Posts Tagged ‘history’

Having been interested in military history since I was a boy, I suppose my view of training in ye olden times has been skewed by films portraying the leader that barks orders, treats the men harshly and simply demands they be better after breaking them down and drilling them hard. Several years ago, I worked for a naval museum and was for the first time exposed to actual training manuals from the World Wars. Generally speaking, I was shocked by the standards, methods and beliefs professed in these manuals. Contained in them are way more ‘modern’ positive and constructive approaches to instruction than I thought I’d see!

Below I will share some wonderful passages from a guide for British military instructors from just before the start of the Second World War. I am sure there was still the barking that we see in films like “The Hill”, but the expectations for military instructors as outlined in this book could easily find themselves in progressive, athlete-centred coaching manuals today. And, even better than today’s coaching books that drudge on and on, it’s a 16-page book that can be accessed for free!

From: Creedy, HJ. Notes for Instructors on the Principles of Instruction. The War Office. 30 June, 1939.

Learner-centred instruction in 1939? I didn’t learn this concept until maybe 5 or more years into my coaching journey!

“A successful instructor should know not only his job as a soldier, but something of the ways in which the minds and bodies of recruits work and of the most effective and economical way of learning and teaching.” (4)

“[The recruit] will learn a great deal of what is required indirectly without any special instruction. Consciously and unconsciously, by imitation of those around him, he will pick up many of the traditions, customs and ideals of the service which he has entered.” (4) I know someone who played for one of the most successful schools in Ontario who felt their success wasn’t so much due to coaching as it was peer learning and emulating the senior players who were also their mentors.

“Instruction is most effective when the will to learn is present, and this comes when the recruit is interested in the work at hand. It should therefore be the object of the instructor to seek out methods whereby he can stimulate and maintain the interest of the recruits. Among the many ways of doing this are such aids as variations in the work, avoidance of over-fatigue, grading of work to suit the stage reached by the recruit, and the exhibition of an enthusiastic interest in the work in hand by the instructor himself. Enthusiasm is infectious…” (5)   … taking on multiple roles, keeping things fresh, enthusiasm, excitement, having (not-silly) fun. Again, concepts only a few coaches now seem to adhere to.


The following immediately had me thinking about current buzz around “team culture”:

“Competition is very useful in maintaining interest. Individual competition should not be overdone lest it unduly depress the slower members of the squad. Collective competition is more valuable in obtaining the co-operation and interest of individual members, and in leading to a healthy pride in their unit.” (6)


There’s been a big push the last few years to use effective questioning to stimulate thought and value athletes’ opinions, getting them to understand concepts more deeply. Meaningful feedback and looking after ‘slower learners’ as much as the quicker ones is also covered. I was surprised to see the following in any military manual from any era:

“Interest may also be stimulated by appeals to the recruit’s intelligence.” (6)

“Questions will help the instructor to see whether his explanations have been appreciated. These should be economically worded, free from ambiguity, to the point, and asked at the right time.” (6)

“Above all, the instructor should endeavour to understand the recruits’ point of view and to follow the workings of their minds.” Avoid sarcasm. Use sympathy and understanding. “Sympathy in this sense does not involve ‘softness’, but rather the ability to develop in the recruits an attitude of confidence in their instructor…” (7)

“Continual failure depresses and the learner tends to lose heart. Instructors, therefore, should commend good work, not only on the part of the quicker recruits, but also when some improvement is shown by the slower learners… … the instructor should reserve serious reproach for those efforts which are accompanied by slackness or carelessness.” (7)


Though there is an instructor-led, step-by-step model described in the manual, I felt the choice of words here strongly suggests that the learner is also (if not largely) responsible for recognising incorrect habits:

“Sometimes movements which are not particularly helpful become incorporated into the system and, if they are not detected at an early stage and corrected by the learner, they may never be completely eliminated.” (9)

Between pages 10 and 11, it puts forth a learning model that those who subscribe to the ecological, perception-action, constraints models will disagree with. But this is true of all models: “The recruit learns much more by doing than by listening… [i]nstructors should therefore rely more on practical work and the recruits’ responses than on verbal exposition.” (11)


Non-linear learning??? I don’t think I even learned this in my teacher training in 2001!

