Mark Ella to take over as Wallabies coach?

Scott Allen Columnist

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    Mark Ella is a legend of Australian Rugby and when I picked my best Wallabies team for The Roar in 2014, I chose Ella at flyhalf, despite the fact that he only played 25 Tests before retiring at just 25 years of age.

    In his regular newspaper article last Saturday, Ella made some comments about the skill level of the Wallabies that got my attention.

    Ella bemoaned the lack of skills in the current squad, writing, “It is very frustrating for ex-Wallabies, who in the amateur era had only three days to prepare for Test matches, to watch this current group of highly paid professionals continually make the same basic mistakes, which surely must frustrate and at times infuriate the current coaching staff.”

    Last week, I showed examples of some of the poor urgency that is seen far too often from the current Wallabies.

    In reply to some of the comments, I touched on the poor skill level of most of the players and what Mick Byrne is trying to do to lift those skill levels with the full support of Michael Cheika.

    I also mentioned that I heard it took Byrne seven years working with the All Blacks before he considered their skills were at the level they should be. A number of readers made the point that they didn’t believe it should take that long to rectify skill issues. From the comments in his article on the weekend, Ella agrees with those of you that feel that way.

    Ella said, “I reckon if I or a dozen other former Wallabies had a half decent team for a month we all could get them to execute under pressure more capably than what we are seeing now. So why, according to Byrne and Cheika, must we be patient and wait years to see the change when it should occur in a month?”

    If Ella and his fellow former players really can do that, the existing Wallaby coaches should resign immediately upon their return from Argentina and let Ella take over.

    With less than two weeks before the third Bledisloe Test in Brisbane, Ella wouldn’t have enough time to get the skill level of the players up to where it needs to be for that match, but then the Wallabies depart for their Northern Hemisphere tour not long after, so there’s no time to waste.

    Is there any chance that Cheika and his assistants will fall on their sword and let Ella in? Not likely and if asked, I’m sure Cheika would be pretty dismissive of the claim Ella makes that it would only take him a month to fix the issues.

    I wonder what Ella thinks he would do so differently from the current coaches to make such a dramatic difference in such a short period of time?

    We didn’t get any detail from Ella in his article, so let’s see what we can come up with. What would you do with just one month of training to make a massive difference to basic skills?

    Let’s assume there were no matches in a four-week period, so you didn’t have to do any match training, just skill work. Let’s also assume the fitness side of things were taken care of in separate sessions so you could just focus on the skills.

    Specialist work (set piece and kicking) which definitely needs work would have to be done at the next camp because this particular camp would just be about fixing the basic team skills that apply to every player on the field.

    To make sure we don’t cook the players, we’d better allow some down time, so let’s allow two days on and one day off as the maximum training time.

    Let’s work on two sessions a day of 90 minutes each, once players are warmed up. You may argue there should be more time allowed but remember that the players will be doing fitness work on top of that.

    If you accept those parameters, you’d have 19 days of training in the month, which would give you 57 hours of training.

    I should say before I go on, I don’t think players could train that much over four weeks and maintain intensity. Quantity is not always the most important factor, particularly if it causes the quality of the session to suffer. But let’s run with that time allowance for these purposes.

    Before I tell you what I’d do, why don’t you stop reading the article now and jot down your plan and then share it with all of us in the comments section later.

    Have you got yours written down? Okay, then I’ll tell you what I’d do.

    It sounds like I’ve given you a lot of time to work with, but it won’t surprise any of you that in training nothing ever goes quite to plan, no matter how well you prepare, so we’d all be surprised and how quickly we run out of time.

    In his 2008 book Outliers: The story of success, Malcolm Gladwell proposed a theory that practice makes all the difference in learning a new skill. He reported on a study that showed it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in any given field. The type of practice Gladwell referred to is intense, focused, and tough, which is designed to attack your weaknesses.

    Since then, people have attempted to prove or disprove this theory and, in particular, the number of hours Gladwell proposed. In 2014, researchers at Princeton University published a study that suggested practice is not as important as proposed by Gladwell, finding that practice only accounted for 26 per cent of improvements in performance in a sporting context.

    I still haven’t seen any alternative studies that have challenged the number of hours Gladwell proposed to become an expert and remember we want our players to be experts, not just pretty good.

