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Archive for January, 2012

Interim England coach Stuart Lancaster has his first Test – both in name and practice – this weekend against the Aulde Enemy, Scotland (or is England their aulde enemy? … yeah, that … anyway).  I think I’ve mentioned that I was a fan of England during the Woodward era, but not as impressed with his successors Andy Robinson and especially Martin Johnson – a man who’d had very little experience as a coach.  I’ve read a couple of articles about Lancaster and wanted to share the best bits as it sounds like – despite the temporary status of his role at present – he’s got the goods to lead them to a 6 Nations victory.  Here are the most relevant bits to coaches, starting with how he still helps coach under-11s – as an assistant! – at his local club:

He puts the eager youngsters through their paces in an atmosphere striking in its calm, its purpose and its discipline. His instructions are clear and quickly understood. The more sophisticated tactical ideas are communicated with clarity. In short, he is a man who appears entirely comfortable facilitating training.

 “I once walked in on one of his half-time team talks,” says Shaun Robins, the father of one of the under-11s. “He was asking them what they did well and seeking their suggestions about how they might improve. It was incredibly inclusive. And the thing was: they all were engaged and listening.”

 It augurs well for when he takes charge of the England squad for the first time this week. Given the way they behaved during the World Cup, it is not a bad idea to know how to handle a bunch of schoolboys.

 “Actually, I wouldn’t want people to think I’d treat elite players like kids,” Lancaster says. “But I guess whether it’s under-11s or England the principles are the same.

“I’d like to think I will communicate the same sense of enthusiasm and positivity. And I think that rubs off on players. The best coaches I’ve seen have a broad range of emotions, from upbeat and positive to being prepared to upbraid those who don’t give 100 per cent. Most of all, you shape behaviour by the environment you create.”

“What will ultimately lead to a winning side is the culture,” he says. “That willingness to be selfless, to be part of a group willing to work hard for each other, to be humble, not to be arrogant, to respect each other and every one else, to accept the responsibility of being an England player: those values will lead to a winning England.”

“That’s the same with these under-11s,” he says. “You have to establish guidelines. I’ll give you an example: when the kids have water it is a non-negotiable rule that they put the drinks bottle back in the rack rather than just chuck them on the ground.

 “Trivial, you may say. But it’s not. It is a demonstration of a respect for equipment and more importantly respect for your team-mate. You do not want him drinking from a dirty bottle.”

Lancaster says that what worried him most about the RFU inquiry into the World Cup was the unattributed observation from a player that there was a fashion in the squad of not trying too hard at training.

 “I’ll tell you this,” he says. “If anyone thinks it’s not cool to try, they won’t be playing for England under me. The most powerful tool I have is selection.

 “Players can try and hide what they think for a while, but ultimately you’ll see it in their actions. Those that want to be the best will be on the journey. Those that don’t won’t.

 “There are hundreds of players who want to play for England. Talent is one thing, character is another. Talent gets you there. Character keeps you there.”

From:  White, Jim.  “Why Stuart Lancaster’s England squad needs Yorkshire roots.” Daily Telegraph, 9 Jan., 2012.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/rugbyunion/international/england/9001327/Why-Lancasters-England-need-Yorkshire-roots.html

For me, building  an inclusive, positive, and challenging team culture is the foundation of a successful team.  And when I say ‘successful’, I don’t even mean winning, because results are largely out of our control.  ‘Success’ refers to achieving, and where possible, exceeding realistic but challenging goals we set for ourselves as coaches and players, both for the team and individually.  ‘Character’ is the essential component, I feel, to achieve success.  More than just having the proper spirit to embrace being part of a team, both players and coaches need to recognise the difference between arrogance and confidence, to show respect for each other and opponents, to show determination and resilience, and to be open to learn and to share constructive thoughts.

I think the way in which you help foster this positive culture is largely up to you.  I base all that I do on a set of values that I deem most important to me as a coach and that will provide the players in my charge with an enjoyable and enriching environment.  I make these known to the players and share my personal objectives for the year.  I then invite players to share their own goals and have a team meeting to formulate their performance and dream goals for the season.  I don’t think any one way is better than the rest, but I do believe that your style needs to be relayed so the players know what to expect and that building and maintaining a positive culture needs to be a TOTAL effort by everyone involved with the team.