“Instructors are warned that progress in learning acts of skill is not necessarily a steady and continuous business. There are often arrests and even setbacks in development.” (11)

“It must also be remembered that individual recruits will vary in their rates of progress… [i]t is the instructor’s task to get from every man the utmost efficiency of which he is individually capable.” (12)

“[The instructor] … should also have a clear idea of the method to be used in teaching these movements, and of the difficulties likely to be encountered by the learners. He must be prepared to adapt his methods to the particular squad that his teaching according to their varying natural abilities. All this will require much thoughtful preparation before the actual drill period.” (13)


Those of us who have jumped on the Constraints-Led Approach and Perception-Action Coupling bandwagons will appreciate the following:

“The drill activity should be carried on… with as realistic a basis as possible, in order to stimulate keenness and maintain interest… the recruit then gets the ‘feel’ of the real thing and the whole movement is practiced and consolidated in the form in which it will ultimately be used.” (13-14)


This was part of another instructor-led section, but as with the ‘learner responsibility’ element mentioned earlier, this bit on efficiency in delivery also suggests that the instructor needs to be specific, let the learners get on with it, and inspire them into understanding the concepts deeply themselves:

“[T]he instructor should watch the effects of his work on all the listeners, as the success of his teaching is to be measured by their reactions. His words should set them thinking, gathering new ideas, sorting them out and anticipating what is coming. He must know his subject thoroughly, be able to select the important points and present them effectively with the minimum of words.” (15)

“Successful instruction is mainly a result of mastery over one’s job, knowledge of the effective methods of teaching, understanding of the workings of recruits’ minds and of their abilities and limitations, and, perhaps what is most important of all, enthusiasm for the work.” (15-16)

“It is the individual recruit who is the ultimate teaching unit and who must be stimulated to make the required efforts on his own behalf which will lead him to become an efficient soldier.” (16)

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Recently I discovered a book at my local university library that, according to the authors, tries not to be a coaching manual, but offers a lot of advice and discusses their opinions on various rugby coaching matters. (Sounds familiar…) I’ve seen quite a few coaching books from the past, and some of which are quite useful even today (such as Jim Greenwood’s Total Rugby and Think Rugby which were originally written in the 1980s, if I’m not mistaken). This book, Rugby Under Pressure by Brian Jones and Ian McJennett, should be placed in that category as quite a lot of the ideas seem well ahead of contemporary thinking, and even more progressive than what I see from many coaches today, I’d argue. I’m still not finished picking this book apart, but thought I’d share some great quotes from it for you to consider, and you’ll see that these ideas from 1972 are not only insightful, but cause a certain degree of head shaking from me as they address some areas we still haven’t seen progress in.

On the dynamic nature of the game:

“… a game for sophisticated thinkers, a complex fifteen a side chess.” (15)

On the risks of coach-centred style of coaching:

“The main danger of the blackboard and easel approach is that it becomes infectious, and leads to the growth of a kind of unquestioned dogma, a sort of Gospel according to St. Luke’s.” (17)

 “The Svengali who can sit on the side-line and have fifteen Trilbys operating in fluid off-the-cuff situations that can arise in eighty minutes of rugby just does not exist.” (21)

 “Coaches are variously accused of stifling players’ initiative, stomping out individuality, condoning illegalities in demanding victories at all costs, controlling players’ lives, and behaving like puppet masters pulling strings from the stand.” (21)

Early proponents of athlete-centred coaching?

