Rugby Championship 2017: A showcase of talent over skill?

Kia Kaha Roar Guru

By Kia Kaha, Kia Kaha is a Roar Guru

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96 Have your say

    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.

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    The Crowd Says (96)

    • Roar Guru

      October 5th 2017 @ 3:36am
      The Neutral View From Sweden said | October 5th 2017 @ 3:36am | ! Report

      Hi KK

      Was just about to fall asleep but started to read your text. Really really good read. You hammer home so many good points.
      Will come back with a longer reply tomorrow, because there are things I want to discuss.after reading this.

      P.S. There is a wonderful typo in your text at the end, you call the Argie captain hooker “Creepy”. Don’t change it mate, I think you have nailed new nickname for Augustin LOL

      • Roar Guru

        October 5th 2017 @ 4:54am
        Kia Kaha said | October 5th 2017 @ 4:54am | ! Report

        Sure that wasn’t started reading your text and fell asleep, NV? 😉

        Apologies to Creevy. His shoulders are creepily wide though. 🙂

        • Roar Guru

          October 5th 2017 @ 1:22pm
          The Neutral View From Sweden said | October 5th 2017 @ 1:22pm | ! Report

          Nope Kia, you earn your kudos. if anything your words kept me awake for another half hour.

          After reading your column a quote by Wayne Smith rang in my head: “talent is just training camouflaged”. And as always, Wayne Smith is dead right and I think if he had eyed through your column, he would have nodded his head in agreement.

          I am very surprised that the AB’s scrum does not get more props in Kiwi media or here at The Roar, so I am happy you brought it up.. How much more proof does people need to see that we are potentially talking about the most dominant scrum ever? They have dominated the BIL’s, the Springboks and Los Pumas, traditionally the three strongest scrums there is. And it does not matter what personal who packs down in the scrum, they just keep on dominating.

          If one takes the scrum out of the picture, how many wins would the AB’s have got this year? Hypothetical question of course, but to me, there is no way around the fact the AB’s scrum is the AB’s best weapon both on offense and defense. We are getting to the point where it almost does not matter if the AB’s have the put in or not, they will win the battle anyway.

          Beauden Barrett… A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma? Earlier this year I thought a big part of Barrett’s lesser performances this year compared to last year was due to Sonny Bills Williams and him are not clicking and it was Williams fault mostly. But after the Lions series, I think Williams has improved by the day, and he is reinventing himself as a hard-working conservative midfielder who has much more focus on doing the basics right than looking for flair moves. He is at the service of the team now – including Barret – but still, he and Barrett are not clicking. Maybe Barret also has to reinvent himself also and focus on getting the basics right again?

          • Roar Guru

            October 5th 2017 @ 6:19pm
            Kia Kaha said | October 5th 2017 @ 6:19pm | ! Report

            Joe Moody and Owen Franks out with injury would’ve been a hammer blow last year. But the scrum dominance has continued without them. Dane Cole’s return seemed to have an influence in Dunedin so I wonder if the scrum against the Lions would’ve been more of a weapon.

            NZ has the backs savvy enough to use the number advantage a scrum can provide if executed well. Havili’s score looked all too easy but everyone needs to b aware of what’s going on around them.

            Perhaps Barrett still has that supersub in him and feels he has to create something all the time. Patience is required and knowing when to chance the arm and when to be solid are important for a mature 10.

    • Roar Pro

      October 5th 2017 @ 3:54am
      Andrew said | October 5th 2017 @ 3:54am | ! Report

      A very good read with some very interesting points.

      • Roar Guru

        October 5th 2017 @ 4:54am
        Kia Kaha said | October 5th 2017 @ 4:54am | ! Report

        Cheers, Andrew.

    • October 5th 2017 @ 4:00am
      Cynical Play said | October 5th 2017 @ 4:00am | ! Report

      Great stuff

    • October 5th 2017 @ 4:07am
      Lostintokyo said | October 5th 2017 @ 4:07am | ! Report

      Good article Kia.
      The old saying “practice makes perfect” is so true, but the problem lies in practice being a cumulative thing and not something coaches can implement between tests to any great degree.

      If Australia wishes to consistently compete with nz then the structure of the game in Australia needs an overhaul. The next CEO of the ARU certainly has a big job.

      In the past the Wallabies have been competitive due to innovation. New ideas which other countries copied when the Wallabies were strong. Now it is New Zealand innovating in all sorts of ways. It is a big challenge to catch up let alone keep up or overtake.

