The skill shortage which passes all understanding

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The Independent Online

Having watched a great deal of club and international rugby recently, I am worried that our game is suffering from a serious deficiency in basic skills.

Having watched a great deal of club and international rugby recently, I am worried that our game is suffering from a serious deficiency in basic skills.

There is no doubt at all that the modern professionals are bigger, collectively quicker and much stronger than previous eras. They work tremendously hard and desperately want to succeed. But, in the ordinary skills that make or break a rugby player, many are inferior to the men who played 10, 20 or more years ago.

I do not blame them as much as I blame the system. They are cocooned in a club or national squad environment and do so much training that their individual needs are neglected. In my opinion, they do too much physical training; they are worked too hard by people trying to justify their particular functions. The professional world forgets the importance of rest to an athlete.

But that is another issue. I am more concerned that the emphasis on structures, patterns of phase-play, line-outs and scrums is over-shadowing the work they should be doing to keep themselves sharp and efficient.

I am not talking about anything fancy – just the things we learned at school. The kickers still put plenty of practice in but the others do not seem to work on what they learned as kids.

How many games have you seen lately where you have despaired at how often great moves are ruined by simple failures in throwing or catching a pass? The acts of taking and giving the ball are fundamental but it is appalling how often players at the top level fail to perform them properly.

It is all very well drumming the team ethic into players but there are times when they have to perform efficiently as individuals. Props require different training techniques from wingers but they all need to react properly when the ball reaches their hands.

Every player on the park should feel confident with the ball in his hands but you do not always get the impression that they are when you are watching them. If it is not in the script they don't know what the hell to do.

It is not only passing and catching, it's the ability to create an overlap and then to turn an overlap into a try; it is the instinct to run sraight and not crab across the line; it is to be aware of what angle to enter the line – hitting holes we used to call it.

When I was a player, touch rugby was a vital part of our training in both union and league. Martin Offiah used to thrive on the boost he got from touch rugby. I don't thing touch rugby is part of the training scene any more.

As for practising how to take advantage of overlaps, I spoke to a player at a top Welsh club recently as he said that they hadn't practised two on one or three on two since the start of the season. No wonder they make such a mess of great opportunities. We have never had so many statistics in the game. They could tell you if your socks are pulled up to the right length. But I'm not sure they tell the harsh reasons behind basic mistakes.

We are not alone with this problem. David Campese was telling me recently that he was noticing a fall-off in basic skills among the Australians.

You don't get that with New Zealand. Part of the reason they are No 1 is that, collectively, they get the fundamentals right. They do not waste as many opportunities as the rest of us by bad passing or fumbling. They put basic efficiency very high on their list of priorities. Just one illustration of this is that they have never had mercurial centres, no magical masters of the side-step. But, to a man, they have all been murderously efficient and that's the reason that the All Blacks have had so many great wingers.

Their centres have not been flashy but they have been first class at passing the ball at exactly the right time. Whatever else we have to do to improve the success and spectacle of our game, we have to go back to the forgotten first disciplines.

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