“The essence of the coach’s role is that he is helping fifteen players to have the self-confidence to deal with any unexpected situation themselves within the context of the team and the match.” (21)

 “It is now generally accepted that the teacher’s function is one of an experienced adviser, drawing a pupil’s attention to a problem and assisting him to solve the problem for himself.” (27)

 “The coach is not only a teacher, he is a learner and he should be learning as much from the player as the player is learning from him.” (28)

On knowing each player’s strengths, weaknesses and temperament within a positive team culture:

“The knowledge of players is at the very heart of the player-coach relationship. Without it, there can be no true relationship anyway. It is a subtle relationship based on shared experiences, on the time spent with each other, on the joint efforts made for the benefit of the team.” (32)

 … focusing on performance over results:

“A coach who believes he can go into a changing room and convince a mediocre team that they are good enough to win the Triple Crown is on a hiding to nothing. A fanciful Lloyd George style hell-fire sermon will do more harm than good unless it is realistic. He will only ask of his team that which he knows they have to give. And he will know what they have to give, because he has spent so much time with them finding out.” (35)

On forwards and backs as two independent units, and on coaching them as such:

“The game is advancing rapidly towards a cohesive fifteen-man game and to emphasise the age-old division between forwards and backs in this way would be retrogressive if not positively harmful.” (37)

 That last one was especially prophetic – but only in the sense that it was predicting something that might be. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t say has fully appeared. There are a growing amount of coaches who are training forwards to be more than just ruck-hitters and people who pick and carry the ball for 2m. I think, however, that there are more who’d rather not see forwards carrying the ball anywhere beyond a 10m radius of the previous ruck. Some coaches would argue that such players are not capable or knowledgeable enough to act as ball carriers – let alone decision-makers! – in open space (and will still see this at international level with the constant one-out-and-crash play from most forwards). My counter argument would be, however: “Who’s fault is that?!”

 After reading these passages in the first few chapters of a book that was published back in the 70s, I felt as if the majority of the rugby world really hasn’t progressed that much in 40 years. There are signs of light, however, especially given how dominant the All Blacks are these days playing open rugby where everyone is capable of carrying / moving the ball and making smart decisions. Hell, even South Africa have been passing and running more this year than in the past as have England under Stuart Lancaster. Other teams, however – and, sadly, this includes the once-flashy French and Welsh – are playing a predictable style of play that aims for brawn over finesse. For us at the amateur level, there’s a real danger in this as we tend to copy what we see the ‘top’ nations doing on TV. I think Jones and McJennett’s other messages are important reminders that we need to know our teams – and not just their abilities / limitations – but what THEY want to get out of the season, not just do what we tell them to do. It should always be about them – having fun, learning, growing, trying new things and having even more fun because there’s a knowledgeable and supportive person helping them along the path, not directing them where he/she thinks they should go.

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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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The wonderful blokes over at Green and Gold Rugby Blog posted a tribute video to Australia’s legendary George Smith today, and I thought it time to talk about another position – the openside flanker.  Some have said that job of a fetching – someone who goes looking to steal the ball at every opportunity – number 7 is not as it once was just a couple of years ago when the likes of Smith, McCaw, Brussouw were making incredible pilfers at great risk to their bodies.  But I’ve explained in other posts that if tackles are made quickly, so that the tackler can release and grab before attacking support arrives, then steals are still possible under the new interpretations … and George Smith is still proving this despite retiring from the Wallabies and Brumbies lasat years.  Enough of my intro, let’s look at the video …

I’d like to think that any good backrower should have the skills Smith has – the ability to be tenacious on defence, going to great lengths to win the ball back (legally, but sometimes not – Richie McCaw has said that a keen defender needs to always be on that edge to play to the referee’s interpretations – and whistle – so he can steal the ball, or at least disrupt the opposition).  For me, it’s hard to separate Smith and McCaw when it comes to who’s been the greatest ‘openside’ ever, though I want to give it to Smith because he is, as you saw in the video, quite capable of the spectacular.  As such, what I think also separates the openside flanker from the other backrow players is their ability to link with the backs.  It should be noted that these guys are often the fastest and fittest of the forwards because they’re the ones who’re chasing the ball all day, ‘open side’ referring to being on the side where the fly half and the bulk of the backs are aligned.  Using that speed and quickness, and hopefully a sense for space and continuity such that backs possess, a team should be able to count on an openside flanker to be an extra weapon in attack.  That Australia and New Zealand have such wonderful attacks, and a number of flankers which play like this is definitely not a coincidence.

