Matt Williams: Where has all the creativity gone in rugby coaching?
Precious little original thinking apparent as coaches embrace the herd mentality
Munster senior coach Stephen Larkham with Billy Holland: In recruiting Graham Rowntree and Stephen Larkham, Munster have brought in fresh creative thinking and vast experience into their organisation. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
The majority of teams in Europe are employing the exact same game plan.
Most teams are using the same tactics inside the same attacking and defensive structures. Many coaches are plagiarising the ideas of other coaches as their match tactics lack the intellectual rigour to create original play.
Some of the problem has its origins within global coach education. Pedagogy is “the method and practice of teaching”. Or how to teach, rather than what to teach. The current emphasis in coach education has moved from what to coach to how to coach. The “pedagogy” has dominance over the rugby content.
How coaches educate and lead their teams is exceptionally important. However, under the law of unintended consequences, this emphasis has led to an epidemic of plagiarism in rugby coaching.
The evidence suggests very few coaches are using innovative tactics with the aim of nullifying their opponents on a game by game basis. The coaches know how to present to their players but they do not have the depth of understanding of rugby tactics to create original plans to attack opponents’ vulnerabilities.
Scott Wisemantel, the former England attack coach, is currently being pursued by the Wallabies to return to his native Australia because he has proven he can create an attacking system that has the flexibility for specific match tactics which can expose an opponents’ weaknesses.
To me that is the essence of tactical coaching. Giving your opponent what they do not want. This is in very short supply in European club rugby.
Several years ago the Kiwis had a crop of athletic hookers, like Dane Coles and Codie Taylor. To maximise their talents they designed an original attacking system that stretched defences. They placed their athletic backrowers and hooker in the wide channels. It was brilliant thinking.
In Europe today, team after team copy this system despite many teams having hookers who are not fast, lean athletes. Common sense tells us that less dynamic players should not be outside the centres in attack, but slavishly the coaches copy the New Zealanders attacking shape.
In turn, rushing defence was reintroduced to nullify the New Zealand system. I say reintroduced because rushing defence is not new. I first witnessed rushing defence in 1984. Coach Warren Ryan introduced it to the Sydney Rugby League club, Canterbury-Bankstown.
Shaun Edwards later played under Ryan at the Balmain club in 1989. As Wasps defensive coach in 2004, Edwards successfully introduced rushing defence to rugby.
So the one word I want to remove from this discussion is “modern”. When talking about tactics I often get the reply “modern systems”. Whether a system is new or old is irrelevant. Whether a system is effective is all that matters. Rushing defence is an old but highly effective system.
Last weekend in the 75th minute of their match, Gloucester had made a massive 246 passes and were trailing by 10 points. Their opponents, Montpellier, had a player sent off and had made only 68 passes.
Gloucester were using what is wrongly termed modern attacking and defensive systems. Gloucester’s systems were simply ineffective.
A system that simply delivers the ball, as often as possible, into the hands of your most creative players, just like in the U-10s, can be effective.
The primary objective of Racing 92’s attacking system is to get the ball into the hands of Teddy Thomas, Finn Russell and Virimi Vakatawa. This system empowers the players to use their instincts and react to any vulnerabilities in the opposition defensive system.
Munster gave away two tries to short kicks from Racing. Like many other clubs, Munster play a defensive system that positions their scrumhalf in the main defensive line. When Russell scored, there were no sweepers behind the line. When Thomas kicked there was one. Racing attacked the space they know this system leaves.
Munster are a club that have bravely committed to change. That change will take time. Coach Johann van Graan and his staff must be empowered to walk that long path of creativity. Like last week, there will be slips along the way.
Impatient chief executives and boards who demand short-term results without long-term investment are the basis of the plagiarism in coaching.
So often I see chairman and chief executives, who lack a deep understanding of the essential qualities required in a head coach, appoint a coach with poor technical and tactical knowledge. In turn, this coach provides poor education for the playing group.
This leads to a form of knowledge “inbreeding” in an organisation. The players only know what they know.
Irish rugby’s willingness to embrace creative technical knowledge from non-Irish coaches has been a driving force in the rise and rise of the Irish provincial clubs.
New Zealand’s bold plan to place their back row and hooker on the extremities in attack is was what business jargon calls “disruptive leadership”. Those original tactics were literally game-changers.
Coaches who have slavishly plagiarised the Kiwis’ tactics have driven their clubs towards mediocrity. Hope does exist for brave coaches who are willing to be creative and maximise the talents of their players, with the aim of giving the opposition what they don’t want.
Within that glorious chaos of creativity, success is waiting to happen.