European rugby is being killed with conservatism, says world-leading coach Dave Alred
Brendan Fanning: Rugby in the northern hemisphere is at a crossroads. What way are the signs pointing?
Dave Alred: I'm really struggling with it. The national governing bodies haven't really come into the professional age. And then you presuppose that the professional age has a lack of politics when in fact there's even more politics now. It seems to be almost corporate skills that enable people to survive, and not performance.
And then there is succession planning, which takes four years to put in place. And every year you don't do it you're going to be relying on one or two players. They go down and you're in trouble. But they (administrators) won't grasp the nettle in the long term - it's become almost a soccer mentality. And I really worry about that because there are infinitely more soccer players than there are rugby players. Not only that, it's a much easier game to play.
It's not as complex and you don't have to have the specialisation you need in rugby. And we don't ever seem to learn. England don't learn. Ireland don't learn. Wales, with their injury problems I think they punched above their weight, but when it actually came down to it, to not be able to score against 13 men for however long it was? It was just a massive case of white-line fever - they couldn't cope with being clinical about their processes under that extreme pressure.
BF: So with three to four weeks between Rugby World Cup and Europe do you start over or tweak what you have?
DA: I think we are too conservative and we play to not lose, rather than playing to win. And that prevails in the Premiership where you try and not lose away from home, and then when the opposition come to you they try and do the same thing. So it becomes a nullified, all-out bash game of rugby and we're not giving the ball air, and we're not putting pace on it. If you look at training sessions, which I've been a party to - certainly in two of the clubs - there doesn't seem to be the vibe, and jouez about it. And yet it's expected to just happen in the game. Well, it's a behaviour not practised, and you can't switch it on in a game. It doesn't work like that, and I just think it's a combination between lack of confidence, and coaches still feeling they need control instead of almost letting the sessions become chaotic - which is more akin to an actual game of rugby. I know there's the issue of contact and so on but I've looked at training sessions for a number of clubs and it just seems to be structure, structure, structure.
BF: But that's how our schools put teams together?
DA: Yes, but if you think about it, in terms of structure, you can probably have two phases at most before whatever you planned will not be as you planned it. And we spend all this time on the patterns, and we don't work on the individual skills. There is an argument that says don't bring the team together until the Friday, and let everyone work on their skills. And wouldn't you have a better team?
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I know that's sort of a philosophical extreme, but I'll tell you what: how many times has a team been thrown together and have a devil-may-care attitude, and they suddenly rip somebody apart - because they're great players.
BF: Maybe it happens because rugby is unusual in the sizes and shapes of its players, so we have to give them specific roles?
DA: I think so but the All Blacks are playing with a second row standing on the wing. I just think it's an attitude. If Jonah Lomu had been born in the northern hemisphere he'd have played in the second row. And he wouldn't have liked that. It's a bit like Usain Bolt: he's too big and too lanky to be a sprinter, but he breaks the mould. And somebody - Usain and his coach, who obviously has him in incredibly high regard - suddenly said: 'Don't worry about parity at 40 yards, let's look at parity at 60 yards because if we get parity at 60 yards and we have the same cadence as everybody else, we will win because we've got longer legs. And he's blown everybody away. I saw him in Beijing, live, and it was men and boys. But the thing was, it was the bravery that somebody had, and the vision, to break convention.
Convention was Tyson Gay and that lot: short, compact, fast-twitch muscle fibre - 40 yards blah, blah and then 60 yards hanging on. Well now, suddenly, we've got somebody who's much taller and with much wider stride length - difficult to get going, can't get going in 40 so we just need a longer runway - we'll get going at 60. But once we get going we're off. And I'm going fantastic, what a vision.
BF: Players will look at you askance when you suggest starting over.
DA: Yeah, they would but if it was part of the culture, for players to take responsibility, and my big gripe is, particularly having worked with the likes of (Jonny) Wilkinson and company - who were pretty special, and now I'm looking at the present crop and they're even more special - there's somebody (Wilkinson) who took responsibility for his own improvement, which is completely different from working hard because the coach says so. And elite is not just working hard at a level. Elite, to my mind, is something extra. And players aren't used to that. They are becoming measured now. 'What time's training?' It's not: 'What are we doing?' It's: 'When does it finish…Ah good, right, that means I can see me mate at two o' clock this afternoon.' That's it. It's become that. If I said: 'Right, this afternoon let's have a look at your performance diary, it would be: 'Oh actually I'm seeing me mate.'
So actually you've two choices: you can go and see your mate which means it will do bugger all for your performance, or you can see me and chances are that might improve your performance.
'Yeah, but I've arranged to see me mate.' And that's the end of it. Honestly, it's got to the stage now where if they're not going to bother, I'm certainly not going to chase them.
BF: So no sign of rugby union wanting to change then?
DA: "You could do a lot with younger players to change them, you really could. It's an attitudinal thing. I've changed some of the things that have gone on in TSS (Brisbane) - an academy within a public school, so as you can imagine: very structured, and they punch above their weight because they're quite a small school compared to the other GPS (General Public Schools) schools, but I've done a few small things that I've introduced to the coaches and they've taken it on board. And they've changed. And now part of my work is actually to get coaches to manage learning instead of just telling people what to do. And there's a massive change in that - it's chalk and cheese.
