Players' lifestyles affecting their decision making


RUGBY ANALYST:The general exposure to real-life daily decision making for today’s players has been reduced radically compared with the players of the past

LITTLE DID I know when writing last week’s article on prop skills versus secondrow grunt that I’d bump into Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira lifting secondrow and 112kg Anton Bresler in a one-man clean and jerk. What power from the Beast and what skill from Bresler. Youtube: “Beast unbelievable lifting”.

More important matters; the temporary demise of our leaders Brian O’Driscoll and Rory Best has opened a chasm which will throw much pressure on their lieutenants.

It has brought the concept of leadership to the fore, especially watching developments (or lack thereof) over the passing weeks. Many institutions, books and theories abound regarding the role of the leader and the development of his team’s on-field decision making/taking control.

One method has four stages of management; firstly, “you and I discuss, I decide”; secondly, “you and I discuss, we decide”; thirdly, “you and I discuss, you decide”; and lastly, “ring me when you need me!”

If a manager (coach) is stuck on stages one to three he must reassess himself firstly and make the appropriate changes. If none are required he then must change the player.

Over the weeks I’ve enjoyed my trips to Connacht, highlighting on countless occasions the positive development in their game, especially the wonderful match against Harlequins. With all the positives in mind I’m going to focus on issues regarding on-field decision-making that raises a core question; has professionalism enhanced or hindered the leadership skills of our players?

On 30 minutes Connacht were up 19-9 over Harlequins. The next 10 minutes were crucial for Connacht, more so for Harlequins. What pressure would Conor O’Shea have been under to rally his troops?

Wave after wave of Quins flooded Connacht who brilliantly tackled and knocked everything that came their way, keeping their try line safe. Eventually Quins got a scrum inside Connacht’s 22, 17 metres or so from the Connacht left-hand touch line. As noted last week 22-year-old loosehead Denis Buckley was conceding nine stone on impact. Advantage James Johnston getting his right-hand side, shunting Buckley backwards and exposing the Connacht backrow on the left-hand side.

Quins right winger Tom Williams hugged the touchline with Fetu’u Vainikolo opposite. With 30 minutes and 22 seconds on the clock, the score at 19-9, Danny Care, the “fastest” scrumhalf in Europe, picks and goes right into 10-plus metres of lateral space and without a pass or a finger laid on him gets in for a try.

The options available to Connacht were to fill the space with another player, traditionally a back (outhalf) and cover his absence in the open field with scrumhalf and openside. At least Quins would have to pass the ball to score. Did no Connacht player see the extremely obvious dangers afoot?

Was this a team defensive system that couldn’t be adjusted on orders from high? Was this extremely poor awareness from the players on the pitch? Or was this good awareness but poor decision making? Why did Connacht’s backrow go into that scrum knowing there was a 17-metre blindside with only one defender protecting?

Has video analysis dulled our brain? More information is not knowledge so how do we convert data into knowledge? Have we lost the ability to think on our feet and make crucial pressure decisions, live?

Moments later Care struck again and Quins went in 24-19 ahead.

Peter Stringer’s wonder try against Biarritz to “win” the Heineken Cup in 2006 had similarities but much reduced space. Munster’s blindside winger Anthony Horgan left the right-hand touchline to drag Sereli Bobo away from the corner in a pre-programmed move. Had Bobo not gone across would Stringer have attempted the same move? I guarantee not, because the advantage was now out in the middle of the Millennium Stadium.

Midway through the second half in Galway, inexperienced replacement hooker Jason Harris-Wright was asked to throw his first lineout. Connacht, making a rare visit inside Quins’ half, needed to win the ball and, considering this was his first throw, needed to be gentle on Harris-Wright. He threw to the tail with the accuracy fractions out and Connacht failed to retain the ball and rarely got it back. Who made that decision and what was the logic behind it? Harris-Wright is a pro after all but is it team policy to execute certain moves in certain positions and can the lineout or tactical caller override them based on new information? If not, then the coach needs to be spoken to. If so then the players need to be educated on the matter.

As the game ebbed away from Connacht they brilliantly found themselves in the Quins 22 for possibly the last time. There were eight points separating where a three-pointer would have earned a great reward for a brilliant Connacht performance. Why was the drop goal not attempted?

No professional team or sport is immune; look at Munster’s closing plays in Paris.

What was it like 30 years ago long before professionalism, when players were employed in real life, making real life decisions before togging out to play? Having completed a straw poll all week I can conclude that in any given team regardless of era there were at best four players of the 15 who were clearly comfortable in their understanding of the game and the current conditions and what decisions to make; those figures have not changed. But what has changed is the lifestyle of the players who on top of being paid for performance (so a tad more expectation) have everything done for them: timetables, transport, food, gear, physio, etc, etc.

Hence their general exposure to real-life daily decision making has been reduced radically compared with players of the past. I know profiling of players takes place but has professional rugby replaced that “real life” environment to ensure our developing/academy/senior players remain in an environment that encourages individualism, decision making and leadership on a daily basis? I fear we have not addressed it as a concern until it becomes one.

If not, then the passing of great players such as O’Driscoll will be one thing but his passing leadership will be a far greater blow.

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