I don’t normally subscribe to there being an ‘ideal’ size for any position, so long as the person in question can get the job done satisfactorily.   That said, many of the great opensides have had the same body type and it bodes well for the job that was asked of them.  They are definitely under 6’2″, but mostly under 6’0″, as the bigger players – think South African backrowers – tend to be straight ahead types, whereas the typical fetching, linking openside is smaller and more agile, better suited for dynamic attacking moves.  (With regard to women, look up: Maggie Alphonsi, Heather Fisher, or Justine Lavea – all have that ‘short and stocky, but fit’ stature as well.)  The smaller stature also means it’s easier for them to work at lower levels, as in the process of jackaling the ball in the tackle, and putting muscle on that kind of frame makes them very hard to move in the ruck.  (Whereas it’s a bit easier to get leverage on a taller player with longer limbs.)

I don’t have to keep talking about Smith as the evidence of his brilliance is in the highlight video.  I still have dreams that he’ll say his retirement was all a ruse and that he’ll be in the Wallaby back row, alongside the brilliant defender David Pocock, for the upcoming World Cup, but I guess I’ll just have to watch more Toulon games until he finally calls it a day.

With regard to selecting your openside, though, it can definitely be a job for that player who’s got a bit of ‘mongrel’ in them, as the Aussies say – that someone who’s more spirited, more aggressive, and more enthusiastic than anyone else.  (It’s often a good job for that little, nuggety tough guy/girl who’s possibly got a Napoleon complex!)  But the two things I’d stress – though it’s good for any player to have – is supreme fitness to always ‘be there’ when it counts, and to have the ability to run and pass the ball with intelligence.  These players can be your extra backs in attack and defence (covering, as many do, for poor defending fly halves), or be the inspirational forward who puts his or her body on the line to win a crucial steal in the tackle contest.

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When 6’5″ and 250lb All Black winger Jonah Lomu broke on the scene back in the mid-1990s, it seemed everyone scrambled to find their own massive winger … Dean Hall for South Africa, a young Pierre Spies was a schoolboy wing until being moved to 8 (which was a reversal of Lomu’s experience), Steve Hanley for England, Big Del and Tuqiri came across from League in Australia … the list goes on …

I’ve been pleased to see that rugby is still a game for all shapes and sizes over the past few weeks as France ran and passed their way to a Six Nations Grand Slam (i.e. defeated all challengers from the UK, Ireland and Italy) with a finely balanced team.  After Aurelien Rougerie injured himself in the match against Scotland, we got to see living proof that there is still room for the little man in rugby with coach Marc Lievremont’s faith in his wingers.  Standing at just 5’9″ and an un-heard of in the modern era 5’5″ respectively, Alexis Palisson and Marc Andreu proved that so long as you can play defence and be a threat in attack, it doesn’t matter how big you are.

I hate to have to resort to using Canterbury/Crusaders as an example, but look at the ‘massive hulks’ that made up their recent assortment of backs: Ellis, Carter, Crotty, Bateman, Slade, Brett, Fotuali’i, Guildford, Payne, Poki.  All but a couple are under 6′ and none are over 200lbs – a vast difference from the bulking back lines we saw in the late 90s and early 00s.  And I don’t have to elaborate on how devastating these guys are with ball in hand and even a tiny bit of space in front of them.  Even a supposed heir to Lomu’s legacy, Ma’a Nonu, has been made to become smaller, fitter, and more agile than when he first broke on the scene. If anything, I think the trend is slowly moving toward smaller backs. (If only I could navigate the All Blacks video site for the clip of their strength and fitness coach talking about the detriment of carrying too much unnecessary weight, commenting on the need for certain players to drop 15kgs of post season weight.)

