Robbie Deans has yet again managed to grasp a win when the executioner was sharpening his axe. However, despite showing plenty of courage against the old foe, the men in gold also showed their ball handling skills are on par with six year olds playing tunnel ball.
There are numerous targets who can be blamed for the Wallabies’ butterfingers – Robbie Deans, the Super Rugby coaches, fitness staff, coaching programs, national playing philosophies, Quade Cooper, the list is endless.
There is not much we can do for the current generation except, as Spiro Zavos put it in his intriguing recent Roar article, get the coaches to “take their players out of the gym and put them on the training paddock more, honing up on their skills rather than becoming muscle-bound crocks”.
This is obvious; however, the problem is that players should already have these basic skills when they enter the system.
Staff at Super Rugby and international level should only need enough time in their training schedules to practice and maintain these most basic ball skills, not have to develop them.
What about future generations of Wallabies? Will they still be “muscle bound crocks” with below par ball skills?
It should pointed out that, when referring to ball skills, abilities such as peripheral vision, decision making, creativity, and judgment of ball movement should be included along with the literal catching and throwing of the ball as part of the skill.
Australian rugby players are seriously lacking in this regard, especially compared to our close neighbours the All Blacks and Pacific Island teams.
So what about the future generations? Well, we already have the answer – Rugby Sevens. However, not in the traditional sense of developing seven-a-side players and then picking the best fit for 15s, such as with Matt Giteau and Nick Phipps.
Junior players should start playing Sevens (obviously on a field to scale) and then move to 10s and 15s as they get older. Perhaps Sevens until under 10s, then 10s until under 14s, for argument’s sake.
The reason for this is that young, developing, impressionable players will be getting a lot more of the ball and space to use it. This is much better for development of players than being one of 15 players on a side, with the biggest players being the most important, using solely their size to crash through the middle while the outside backs stand on the sidelines doing nothing.
Sure, bigger kids may still have an advantage, but the main thing is getting all players involved and comfortable with the ball, so that passing, catching, vision and movement become more natural.
Eventually, big kids stop growing. The tragedy is that too often they are left with not much ability once the other kids catch up to them.
Look at the flair and confidence of nations like New Zealand and Fiji. They are not worried so much about creating complicated attacking strategies, but basic strategies with skilled players.
The players can react to situations. It is no coincidence that these nations also have the strongest Sevens traditions.
Look toward the round ball game as well- it is no coincidence the top ranked football nations also are strong in futsal, the five-a-side equivalent of rugby Sevens.
Critics will point out it may hinder development in the ‘dark arts’ of rugby – scrums, mauls, rucks and lineouts. However, this why players should move into 10s then 15s – the scrums get more complicated as they get older, but the players are not lost at an early age, and develop with the scrum.
Look at Fiji’s win in the Gold Coast Sevens and the amount of ball turned over in rucks. Again, get the players involved.
In my first post Sport needs a social conscience, I mentioned that I coach the St Patrick’s under 13 Rugby team here in Ballarat. In many of the games, we would have eight, 10, or 12 players, instead of 15.
It was disappointing in the sense that boys who were part of the team where often absent, but I also believe the players who participated in those games where a lot better off with the increase in space and reduced team numbers.
The most telling point may be the failure of the Robbie Deans’ strategy of ‘playing what’s in front of you’. It worked with Kiwi players, already possessing attacking skills, but not Australian players.
Working Class Rugger got it spot on in his article Sevens Olympic Gold: Not that important. Let’s put some Olympic funding in junior and grassroots Sevens, develop basic skills for life, and reap the rewards later in both formats.