It is an exciting year for the sport, but as we meet those who look at the game from outside the box we wonder: can innovation in rugby ultimately lead to more fun?
The need for more innovation in rugby
As the Six Nations begins and rivalries reignite, so many of us are scrambling to make sense of it all. Who will realise their potential? Will the sides play with the exact style we expect? Will it be the most entertaining instalment ever?
Pundits attempt to predict trends, while the Rugby World Cup in Japan stands as a shimmering sight in the distance. We all want things to be mapped out for us. However, should we let go a little?
At the start of such a significant rugby year, we talked to three coaches about how they see the game from outside the box. Maybe it would help if others decided to do the same too.
BRENDAN VENTER quietly listens to the theory. Is it possible that it’s taken all this time since rugby went fully pro, for everyone to catch up with a rugby league-style defence, and that this style is now everywhere, right down the levels?
“I think we’ve got very stale in rugby,” Venter says. “Coaches have become almost lazy. One coach called it ‘cut and paste,’ and you could argue that. If you watch a rugby game, in France, in Australia, South Africa or England or Ireland, you’ll actually see the same plays over and over. Everybody has adopted the same attack.
“There’s a big emphasis on the rush (in defence) at the moment. Everybody rushes and there’s been very little creativity. There are very few people prepared to dare to be different. I think that is a valid statement when it comes to defence.”
Venter still works as a medical doctor now, but his pioneering approach at Saracens is still talked about within the club with some degree of reverence. Recently he spent a week working with the side, and in recent years he has consulted with Italy and South Africa. People still want to tap into his ideas.
The former Springboks centre has looked sideways at the current trends. Simply put, we want new ideas in attack and rigid systems in defence. And the ubiquitous rush-blitz approach means that space is inevitable elsewhere. As he puts it: “Attack coaches should be licking their lips for this World Cup.”
Venter believes that a key talking point in Japan will be how the driving lineout is being nullified, with a disruptive defensive player being allowed to stay in the heart of the opposition drive if he doesn’t change his bind. Peels, long passes, runs through the centre of the lineout will have to come to the fore, he feels.
Related: The use of tech in rugby
But where else in the game is ripe for exploitation with new ideas?
“I think the attacking kicking game is a huge thing. People don’t want to kick the ball away any more but the general thought is ‘where is the space presenting itself?’
“The ability to utilise that space is the first thing. New Zealanders have been brilliant at that, kicking those cross-kicks, little grubbers in behind teams with attacking kicks.
“The second (area for exploitation) is, I think, around the outside. Teams are rushing in, trying to close the door the whole time on everybody. Look at the way South Africa were defending recently. I actually think that there are ways to break that down.
“A lot of teams are getting their wings up and having a go out there, but by being a bit more creative in the outside channel, that is where the space is. The space is no longer really around the ruck area, or channel one. Teams are good there, there’s very little you can do. But outside there, there is the ability there to be more creative on attack. That’s where the weaknesses are happening.”
As we look ahead to the World Cup again, Venter insists that the deadly strike move straight from first phase, off set-piece ball, is not what will wow us. The smartest attacks, he says, are designed to create gaps a few phases in.
He explains: “If you look at the way Joe Schmidt coaches the Irish, you have to be very alert because there’s something sneaky coming somewhere within three phases and if he gives you a basic play, there’s a trick coming somewhere else. He’s not going to give you three basic plays in a row.”
That’s about out-thinking teams a few moves in advance.
OF COURSE sometimes you have to chase a dream.
“I love trying to be a little bit different and sometimes I need to rein myself in!” says an excited Ben Herring.
Last time out, in his first season with Otago in the Mitre 10 Championship, the ex-flanker wanted to shake things up. His side ended up going to the competition final, losing to Waikato, and they also won the Ranfurly Shield at the end of the regular season.
A big-picture guy, Herring says that he is well aware that if life is made up of two types of people – those who want to rip up the script when things go bad and those who want to double down on the ‘basics’ – he will be looking for bold changes. His fellow coaches are good at tempering his excitement, but if the whole Otago group buy into an idea, they will plot how to use it wisely, further down the line.
He gives an example: “We discovered, by mucking around with a silly game, that our hooker could actually throw to about the posts with an American Football-style throw. So we’d been waiting for the opportunity where we met a team with sloppy, lazy midfielders. That was the opportunity.
“We were going to stack some backs in the lineout, with our ten and 15 in there, hit the centre then swing it straight back. We were going to target those sloppy centres and then come straight back with backs v forwards. Most of the time players would say, ‘Yeah, sounds awesome!’ I think you’ve got to have the passion yourself, be pumped up, and if it doesn’t work it’s on me. And if it works the boys get all the kudos!”
Herring is also happy to challenge his players to come up with crazy plays, to see what the athletes can come up with. “I did it really successfully in Japan,” he continues, on his time with NEC Green Rockets. “We got about three moves we used in the season and I’d love to use them again. The boys came up with it.
