We talk to elite coaches across the game to try to answer one question: Just how do you land on your team’s playing identity?
The evolution of playing style
Before get into the meat of the subject, Springboks head coach Jacques Nienaber wants to ensure that there is some understanding around what leads up to the killer question. Because deciding how you want to play rugby isn’t exactly knocked over before you’ve blown the froth off your pint.
“If myself, you and the public understand two things first, then it will make a lot of sense what I say next,” Nienaber begins. “First, rugby is a game of continuous contest. That’s what makes rugby completely different from other contact sports. There are over 800 contests in a game of rugby.
“Then the second one is: rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes. The laws of rugby start with that. It’s for the fat kid, the thin kid, the kid that can pass a ball and also the kid who can’t pass the ball. So those are the two things that underpin the sport. Then we get to your question: how long does it take to arrive at a playing style?
“It depends on how well you know the athleticism in your squad. So for example, when I walked into Munster, it takes you some time to see the athletic attributes. We already have a pretty good idea where the contests in rugby are going to be, which is determined by the laws of the game. Then you must make an assessment: what is our squad? What is our players’ general skill-set and athleticism? Is it a small team that can move and are agile, or do you have a big team that’s heavy, that’s not as athletic and not as agile?
“Then it’s the skill-set. When we walked into Munster, we didn’t know if we had a team that can pass the ball, we didn’t know if we had a team that can get you momentum. How do they get momentum, is it through footwork before contact or is it just with brute force running over a guy? Is it getting momentum by creating chaos because you’ve got good poachers on the ground? Those are the main things that determine your playing style.”
Having led the Springboks to a Rugby World Cup triumph in 2019, working in tandem with Rassie Erasmus, Nienaber has seen the summit of Test rugby. And while we have all endured the near-interminable noise of gums bumping and keyboards clacking about their kicking game, the chaos they create and the press of their defence, one word that has summed up South Africa at their best is ‘efficiency.’ Many admirers believe this is borne from an assuredness in the personnel available and honesty about their traits.
According to Nienaber, initially the most sensible approach to developing a playing style is by catering for the talent you have – at least for most Test teams. But what about France? As les Bleus performance head Thibault Giroud recently explained to The Ruck podcast he and boss Fabien Galthié decided to overhaul the team’s identity after going to the Japan World Cup with them, and set new standards French athletes would have to meet if they were to fit into a more dynamic set-up. This plan has come to fruition recently, with a Six Nations Grand Slam.
“I think (style) is something that you can change in two years,” says Nienaber. “Look at the France side that started 2020 and two years later won the Grand Slam. Myself and Rassie, we came into the Boks for around two years.
“But remember we knew the players. I’d coached Siya (Kolisi) since he got his first professional contract. the same with Eben (Etzebeth), the same with Steven Kitshoff. We coached Malcolm Marx at Junior Springboks level. And it’s the same with Galthié – he knew them.”
The benefit of deeper knowledge, Nienaber adds, is that you can talk with more certainty about players’ abilities. As we discuss how France demand repeated accelerations from players in key areas, the Bok coach says tools like GPS merely underline what you’ve learnt.
It’s why, he adds, France play a lot off nine. When you have “the world’s best sniping nine, decision-making nine”, it’s easier for forwards to run off. As he adds: “Now imagine you tell that nine, ‘We want to play like New Zealand, we want to pass the ball, we want to play two channels out.’ You will take what you’re gifted with Antoine Dupont, you will discard that.” The art is pinpointing what you don’t need to coach.
What can vary from coach to coach is what you highlight as important. Fellow South African and former Melbourne Rebels coach Dave Wessels recently tweeted: “Ideas in coaching follow trends. A common one at the moment is measuring players’ ‘effort’ – off the ball, getting off the ground, etc. But is this true of some of the best players like (Lionel) Messi or (Duane) Vermeulen, who spend a lot of time walking but burst into life to change the game?”
Listen to enough defence coaches at the elite end and there is repeated chat of dominating the low-skill elements of the game and showing obscene levels of effort. Being willing to torture yourself for the good of the team. As England defence coach Anthony Seibold recently told Rugby World: “We reward effort here and working hard for the team. If you’re asking me what our defensive system looks like, then hard work, being aggressive and winning the contact are the key things for me.”
All fair enough. And much of top rugby is chopped up into areas of focus, like defence. ‘Transition’ or group skills can blur a bit but often your style is several Lego bricks stacked. Either way, leaders must decide if your core elements come as diktat or if athletes have a say.
Harlequins director of rugby Tabai Matson recently said their style is “coach-led, player-driven and performance-focused. I think in any high-performance programme, you want player input. When they think of the programme and love it, they drive it”.
And we’ve all heard tales of some initially-impressive teams, who had their every footfall scripted, eventually getting worn down by their dictator.
For Test sides, should national identity matter too? Nienaber suggests that traditional playing styles for certain sides exist for a reason. The type of terrain Fijian kids play on impacts style. So too the wider sporting passions of Georgia. School systems influence too, with Nienaber pointing out how many Irish and South African professionals have some form of tertiary education.
Another interesting element is what you can absorb as you go, adding into your arsenal without disrespecting what got you to this point. In elite American Football you hear of plays, trick plays and formations being spotted in the junior college game, and reproduced at the top end. For South Africa, their head coach tells us, the need to monitor players across the globe, plus fewer analysts, means their top coaches see a lot of what is working in the Premiership, URC, Japan’s Rugby League One… Even in Major League Rugby in the US.