    Whether the 10,000-hour mark is correct or not, and Mark Ella clearly must believe it’s not, with only around 57 hours of practice available for our program, we may have a problem in teaching the Wallabies to be experts at any skill, let alone a large number of them.

    Of course, the players already have a certain level of skills, which should help, but at the same time a lot of them appear to have some bad habits.

    You also have to consider that people learn differently and at different speeds. What works for one player may not work for another, so you may have to explain or demonstrate things differently for particular groups of players, all of which takes time.

    Therefore, to ensure maximum impact from my program, I’d focus on just three areas where a big difference could be made, rather than trying to fix all the issues:

    • Catch-pass: 50 per cent
    • Tackle technique: 30 per cent
    • Offloading: 20 per cent

    Catch-pass
    The most important thing about passing is that the ball is in front of the receiving player, to generate momentum. The ball has to be passed to where the player is going to be, not where they are, which forces them to run onto the ball.

    This applies to all players, but starts with the scrumhalf, who makes the most passes. That first pass sets the tone for the rest of the phase.

    For example, if it’s a pass from the base of the ruck to a forward runner, any hesitation from that forward if they have to wait for the pass to get to them, will make it that much harder to hit the defensive line with maximum momentum and that can mean the difference between getting over the gain line or not.

    If it’s a wide pass, hopefully the playmaker has identified some space and if they have to check their run waiting for the pass to arrive, that may give the opposition just enough time to get reorganised, as every player outside will also have to check their run to compensate.

    Let me show you some examples.

    I’ve noticed real improvement from Will Genia in this area this year but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. In this first example, Genia gets the ball out in front of Kurtley Beale who, as a result, is in motion and therefore more of a threat.

    Beale then gets his pass out in front of Bernard Foley. It’s not a perfect pass but by throwing the pass along the red line, as opposed to along the white line, he allows Foley to keep moving toward the defensive line.

    Even though the pass is a little high, the fact Foley can maintain momentum allows him to get outside his defender.

    Israel Folau does a poor job in support here. He needed to hold his depth and narrow up, so Foley could make a short pass. If he had held his depth, there was plenty of room to come off the touch line and accelerate onto the ball and into space.

    Here’s an example where the pass isn’t in front of the player. Genia needed to put this ball out in front of Adam Coleman by passing along the red line, not the white line.

    By passing along the white line and therefore at Coleman rather than in front of him, Coleman has to check his run to wait for the ball to arrive and that takes valuable momentum away.

    Yes, a pass out in front of Coleman would have challenged him to catch the ball close to the defensive line so he could have helped by starting a little deeper, but catching the ball under pressure is another skill the Wallabies need to work on.

    Here’s an example from the match against the Pumas a couple of weeks ago, where Beale correctly identifies the space out wide and makes a pass to Tevita Kuridrani (who isn’t in shot yet),

    The pass is along the white line (the ball is circled in red) so it is out in front of Kuridrani (who is just in shot now) but given the length of the pass it needed to be along the red line so Kuridrani could really steam onto the ball.

    When the pass does get to Kuridrani it’s at him and high, so he has to check his run, which takes away momentum.

    Compare that to this example, with Genia getting the ball out in front of Folau who could therefore maintain full momentum towards the tryline.

    To make that pass, Genia had to have confidence that Folau would run onto the ball and could make the catch.

    It was a brilliantly executed pass that got Folau outside his defender and created a try.

    The most important thing about catching a pass is being in motion when you catch the ball to generate momentum. Given that with improved passing skills, all the passes are going to be in front of you, you need to catch the ball in front of your body, not on your body. There are still plenty of Wallabies who still make the mistake of catching the ball on their body.

    Combine the two skills of passing in front of the player and catching the ball out in front of you and you can play some really attacking rugby. Despite the improvements from the Wallabies, there is still plenty of improvement left in this area.

    Tackle technique
    There are three elements involved in defending. The first is defensive structure, where the positioning of players relative to each other and their roles within that structure are critical to make sure players are in position to tackle opposition ball carriers.

    The second is line speed and maintaining the line as you go forward, which relies on working correctly in the structure.

    The third is the tackle itself, which is predominantly an individual skill. The best defensive structure in the world and really good line speed counts for nothing if an individual has poor tackle technique.

