slow is fast when it comes to rugby coaching. Get the little things right before you move into the fancy stuff. I hope the public allows Heyneke Meyer the leeway to get his structures and team work properly in place. The Springboks will in all probability be classified yet again as stereotyped and boring. That will be fine with me as long as we see constant structural progress from one match to the next.