Critics, like former Irish international Tony Ward, believe that with players getting bigger rugby needs to adopt League’s lesson and remove two players from the field to open up space.  Rather than suggesting dropping players, I think the onus is on the entire rugby community to continue focusing on developing excellence in basic skills and game awareness to make this space available or create it.  There are plenty of teams which show this … again, I have to cite the French and Crusaders/Canterbury (and will go wash myself clean in a minute) … that you don’t need to have teams full of massive blokes to be successful, and that by simply ‘playing rugby’ as it was meant to be played can still allow you to win the day.

Critics could argue tiny Christoph Dominici’s lesson in wing play delivered to Lomu in the epic 1999 World Cup upset as a one-off, but I knew the era was coming to close when the Canuck cheat sheet answer to Lomu, the 6’6″ Justin Mensah-Coker, was taken to school in a Churchill Cup match by comparatively smaller James Simpson-Daniel and Richard Haughton.  If you want more proof, look at the day the day James Simpson-Daniel also proved that big wingers just don’t have the lateral movement to match a speedy little guy?

As have continued to say over recent years:  If you’re good enough, you’re ‘big’ enough.

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A Gentleman’s Game

The old (tired) adage about rugby states that it’s a “barbarian’s game played by gentlemen.”  Since learning the history about the game’s Public (i.e. independent) school roots, and how most if not all schools adopted it to instil desirable virtues into the minds of young men, I really think it’s a ‘gentleman’s game played by gentlemen.’  Incidents such as this are always great to see as they existed in the past, still do at the lower level in the minds of traditional rugby referees, and hopefully they will never cease.

BBC Sport – Scarlets lock penalised for ‘shouting’

(If you can’t see the video, an Ulster wing was steadying himself to make a clearing kick to touch when a lock began charging him, shouting at the top of his lungs to throw him off.  The assistant referee cited him for ungentlemanly conduct, and instead of a Scarlets lineout down field, Ulster got the penalty.  Let that be a lesson to you kids, be imposing and aggressive but don’t “shout nasty things.”)

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No, I don’t either!  But this post is dedicated to my first coach, Jim, who was the catalyst for my rugby obsession and who probably does remember some of these things.  For the rest of you, I think they’re interesting to note in light of how much the game has changed over the decades…

Taken from:  “Cornerposting, and other ancient aspects of the game,” a discussion topic on the Planet Rugby Forum.

  • The defensive number 8 pulled his head out of the scrum, and ran directly towards the open side cornerpost.
  • The tight forwards on the attacking side ran directly towards the goal-posts, in position for a centre kick.
  • A good forward pack stuck together, you could “throw a blanket over them”.
  • A forward would never, ever, get caught up in an attacking backline movement, or risk being labelled a “seagull”.
  • We stayed on the field at half-time, and sucked oranges.
  • Tries were 3 points and then 4 points, before increasing to 5 points
  • Tries were originally nil points. They merely gave the scoring team a place kick at goal. That’s why it is called a try.
  • Leather balls which doubled in weight when it rained.  Only the French had the ‘cool’ adidas balls, and only the French used spin passes.

  • No one, especially not a back, wore a scrum cap. (Disputed as other posters found evidence of people wearing leather headgear which which really only covered the ears, dating back to the 1920s.)
  • Jockstraps (athletic supports) also. Shoulder pads, if you could get away with it.
  • Hipswing passes.
  • Kicking directly to touch….from anywhere.
  • Scores like 0-0 and 3-3 in Internationals.
  • The Times rugby scores still described a converted try as a “goal”, worth five points. An unconverted try was shown as a “try”, worth three points.
  • The blind-side winger threw the ball into the lineout, usually lobbing it in like a hand grenade
  • There used to be no gaps in the lineouts and and no lifters.  Jumpers used to jump across the lineout, using elbows and fists where appropriate, and the ball was generally slapped back.  The opensides always stood at the back of the lineout with their hands on their hips.

