Why school power doesn’t translate to pros

Brendon Shields

There has been a lot of debate recently about the reasons why the strength of our school’s game in South Africa dissipates once our players turn pro. Some argue that our professional level coaching is not up to scratch. Others reason that the emphasis on winning at the schoolboy level makes it hard for coaches to develop players properly for the professional game.

My opinion is that the mismatches in our school leagues produce players who cannot think strategically or play tactically – something the pro game absolutely demands.

Too many games at school level end up with one team winning by a huge margin, and this is not good for the development of our players.

A bit of field research
As an example I measured 3 random games this week – an Under-13A game, an Under-19A game and a professional game. The score’s in all 3 games were similar, and all matches were fiercely contested with the winning margin an average 3.4 points. So, no mismatches.

Above are the total game events per team (set-pieces, rucks, handles, tackles) that I measured for each team. To better understand the data, we have to divide these game events by the amount of minutes each team played for. The U13s play for 40 minutes, the under 19’s for 70 minutes and the pro’s for 80 minutes.

As you can clearly see, the pro game is busier. The ball is also in play a lot longer and they contest more set-pieces, tackle more and attend more rucks. They also pass the ball a heck of a lot more.

During the Virseker Beker of 2018, the average passes made by our under 19 teams were 89.3 per game. That’s roughly the amount of times professional teams pass each half!

It’s harder to score
Despite there being more play in a pro game, it is generally harder for teams to score points. In my sample, the 4 school teams all registered a ‘points per platform’ ratio of 0.75. This means that for each opportunity they got, they scored 0.75 points. At pro level, this figure drops down to 0.39 for the 4 teams I studied (Crusaders, Blues, Reds and Chiefs). It’s almost twice as difficult to score points at pro level than it is at schools level. There is less space and every player is a conditioned athlete, so the margins become smaller.

Think on your feet
With smaller margins to work with, coaches and players at pro level develop the ability to strategise and find creative ways of cracking open the defense. Creative thinking is not a luxury, it’s an absolute necessity at pro level. Below I list the amount of attack variation I measured in my samples. These are the amount of times that teams kick to regather the ball, or maul, or play wide to the tramlines – in other words the times they play ‘creatively’.

Despite both schools games being very close affairs, neither team was able to vary their attack because they are not challenged often enough to do so. In contrast, the Crusaders in their game against the Blue’s kicked the ball 26 times in an effort to regain it (grubbers, chips, box kicks etc). Many schools teams I measure would not have that many strategic kicks in a season!

It is also pertinent to note that the U13 game was won after a play involving a fantastic little grubber kick by the 12, gathered by the wing. Makes one wonder why they only tried that move once during the entire game!

So to use this simple example, we cannot get angry at our professional 9’s if their kicking is wonky, because they only really started doing this after school. Even at high-level elite schools, I often count less than 10 kicks all game. Why? Because that variation is not needed to win games. So while a particular school wins most of their games, they are unlikely to develop a 9/10/15 that understands strategic kicking. This also explains why a school level superstar like Curwin Bosch only gets to learn defense when he becomes a pro. It was simply not needed before.

Uneven games mean less endeavour
Players develop micro skills under pressure, as well as decision-making abilities when playing tough games. If your U13 team can win 80% of games by having one speedster or one big kid who can run over the opposition 10, it’s unlikely that any of the 15 in your team will end up great strategists. Similarly if your U19 team scores 50 points by virtue of having a strong pack and one or two good strike runners, you are unlikely to develop a fullback who can field a high kick under pressure – something every good pro 15 must be able to do.

Basically each time a team faces a poor opponent and wins by 50, their creative development takes a step backwards, and we have far too many of those in SA schools rugby at the moment.

There is nothing wrong with our mindset at schools level to want to win games. It’s how we construct those wins that sits at odds with how players are required to operate at professional level. Pro level rugby, as a direct result of data and video analysis, has become more and more demanding because there are fewer weak links, and nowhere to hide. To win a rugby game you need 15 super-fit athletes with great skill who make few mistakes and who have the ability to strategise and make plans during game play.

If we can restructure our schools game so that more and more games are evenly matched, our coaches, like their pro counterparts, will be forced to think creatively and develop players who can execute creative play. At the elite level our best schools still play very competitive rugby week in and out, but in many leagues around the country, from U11 to U19 level, you see scores like 60-0, 55-7, 92-17. I think it’s time our unions address this issue because this imbalance now negatively affects our ability to create world-class professional players.

