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Lee Smith's Coaching Corner - Where to from here? Underline 02 November, 2011 Is it time to look at the character of rugby world wide and tailor the RWC tournament to reflect that character?

The Structure of the Tournament

International Rugby is dominated by 5 unions, England, South Africa, Australia, France and New Zealand. Another group challenge at times. They are Wales, ireland, Argentina and, can we include Scotland? Some are seen as up and comers but their form is variable – Samoa, Fiji, Tonga,Italy and Canada. The remainder of those at the tournament do well at their own level. At the awards ceremony the game was lauded as having around 120 countries playing, but the maths show that the vast majority are, at best, competitive regionally. Funding is being put into unions that have a large base population and who are new to the game. The Sevens is being looked on as the flag bearer of this group.

This is the reality and, if we are to give all an incentive, rugby has the competition models to do this. At the U20 tournament all teams remain to play on the finals day as they compete for ranking positions. At the Sevens The cup, bowl and plate increases the opportunities for the unions to be rewarded. These models do not necessarily incur increased costs. The players are at the venue and, as the tournament reaches its climax, their supporters will be motivated to stay. There would be no increase in duration. Just like this tournament fans can come for the period of time that they can afford. What it will do is give all unions a taste of finals rugby and the potential to win a trophy to take home and publicize the game. This also means that they will field their best team as so much will depend on each result. This is because points difference will be a criteria for differentiating between teams on the same points.

It goes without saying that all teams will have the same duration between games.

Funding

The funding issue is an interesting one. I remember the Scots making the same case as New Zealand did this time. Given the revenue sharing deals that are now common for the July and November Internationals these games yield income that in RWC years does not take place. This could be offset by allowing unions to derive sponsorship funding from boots, jerseys etc. What this will do is give the IRB less to sell. Funding for development will be less. The Council unions do make grants to participating unions to offset losses. Clearly they need more.

When the game went professional I naively thought that the justification for the professional game was the extent it could support the amateur game, the grass roots of the game. Within unions it would seem that the money generated by professional rugby is spent on professional rugby. I know from colleagues that, when it comes to cutting costs the development budget is cut. I hope that increased funding to unions is not used for the professional game.

The problem here is the unity of the professional players’ union as opposed to the diversity of voices representing the remainder of the game. We need to recognise the vulnerability of the game’s dependence on amateur support if they begin to feel under valued.

At present most revenue goes to the IRB who then decide how it is to be distributed across all unions in membership.The Council is made up of 2 members from each of the original eight unions, one each from Japan, Canada, Argentina, and Italy and one from each of the 6 regions. It seems that this group is unable to make sure they get what they regard as their fair share in recognition of their ability to generate revenue and compensate for lost income. If they are unable to have their case recognised then we have to ask why, given the votes these members hold.

Reserves exist for at least one “failed” RWC but beyond this the IRB is the major source of funding for most unions. The smaller the union the greater the support. In many it is 100%. This depends on the size of the union and the state of the country’s economy.

The Pacific Island Situation

In this regard the three Pacific Island are an anomaly. They are first world rugby unions but third world economies.

Contrary to popular belief young Polynesians are not press ganged into playing in New Zealand or Australia. Just like our ancestors from both countries the Islanders migrate to improve themselves. When New Zealand took over Samoa under the League of Nations after the First World War Samoans have had access to New Zealand. Initially it was a trickle but became a flood. You migrate to improve yourself. When you do this you have two options in Rugby, either to play for your country of origin, or the country to which you have migrated. As a result Manu Samoa and Ikale Tahe as well as the Flying Fijians, to a lesser extent, receive substantial investment in time and knowledge on their rugby development from the country of residence. Add to this the opportunities and income they receive when they obtain professional contracts overseas it is clear that these unions trade heavily on this support. Maybe this offshore option is a more worthwhile way of developing their best talent than anything that can be done in the unions.

I am told that there was great disappointment in the RWC result, especially in Samoa. IRB funding has been great and the exchange rate means it goes a lot further in these unions and better results may have been expected. But compared to the major unions funding from the IRB is a fraction of the campaign costs for England, France, South Africa and even New Zealand. Add to this the limited opportunity these unions have to assemble their teams during the year then they are doing well. Continuity to build on the positives that arose this time is essential, while those aspects that were inferior need to be replaced. It is not a “new dawn” mentality that is needed as this will mean that the lessons of this RWC will be lost.

We must remember that competition is a treadmill and the faster your opponent goes the faster you must go to compete, if only to maintain relativity.

If we are to measure the success or lack of it do we do it by outcomes – scores, points differences, positions in their pools and elevation to post pool play – or do we judge them by performance. This is something they have control over but we have missed the chance to set a benchmark in the selected criteria. It would be a monumental job to go back and analyse the games in the pre-strategic initiatives era and then do the same measurements for all games between then and now. But this is the only objective way to do it. The value of this approach is that you are judging the teams based on something they have control over. It may well be that the decisions that are made will be subjective which always has its casualties.

Olympic Sevens?

On another issue. The RWC forced the inter provincial competition in New Zealand, the ITM Cup , to be reduced in it’s duration. The time it took was no longer than the duration of the Olympic Games and the number of teams and games would be greater than those who will play at the Olympics. So should the 12 teams in the men’s and women’s competition be playing 15 a side? Given the attendance that is likely it would be at least as lucrative as the Sevens. But maybe the way ahead is Sevens? Only you can answer that for yourself.

Maintaining Interest

This tournament has attracted theatre goers, corporates, fans for an occasion and the die hard rugby types. Can we keep them? I know of several women, friends of the wife and anti rugby types. They even got carried away with it.

When they ask you why the ball is thrown in crooked at the scrum with impunity but not at the lineout they raise a good point. What is going on at the post tackle? It all looks unintelligible and inconsistent. I am the last to make it simple for simplicities sake but do we want to keep the new recruits in the game?

Playing to Your Team’s Character

Finally it would be nice to see teams playing to their team profile so they are optimising their performance. Use the principles of attack and defence to do this. Get away from copying because if you copy someone you are always following.

Now this is difficult as there are few variations in winning the ball. But, to a large degree it can be based on strength and conditioning so it is a matter of putting in the time and effort. Defence is somewhat the same.

The real problem is attack. It is based on skill and decision making, the ability to play what is in front of you.At best it is learning to react to the defence so they can’t prepare for you. It is also enjoyable. The cue that enables the breakdown of attack to be recognised is play becoming individual. What is needed is a programme that develops attacking skills and decision making. We need a course that develops game sense. 

Find out more about the IRB's former Director of Development Lee Smith by visiting leesmith.co.nz
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