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Coaching - credentials and experience for rugby

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People often pick out certain players in various sports and earmark them as potential coaches. 

Often these are good players who have played at the highest level. 

I am sure that when Jean de Villiers and Victor Matfield decided to stay in the UK after the RWC that they would spend time gaining experience as coaches at Leicester Tigers and Northamptonshire respectively.

Since they have been back, all we have seen so far is both of them being used as pundits by SuperSport. I have not seen whether Matfield has been retained by The Bulls on Nollis's  coaching staff? Nothing has been said of de Villiers.

Some people are good at coaching and others are hopeless despite all the playing experience in the World.

Imparting personal knowledge is a far cry from being a coach. One-to-one mentoring is helpful and can be done by a former Bok with a guy who is playing in the same position, but to be honest even then, personalities come into play and the chemistry may be wrong.

To be a coach one has to understand the very basics of the game of rugby. The size of the pitch, the dimensions of the poles, different grasses, even jersey fabric is a consideration. The average arm span of a player is about 1.5m and so if one stands 15 players side by side across a pitch, about 22.5m will be covered. The width of a pitch is supposed to be 70m,so in terms of the modern game's defensive structures, one cannot simply stand in a line abreast across the field.

Then comes the hard part for a coach at higher levels - assessment of players and assembling a squad that "fits". It becomes even more complex if a club or franchise have had a traditional pattern of play and they pick a coach without considering just that. What is the culture and what is expected? The coach wants to stamp his style on the way the group will play their rugby and very often one has to understand certain nuances which may or may not work.

Some coaches have an authoritarian style whilst others are more relaxed. Some may look for a captain to be the leader and spokesman both of the the group and the club. Some coaches prefer their captain to be an onfield leader who by example shows his team how to play.

Then one has the need to be technically skilled. The scrum is very technical with the loosehead being a very different scrummager to the tighthead or hooker.

The tighthead lock is a different technician to his pal next to him. Jumping at various positions in the lineout is an art.

Looseforwards have to be multi-skilled (as do all modern players) because they are seen as the link between backs and forwards. They push in the scrum, leap in the lineout, mop up the loose ball and must make 10-15 tackles per game.

Backs are awkward characters - moody and temperamental, they are the guys who are GIVEN the ball in good positions and are expected to score points. But seriously, backs are skittish and sometimes do not man up to the tasks expected of them such as tackling their opposite number - "leave that to the grunt loosie".

The coach must ensure that players can run, jink, feint or sidestep, pass, kick, jump, catch and tackle. 

The coach needs to sort out how his players are expected to perform certain functions and "share" the workload. He needs to be able to manage different personality types and he must be able to clearly explain what he wants.

The coach then needs to make a squad aware of why he wants them to play a certain way and under certain conditions. He needs to make sure that he gets "buy-in" to his vision particularly from his onfield leadership group.

He then needs to motivate his players and make sure that they enjoy training as well as playing games. He has to balance practise game time with conditioning and skills. He has to allocate time to running through strategy drills. He may be of the opinion that when the ball is in his team's 22m area it must be kicked into touch. Alternatively he may give free rein to his decision makers to run from a promising position anywhere on the park. Defensively he may want a tackler to put his man on the ground or he may want him held up. Different situations demand different actions and the coach must explain how and why.

Planning and managing a practise week is a fulltime job.

He has to ensure that players are able to play the game in such a way, within THE LAWS of Rugby, that they will neither injure themselves or the opposition.

The coach then must be able to record what happens both on the field of play and during practise sessions. Recording all of the logistics of a game is all part of the modern science of the game. He needs to be aware of the health of his players and may even bring in a dietician amongst other scientists.

To do all of this a coach needs assistants and he needs to pick these people just as carefully as he picks his team for they are part of the modern team.

Above all else, the coach must be a person who wants to WIN. In addition he needs to impart to his players why he wants to win and how to win.

No coaching is not about hanging up your boots and then telling others how to play the game the way you played it. Coaching is a science and although I may be wrong, I suspect that neither de Villiers or Matfield are scientists.

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You don't get coaching experience by playing rugby, but by coaching rugby. When you play, you mainly focus on the one position, you play in and rarely study the other positions in detail. Added to that there are a lot of technical detail in skills training and you actually have to study the movements involved in every skill in great detail to know which factor would influence the outcome in a specific way. As there is no real formal training, coaches must have the self-drive to research and study on their own. At times I get tired of it, and I times I feel I need a break, because every day should and must be a challenge. You only improve, if you continuously challenge yourself. And the players can only develop, if you continuously challenge them.

Most of the ex-players firstly don't have much of a clue, as they were not coached by technically skilled coaches in the first place. A minor adjustment of your grip on a ball can help you pass an extra 5m for example. Senior Springboks (that included Jean de Villiers), could not even make a decent spin pass off their weak hand! Now we would expect them to coach other players, while they cannot even apply the necessary technique to demonstrate the skill correctly!

When it comes to patterns of play, a problem is also that a player who plays most of his life in a certain team tends to gravitate to what he was coached in that team. When we coach, we tend to focus on the skills and principles of the game. When we coach a specific play or pattern, we try to explain the function of the play in terms of those basic principles. At the same time we allow the players to make the decision based on the reaction of the opposition. For example, player A runs line X to cause the defender to follow in line Y. This opens up an option 1 to play player B. If the defender reacts slowly, or does not run line Y, then player A needs to adjust and play option 2 by switching to line Z or play option 3 by passing to player C. This way you basically prepares the player to play in any pattern, because they would understand the reason behind it. Always have options, so that you can make decisions!

Which reminds me of a coaching seminar with Frans Ludeke a few years ago. It was about the setting up of rucks in multi-phase play. The information pamphlet merely indicated the purpose of the seminar was to focus only on the setting up of rucks. When I asked what the purpose of the setting up of the rucks was, no-one could give a decent answer. Apparently the purpose of rucks, was to set up rucks?!?! Which explains the Bulls way of playing at that time!

You also make many other valid points regarding the interaction and the style of coaching. I don't believe in the "Authoritative" approach because you limit the development of the player. I keep telling the players to just make a decision, even if it is the wrong one. They will learn from that, because if they make a mistake, you can correct it. If they don't make any decision, there is nothing that you can correct, as they already made the wrong choice by NOT making a decision. The problem with such a style of coaching is that it takes time to develop the players, but they end up being much better players.

I can also compare it to the crap those same players experience at National level. There they get told not to make decisions, but merely to pass the ball to the senior players. If they make a decision that differs from the "patterns" they get insulted and many time get "demoted" to the bench or even fall out of contention... While it was there decision making and play, with our team that got them in the National squad in the first place. When we get those players back at the club, they are usually unfit, injured, and many times completely demotivated.

For some coaches some styles work, but for me the purpose of coaching is to develop the player, not only as a rugby players, but to develop them as a person, so that they can apply the same principles in their lives away from sports.

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Carwyn James.

 He gained distinction as a coach with Llanelli, whom he coached to four Welsh Cups between 1973 and 1976 and was coach when they won their famous victory over the All Blacks at Stradey Park, Llanelli, in 1972. He never coached the Welsh national side, largely because of his belief that the coach should chair the selectors' meetings and be responsible for choosing the other selectors. However he was coach of the 1971 British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand, the only Lions side ever to win a series against the All Blacks. His coaching style was said to involve quiet words with players and half-suggestions rather than orders. He was a strong believer in attacking rugby, with the attitude that if a team had possession of the ball it should be able to attack, regardless of the position on the field.


Edited by taipan

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