      Good to see there is talent out there which the ARU need to identify and lock in before the other codes do. The nrl Rabbitos developed Aussie Sevens player Longbottom is a case in point.

      If the ARU don’t have the ‘production line’ in good working order at present it is necessary to spread the net wider to other sports. The female Gold in Rio is an example. There are many kids who are doing a lot of practice out there, including outside sports. Spread the net.

      • Roar Guru

        October 5th 2017 @ 5:00am
        Kia Kaha said | October 5th 2017 @ 5:00am | ! Report

        Thanks for the post Lost in Tokyo. I tend to ageee that little should be done between tests but the Springboks won’t be thinking that this week and the Wallabies showed great improvement between Sydney and Dunedin. But hence the need for continuity in selections. A bit like compound interest. The longer you keep it untouched the bigger the gains.

        • October 5th 2017 @ 4:44pm
          Cuw said | October 5th 2017 @ 4:44pm | ! Report

          re Barrett :

          it is a widely accepted fact that the ability to sprint, rather than merely run depends on those fast twictch muscle fibers.

          ” 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.”

          so i am not sure how he managed to grow them from workouts. it seems odd noone saw he had the ability to sprit from a young age. for eg . even when you get a bunch of ten year old kids to run over say 50 meters, a trained eye will spot those who can sprint.

          i think BB is trying to be modest ( and its not ur fault to quote him). he is a sprinter and it is very clear he has those muscles 🙂

          of course , even a born sprinter can add a second to his pace by regimental training. even a guy like Bolt will keep on sharpening his technique on a regular basis to keep running at that level. becoz everything we do is about muscle memory.

          • Roar Guru

            October 5th 2017 @ 6:22pm
            Kia Kaha said | October 5th 2017 @ 6:22pm | ! Report

            There is definitely innate talent there Cuw. But it’s how quick he’s off the mark that sets him apart. And that is not just down to talent.

    • Roar Guru

      October 5th 2017 @ 4:16am
      Harry Jones said | October 5th 2017 @ 4:16am | ! Report

      Article of the Week.

      • Roar Guru

        October 5th 2017 @ 5:01am
        Kia Kaha said | October 5th 2017 @ 5:01am | ! Report

        That’s because yours hasn’t come out yet, Harry. 🙂

        • Roar Guru

          October 5th 2017 @ 5:03am
          Harry Jones said | October 5th 2017 @ 5:03am | ! Report

          Actually, I wrote my worst article ever, this week. Hasn’t popped up yet; the editors may have tossed it in the rubbish bin. It was about the most unconventional ideas for the Boks to score a try against the ABs.

          • Roar Guru

            October 5th 2017 @ 6:42am
            Kia Kaha said | October 5th 2017 @ 6:42am | ! Report

            You have me intrigued, sir. Unconventional. Hmmm, camouflaged netting? The recall of De Villiers as coach? Marx to fly half?

            • Roar Guru

              October 5th 2017 @ 6:52am
              Harry Jones said | October 5th 2017 @ 6:52am | ! Report

              Folau’s hairy pull has given me an idea to use hairy-ness as a weapon.

              • Roar Guru

                October 5th 2017 @ 6:55am
                Kia Kaha said | October 5th 2017 @ 6:55am | ! Report

                Haha an entire team of hair balls. Tackle me at your peril.

      • October 5th 2017 @ 11:38pm
        frisky said | October 5th 2017 @ 11:38pm | ! Report

        Maybe article of teh year.
        Very good indeed. WIsh I was a youngster again.

    • Roar Guru

      October 5th 2017 @ 4:31am
      Carlos the Argie said | October 5th 2017 @ 4:31am | ! Report

      Buena lectura, Kia Kaha.

      Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. You can be sloppy in practice for hours and you will be sloppy when you play.

      Creevy (stopping autocorrect) may carry the ball a lot, but he doesn’t make many meters. It is irrelevant if you carry the ball but cannot penetrate or cannot generate offense. It is easy to defend against him, because teams know he will get the ball. Just be prepared for the hit. Same with Matera.

      In addition, I am not sure, and maybe you can confirm, that Byrne provided all skill sets to players. I was of the idea that most of his work was in kicking and catching. Every time I saw a captain’s run for the ABs, he would be practicing with the kickers and catchers. I never saw him doing anything else, but this may be due to the dynamics of captain’s runs and not anything else. In my mind, it was the other coaches that worked on those skills, Smyth and Foster.

