It has been one of the great debates in rugby for many years now. Why the Southern Hemisphere is better than the Northern. Super Rugby Aotearoa showed us the best of what New Zealand can do. Now the Premiership and the Pro14 (or rather Pro12) are supposed to show us the best of Britain and Ireland, and Italy. And they fall well short of the mark set by New Zealand.
So far, the only game that has been able to match anything Aotearoa has shown us, has been Bristol vs Exeter on Tuesday. Even Leinster vs Munster was a bit of a dead bird in comparison. Of course, they are just coming out of lock down. Of course, they are still getting used to the new law interpretations. But so where the Kiwi’s when they just returned and showed us great rugby.
So what is the reason for the game being so different down there? Ask any random Kiwi or Pacific Islander living in Europe and he will put it down to one thing, and one thing only. Down there, you play the game the same as you did when you were a school boy.
There is a joy in watching New Zealand teams play, there is a joy in watching Fiji play Sevens. It is there because they play instinctive football. Even at elite level, with a lot of coaching, higher fitness and analysis, they play the same game as the youth play in clubs and schools. They play the same game as they did when they were kids playing on the beach. They play the same game as the First XV of their club or province.
Over coaching kills the game of Rugby
In the North, the elite is far removed from the grass roots and youth. Money plays a part in that. Coaching plays a bigger role in that. And there is an argument to be made that it is overcoaching that kills the game.
Just look at how clubs now structure their coaching team. Just a quick glance at Sale Sharks’s own website will show you 8 coaches involved in the game, alongside 4 analysts, lead by a Director of Rugby. Munster also lists 7 coaches and 2 analysts. In contrast the champion Crusaders side lists a Head Coach, 2 assistants, a backs coach and a forwards coach. Even the World Cup champion Springboks currently only list 6, most of whom are part timers or have other functions. That makes for a striking contrast.
What you see on the pitch though, is that both Sale and Munster are all structure and very little intuition. Crusaders, like the other New Zealand Super Rugby teams, use their own skills and initiative within a coached framework.
For an even better example of what overcoaching does though, an excursion to another sport might be needed. A look at the world of cycling, shows even more clearly the problem of overcoaching and overanalyzing. While Team Sky, now Ineos, won the Tour de France 7 times in the past decade, only 2 of those have been memorable. With Bradley Wiggins’s win in 2012, we first saw how science, analysis and coaching could reach its peak and win this gruelling 3 week event. Wiggins was turned from a track cyclist into a machine that could win a road race like that. He was given a great team and it worked. It worked because the computers had calculated it would work.
Egan Bernal’s win last year was memorable because he finally bucked the trend. The team and the careful planning failed and Bernal and Geraint Thomas battled for the top spots on the podium and the Columbian youngster ended up beating the veteran, who could not do what the computer told him to do.
But nobody wants to watch those races. It is a big part of the reason the ratings have been falling. Even the riders don’t like riding those races anymore, because they are exhausting and far too controlled. What riders and public both want are the free spirits like Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert, Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan. They are riders who are given the freedom to use their instincts in the race and it makes the races exciting, as opposed to those controlled by the managers in the cars behind the pack.
The same applies to rugby. The first few seasons obsessive attention to detail showed up at high level, it was a novelty. England won a World Cup with it and it did improve the game everywhere for a number of years.
But now it has reached a level that is actually killing the game, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. The same level of structure is inevitably used at lower levels, taking away the instinctive play. Nitpicking details is more important to many coaches than focusing on skills and using individual strengths to create a better team. Fitness and structure are often what is relied on to win matches. Video analysis by the coach is not uncommon, driving out the old team chat. Instinct gets killed off in favour of structure.
The problem starts early
What is even worse, is when youth coaches try to imitate this too. It is quite common to see under 12’s players obsessed with structure and positions, as much as their coaches are. All they should be concerned about is the enjoyment of the game. They should be concerned with the players learning to play as many positions as possible. They should be learning everything about the game they can and learn to play on instinct.
None of this is helped by the professional clubs picking up players very early. Pressing players into a very structured game from an early age means they end up becoming more reliant on coaching than on their own experience and instinct. Not to mention they will focus on rugby alone, rather than many different sports.
Kids who have done many different sports throughout their youth, end up as more rounded adult athletes. Kids who play rugby because they like the game play it to enjoy it. They will pick up a ball, or even a stone or coconut and run around playing touch or even contact wherever there is space. Through playing, they develop instincts and awareness. Through changing rules and refereeing, or no refereeing, they learn to adapt to change as well. These abilities make a huge difference at a later age.
The elite players in the Northern Hemisphere have invariably been heavily coached from an early age. Most have now come through academies and been pressed into a structured and controlled game from an early age. As Seniors, they can now not throw the ball around with abandon, just for the heck of it. They are there to serve as pawns for the Director.
And just like the riders in the peloton, they can win if they listen to the manager and the computer. But what they do is not enjoyable. It is not enjoyable to do, or to watch. And just like in the peloton, they will come across others who can dance away from them. They will find their analysis and calculations cannot cope with that. Their body and mind can’t cope with a change from the structure. And the computer will always be beaten by human intuition and instinct.
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