RATHBONE: Is modern rugby stifling quick thinking players?

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Australia's Stephen Larkham makes a break past South Africa's Bob Skinstad. AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

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The population of earth is approximately seven billion. Interestingly, all of us appear to descend from a group of hunter-gatherers living in Africa around seventy thousand years ago.

The most recent genetic research suggests that a tribe of about 200 migrated from Africa, crossed the Red Sea, and gradually colonised the planet.

Homo Sapiens were not alone. As they continued to push further into new territory, they became increasingly exposed to Homo Neanderthalensis and possibly Homo Erectus.

Despite this, it was not long before our ancestors, either by displacement or eradication, had eliminated all competition.

Some scientists have suggested that it was the ability of complex speech that gave Homo Sapiens the edge over the larger brained and more physically powerful Homo Neanderthalensis.

Clearly the ability to communicate is important, but how important is communication in rugby?

It’s well established that successful teams possess strong communicators. Being able to provide economical, clear and precise information under fatigue and stress is a hallmark of good players and teams.

It’s also critical to be able communicate openly with team-mates in the time away from the training field. No team can prosper without developing a culture of honesty and trust.

These are well understood and accepted truisms, but what about communication between the coaching staff and players during a match?

All teams utilise an array of strategies that allow coaches to send messages onto the field during a match. The most common method seems to be to radio messages to water boys, physios and doctors, who are then able to relay them whilst on the field during breaks in play.

As coach of the Free State Cheetahs, Rassie Erasmus had a large panel of “disco lights” fitted directly above the coach’s box. From there Rassie would vary the colour of the lights to instruct his players from up in the stands.

Technology will continue to play an ever increasing role in the game.

The amount of information that players and coaches are now able to access is impressive. When I first arrived at the Brumbies, matches were still recorded on VHS. By the time I left, we had software that made it possible to know if an opposing player folded or scrunched.

Or so it seemed.

As coaches have access to more information, it becomes inevitable that they will be best equipped to identify the strategies for a given field position or set piece. Real time data analytics will make it easy to imagine a scenario whereby a coach will know precisely what the best on-field options are.

This will likely give rise to a host of creative yet subtle strategies that allow coaches and players to communicate during a match.

On a basic level, this is already occurring. It’s not uncommon for players to attempt to “run off” an injury during a match.

This info is usually communicated from the sidelines in the hope that there might be an opportunity to target a weakness in the defensive line.

There are a lot of qualities that made Steve Larkham a great player, but one thing that really stood out for me was his ability to make consistently good decisions.

Bernie could make a snap assessment of a number of factors: our position on the field, the score line, time remaining, which plays he’d previously used during the match, the chance of us winning clean ball from the set piece, where the opposing D-line was most vulnerable, and so on.

From there, he would mentally select a play from a long list of choices best designed to get us out of our defensive zone, produce a line break, go forward ball or a score.

I wonder, though, if a future technology trend has the potential to make a Larkham-type player less special. Will the next generation of on-field generals simply execute orders rather than steer the ship?

I’m not sure I believe that even the current ability to so closely scrutinise the opposition has led to better outcomes for rugby. It’s fairly difficult to genuinely surprise another team these days.

The opposition has poured over countless hours of footage readying themselves for any eventuality.

Innovation is still most certainly possible in the game. It’s just that much more difficult to get any sustained benefit from it.

If a new strategy is successful, it’s quickly adopted by all. Which brings me to the Brumbies.

At the hight of their dominance, they were playing a style of rugby unseen before: sustained ball retention, quick ruck ball, and building pressure made them trendsetters.

Which team will be the next to produce a truly unique strategy?

Former Wallaby Clyde Rathbone has returned to Super Rugby with the ACT Brumbies, following an injury-forced retirement from all forms in 2009. He writes columns for The Roar and has made his return to top level rugby with the Brumbies. Follow Clyde at his blog or via his Twitter page.
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