Coaching Like The Best

Posted: July 21, 2016 in Disciplinary Action, Discipline, International Rugby, Rugby, World Cup

In Dunedin, June 19th, 2010, New Zealand played against Wales. The All Black players and coaches went through their pre-game rituals: walks, naps, conversations, visualisations. They received their jerseys, and thought about what it meant to them. One word comes to mind: everything. Kick-off time finally arrived.

They absolutely hammer them. Dan Carter scores 27 points. Richie McCaw becomes the most successful All Black captain in history. After the game, and after the press meetings, the players sit in the dressing room. These are giants of the game. Some are the best players of their positions in the world-others are some of the best players in the history of the game.

Mils Muliaina, the off-field captain, gives his two cents. Then the backroom staff. Graham Henry comes last, telling his team this needs work and that needs tweaking. Finally, he congratulations McCaw on his achievement, and the team echo their coach’s sentiments.

But that’s where it stops. A scoreline of 42-7 doesn’t mean a reward of a night out, or a piss up. It means a reward of knowing the team reached their potential.

And then the unexpected occurs. As James Kerr wrote in Legacy, “two of the senior players-one an international player of the year, twice-each pick up a long-handled broom and begin to sweep the sheds. They brush the mud and the gauze into small piles in the corner”.

Why are they tidying up? These are world-class players, who play with a team that leads the way in rugby.
“The All Blacks are tidying up after themselves.
Sweeping the sheds.
Doing it properly.
So no one else has to.
Because no one looks after the All Blacks.
The All Blacks look after themselves.”

Creating a team like the All Blacks is no mean feat; only a number of coaches in history have ever acheived it. It takes years, it takes work, it takes effort and time beyond all belief. It also takes players with extremely strong character.

The All Blacks have a very simple mantra. It’s not very long, and doesn’t take time to learn off. It’s to the point-simple and direct. It’s so simple, in fact, it consists of two words, stolen from the Sydney Swans: “No Dickheads”.

Basically, it means no player is bigger than the team. In the past, players who were good enough to play for the All Blacks have never been selected. Some players who have been selected have never been asked back. This is simply because they don’t believe in the mantra. They believe themselves to be bigger than the team. All Blacks don’t do that. All Blacks are never bigger than the team.

If a ruck needs hitting, it’s hit. If a player needs to be stopped, a tackle is made. If an offload needs to be made, the position of the player doesn’t matter. They work until they do it all. They measure themselves only against themselves. But not every coach is lucky to have the All Blacks at their disposal.

Coaching is not an easy job. You have egotistical superstars, humble work horses, players with skills beyond anyone else’s and players who struggle with a left-handed pass. The lower the leagues you go, the lower the skill-sets, but, sometimes, the higher the number of egos. It’s always the way.

But selection should not be based on talent alone. If a player can kick a goal from 50 yards, but is quick to berate a teammate who makes a mistake, should he be selected? If a player can glide through players, but refuses to ruck over and blame a forward for being slow, should he be on the pitch? To both cases, absolutely not.

The players who continuously look to better themselves and their team should take preference. You see these players at every club: outhalves who are at the training field an hour before training practising their kicking, hookers who show up 30 minutes early with a bag of balls and a throwing target, fullbacks who show up early to field garryowens. These are the players you want. In other words: No Dickheads.

Wayne Smith said that “talent was irrelevant” when he talks about the Chiefs. “We picked guys with high work rate, strong body movers, guys that were unselfish and sacrificial mindset”.
This is extremely important because, as ex-NFL coach Vince Lombardi once said, “the question is usually not how well the person performs, but how well they perform together”.

To borrow another example from a different sport, Michael Jordan was the top scorer in his first five NBA seasons. He didn’t win a single championship. It’s when he developed his game to help the team that championship titles arrived. No one is bigger than the team.