      The Pumas don’t have inherent talent in the scrum, they never had it, what they did have is a competitive advantage in using the coordinated push. But Mike Cron also developed this for the ABs and now the Pumas have some fluffy blubber based props who can’t push, run, ruck, lift or tackle. And to top it off, they have butter fingers.

      As I mentioned in Scott’s article, in my club, the coaches worked consistently on passing drills, and not only passing a lot but in passing accurately. In front when running, and other techniques when close or if the ball was wet and soapy. Conrad Smith was an example of someone who had a very accurate pass, not the fanciest, but always where it should be.

      • Roar Guru

        October 5th 2017 @ 5:53am
        Kia Kaha said | October 5th 2017 @ 5:53am | ! Report

        Gracias, Carlos!

        My understanding is that it was a collaborative approach in terms of what skills were worked on and who worked on them with the players.

        The Jaguars were a disappointment this year but I fear the days are numbered for Houcarde. The Pumas have been even worse.

        I think you’re being a bit harsh on the legacy of the Pumas scrum and Argentinian beef but I liked your point about perfect practice.

        • Roar Guru

          October 5th 2017 @ 10:41am
          Carlos the Argie said | October 5th 2017 @ 10:41am | ! Report


          I am just frustrated that the Pumas have reached such a poor level. I was trying to recall what other Puma prop had been YC over the years. I am sure that there were quite a few (Ayerza?), but not as bad as what happened against the ABs for example. And it is not only them, if you look at Pieretto (who I think was YC last time he played too) when he was leaving the field, there was more blubber shaking than at an elephant seal convention. This is not right in 2017. Yes, Pieretto is young, but why do you put a prop like this to play the RC? You can have blubber and inexperience at U20 level. Tetaz and Herrera are equally bad. There were instances during Jaguares play and in the RC that the props catch a ball and look as clumsy as can be with them. It is not only about mass, it is speed, talent and skill. All those things are missing.

          And don’t start me with discipline as well! On Saturday, the first truly dumb penalty was by Petty, but everyone was so expecting Lavanini that he was named as the culprit. Even Geoff and Diggercane seemed convinced it was him. As were the commentators on TV. But, “happily”, Lavanini didn’t disappoint and committed a knuckle dragging event later in the game.

          You can have skill, you can have talent, but if you don’t have discipline, it doesn’t matter. And brain power! Rugby appears to be a game for the brawny but it is primarily a game for the brainy!

          The perfect practice makes perfect is not my saying. I have heard it before in many different ways. I just picked the expression that seems clear.

          By the way, I am going to the “new republic” of Catalunya at the end of the month. Now that we also have Catalexit, I just wonder what will be. Far from Madrid to catch a beer, one country away!

          • Roar Guru

            October 5th 2017 @ 6:28pm
            Kia Kaha said | October 5th 2017 @ 6:28pm | ! Report

            Not the best time to go to Cataluña!

            I feel your pain. They really look lost at sea and I wonder if the poor discipline is out of frustration. I really hope they can turn things around.

      • October 5th 2017 @ 6:09pm
        Cuw said | October 5th 2017 @ 6:09pm | ! Report

        @ Carlos the Argie

        ” Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. You can be sloppy in practice for hours and you will be sloppy when you play. ”

        that is true. something that used o happen in cricket was that at the nets , it used to be about the batters perfecting their technique and bowlers just running in and bowling.

        it took a while for coaches all over to note that , some of those bowlers who just ran in and bowled , did the same in the middle and were being no-balled a lot.

        then they started measuring out the run-ups and also making sure the bowlers did not overstep.

        the learning outcome was – practice as if ur playing in a match.

        • Roar Guru

          October 6th 2017 @ 5:08am
          Carlos the Argie said | October 6th 2017 @ 5:08am | ! Report

          I’m sure your comment is interesting, but I have virtually no idea what you are talking about, CUW, I know almost nothing of cricket.

          • Roar Guru

            October 6th 2017 @ 5:19am
            Kia Kaha said | October 6th 2017 @ 5:19am | ! Report

            Cricket is a simple enough sport to learn. After a yearlong full-time course, you’ll be able to freely converse about one or two things.

            • Roar Guru

              October 6th 2017 @ 6:17am
              Carlos the Argie said | October 6th 2017 @ 6:17am | ! Report

              This is what I have been told before. I only know there is one NZ umpire with a crooked finger. They are called umpires, right?

              • Roar Guru

                October 6th 2017 @ 6:27am
                Kia Kaha said | October 6th 2017 @ 6:27am | ! Report

                Yes, very good! There is also a third umpire like the TMO.

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