Let me give you an idea: everybody talks about decision-making in rugby. First of all the language around decision makes it puzzle mentality, because you say good decision/bad decision. That's what happens. And when you show a video - and I've seen it - and say: 'All right what was the right decision in this situation?' And no one takes responsibility. So you go: 'What happened here? Could we make that decision any more effective? If so how and why?'
Well, you definitely get silence to start off with, and you just wait, and you bleed them until they start saying it. Now, instead of decision-making being right or wrong, it's now: 'Right we've made a decision - on reflection could it be more effective?' Now people will buy in - they're not afraid because they're not going to get it wrong. So the language suddenly changes everything.
And the other thing is: if you want to get good decision-making you cut down the number of options that you've got. And the nearer you are to the contact the least number of options an individual should have. If you think about it, under sensory shut down and all the rest of it, they are incapable (of dealing with a load). To my mind a ball carrier going into contact has got just one thing in his mind: hold on to the ball, smash as hard as you can into a gap, or a piece of a player, and fight tooth and nail to go down with the ball on your terms when you're ready. That's it. That's all you have to think about. Forget about offloads, forget about all that stuff, because if you make the bust the offload will come.
What we do though is fill them up with all this stuff: you can offload, you can go round the back, it depends on who's running off you - are they flat or deep? That's all bullshit. They're not capable of making that decision. Three players away from him, that guy should be doing nothing but reading him, so that one decision should be dictating what three other people do. And basically, if he's getting stood up, the next man whacks him down; the next man cleans - and that's all he does - or it's just clean and ball because if he's there quick enough he can take the ball way. But everybody makes it so complex. And I just think: at pace how many times have we said they didn't do anything special, they just did the simple things well, at pace?
BF: The best illustration of that was the All Blacks' demolition of France in the World Cup quarters. But it's not off the cuff, they have a structure to their play
DA: Right, I agree with a framework. The word structure I don't like. They do have a pattern and they do zone the field now. If you look at it, broadly speaking they tend to have their 'fatties' in the middle and they run to the edges and don't cross that, so they conserve energy, so when they do get the ball they can really go hard. And in a way, although it's not exactly the same, they've almost done it like rugby league. They wouldn't admit that but that's what they're doing. Then when you have people out wide coming from deep and at pace they do damage. Once you get over the gain line all bets are off.
And that's it. It is simple but it takes discipline and you have to be responsible for developing your skills. And our guys are not interested. They'd rather go in the gym. You can measure a bench press and you can measure a squat, but I can't measure right and left-hand spin passes. So I don't do that. It's not on the chart. I'm not number two at spin passing. And until people grapple with that and coaches are strong enough to really impose that, we're going to be back at square one. We won't do it. We'll have the same conversation after the next World Cup.
Argentina will only get better playing in the Rugby Championship. England? I don't know where England are going to go. They're in absolute turmoil at the moment. Ireland just need depth. They've got to get some skill work - as you know I work with Johnny Sexton, and I do a little bit with Paddy Jackson, but you've got loads of talented guys that if I started working with them now, by Japan you could have a plethora of people all vying, but they won't. I can't put my finger on it why they're not doing it.
It doesn't make any sense to me. Munster get a bit of an advantage? You do all of them so they all get an advantage. And what happens? The standard goes up. You start playing a different brand of rugby because players have got more skills, but you can't measure that, and that's the problem. All that happens is: 'Oh, so and so is kicking quite well...oh he's won the game…actually he's won the last three games.' And if you analyse it - just the kicking part of it - the kicking and catching skills are 35 per cent of the game now.
If you take restarts, box kicks, kicks to touch, penalties, kicks for position, bombs - it's 35 per cent of the game. Do you actually have a specialist? No, you have a guy who does some kicking with the goal kicker and the rest is quite haphazard and we make it up as we go along. And that's why you box kick and it goes straight up in the air and comes back down; or it goes too long, and you outkick the coverage; somebody jumps up and doesn't take the ball, and you ask when was the last time they jumped for a high ball? Look at Aussie rules players, they catch and kick every day.
BF: Perhaps it's because rugby is professional that we don't change. The irony is that a weekly, results-driven business doesn't allow time for developing so you can improve, and get better results?
DA: But I don't see it as doing that. When a youngster two years old grows to three has he changed? Has he changed or has he grown? So if I said let's grow all the players, would you be happier with that? Change implies that whatever you're doing, chuck it out. No! At the margin, at the edges, work away. And just start challenging little bits. And it will evolve. That's what I consider growth, but it is change because when you look back you'll go: 'Wow! I can now kick with both feet.' But people want to stay in the status quo don't they? They fight tooth and nail for the status quo."
Dave Alred is speaking at an international conference in Thurles next weekend, organised by Setanta College: 'Delivering and Maximising Youth Potential in Sport.'
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