But where would you begin if you had a completely clean slate and the opportunity to start a top rugby team from scratch? Would you pick and choose from what you have seen through all of these leagues, go real basic or shoot for the moon? It’s a question Susie Appleby faced coming in to start up Exeter Chiefs women.
“My ideology is influenced – as everybody’s is – by things you see other coaches doing,” starts former England half-back Appleby. “You could say a little bit is plagiarised or a lot plagiarised, but as you grow you evolve from being a player into a coach. You remember how you were coached and what bits you liked and what bits you didn’t like, and some of that influences how I coach now.
“But my coaching philosophy is all about finding space. That’s the priority. So how are you going to get the ball in space? The basics of it are: are you going to run there? Are you going to kick it? Are you going to pass it?
“When I moved to Chiefs, I was in a good-slash-bad position of being in the middle of a pandemic. So a lot of my time was spent chatting on Zoom to Haydn Thomas or Ali Hepher (from the Chiefs men’s set-up), who are incredibly experienced coaches. And sharing ideas with them and finding out what they do or what I’ve coached in the past with females. Ali is an amazing coach of attack, so it’s about understanding how his ideas evolved. That’s what we could do for a year before, try to bring players into the equation that I think would like to play with the vision I had.
“If you watch us play, you might go, ‘Well, that’s quite Exeter Chiefs style in certain areas of the field’. However, we’ve taken bits I’ve seen and thought, ‘Oh, there’s Jack Nowell on the ball, how has he got there?’ And that’s what I’ve chatted to Ali about, about how do you get this proactivity of wingers, getting that many touches on the ball, for example. And that bit works for us. But actually some of the bits that work in the men’s game, they don’t suit us.”
Appleby gives an example of how defences in the men’s Premiership are currently far more advanced than they are in the Premier 15s. That is not to disrespect anyone but merely to highlight where opportunities lie. On the other hand, she explains that Chiefs women also box-kick more than many other women’s sides do, which is far more in line with Chiefs men. It is something they feel sets them apart.
Again, there is that awareness of who you are – and who you could be. So a team like Exeter women, Appleby says, will model for a few phases and then hopefully the structure is there for players to make decisions based on what’s seen in front of them. She adds: “I would like to think they get to express themselves within that structure. And I don’t ever want them to lose that.”
The other thing Appleby believes her Chiefs outfit benefit from is that they don’t have to go hunting for influences and ideas from around the rugby world – they already have a good array of nationalities in their set-up with players like Spain’s Patricia García, USA’s Kate Zackary, Japan’s Kanako Kobayashi and the Netherlands’ Linde van der Velden.
However, magpieing aside, there’s the consideration of how you get to the perfect end goal. Thumbing our nose at the headline of this piece, you ponder if it’s best to go for the evolution of shifting with the qualities of your players or the revolution of shaping them into your ideal game plan. A head scratcher.
“I think you can try to do both together,” says Ospreys head coach Toby Booth, in his measured fashion. “And that’s the smart way because you still need to win enough games to stay employed. But I think the teams that are continually successful will have a very clear identity. Then you talk about being radical.
“The game is still the game, right? It goes full circle with some things that were unfashionable, what defence coaches work out, with referees or whatever. There’s always a cyclical element to it. If I looked at an example, back in 2015 when we (Bath) got to the Premiership final against Saracens, it was very much something that people had not seen before. And they work it out very quickly, but it was basically rugby league attack versus rugby league defence.
“So I think there is a chance (to be radical) but it’s getting harder and harder to see what that is, and it all has to be aligned with your (athlete) capability. And then obviously, the security and the trust that you’re given to do that.”
It is an interesting notion, one of fashions becoming mainstream. It’s put to Booth that Ireland’s attack may offer up the pinnacle of the block-on-block attack, where a pass goes in behind a flat runner, and then another pass goes in behind another flat runner. But much like the near-patented Johnny Sexton loop play, where the ten takes the ball back from the man he just passed to on a loop and creates breaks, time and time again, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
As Booth responds: “What you’re trying to do is stay in front of the analysis, really. The evolution of the game means you’re trying to innovate and stay in front of the opposition who are trying to stop you being allowed to do that. You talk about how Ireland attack and absolutely, that’s rugby league block play all day long.”
Having recently spent a stint in South Africa with the Ospreys, the coach is already intrigued by the cultural differences those sides bring to the URC (and soon will in European competition too). He has clocked what he describes as more of “a sevens approach to counter-attack”, with more high-risk, high-reward attacks from turnover ball by individuals, before defences are set. It’s a use of the athletes available and it’s something Booth says he has seen youngsters in their country work at.
Some northern hemisphere coaches might find that a bit uneasy, Booth adds, but it is something different. And it could be a wee step away from what feels at times like stifling scripting.
Whether you want to trust individuals manipulating defences on their own or seek the sanctuary of structure is up to you. But ultimately, you have to know who you are working with. That’s what Jacques Nienaber said right at the start. He highlights something else, though, that we should all heed: good coaches must evolve with the team.
This feature first appeared in Rugby World’s ‘Style Issue’, on sale throughout May.
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