  • Boots that covered your ankles and had toe-caps.  You laced your boots three times round the outside to keep them on.
  • You could take a mark from a kick anywhere on the field, and have the free kick, but had to call “Mark!” at the same time as making an actual mark in the ground with your heel.
  • 2-3-2 scrums with ‘wing forwards’ that hung off the side, a precursor to the flanker of today, which were called a ‘wing forward’ until not too long ago.
  • The lock was the man in the middle of the back row (3-2-3 scrum), now referred to as No. 8 in a 3-4-1 scrum.
  • Front rows binding, crouching and engaging all in one fluid movement (yet, still managing to stay up), often before the backrow has bound on.
  • Every player between the scrum half and full back were ‘wing three quarters,’ until (I think) the Kiwis created a set person to take the ball from the SH, creating the 5/8 position still used in New Zealand and Australia (what fraction comes between 1/2 and 3/4? … 5/8ths!).  The Kiwis use 1st and 2nd 5/8s for Fly Half and Inside Centre, because their ‘2nd5’ tended to be more of a distributor / kicker rather than an attacking wing three quarter (Typified in the modern era by the likes of Aaron Mauger, Luke McAlister, and during Dan Carter’s early career.)
  • Substitutes were ONLY used in the event of injury.
  • Until 1954 you had to play the ball with a foot after a tackle.  Even when the ball was visible just inside a “loose scrum” or ruck the scrumhalf had to “hook” it out with his foot before he was allowed to pick it up.
  • Loose scrummages and set scrummages. No “rucks”. And a maul was a specialised struggle for the ball in in-goal.
  • Rucking, as in using the boot to create quick ball. Or to boot the s*&% out of the opposition if they were slowing it down.

  • International players would meet up on Saturday morning the day of the match.
  • Australian teams were numbered the opposite to today, the front row were 15, 14, 13, through to the fullback who was 1.  (Rugby League is still like this.)  Several UK clubs wore letters on the backs of their jerseys until the late 90s.  Shirts didn’t have sponsors on them because rugby didn’t turn pro until 26 August, 1995.
  • Touring teams provided one of their players to officiate as a touch judge – even in internationals.  And they wore their blazers whilst patrolling the touch line.  Tours could often last half a year, involve travelling across the world by boat, and feature dozens of matches between not just international and provincial sides, but also clubs. (One famous one being Swansea RFC over the All Blacks 11-3 on Saturday 28 September, 1935.)
  • Hakas were nothing like what they are today, and looked more like pat-a-cake!

  • Trainer’s role largely being restricted to applying the ‘magic sponge’ to an injury.
  • Crowds invading the pitch after big wins.  (You’d get arrested now … thank you very much football hooligans!)
  • Diving scrum half passes.

  • A simple scissors move bamboozling defences.
  • Making your own tee from the turf – four nice big heels, or later a bucket of sand for the kicker.  (Andre Pretorius only recently stopped doing this, I’m told.)  Place kicks was taken from a straight run-up and kicked with the toes.

  • Tackles executed by grabbing a player by the collar and whiplashing him to the ground was common practice.

There are some more cool history tidbits here:  Rugby Pioneers Blog and the Wiki History of Rugby Union.  If you want a nice quick read as well, look out for 60 Years of International Rugby by Peter Bills or  J.J. Stewart’s rare Rugby – Developments in the Field of Play (or borrow it from me!).