Lancaster appears to be one of those types, and it should set up this young and potentially exciting England squad for a good run.  Here are some of his own words on how he establishes himself with his team and a glowing review from a former pupil of his, who credits Lancaster’s tutelage for making him the player he now is.  As Vickerman suggests, a good coach such as Stuart Lancaster knows his/her players and genuinely cares about fostering their development.

Rob Vickerman (Coached by Lancaster at Leeds, now England rugby Sevens player)

?He is one of the most influential people in my rugby career, particularly when I was 15 or 16 at  Yorkshire schoolboys. As a coach he is a perfect mix in that he is  analytical but he is also a disciplinarian. He’ll have fun with you but he also lives by his beliefs as a coach and it rubs off on his players. In times when the team are not performing well, he is capable of understanding players individually. He knew what I was thinking if I’d played poorly and knew how to motivate me. You know if you’re working hard you’re going to earn his praise, and he’ll never cut  corners or make excuses. He’s talked a lot about a new  culture with England and I can  certainly identify with that. We took a hammering from the A team at Leeds and he came in for training, took us out on to the pitches and announced: ‘We’re going to play a little game called “Follow the Leader”.’ It involved running for about four miles but he was at the front the entire time. That’s what he is about, always willing to do it himself. If your director of rugby behaves like that  it breeds enormous respect for the shirt.”

Lancaster on… Coaching

“I feel I know how to build teams. Not having had a playing background of the highest level, you have to earn credibility in a different way as a coach. You have to put on good sessions, be a good manager of people and try to inspire and motivate. I work hard in those areas. You educate players to appreciate the meaning of ‘elite’ “.

 From:  Benedict, Luke.  “From St. Bees U12 to England: The making of coach Lancaster.”  Daily Mail Online, 27 Jan. 2012.   http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/rugbyunion/article-2092852/Six-Nations-2012-Making-coach-Stuart-Lancaster.html

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My apologies to those of you who follow this blog for not making a post in several months!  I’m in the final states of completing a Masters degree and didn’t make much time for blogging in between school work and lots of cycling.  It’s a new year and I’m in a new location, with a new club, so in the spirit of ‘newness’ will be posting – hopefully many – new articles over the coming weeks as we start indoor training.

I want to kick off 2012 with something that would have been more timely posted in October – my thoughts on the Rugby World Cup.  Despite the time lapse, however, I think the following things which struck me can be lessons on how I’ll approach coaching in the new year – affirming some of my beliefs and giving me new things to think about.

1. New Zealand

I hope some of the bitter sorts who think New Zealand’s win was undeserved, and who unfairly lobbed a lot of criticism at the referee, have had a chance to cool down as I believe they were truly justified as winners.  Not only because they had the players – and back-up players! – to do the job, but because their preparation for the tournament is what – in my opinion – got them there.  I’ve just recently finished reading Clive Woodward’s book, Winning!, on how they won the 2003 Rugby World Cup.  In it, he outlines all the structures put in place in order to instil both a winning culture within the minds of ALL people involved with the team, from coaches, to staff, to players, to the wider training group who didn’t make the cut.  He also underlines the importance of infrastructure in supporting everyone’s needs.  I’ll talk more about this later when I synthesise my notes on the book, but it appeared to me that Graham Henry followed that same sort of mentality.  Clive talks about surrounding himself with the best staff and players and developing a culture of winning, and that is something that was obvious within the All Blacks over the last two years or so.  Assistants Hansen and Smith are top notch, and they all seemed to contribute, even switching roles at one stage.  That, to me, shows a team that is truly functioning within.  They also have maintained pretty much the same core of players for the last few years.  Others have been tried and those players put pressure on the incumbents to do better.  Those who earned their place – like Piri Weepu – were rewarded, though there was immense faith placed in the old guard – like Ali Williams, only recently having come back from his Achilles injuries.  Like England was between 2001-2003, New Zealand have been virtually unstoppable over the last two years, and any bumps along the way only served to teach them lessons and make them stronger.  (Anyone who remembers how they exited RWC 2007 and survived the 2011 final, with many of the same players, can see how they grew.)  The lesson here is that team culture, coaching structure, and total club buy-in is immensely important, and I believe can even elevate teams beyond those who are arguably better on paper. 

