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