RATHBONE: Is modern rugby stifling quick thinking players?

Clyde Rathbone Columnist

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    Australia's Stephen Larkham was responsible for one of the most iconic Australian sporting moments ever. 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?

    Clyde Rathbone
    Clyde Rathbone

    Former Wallaby & Brumby Clyde Rathbone retired from rugby in 2014. Clyde is a writer, speaker and technology startup founder. A Roar columnist since 2012, you can follow Clyde via his Twitter page.

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    The Crowd Says (39)

    • April 5th 2012 @ 10:37am
      Gary Russell-Sharam said | April 5th 2012 @ 10:37am | ! Report

      Looking at the big picture of what Rugby has become in the light of the stature of the players etc. I have noted that rugby players are becoming much more muscular than they ever were. Taking into consideration the innovation in technology that allows the players to build their bodies, it seems that that rugby players are now in the vogue of similar sizes for positions. I do not mean that they are clones but there is a narrowing of the gap between the sizes that play rugby at the top level. Perhaps it is the preference of coaches to go for bigger players overall or it may just be better nutrition and better facilities to build bigger bodies etc. There seems to me to be a diminishing quantity of the smaller, quicker more nimble player that used his skill and intellect to beat his opponent. Do not get on this post and cite multiple examples of small men etc I am just generalizing. Rugby to my eyes is getting slightly robotic in nature, creeping towards the mind numbing plays that are apparent when watching a game of league. I am not bashing league, just telling it how the play evolves with 6 tackles- three hits up then two passes off the ruck and then a kick of the 5th. The evolution of players to be bigger stronger quicker is a natural evolution that is now becoming more accentuated by the weight equipment now available. IMO there is s tendency to players becoming as they used to say a few years ago “muscle bound” they lack that elasticity to glide through the gap etc like Bernie used to do for the Brumbies. Larkham was not a small man by any means but he was never referred to as really big either. He did not have the built up body like a weight builder more he looks like an athlete. Whatever the reasons we are now requiring the standard rugby player to be big. We can go back in time to see rugby players that were the best of their time weighing only a fraction of what they do today. IMO they played a better style of running rugby when the like of Kieth Wright at 67 kg played flyhalf and inside centre for the Wallabies. Perhaps we are by natural evolution breeding a bigger faster rugby player that does not have to rely on guile and smarts to achieve a result. Perhaps we are being pushed in this direction by the requirements of the coaching staff. Who knows, but I for one lament the tendency to go for bigger is better to the detriment of the skilled athletic player with less bulk muscle.

      • April 5th 2012 @ 11:51am
        Jimbo Jones said | April 5th 2012 @ 11:51am | ! Report

        Very good point Gary. I’ve felt for a long while that players (from both codes) spend too much time in the gym and are bulking up too much. It’d be interesting to see if anyone else has similar thoughts, or is the extra bulk just a necessity to survive in todays game?

        • April 5th 2012 @ 12:10pm
          redsnut said | April 5th 2012 @ 12:10pm | ! Report

          Agree with Gary and Jimbo.

          Big muscles doesn’t necessarily mean stamina. And IMHO, stamina is probably more important.

          • April 5th 2012 @ 1:12pm
            stillmatic1 said | April 5th 2012 @ 1:12pm | ! Report

            without looking at stats in regards to injuries in the game over time, one would assume that the muscle bound players running around today are infact more prone to injury than their forebears. obviously the higher force of impact in todays game tells a story, but i could hazard a guess, that the more nimble and supple a player is, the less likely he will sustain an injury. i was always coached (as a 6’2′ stringbean back) to move my body in such a way to avoid the full impact of either being tackled and as a tackler and luck aside i have never been injured in any sport in my life.

            that being said, when a big popper really crunches you, you stay crunched if your the smaller man!!

            • April 5th 2012 @ 1:15pm
              stillmatic1 said | April 5th 2012 @ 1:15pm | ! Report

              further to this, the more wear and tear that is put onto joints muscles etc through things like vigorous consistant training and endless weight sessions even before the game is to be played, could actually be counter productive to the longevity of a players career. the more finely tuned or tight you wind a muscle the easier it is for it to break, and things like simple achilles injuries IMO bear this out.

      • April 5th 2012 @ 5:19pm
        Lorry said | April 5th 2012 @ 5:19pm | ! Report


        67kgs is tiny, almost underweight for a rugby player.
        I am only 171cms, not overweight, dont go to the gym and I weigh 74kgs

        Why would a player who does any amount of fitness training/weights at all weigh anything less than 78 or 80kgs?

        I think some of you have rose-coloured glasses. Guys like Farr-Jones, Poido, Lynagh, Little were pretty big guys. Even Campo was by no means small

    • April 5th 2012 @ 10:38am
      soapit said | April 5th 2012 @ 10:38am | ! Report

      its the ability to react on the go that separates the good and poor sides going around at the moment.

      it will only become more important in my opinion as chances become less structured (such as the chiefs try off the waratahs scrum feed) and defensive errors become less normal players will need to be ready to capitalise and constant structured mindset wont allow it.

    • April 5th 2012 @ 11:49am
      NC said | April 5th 2012 @ 11:49am | ! Report

      The game still has deep thinkers, they’re called coaches

    • Columnist

      April 5th 2012 @ 12:26pm
      Brett McKay said | April 5th 2012 @ 12:26pm | ! Report

      “we had software that made it possible to know if an opposing player folded or scrunched” may just be the best summary I’ve ever read on how much technology has changed the game of rugby. Not just a brilliant line, but a great insight, too…

    • April 5th 2012 @ 12:36pm
      Klinger said | April 5th 2012 @ 12:36pm | ! Report

      Had an interesting chat last Saturday with a friend who is a professor in the health field on the way back from watching a club trial game between the Rats and Northern Suburbs. I commented on the number of superbly fit athletes who pull hamstrings and the like while running in the open when they are already warmed up. Recent examples of but many are Drew Mitchell and Danny Cipriani. His unscientific theory was that by using all the machines they do, they build up muscles which are not necessary for their activity, and their is an imbalance in their muscle structure. Would be an interesting field for a budding PhD student.

      • April 5th 2012 @ 2:29pm
        kiwidave said | April 5th 2012 @ 2:29pm | ! Report

        I’ve thought this for quite some time. Most of these machines work by isolating the principal muscles, which means that the main muscle ends up much stronger than the smaller muscles supporting the movement. Many movements on a rugby field are pretty complex and use a variety of muscles. Of course someone who’s actually a physio or a doctor will probably correct me.

    • April 5th 2012 @ 1:11pm
      Stu said | April 5th 2012 @ 1:11pm | ! Report

      Great article Clyde.

      We are now heading toward the start of the 2nd generation professional rugby and you can see that their is a noticeable weeding out of ‘smart’ players in the australian fold. I think it is this lack of smarts that is the most frustraing thing for australian rugby fans.

      I see 4 areas that are really killing the spectacle of ‘australian elite’ rugby, they are:

      1. There is a pervasive dumbening of decision making. Players seem to be unable to adapt or change their play if Plan A fails.

      2. While strength, stamina and power has increased there seems to be a lack of some basic skills (i.e passing/catching and set pieces)

      3. Teams play not to lose rather than play to win.

      4. Professional fouls particularly in the ruck

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