2. Half Backs

I’ll write more on this later, but the play of Piri Weepu and Kahn Fotuali’i in particular impressed me as they often played what one pundit called the 9 1/2 position – doing the work of scrum half, but also often finding themselves in the ‘stand off’ position.  What this allowed the All Blacks and Samoans was to have more width, get away from the condensed defence around the rucks, and get their most creative players in more space with more strike options around him.  I’m convinced this comes from Rugby League, which I know Weepu played at school, and assume Fotuali’i has as well.   In that sport, the hooker does most of the passing from the play-the-ball (oddly enough, he wears 9 – coincidental?) and the half back and 5/8 play in wider, often inter-changeable, positions.  More on that in a forthcoming post …

If you want examples of great traditional half back play, however, watch BOTH Japanese 9s (Fumiaki Tanaka and Atsushi Hiwasa), and their partnership with fly half James Arlidge.  To me, they were the best in the tournament – ever-present at the break down, and with speedy, accurate passes.  Some teams, like England and Australia, have great 9s who can make little darting runs, but they were rarely effective doing so as international-level defences are incredibly focused around the ruck.  When they did, it also left a ‘slow ball’ situation at the next break down because their passer was trapped at the bottom of it.  When I talk about the “9 1/2”, I’ll examine how such a team needs forwards to be decision makers and/or passers to make up for that.  The Japanese, however, were always on-hand to make the pass and did so without delay, hitting their forwards on the run, rather than relying on the static pod system a lot of other teams use.  This not only accounted for their relative lack of size, but also kept defences from getting organised, providing Japan with a lot of ‘go-forward’ ball and opportunities to make things happen.  I’ll definitely be focusing on this in the new year, and maybe a combo of both styles if the team is receptive to having the forwards pass more and, essentially, playing with two decision makers in attack.

3. Game Changers

I made a note to discuss ‘game changers’ months ago because CBC radio was doing a series on people who did just that around the time of the Rugby World Cup.  I made a note to discuss both the South Africa / Samoa game and the Ireland / Australia shocker.  Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten much of the specific details of both games, but do remember the important parts.  Simply put, both Samoa and Australia went into half time with a major hurdle to over-come.  Samoa were down 0-13, but were playing well and – as they often do – were intimidating in the loose and had weapons all over the park, in both the forwards and the backs.  Australia were definitely the better team on paper, but the Irish are a clinical and powerful side and were bullying the Aussies, who are more open field flair and less about playing the gritty tight game.  Both teams emerged from the changing rooms at half time with contrasting mentalities from each other.  I’m not sure how much of it was down to coaching decision / in-decision or by the players themselves deciding to step it up / not, but Samoa came out firing and won the second half 5-0, while Australia kept doing the same old thing and ended up scoring no points.  Both teams lost, but one would have expected that from Samoa – who could have won the game, while Australia should have beat the Irish.  The difference was, I think, in the decision to make a tactical change / affirmation / clarification at half on the part of the Samoans.  They identified their strengths versus the areas the South Africans were looking weak (from memory, I think it was the midfield – in particular, they used a simple loop to beat the Fourie’s blitz, and slipped inside him for their try).  They matched their muscle and kept the South Africans on the back foot and denied them possession.  Conversely, again from memory, the Australians kicked away a lot of their possession and continued to try and muscle up to the Irish, getting bullied in the process via their rugby league style defence.  I’m a huge fan of Aussie rugby, and kept wondering why they weren’t trying to play the game wider as a few forays into that territory yielded in positive results – but then they’d go back to kicking away the ball and trying to do slow drives in tight with outmatched forwards.  The lesson is to be analytical during the first half and not to be afraid to make a big change of strategy, tactics, or personnel at half to capitalise on anything learned.

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