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Sydney Morning Herald columnist Greg Growden seems to find ways of stirring rugby controversy every now and then and his latest article is true to form.  The media Down Under have reported in recent times that fans attending matches are down (while ignoring how many are watching at home and via the web in other countries – not that I’d ever do that! 😉 ), which contributed to the debacle that was the ELV trials, and his recent suggestion to make the game more attractive to the masses is to stop the clock every time the ball goes out of play.  I think the rationale is that ‘fans’ want to get their money’s worth and see an actual 80 minutes of match play.

Here’s the article.  Let’s Face It It’s Time to Stop Wasting Time – Gred Growden, SMH

I can’t bear reading it again, as it’s just one more daft idea in the quest to change a game that really doesn’t need changing.  Many in the New World do not know that rugby didn’t even go pro until the early 90s, and since then it has undergone quite a few growing pains in terms of being able to be competitive but not exceed its resources.  In a professional system, players are paid (duh), and money can entice good players to join, which can breed success, which builds a fan base, who provide more money and feed the cycle … yadda, yadda … so at least some sections of people in the ‘new’ professional rugby are concerned with making the game more ‘attractive’ to get more bums in seats, as the phrase goes.

Though I only was introduced to rugby in 1997 (and haven’t looked back at my gridiron / basketball upbringing since), I consider myself a ‘traditionalist’ who after reading the history of a game which, in its organised form, actually PRE-DATES organised soccer (despite what legends would have you believe), loves not only its spirit but also the game it evolved into by the latter part of the 20th century.  Maybe it wasn’t ‘perfect’ but every sport has such issues which are accepted as ‘part of the game.’  Time and time again over recent years people have suggested ways to make it ‘better’ – likely to get those cash-wielding aforementioned bums in seats – and they continually risk alienating those of us who think nothing’s wrong.

In fact, I would really rather NOT see more bums in seats if it means changing the sport I love to something that it’s not.  I fear this suggestion, which will thankfully be ignored, would be another step towards making rugby as boring as the other ‘football’ codes.  Growden cites AFL as an example of how the fans get to see a full period of action because the clock is stopped when the ball is out of play.  This is the same for the NFL.  One of the many things I love about watching rugby is that I can watch a professional match in an hour and a half, and then get on with my day.  For AFL and the NFL/CFL, you have to book off a solid three hours, not only dealing with stoppages in play, but commercial breaks during this period.  (I won’t rant about the audacity of the ‘TV Time Out’!)  I would be willing to bet heaps of money on this creeping into rugby – which is now relatively free of commercials – if stoppages in time were taken.  I certainly don’t want that.  That I can watch two matches in the span taken by one football game, or the pointless pre-match and match play of one soccer game, is one of the many things I love about watching rugby on Saturdays.  Double the pleasure, and not just because our sport is much more enjoyable (quadruple the pleasure?).

I’ve said it before, and I hope I won’t have to say it again now that the ELV period is over, but rugby doesn’t need any more fine tuning.  It’s pretty damn good as it is.  Recently, I was reading that despite the three hours it takes to watch an NFL match, there’s really only about 12 minutes of actual game play!  I video taped our (amateur) matches last season, stopping the recorder for moments when the ball wasn’t in play, and have edited some professional matches as such so our players could analyse them.  This reminded me that rugby, as is, contains between 35-42 minutes of action.  Compared to the NFL’s 11-12 minutes, that’s pretty damn good value for money – if that’s how the big wigs want to look at it – in my books.

How’s about everyone stop making silly suggestions to alter the best sport there is for all types of people and just let us sit back and enjoy it for what it is!

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Bill McLaren: Legendary Commentator, 1923-2010

If you were fortunate enough to listen to a BBC rugby broadcast any time from the late 1950s to the early 2000s, you’ve likely heard the voice of Bill McLaren.  His unmistakable Borders accent has been rightly honoured as ‘The Voice of Rugby’ and if you grew up listening to him – as I did during my rather ‘late’ introduction to rugby in my teenage years, during the late 1990s – you could consider yourself lucky to have heard a living legend.  The only misfortune I feel is that I never got to hear him over more live matches than I already have, and especially during those wonderful days when Wales were exciting enough to challenge Bill’s simile-laden and metaphorical descriptions.