Dealing with egos is never easy, but it’s necessary. The All Blacks deal with it themselves. One famous story that emerged from a past World Cup camp was of Israel Dagg and Cory Jane enjoying a night out. Tabloids went to town on them. What did management do about it? They sat them in front of a number of senior players, and left them off. I imagine Dagg and Jane have never felt worse than having to explain their actions to someone like Richie McCaw, a person to whom the All Black way of life is everything.

But, again, not every team have these players at their disposal. In my experience, I’ve witnessed a player leave the warm-up and drive home because he found out he wasn’t in the starting XV. The next training session, he was welcomed back with no repercussions. I’ve played with a player who stopped attending training as he wasn’t starting matches; as a result, the coach started him in the next game to entice him back. In both cases, these players should have been cut loose. No one is bigger than the team.

A team should want to play together. Mistakes are inevitable in games, and a player who cares about the team will rue his or her mistakes after the game. But what is important is that they know their teammates don’t mind; in fact, they’re willing to work twice as hard to rectify that player’s mistake. That’s teamwork.

As I said earlier, coaching is never easy. But there are a number of methods that can be introduced to help build a team.

  • Encourage players to get together for coffee, lunch, or an activity at least once a week, but try to ensure they go in different weekly groups as much as possible. 
  • While travelling to games, have players of the same position travel together (for example, second rows together so as they can talk about lineouts, scrumhalf and outhalf so as they can talk about their patterns and game plan). However, when returning from games, have backs sit with forwards.
  • A player who hasn’t been selected should be appointed the off-field captain for the day. Their duties should include noting their thoughts on the game, and being invited to speak to the team after the game about the positives and negatives. This should be a respected position, and appointed to different players every week.(Thoughts could be run past the coach first, and should be kept as positive as possible.)
  • Mistakes will happen. Encourage a policy of “no problem, next phase”.  
  • When teams score against you, encourage your team to gather under the posts and introduce a policy of “Regroup, Regather, Reclaim Restart”. Always focus on the next job.
  • Encourage positivity as much as possible, and adopt the All Blacks practice that no one is bigger than the team. Egos may be bruised, but it’s not an individual sport. 
  • Give players a chance to take over leadership early in the season, be it a warm-up or a drill. Every player should look to be a leader on and off the pitch. 
  • At training, perform a two minute fitness drill. At the end of the drill, have a non-kicker (usually a prop or a front five forward) kick at goal. If he/she misses, do another two minute drill. Then have a player throw a ball to the tail of the lineout (again, a player who you know can’t throw). Again, if he/she misses, perform another two minute drill. Repeat once more with a different player performing another player’s role. At the end of the drill, make the point people groaned and moaned when players failed, rather than choosing to say “no problem, next phase”. Also point out that, under fatigue and pressure, no player’s job is easy, so no other player should complain if they fail.
  • Question players about what they would do in certain situations, and constantly keep asking why. Swap players around in set piece moves and see how they react. You never know when they may need to slot in. Practising match situations is the best way to prepare. Defend with 14 players to prepare for a sinbin, or attack with five backs to see who steps up in case of an injury on the pitch. You’ll find out a lot about your players and their character.
  • Back yourself, and back your decisions. If you drop a player, or decide to do something different, make sure you’re able to explain why, and back your call. On the other hand, if you’re wrong, don’t be afraid to apologise. You expect players to put their hands up for something like a missed tackle, so you should lead from the front on that front. But don’t give in to one player’s complaints.

At the end of the day, there are two questions you need to ask your players: what can they offer the team, and what are they prepared to sacrifice. Their answers will tell you what you want to hear, but it’s their actions and character that will back them up.

These tips are designed to aid coaches, and all may not work for the team you coach. However, the search for improvement never stops, and rugby is a game of character. Feel free to try them out and let us know how it goes. Pre-season is upon us, and there’s no better time to put a stamp on your season.

Finally, best of luck to everyone with the upcoming season. Enjoy it.

The Loose Head

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