Sunday 19 November 2017

Burgeoning playbook brings little to a simple game

Over-emphasis on team preparation breeds confusion, writes Paul Ackford

THE best side in the world are at it again, performing rugby's version of musical chairs ahead of the southern hemisphere's upcoming Test season.

Steve Hansen, who used to be New Zealand's forwards' coach but then switched to look after the backs, has returned to the forwards, while Graham Henry, who assumed responsibility for the forwards on the All Blacks' European tour last autumn, has reverted to a strategic attacking role. Wayne Smith stays on defence.

"We've been together for six years. We know each other very well. We help each other with our various responsibilities. There's a lot of cross-pollination," Henry said by way of explanation after the first turnaround.

Not that Hansen seemed too exercised by his new role. Twenty minutes before the All Blacks/England Test, while a blur of track-suited England coaches scurried hither and thither at one end of Twickenham during the warm-up, Hansen, clad in a smart black suit and tie, was leaning cross-legged against the posts, taking a call on his mobile.

It is clear what lies behind the changes. Handing coaches new areas of responsibility forces a re-examination, which can lead to fresh ideas.

Often, just listening to a new voice makes a difference and, given the amount of time international sides spend in camps and on training pitches these days, that has to be welcome. "It also demands a greater responsibility from the players," Henry said. "Brad Thorn (the All Black lock) has jumped in a lot more line-outs than I have, so my role was that of a facilitator. I'd do a lot of research but ultimately they have to agree what we're going to do."

England under Martin Johnson are travelling a similar road. Recently Johnson and his coaches invited feedback from the England squad. "It was brutal," one coach said. "There was no holding back. We were given a clear idea of what the players thought of our sessions."

Now, I'm all for a spot of autonomy, but I do wonder whether the trend to empower players has gone too far and that the compulsion to reinvent every aspect of team preparation has caused confusion. Steve Borthwick's retention as captain was predicated as much on his understanding of England's line-out protocols as it was on his leadership skills. No other player had access to all the information.

We are constantly being told that rugby is a simple game, by national managers and directors of rugby who retain hordes of assistant coaches and assorted specialists while accessing statistics via banks of computers before and during matches. According to one player, Leicester have a playbook which contains around 15 'starter moves' and a similar number of 'shapes' and 'calls'.

Does it make for more successful rugby? No doubt the individuals involved will answer 'yes', but all I know is that at Saracens, Gloucester and Leicester the press boxes are adjacent to the coaching areas used by both the home and the visiting teams, and the advice coming from those zones during matches lacks sophistication -- the messages are usually restricted to "that's forward, ref'', "he's offside", or "kick the bloody thing".

And I'm not alone in this. One highly respected rugby mind recently confessed that, in his experience, tight rugby matches sometimes turn on a couple of small incidents which are entirely unconnected with patterns of play or strategy, and nothing much can be done about them by way of planning. His name? Martin Johnson.

Keep it simple, lads. It's by far the best way.


Sunday Independent

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