The way that rugby union is coached makes it clear that the gainline is considered to be the most important component of the game.
The buzz used to be around the breakdown, and more recently we became obsessed with linespeed. If you look closely, the infatuation is always with open-play events. Long gone are the days when we used to prioritise the scrum, the lineout, or the restart as the main area of innovation.
This is because New Zealand, Australian and English rugby coaches are so heavily influenced by the innovations in rugby league which they’re exposed to on a daily basis. Coaches from these countries subsequently travel the world to coach various teams, and these ‘league seeds’ get sprinkled about.
In South Africa, we try to copy what the Kiwis are doing, without understanding why the Kiwis and Australians play this way.
It’s a culture thing. They draw talent from boys who often cross codes, whereas in South Africa, France, Ireland and Argentina, the league effect should not be a factor. And yet we all currently play rugby pretty much the same way.
In 2006, I spent some time in Australia and really enjoyed watching league because their approach was just totally different. This month I have again had the good fortune of travelling Down Under, and this time I decided to throw myself head-first into the 13-man game to really understand what it’s all about.
Paul Dyer, head of player development at the Brisbane Broncos, kindly gave me access to their coaching approach and even invited me to observe a few training sessions. I was especially keen to see for myself what Paul referred to as “a move away from the gainline as the be-all and end-all”. Paul argues that the gainline is not nearly as important as the speed and momentum generated for the next phase of attack.
It was all very exciting until I actually attended a training session, only to realise that league and union are now a complete mirror image of each other as far as open play is concerned.
Lots of running for the sake of running. Passing for the sake of passing. Running screens for the sake of, well, running screens. Even the little stab kicks (when all else has failed) are 100% reminiscent of rugby union. It’s all very impressive once it gets going, but it’s also fairly static with the defense always having enough time to re-align for another bash.
I could have been watching the training session of any rugby union team today.
I don’t blame league. I really love the sport and I totally get why they play the game this way. League is all about a slow building-up of territory through the allowed 6 phases of possession. Thereafter they have to kick, with the 40/20 rule allowing the kicking team to win back possession. The ball is in ‘open play’ far more regularly, so innovation in this area will naturally occur more often in league.
What annoys me is that rugby union coaches seem to have gotten lazy. We are today so perplexed by the dynamics of open play that we no longer innovate strike plays from set-pieces. I for one just cannot buy the excuse that you have to first set up 9 static phases before trying to strike?
Watching a bit of league and studying the game makes you appreciate union all the more, because the lineout and the scrum are rather special things which totally whack the dynamic by screwing with the numbers.
My short time with rugby league however brought the realisation that, to a large extent, union does not want to be union anymore. We want to get those pesky set-pieces over with so we can have lots of open play – league style.
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Brendon Shields is currently the host of Rugbycology, an online training course where you learn to capture data and generate game statistics using pen, paper and online Google tools.