FRESH TAKE is an initiative to identify, feature and develop talented rugby writers who are not yet part of the mainstream media. If that sounds like you, send us a sample of a story you’d like to write to info@alloutrugby.com

Brendon is the developer of  www.rugbycology.com, a Google-based game-analysis system for schools and club rugby.

- Brendon Shields

Let's chat

  • Barry

    Thanks Brendon, you’ve clearly put a lot of work into this.

    There are two facets that I believe contribute negatively to player evolution.

    Firstly, we create so much talent each year that Unions, clubs etc are spoilt for choice. As a result, they do not spend as much time on individual skills development as Countries like Australia, or even New Zealand for that matter. The Australians in particular, spend loads of time on player skills development, quite simply because they don’t have an endless stream of talent being churned out! In SA development is almost a player responsibility!

    The second issue is that we do not follow prudent business practices when appointing coaches. None of our franchises use psychometric testing and we usually end up with good rugby men that are week on strategic thinking. How many times have we been out thought? Japan, last World Cup!!

    If coaches are weak in this area, how can they possibly teach their charges?

  • Jasper

    With all respect, I think you are barking up the wrong tree. I understand that you seek to emphasize the differences in demands between the levels. Stats are all good and well, but it would be best to compare these stats with their age peers from different countries. Even at varsity level our teams are among the best in the world. However, it ends there. Uni is the last instance of natural progression and retention. Many of these players will hang up their boots after they have graduated. Then it is up to the “system”. Our second tier feeder base, the clubs, is non functional. Big unions contract their players after Craven week and very few players get to rise through the ranks from club level. Then the exposure of these lucky, contracted players are further restricted by deviding the now rather small professional player base that remain into two divisions. The second division players never/rarely get to rub shoulders with the marquee players from the first division. To compound matters further, there is the obvious politics at play… and pardon me for saying, but boards of many of the unions are filled with people that simply have no business skills, experience or qualifications.

    • Herman

      Agreed. I also believe that the high injury toll in SR is due to these ‘schoolboys’ not being battle hardened by the time they get exposed to SR. Playing club rugby for a mandatory year or two should address that problem. Cheers.

  • Richard

    I have been coaching schoolboy rugby in NZ (Auckland) for 6 years now and we play weight Grade rugby ie every boy plays in a weight limited team. It was pretty difficult to get used to playing without the usual SA systems like a big #8 and #12 to get you over the gainline etc, but it is amazing what these boys can do now that the tighthead prop is the same size as the wing. Every player has to be able to contribute with all the skills and every player must be able to be the provider and taker of opportunities. Every player is valuable and can be a game-changer and I build moves around each player so that they have a winning part to play and can enjoy their experience in more ways than just being the bulldozer or the flier out wide. These boys, who would probably have to play the equivalent of an u16A team in SA, would lack the size by a long way to be competitive, but their skills and ability to create chances would be streets ahead. They could/will get bigger AND they won’t forget their basics. I prefer coaching NZ boys; more ingenuity and innovation.

    • Herman

      Spot on Richard. Our up and coming SR players should also have Sevens included in their training regime. That should sort out the skilled from the average. Cheers.

  • Nick

    Enjoyed the article. But it comes as no shock that junior rugby played by kids is less dynamic, fast or tactically astute than the pro version.
    Nor can it be expected to be. To enable skilful rugby down the age groups, the game needs to be simplified in its laws in order to get the ball in play more often and for longer than what it does now.

  • Simon

    Last time I checked our best leave to go make money oversees… We must have some 300 pros working in europe, some who never played a single game of pro rugga in SA…

    • Herman

      Not too worried about the so called 300. How many of them are really world class which should be a prerequisite for playing for the Boks. ( I use world class very loosely with the current Bok lot ) Not many if truth be told with a few older mercenaries well past their sell by date anyway. Even Willie Le Roux. Morne Steyn, Bismark etc are playing on borrowed time. DV was signed off by Toulon, they offered him a vastly reduced contract to stay on and Rassie obviously broke the bank to get him back.

      Forget these mercenaries, build from within. Cheers.

  • Jaco

    Will, It not be better for our schools to play according to weight up to under 16 level. Under 19 they can play according to age. Then coaches can’t use the biggest guy to carry or big packs dominate the game and not much skill is developed. Back in my day the big guy would take to ball, it takes 5 players to tackle him and then its try time.

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