Should the Wallabies be chasing perfection?

Scott Allen Columnist

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    Last week I wrote about the Wallabies’ continued struggles with their basic skills.

    There were some really interesting comments on that article but unfortunately I was too busy to respond to any of them so I wanted to revisit the theme today and discuss some of the topics raised by readers.

    Peter K felt I was expecting the Wallabies to be perfect and that if you demand perfection from players it could in fact be detrimental to performance. Peter commented that “if they have to get something right every single time they will rarely go for it except when it is safe and easy to execute.”

    Don responded by including a quote from Vince Lombardi who once said “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

    Peter went on to talk about Kaizen which in Japanese means ‘change for better’. He pointed out that this is a method used by many businesses around the world “where everyone looks for small improvements in everything you do which is a positive way of looking at it instead of having to be perfect or aim for it but instead look for ongoing improvement which then allows for mistakes.”

    Both sides of that discussion have merit. I agree that it’s not realistic to expect players to attain perfection however I don’t agree you shouldn’t aim for it, so I’m more in the Lombardi camp.

    The way I think about it is that we should expect players to strive to be the best they can be. If the best they can achieve is less than perfect, so be it but as coaches we should encourage players when they do well and not be afraid to point out where they need to improve – we should encourage them to keep striving for better performance even when it appears they may have reached a limit.

    Before I go on, let me point out that I’m only talking here about players who are playing at higher levels. What I advocate here doesn’t apply to kids and it doesn’t apply to social players. In both of those categories participation and enjoyment is the most important thing to aim for.

    Some players at higher levels are gifted athletes who rely on their natural skills to excel. Some of these type of players work really hard to continue to develop their skills and unfortunately some don’t.

    Some players who don’t have the natural talent get ahead due to the amount of work they do and are always striving to be better.

    Regardless of which type of player you’re dealing with, they all react differently to feedback. Some like to be told what they need to improve as long as you tell them, or show them, how to make that improvement.

    Some don’t want any ‘negative’ feedback and would prefer to hear ‘positive’ feedback or be shown what they did well so they can keep doing more of that on the basis that the other things will sort themselves out.

    I don’t believe you can focus only on the positives. A coach has to make players aware of the things they need to do better. I believe players have to understand what the issue is before they can make improvement.

    If you look again at my article from last week you’ll see that I discussed four plays from the Wallabies match against the Pumas. In the first example I pointed out positives from Kurtley Beale and Reece Hodge and also negatives for both of those players. In the remaining three examples I pointed out nothing but positives in relation to Will Genia and the lines the ball carriers were running.

    I usually use a similar approach in reviews – show the negatives that need work and try to finish with some positives.

    Despite a mix of positives and negatives there are some players who hate being called out for getting something wrong when in a team review scenario or during training. They would rather receive any negative feedback on an individual basis.

    As a coach you try to balance your approach and not focus on one or two players when discussing positives or negatives but I believe that if you want to play at the higher levels, you have to learn to cop criticism in front of others and understand that it’s not personal.

    If I was conducting a team video review with the Wallabies after that match against the Pumas I’d have no hesitation in showing the clip of Beale overrunning Israel Folau and not getting his hands in the right position. That doesn’t mean I’m attacking Beale – he’s been one of the Wallabies best this year but I don’t think he’s being the best that he can be and nor are any of his team mates.

    Showing individual issues can help the player improve and help the other players in the review understand what the issue was so they can also work on it. Of course I’d then back up the review with some specific work on that area whether in training or outside of training. Just showing players or telling them what to work on isn’t effective in isolation.

    In answer to my original question, I don’t think the Wallabies should be chasing perfection and I’m sure they’re already being driven by the coaches to be the best that they can be.

    Now, let’s imagine I was going to conduct a team review for the Wallabies before they take on the All Blacks tomorrow. Obviously I’d use video to conduct that review but I can give you a reasonable idea of my key points through the use of still frames.

    The area I’d focus on is improving the Wallabies defence because we can’t let the All Blacks run through us as we did in the first Bledisloe match this year or in the dying minutes of the second match.

    I’ll use some examples from the Wallabies’ most recent match against the Pumas to demonstrate areas that need work.

    First, the play I show here is one the Pumas use a fair bit. I expect the Wallabies would have been shown examples of this play before the match and worked on how to defend it.

    From a scrum, Beale and Folau are in the back field to cover any kick from the Pumas.

