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How Australian rugby can improve coaching

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Roar Rookie
6th June, 2021
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Before the advent of GPS in monitoring, the first foray into ascertaining rugby workloads was time motion analysis.

It was facilitated through post-match video and estimating what each player was doing, how far they were going and how long they were doing it for.

The most famous study was completed over the 2000 Super Rugby season. While I don’t recall the exact figures, one of the findings was that tight forwards in rugby only sprinted for around 70 metres per game. The rest of their time was spent at low repetitive speed.

At the time there was some misconception about energy system function. Accordingly, recommendations for conditioning the tight forwards – because sprinting was negligible as a proportion of their entire work – was to do most of it at the same pace they conducted in a game.

From late 2001 until the World Cup in 2003, Australia’s tight five players were consistently blown off the park by opposition teams. Why? There are a number of factors, but two contributing reasons are articulated below.

• Conditioning was based on the average measurements in the time-motion study – not the peak
• The big stat (the five to eight kilometres spent at slow pace) drowned out the small stat (70 metres at high speed). However, in terms of performance in the game, the small stat was the most important

This is akin to a phenomenon highlighted in research as attentional blindness. The experiment highlighted below demonstrates this.

In this case, it was blindness to the key 70 metres metric – blinded in part by the stat screaming out, that is five to eight kilometres at slow pace, but also by the wrong assumption that the body’s energy systems kicked in suddenly, switching the previous energy system off.

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Accordingly, there was an assumption that training had to occur under the anaerobic threshold in order to increase aerobic capacity. The reality is all energy systems (globally aerobic and anaerobic) are operating conjunctively. They’re just operating at different ratios.

So slow, long conditioning unfortunately didn’t help the ten to 20 two-metre to five-metre bursts contributing to the 70 metres, which were imperative for being dominant in collisions. Further, as opposition teams got fitter and faster, they moved around the field quicker. Consequently, conditioning at average speeds resulted in getting to situations slower than the opposition.

Athletic performance legend – Vern Gambetta said: “Train slow, be slow. Train fast, be fast”.

As mentioned in my previous article, I assisted a mate of mine with some research for his PhD.

His research used the lens of a well-known business model –the Burke-Litwin model – to normatively define why five organisations were able to consistently achieve world-class performance across multiple Olympic cycles, while the other 45 couldn’t.

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The model consists of three transformational components and nine transactional. A key finding was that the top five were all expertly coach-led.

For my minimal part in the research, we looked to interview a range of rugby coaches to ascertain whether the research was normative across sports.

A recommendation contributing to understanding the environment (transformational component) that an organisation operates within was to ascertain historically all the commonalities between teams that won in a specific sport and competition. There are some massive caveats, which I’ll address in the next section.

The strategy was to then find key gaps and identify which could be closed the quickest. This achieves the quick wins. But to achieve sustained performance, the organisation should also be ticking away at more long-term solutions.

The first caveat is while cohesion and time played together seems to be all the go at the moment, it isn’t new research. Further, there’s significantly more to it than those two factors. Cohesion metrics are absolutely a way for a new coach to forecast to key stakeholders the timespan expected to achieve success without intervention. It also informs recruitment strategy to plug experience gaps.

But in line with ‘conditioning for averages’ and accurate reading of data highlighted in the first part of the article, it isn’t a strategy that develops consistency in world-class performance. It just gets you to a certain level. Further, the data isn’t normative.

To my knowledge, the first Australian organisation to conduct this type of research was the Hawthorn AFL club led by then director of coaching David Parkin. It led to their first premiership in the current cycle (2008).

However, consistency in overall performance didn’t occur until quality execution in all the other components of the system was achieved. It was also why they were still able to win two more premierships of their 2013-15 three-peat after losing their best player Lance Franklin to key rivals Sydney.

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It wasn’t the first time Parkin utilised key metrics to inform strategy. When Carlton coach, he identified a key performance indicator around what he termed sacrificial acts relating specifically to Carlton’s game.

If Carlton players performed so many sacrificial acts in a game (say 60), they won. If they performed only one less, they lost. In a rugby context, the Crusaders partly based their Crusaders man philosophy on this concept.

I was asked to present a summary of findings and recommendations of this research to a coaching research group at the University of Queensland in late 2011. One of the people in the group was Dr Vince Kelly.

