13 Jul

To coach, or not to coach?
by Tracey Nelson
13 Jul 2009

Last week All Blacks Coach Graham Henry and his two Assistant Coaches, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen, were re-appointed to take the All Blacks team through until the end of 2011. This will extend their reign to eight years and will encompass the 2011 Rugby World Cup. So what lies ahead for Messrs Henry, Hansen and Smith as they get a second bite of the cherry?

There was some eyebrow raising at the timing of the annoucement, given the outgoing NZRU board made the decision in April and the All Blacks were coming off the end of an Iveco series against France and Italy that had failed to inspire and resulted in France winning the Gallagher Trophy. But there can be no denying that statistically speaking their coaching record looks good. Under Henry, Hansen and Smith the All Blacks have won 57 out of 66 Test matches, a winning record of 86 percent that includes defending the Bledisloe Cup in five successive seasons, winning the Tri Nations four times, a clean-sweep of the British and Irish Lions series in 2005, and two Grand Slams in 2005 and 2008. NZRU Chairman Jock Hobbs said the current All Blacks coaching panel was a very strong and experienced team.Graham, Wayne and Steve are outstanding coaches. They have a formidable record and we hold them in very high regard.”

Ah, this is the crux of the matter though. The use of the word “coach”. These three men, at this level of rugby, aren’t as much coaches as player managers – much in the way of the Alan Ferguson’s of this world. Which had been fine and dandy up until about 2007. They had all played rugby and coached their first rugby sides in a different era, when you still had players who had learnt their trade via the club scene, then the NPC before hitting the Super 12 comp. That was the era of the “rugby-intelligent” players – the likes of Fitzy, the Brooke brothers, Andrew Mehrtens, etc. But now we are in an era where most players leave school, enter the development squad systems and never really got a chance to play club rugby surrounded by older, wiser heads.

In the 80′s and 90′s, and even as late as 2003, the top players participated at club level and the newbies came up through the ranks playing alongside All Blacks. One past-Crusader who played club rugby alongside Richard Loe made the comment that back then if the ball needed to be kicked out, you made damn sure you got it out otherwise you risked being either thumped or rucked by Loe himself. And while he may have ruled with a reign of terror, equally there were techniques and tactics he and other senior players employed that junior players learned from. It was learning in the school of hard knocks, not watching data streams of your tackling technique sitting indoors at a computer.

All the basic core skills of the game were coached and learned at club and provincial level, so that by the time a player made the Super comp or the ABs, they had all the skills required for that position and the coaches didn’t have to spend hours teaching the basics. Instead they could just concentrate on the moves, or the finer points of lineouts or scrummaging. The All Black coach could tell the players to employ umbrella or inside out or whatever other defensive system he wanted to use and know that the players actually understood what he were talking about rather than having to explain it from scratch and then hope like hell they could do it right in a game.

You also had players with not just a good grounding in the core skills but also an understanding of the laws. Mehrts might be an extreme example here but he could actually discuss rulings with the ref as could Fitzy, Zinny etc. But you look at today’s players and outside of McCaw the bulk of the forwards are clueless when it comes to the laws. One All Black lock admitted during the S14 that he didn’t actually know or understand all the laws around a lineout. Unfortunately in the modern game you can’t bluff your way as a rugby player without eventually being found out. And I think we’re about at that stage now with some of the players.

Now, before someone starts bleating about the laws being too difficult or that there are too many of them, here are just a few examples where players have cost the All Blacks penalties in the recent Iveco series:

1. Continuing to chase a kick when infront of the kicker
2. Forwards running outside the 15m to take a long throw at thelineout before the ball has even left the hooker’s hands
3. Backs running up offside before a lineout has finished
4. Not retiring 10m from a kick and actually continuing to move forward and make the tackle from that offside position

There is no way a coach should have to be coaching ANY of those four examples, even at Div 2 club rugby. They’re basics of the game and haven’t been fiddled with by the law makers for some years now. So the dilemma we find ourselves in is that we have just appointed three coaches through to 2011 who have not had to really *coach* rugby for the last decade but are now finding themselves faced with the serious problem of having a lot of players lacking in the fundamental basics of the game. Add to that the recent ELVs in the S14 and switching back again for test rugby and the problems just increase. The biggest task infront of the All Black coaches in the next two years is learning how to coach again, rather than just manage.

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