    This leaves the full Argentinian backline up against five Wallabies in the front line. The Pumas #15 and #14 aren’t in shot at the moment but they’re out there as wide options if the Wallabies get too narrow in their alignment.

    To counter the numerical advantage, Genia has to come across field and take the Puma #10 so that Bernard Foley can slide out to take the #12.

    Hodge starts by covering two players – the #13 and if they play a ball out the back behind him to the #11 who’s going to run an angled line to get outside the #13, then Hodge will have to leave the #13 and slide out on to the #11. He’s the key defender to shut this play down.

    If those three inside players do that, Tevita Kuridrani should take the #15 and Marika Koroibete should stay out to take the #14 and eliminate the possible overlap.

    However, the Pumas didn’t make it quite that simple with a cut pass to their #13 who has #15 outside him running a slight angle back in at Hodge to try and isolate him.

    At the same time both their #12 and #11 are running an angle across field to get out behind the #13 and #15.

    The Pumas #13 becomes the ball player and the Wallabies need to adjust. Ideally Foley needs to take #13 with Hodge pushing on to #15.

    If the ball is played out the back to #12, Hodge would slide out and cover him too. That would leave Kuridrani free to cover #11 coming around out the back with Koroibete staying out on #14 who still isn’t in shot yet.

    But when the coverage goes to a tight shot, you can see how the Wallabies haven’t been able to adjust quickly enough which leaves Hodge on the #15. That leaves Kuridrani and Koroibete in a 3 v 2 situation with #12, #11 and #14 coming at them.

    You can see how the Wallabies are starting to back off to try and buy some time to sort their structure out.

    As the ball is played out the back to #12 coming around you can see Koroibete knows he has to try and stay out on the #14 who is still out wide. This is going to place a lot of pressure on Kuridrani who is now dealing with the #12 who’s about to receive the ball and the #11 who is just out of shot.

    Kuridrani decides he has to slide out on to the Puma #11 who is out of shot but you can see his shadow on the left edge of the screen. Hodge now knows he’s got to slide on to the #12 so Kuridrani can slide out.

    The Puma #12 sees that Kuridrani has started turning out and with the ball in two hands he can either pass or run.

    As Kuridrani starts to accelerate out, the Puma #12 straightens and runs. The Puma #15 running through slightly impedes Hodge.

    Kuridrani is left taking no-one and Hodge has to make a valiant effort to get across in cover to shut this line break down.

    Who was at fault here? It’s really a structural issue rather than an individual issue so I wouldn’t criticize one player in particular – they just need to work better together.

    I’ll bet the All Blacks have a variation of this type of play lined up to throw at the Wallabies tomorrow to try and expose the same issue so hopefully the Wallabies have been working on their defensive structure and communication to defuse this type of play better than they did against the Pumas.

    The other defensive issue I’m sure the All Blacks will have looked at is how Wallaby players coming across in cover situations often struggle with players stepping back inside them.

    Here’s an example from the match against the Pumas.

    Izack Rodda and Jack Dempsey both go for the same man and a quick shift pass creates the line break for the Pumas.

    Kuridrani is coming across in cover and knows that even if he gets across to the player with the ball he has support outside as well.

    A big step inside is coming and Kuridrani needs to make a really quick adjustment.

    He’s not fast enough to make that adjustment and is beaten on the inside.

    Genia is the next defender in line and a pass inside gets around him. That’s Beale just coming into shot at the top right of screen so he’s next up and at this point is inside the Puma player.

    Beale over commits and a slight change in running line beats him on the inside.

    Next up are Foley and Hodge. Another step inside means Foley has to attempt a diving tackle.

    Unfortunately Hodge comes across too far and Foley collides with him and both are beaten on the inside.

    Cover defence is a tricky thing but this example and others in recent matches show the Wallabies need to improve their tracking as they come across to make cover tackles and not over commit too early.

    I expect the Kiwis will have been practicing their inside step technique to try and expose this issue as well.

    Of course, the ideal scenario is to not concede line breaks but when you’re playing the All Blacks there are going to be times when you have to clean up in cover.

    Did I show any positives in those examples? No, so if I was running a real review I would have added a positive clip in to finish with.

    I’m expecting a solid performance from the Wallabies tomorrow night but I’m also braced for an All Blacks onslaught and unfortunately I don’t think the Wallabies will come out on top.

    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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