Rugby Championship 2017: A showcase of talent over skill?

Kia Kaha Roar Guru

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    The terms skill and talent are often confused. The former implies hard work and many hours of practice and the latter an innate ability to do something.

    The danger is believing that skill can only get you so far and that talent ultimately has the final say. When you look at Beauden Barrett, for example, it might well be surprising to know that he was not born with a turbocharger.

    In school athletic competitions, Barrett entered the endurance races and stayed away from the sprints. When he became an All Black, he found that hard work in the gym and plyometric exercises had given him a speed edge but it was not something for which he had consciously planned.

    By definition, you would have to say Barrett’s speed is a skill rather than a talent. But at the same time, you need to acknowledge that his speed baseline was much higher than your average 10. He did not chase down Willie Le Roux solely because of all the hours he put in at the gym.

    Beauden Barrett has shown some deft touches in this Rugby Championship. His reverse flick to Nehe Milne-Shudder, his homage to Carlos Spencer with the tunnel pass and his homage to Kieran Read, who needed to do a lot less than Ben Smith to score, are all recent examples.

    But this year it seems Barrett’s skill set is a double-edged sword. Against the Springboks, New Zealand showed how they can punish an opponent when they click. But the Lions and, indeed, the Wallabies for long spells showed how vulnerable the All Blacks are when you put them under scoreboard pressure and have a resolute defence.

    It was no coincidence the Pumas looked much more threatening when they tightened up their second-half defence.

    Brodie Retallick New Zealand Rugby Union All Blacks 2017 tall

    (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

    The temptation is to think the skill set can dig the All Blacks out of a hole. That is their supposed edge but when you analyse the strengths of New Zealand rugby, it is their consistent ability to do the simple things at pace that sets them apart.

    Forget about cross-field kicks or miracle balls. This New Zealand side has been at its most damaging when it has done the basics right and not tried too hard or too soon to do anything special.

    An offload out of the back of the hand, a no-look pass, a miracle ball from behind the back grab the attention in the highlights reel and send the decibel levels in the commentary box to dangerous levels but the foundation of New Zealand’s current game has always been the basics. But this is because the basics have always been a core part of their training. It is not a god-given talent but a skill practised over and over.

    The New Zealand lineout has been a great strength of New Zealand in recent years but this year the scrum has been at the forefront of their attacking game. ‘Scrum or penalty?’ The referees in this year’s Rugby Championship have all asked Kieran Read this question to which he has invariably replied with a wry grin: ‘Scrum, please.’

    Effectively, the ref is asking whether New Zealand wants to take three points or seven but the question we should all be asking is where has this scrum dominance come from?

    It most assuredly is not just a case of talent. The Pumas or Springboks have traditionally invested a big part of their game in this area but even their prowess is not down to talent alone. At this level, a team’s strength is not an accident. A great deal of time has been put into honing a particular area of the game.

    The key is there is only so much time you can devote to one particular area. The Wallabies in the second Bledisloe shored up their front-on defence but were still exposed in their lateral positioning. Players came up in the line too quickly or left too much space on the inside.

    Another case in point is New Zealand’s interplay. Both forwards and backs now seem comfortable with ball in hand. But under Mick Byrne there was a definite plan to get props and locks comfortable with offloading and catching up close with both hands as opposed as taking it to the chest.

    It was often not pretty in the developmental stages with plenty of mistakes and defences quickly targeting the ball receiver. But Joe Moody’s offload to Tawera Kerr-Barlow or Charlie Faumuina to Kieran Read in New Zealand’s quarter-final thumping of France, for example, were not an exhibition of New Zealand rugby’s innate passing skills. It was a culmination of years of practice and not just at All Black level.

    Kiwis would all like to believe that passing and catching is second nature. From weight class rugby where the basics, and not power, do the damage to going up the ranks of age-group and schoolboy rugby with rugby smarts gained from also playing touch rugby and, more importantly, great coaching, much is said about the conveyor belt of All Black talent.

    Mick Byrne used to practise skills in every session. That depended on the player in terms of deficiencies with tackle technique, catching the high ball or a left-hand running pass but the key was every player had a weakness that needed fixing.

    The fruits of that skill training may well have shown up more in the tight-five but probably needed the most correction. Byrne always maintained, however, that it was time well spent as you give yourself five more opportunities to remove the ball from the contact area and find space for someone else.

    Yet it is interesting to note that he believed that Daniel Carter was such a special player because he had the most awareness of what his body was doing. With many players, Byrne found that they were not aware of what their feet or shoulders were doing in a particular drill. But Carter had that ability to describe what exactly his body was doing, even in a tight situation.

    That to me suggests an innate talent gives you a huge advantage over players who require a lot of practice to be aware of what they are doing. It does not mean a weakness cannot be remedied but it stands to reason the fewer things you need to work on the more efficient your training can be.

    However, it is not as simple as putting in the hard work consistently and reaping the benefit of that practice over time. Selection and a smart game plan also play a key part. This to me has proven the difference this Rugby Championship.

    South Africa have taken the novel approach of selecting turnstiles on defence and putting them on the wing. The Pumas seem caught in a netherworld of their traditional core strengths of defence and set-piece and a move towards an offload and quick passing game and have failed to excel in either.

    Courtnall Skosan South Africa Rugby Union Springboks 2017

    (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

    The Wallabies have seen many positive gains this season but selection has not been a strength. Before the international season kicked off, I advocated the selection of Marika Koroibete. That was not so much based on the evidence of his Super Rugby form but his potential.

    Now although his debut was very impressive both on attack and defence, one game is by no means a guarantor of success. But I think it is fair to suggest his debut should have come before Curtis Rona, who may well have played on the wing in rugby league but had played all his Super Rugby at centre.

    Cheika got his selection of Karmichael Hunt right but I cannot help but feel he has since then been seduced by the prospect of uncovering a hidden talent. I lose track of all the debutants for the Wallabies this season – Nabuli, Hanigan, Rodda, Tui – and appreciate that gambles have to be taken and consideration of a player’s best fit to the gameplay you wish to employ.

    It is clear that the way the Wallabies have performed in general this year is that the talent is there. But even the best of the talent available in Australia needs to work on certain things in their game. Talent alone will not win them matches and when selection is constantly chopped and changed, you not only lose continuity but you also lose gains in player development.

    Karmichael Hunt Wallabies Australia Rugby Union 2017 tall

    (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)

    Injuries and rotation are part of the modern game whether you like it or not but putting out a regular team allows you to develop individual players and, therefore, the team as a whole.

    Too often teams this Rugby Championship have fallen back on their individual talents and glaring deficiencies in skills have not been targeted. We all know Israel Folau is a wonderful runner, Beauden Barrett has gas to burn, Agustín Creepy and Malcolm Marx are destructive ball-carriers.

    But even these so-called talents are honed with many hours of hard work. The problem is when the going gets tough, the default position is to think you have to go back to what you feel you do well instead of trying to minimise and improve on the areas where you know you are weak.

    In some cases, it is a matter of trying too hard. But in many instances, it simply is a matter of not trying hard enough.