Welcome to another edition of The Weekend Review, as ever I’d just like to quickly start off with a thank you to you all for subscribing, and to encourage you to share the newsletter with other and encourage them to subscribe – everyone who signs up makes a big difference to us.
A couple of weeks ago I went to watch Harlequins v Cardiff Blues at the Twickenham Stoop with a group of friends, one of whom has just recently moved to the UK from his native New Zealand.
This was his first live taste of Northern Hemisphere rugby, so chatting to him afterwards I asked him what he thought, and what the differences were to the rugby he was used to watching in New Zealand.
His answer will stick with me for a long time. “Structure,” he said, “you play with so much more structure here, back at home everything is so free.”
It is a damning statement, despite being unintentionally so. When we speak of structure and shape here the UK it is with the firm understanding that the more solid a team’s structure and shape the better, a team with poor structure is generally labeled as disorganised and not good enough. Watch any rugby on television this weekend and there will be countless references to structure and shape, almost always in the context that structure = good.
Yet here was a man saying that, in one eighty minute observation, that the big difference between the World Champion All Blacks and our own rugby teams was that ours play with more structure. Suggesting therefore that our ideas about structure are wrong.
And do you know what? He’s right. We all know he is right, no matter how much we delude ourselves when we praise highly structured rugby.
Think about it. We used to ridicule the Superb Rugby because it seemed like a game with no structure designed purely for attacking. Yet as the years have gone on we have had to accept that it is actually a high quality tournament, probably the pinnacle of club/regional rugby.
The Rugby World Cup featured four Southern Hemisphere teams in the semi finals, all of whom were playing a free and loose form of attacking rugby (well, maybe not South Africa). We all sat enthralled at this exciting rugby. This unstructured rugby.
So why are we stuck so rigidly to this idea of shape and heavy structure, why are we not empowering our players, allowing them to play with their heads up and to make their decisions based on what is in front of them?
One card that is usually thrown around at this point is relegation. However the Pro 12 does not have relegation, but the Irish and Welsh are hardly playing like the Barbarians, the Scots, in fairness, are trying.
So what it is? My theory is that we are locked in a vicious circle regarding basic skills. By common consent, one of the key differences between the All Blacks and the rest of us is that they are able to execute their basic skills better. Perhaps our reliance on structure is because coaches do not trust our players’ basic skills, therefore they give them a rigid frame in which to work, however that in turn means that less reliance is placed on basic skills, which means they are practiced less, which means that under pressure they do not hold up, which brings us right back again to coaches imposing more structure to help cut of those errors.
This is not to dismiss structure. There is a reason the Barbarians do not usually beat top international sides. However it is a suggestion that perhaps we should look at empowering our players to make more decisions in the heat of the battle, under pressure. Yes, it will go wrong, and a lot to begin with, but in the long run t will produce better players.
Structure has a place. A nice simple structure that allows everyone to know where they need to be and what they need to do is a basis behind which superb rugby can be played, but you have to allow it to be. From within that simple structure, players have to be able to play.
They have to be able to try and fail, that is how you succeed.
It would be great to hear some of your thoughts on the issue, it has certainly been at the forefront of my mind over the last few weeks! Just send me a message on twitter (link below).