Brian Ashton: Unpredictability is the lifeblood of sport, and makes this Cup special
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 12 November 2011
Unpredictability in the other game of rugby, that outside the
full-time professional game, is one of the challenges of
adaptability for coaches to demonstrate weekly.
Not for them a captive audience at every training session, as not all players can make themselves available two nights a week. Sometimes even the coaches cannot attend every session owing to other commitments.
As specialist coaches tend not to gravitate to this level, others just get stuck into areas in which they may possess less than perfect technical expertise. Just as the All Blacks did some time ago when their coaching trio Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen swapped coaching duties just prior to an autumn tour of the UK.
Much was made of this at the time, questioning whether or not it would prove to be in the best interests of the players. The first game under New Zealand's revamped coaching team was against Australia in a Tri-Nations Test, which the All Blacks won comfortably.
They then moved on to secure another Grand Slam in the northern hemisphere. No sign of any hiccups in the three main areas – set piece, attack and defence – nor was there any evidence to those on the outside of any harm done to the psyche of the players.
On many levels it was possibly a masterstroke of mid-term planning, the environment freshened by different views in key areas.
The players were reportedly in favour, and were no doubt consulted before it happened. They too will have had to step up to the mark to assist their coaches in their unfamiliar surroundings.
The process demonstrated a combined flexibility of mindset and exploration which has been one of the hallmarks throughout the ages of outstanding teams.
It was also a less than gentle reminder that coaching is as much about communicating strategy and principles of the game as just specialising in technique.
One hopes that any group of players, at all levels, would welcome this approach to provide diversity in preparation.
This weekend sees the beginning of another Heineken Cup, the exotic side of club rugby. This is a tournament where the unexpected can occur more frequently.
"Expect the unexpected" will be the clarion call from team leaders. Even with the most thorough of analysis, there is a real element of unfamiliarity through playing opponents rarely or possibly never encountered before.
It is this type of competition that puts dealing with unpredictability on the spot. It is not that difficult to put in place a plan of how a game may unfold. But all participants need to understand that teams from outside the normal playing radar may not play ball on the day.
Will all the clubs involved mirror the way in which their national teams played during the recent World Cup? The very nature of this competition throws up unpredictability. This can lead to more turnovers than usually occur against more familiar opponents. Many coaches acknowledge that receiving turnover ball is like manna from heaven, but do not spend the appropriate amount of time in dealing with how to use it.
The commentators repeatedly observed during last weekend's Leicester v London Irish game how often turnover ball in all games is kicked directly back to opponents.
In really tight games, when you could argue that this type of possession is even more like gold dust, do we educate or prevent our players from using the ball positively from anywhere on the pitch?
Common sense tells us that turnovers are not pre-planned and therefore more or less guarantee temporary disorder or even chaos on the field. Unlikely space becomes available, mismatches can appear. An early-warning system should be in place indicating that here is a golden opportunity to exploit and not surrender by returning the ball so your opponents can have another crack at you.
Taking us back to the discussion earlier in the column, coaching and playing requirements in this situation are more generic than specialised.
A work-rate mentality to reset and reorganise is fundamental. The dynamic and small-talk style of communication is vital so some sort of order is restored.
We probably need a short-term reshaping of the team. Players need to demonstrate leadership, step into the firing line immediately to take up those less-than-familiar duties, not step away and abdicate responsibility.
To pull all this together, we need players who are able to play with their eyes, assessing the situation as it stands then deciding how best to deal with it.
It is the classic scenario for those coaches who are prepared to direct their attention away from the specific to the overview of the game, to work with players to develop an understanding of what is possible when circumstances change.
Unpredictability is the lifeblood of sport, and I am sure more than one group of coaches and players will have this to deal with today and tomorrow. It's one of the reasons the Heineken Cup is such a special tournament.
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