Kelly, prior to entering academia, carved out a successful career in the highest echelons of high performance, athletic performance and consultancy roles with the Queensland Academy of Sport, Auckland Blues, Western Force, South Sydney Rabbitohs, Brisbane Broncos, Fiji RFU, NRL, FFA and many others.

Kelly, at the end of my presentation, quite rightly questioned the value of the achieving commonality method, described above, as a lone strategy.

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Paraphrased, his words were: “In my experience when organisations utilise this method as overarching strategy, it can lead to lazy coaching and abrogation of responsibility… We’re not going to be successful until these things are in place.”

So, while the coach or coaching team challenge the players to get better, they don’t themselves analyse how they can fast track the process. It just becomes about doing the same thing over and over again waiting or hoping for the benefits of time in the saddle and as part of the cavalry to kick in.

Kelly elaborated that while he understood the metric as a starting point, the aim of a performance team should always be to beat the metrics.

Consequently, the risk is that performance becomes more about recruiting than development. Whereas it should be a combination of both – particularly in a small market country like Australia. It was sage advice from someone that had been at the coalface of both performance and research for some time.

Some recent quotes point to the fact that the current provinces have moved away from our traditional development strengths.

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In an article with Brad Thorn, The Australian wrote: “The ‘physicality’ and ‘skill-sets’ New Zealand sides had honed throughout their strong provincial competition was leaving Australian rugby a step behind”.

Brad Thorn

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

The Canberra Times quoted Laurie Fisher saying: “What we are lacking is not skill related. We’ve just got to up our physicality, up our intent, up our aggression, up our desire and again there’s nothing technical about that”.

The article continued: “When asked about how the side were addressing the lacking intent, desire, and physicality at training, Fisher said, ‘it all came down to the individual player come Saturday’.”

Skill sets and physicality aren’t honed in matches – they’re executed in matches. They’re honed in training. Competition provides the context and the need to get better. Players aren’t going through matches thinking about how they need to pass or tackle or how physical they’re going to be. The capacity of their mental faculties are on reading cues in and around their game plan. They’re not honing – they’re executing. Effective training provides the honing.

But we’re finding this at the moment, which again relates to the training for averages point above. I’ve stated this previously. It’s a weakness in Australian rugby. Well over 80 per cent of training is 15 on 15. This is not training for the peak demands of the game. It’s not training for teams that bring greater line speed, athleticism, and skill.

You’re essentially training against the next best 15 in your club or squad. What players get away with in terms of poor technique or physical application against their B team during the week, they don’t get away with against better opposition on the weekend. The best coaches in any sport work out ways to make aspects of training harder than the game. Design it such that the need for better skill execution and greater physical demands are implicitly required.

I’m not suggesting teams put 15 versus 15 in the bin. It’s still a fundamentally important part of training. But the contextual needs of both Saturday and what is required to maximise team and individual potential need to be addressed weekly.

Otherwise, teams end up just operating week to week and I question whether there is a long-term vision for how the game could be played guiding and accounting process. Australian sport historically has led in developing world-class performers from a small population base, but not for some time.

Jordan Petaia of Australia looks dejected

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

In rugby alone, blind Freddy can see that our skills aren’t up to international standard and if there’s a stat that says otherwise, we’re blindly reading the wrong stat.

Too much focus is on cohesion, combinations, and structure and not enough on the core elements that both enhance these components but also lead in new ways of preparation.

In a previous article, I spoke of coach accountability as a value set that will get people to follow and address instantaneously key issues. I highlighted fool’s gold of success in programs without context and the fact that this can place the blinkers over effectively comparing apples with apples. Based on this, two of the best coaches in history would never have been given opportunity.

All highlight the importance of workplace learning. I also provided in the comments a video link to part of an interview with Ewen McKenzie that provides some insight into the leadership required for the roles.

Australia has some wonderful coaches that should be considered for the available head coaching positions, all with contextual experience and success.

With all five provinces largely structuring operations the same way, I don’t believe applicants from within current Super Rugby teams have the relevant experience. The exception would be Jim McKay.

The Australian sports market is full and is contracting financially. Coaches that have the attributes and contextual experience to lead in this environment are Mick Byrne, Nick Stiles, Damien Hill, Bill Millard, Andy Friend, Darren Coleman, Stephen Larkham, Nick Scrivener and Jim McKay.

The next article will deal with the whys.

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