“We had one – Nemani Nadolo was in our team and the concept was that we put him on the openside flank of the scrum and we put our seven to the blindside. He was a big ball-carrier so we hit him up and he ran straight at the winger. Then the six and eight cleaned so the winger came into that spot. All the loosies had to do was hold onto the winger, don’t let him go.
“The ball comes to ten, banana kick the other way, there’s no winger and the full-back was chasing… A player came up with that and when I heard it I thought it was perfect. We just needed to find a team with a full-back who’s sloppy on the blindside defence and we’d put him in his place.”
Former Leicester Tiger Herring is animated as he talks about his approach. He believes that Otago would be creative even if they did not have certain financial restraints – he has a lot of students in his side and he thinks that their inherent curiosity added into the willingness to try things out makes for innovation.
The biggest task the team had, Herring says, was getting young guys to grow as people. So every morning, at 9am, the group get together before training. Someone will have to do a presentation. It could just be about what is in the papers that day, or a quick biography of a rapper who is soon to tour New Zealand.
In one case, Herring made one of the players with the most potential but who was shy in front of the group their lead orator. A toastmaster of sorts, he was continually talking. The Otago coaches would then help the group work on their delivery.
There was a little bit more too. In Otago people talk of the ‘battler’ – the idea of harnessing the gold rush spirit, with will sometimes triumphing over talent. Herring had to address this with the team ethos, as he could see the derogatory side of the ‘battler’ tag.
“The theme this year was The Fast &The Furious,” the coach reveals. “Instead of the ‘white battler’ we were the ‘Dominic Torettos’ (Vin Diesel’s character in the movies). So we’re multicultural, organised, ruthless and we really care about our family.
“So we tweaked that white battler tag. We kept those things but said, ‘That’s our guy, that’s who represents us’ for Toretto. We wanted to be organised, tough and caring, so we all knew what that character was about. And it’s all about family; The Fast & The Furious is all about a group of people coming together.”
Having a group identity, it transpires, can mean a lot.
IT’S PARTY TIME
TWO SEASONS ago, led by their talented captain Marcus Smith, Brighton College were unstoppable. The team dazzled on the park.
However, just a season later, with 13 of the previous side’s 15 in the group, it all felt a little flat. So something needed to change.
“We came to this party time conclusion,” explains Nick Buoy, director of rugby. “So for a match day I began putting on something like a five-year-old’s birthday party. There were balloons, streamers – stuff all the way from the gate to the changing room, like a five-year-old’s party – and it escalated from there. They played out of their skins, they absolutely loved it and before we knew it they were having dance-offs before games.
“We had a lad who was a party organiser, as he was out with a long-term injury. At the St Joseph’s festival, about 20 minutes before the final against Millfield, they had this big party. It was incredible to watch and you were probably questioning if it was the right thing to do, because it was a big game. And they won 35-5 in a 15-minute game.”
A bit of context here. Every season, the Brighton coaches ask the new year group to go away and decide what their identity will be. That includes music, a bit of their playing style and even how they’ll train. At the heart of it is their warm-up routines, with Buoy adding: “I always feel that that pre-game area is one that can be explored and if you can let the players have ownership of it, it makes a big difference. When James Chisholm (now with Harlequins) was captain, they had Euro pop in the changing room before a game.”
This season, the Brighton team are the Silent Assassins, with a motto of ‘Walk in, walk out.’ They want to get in, get the job done and move onto the next game with a degree of chill.
Buoy explains that when the party timers were together, training became about play in it’s purest sense. Tag, stick in the mud, tyre races and even some touch American football. He described the scene then as “like having 20 puppies out there”.
He is already excited about what identity the next year group come up with. Buoy loves the saying ‘playing in safe uncertainty,’ coined by psychologist Dr Suzanne Brown who has worked with Russell Earnshaw and the Magic Academy.
Asked about the Magic Academy’s approach to the balance of fun, uncertainty and learning, Earnshaw told Rugby World: “We want to innovate and predict the game of the future, across sports. Breaking the rules to come up with fresh thinking would be a big part of what we do… What are the assumptions and traditions associated with your sport?
“In rugby, what might be the benefits of forwards and backs better understanding one another’s worlds – and how are we currently predating this? How could huddles look different and what might be the impact? What would be the consequence of the scrum-half having the ball lifted to him more often than not? What could tackle practice look like if all the shields were burned? How would we play if we had to beat New Zealand 100-0?”
This reinforces Buoy’s approach. He adds on the ‘safe uncertainty’ values: “They are youngsters, you do want them playing, to think that something different can happen round the corner and they’ll have to adapt.”
As a coach, Buoy loves the challenge of pushing players within an environment they have been entrusted to help create. He also appreciates the balance needed between fun and play against technique work and understanding strategy.
But hey, who isn’t up for a bit of a party? If it leads to great fun, rugby could do with a lot more outside-the-box thinking.
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