    This is an area where the Wallabies continue to struggle. There are lots of technical points with tackle technique but I’d focus on getting the lead foot in close to the ball carrier before the player attempts to make the tackle. This is the only way you can get your shoulder into good contact with the ball carrier.

    If your lead foot is too far away when you try to make a tackle, your head typically goes down, you end up tackling with your arms rather than your shoulder, and quite often you get beaten by a ball carrier who uses a little footwork.

    The other key focus would be on getting shoulder contact below the ball. I know some coaches focus on the first player making a low tackle around the legs with a second player going higher to wrap the ball up, but I’d rather see a focus on the first player in making an effective tackle and not relying on a second player. As long as that first player gets their shoulder into contact below the height of the ball, they should make the effective tackle required – if the second player is there to help out, it’s a bonus.

    Here’s an example of a tackle from Foley against the Pumas a couple of weeks ago. It shows the issues when you don’t get that lead foot in close enough.

    As Foley approaches the tackle area, his eyes are looking at the grass so his head is down, his arms are wide apart and his lead foot is nowhere near the ball carrier.

    If he’d kept his eyes up and taken one more step toward the defender he’d have been in a much better position to attempt the tackle.

    But because he dipped down when still so far away from the ball carrier he was always going to end up diving at the ball carrier rather than driving through him.

    Because his eyes were down, his head was down and his body was always going to follow on an angle downwards.

    No surprise then that he ended up sprawled on the ground, forcing Genia to make a try-saving tackle in cover.

    The issues with the height of attempted tackles is evident in the following example from Beale against the Springboks.

    Well before the ball carrier gets to him, Beale has planted his feet and is waiting for the ball carrier to run at him.

    This was very poor technique, especially against a big man.

    It was no surprise to see Beale shrugged off easily, and the Springboks scored a long-range try after the cover couldn’t shut down the line break.

    Tackle technique is an area that I’ve seen little improvement from the Wallabies this year.

    Offloading
    Watch the All Blacks or any of the top teams in sevens and you’ll see how hard it is to defend against a team that offloads well.

    Of course, offloading is about more than just the technique of making the offload. The best ‘Sonny Bill’ out the back of the hand pass is wasted unless there is a supporter there ready to take the pass.

    The Wallabies have also made improvements in this area this year. Think back to their first try against the Pumas a couple of weeks ago and you’ll see how having supporters in position and the ability to make an offload make a huge difference.

    Genia passes from the base of the ruck to Coleman.

    Coleman tries an offload to his outside support but doesn’t execute well and the ball hits the deck, so there needs to be improvement there.

    Foley cleans up and passes to Beale running straight and putting defenders under pressure.

    Beale get away a good offload in the tackle to Sean McMahon, who ran a narrow support line so that Beale didn’t have to make an impossible wide offload.

    Foley stayed alive and got a second touch when he got an offload from McMahon.

    Then he stayed composed to pass to Folau who scored out wide.

    That’s really good rugby and I look forward to seeing more of it as the Wallabies improve their skills.

    There you have it – that’s what I’d use my 57 hours to focus on.

    Are the Wallabies working on these skills? Yes, they are – I know they are because I’ve seen them working on them and more.

    Does ruck technique need work? Yes it does but if you can offload well you’ll move the ball away from rucks before they happen. If you can retain momentum through good catch-pass you’ll get over the gain line more often and with the defence going backwards they’ll find it much harder to attack your rucks.

    Have I shown you anything different to what club coaches or school coaches are already doing with their teams? Probably not, because the reality is there are no magic bullets. If a coach can get their team to become excellent in the three areas I’ve outlined, they’d have a very good rugby team.

    I look forward to seeing the alternative plans you all come up with.

    Would my plan, or yours, make as big a difference as Mark Ella claims his would? I have my doubts that any of us, Ella included, could make the difference he claims in just one month.

    It will take longer to fix the skills deficiency in Australian rugby and it needs to be worked on at all levels of the game, not just at Wallaby level.

    Scott Allen
    Scott Allen

    Scott has been a rugby contributor with The Roar since 2013. After taking some time out to pursue other roles in the game, including coaching Premier Grade with University of Queensland and the Wallaroos at the recent World Cup, he’s returned to give us his insights. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottA_ to hear more from him.

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