No announcer I know took as much effort to know the game.  He was almost capped by Scotland after the war, missing out due to a bout with TB, but showed the kind of determination one needs to become an international player in providing insightful commentary.  The first time I really took notice of his persona was upon hearing that he took the effort to get to know players and coaches, talking to them before games so that he could provide us unenlightened viewers with as much ‘inside’ knowledge as possible.  That sort of dedication to the game not only enhanced his incredibly well-suited voice, but also made us feel like we, too, were part of the global rugby fraternity – and,  now that I think of it, we really were.  I haven’t had the pleasure myself, but older friends have said that rugby players of the amateur era were generally approachable and would even sit down for a beer or two, and Bill embodied this tight-knit rugby community over his many years of service.  Honoured several times already, many are calling for him to be knighted – an honour he should have received while living.

If you’ve not heard of him until now, don’t fret.  Here are two wonderful tributes to one of the sweetest voices to have ever called a game in any sport.   Bill, you’ll be missed severely by several generations of rugby fans!  Rest in peace.

Obituary of a Legend

The Voice of Rugby

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A variety of folk ‘ball’ games have existed for centuries, despite the myth of William Webb Ellis picking up a ‘soccer’ ball and running with it.  The Football Association was born in 1863 with a group of London clubs which merged to adopt a universal set of rules.  Prior to that point, virtually every school had its own set of rules which were continued by local clubs of ‘old boys.’  These clubs favoured a game which did not employ the full-body tackle, but maintained a kicking tactic once called ‘hacking’ which gradually died out of both sports over the years.  Following the FA’s lead the Rugby Football Association organised English clubs which played something more akin to ‘The Rugby Game’ – a game with many differences than what we know as Rugby Union – but still one where the ball was carried, rather than kicked along.  From that period, the two codes continued to diverge and have become two completely different games.  (For more information on Union’s evolution, consult J.J. Stewart’s excellent and informative book: Rugby – Developments in the Field of Play – ask me to borrow it if we’re close!)

A recent article in the Guardian highlighted a few key elements in what football fans thought was changing their game – and not for the better in their opinion.

Article: Is Television Holding Back Football’s Evolution?

It allowed a rugby-loving colleague and I to realise that rugby is completely opposite to football even in this perceived change.  What follows are excerpts from the article, the opinion from the colleague, my thoughts, another excerpt from the article and my final thoughts.  This is probably one of the least absolute lessons I’ve posted on this blog, but wanted to throw it out there for discussion.

“It’s the same with football. The game has become more intense than it needs to be. In South America we have the concept of the ‘pause’ in football, the moment of reflection which foreshadows an attack. It’s built into the game, like music, which also needs pauses, drops in intensity. The problem is that this doesn’t work in the language of television. A moment of low intensity in a televised football game is seen by some as time to change channels. So the game is getting quicker and quicker because television demands it.”
Some of this can be seen in rugby, where we have teams that are quick-thinking taking the ball out of the ruck for example, but what good rugby teams are able to do is be quick but still have a good strategy on how to go forward and it’s too fast for the defense to react and the defense accordingly makes mistakes. One thing about “a pause” as a strategic device is that while it may help the offense figure out where to go, it also helps the defense get back in shape and fill any holes that may have shown up in the interim.

That’s a really good comparison I hadn’t considered. I’ve long been a proponent of quick rucks and want to tear my hair out watching ‘slow ball.’ There’s even been recent stats showing that tries tend to come rarely after three phases – reminding me of how endless pick-and-goes tend to lead to turnovers rather than scoring chances (ABs v France, Can v Fiji at the 2007 RWC).

The pause in football (soccer) allows time to think – but in rugby this is great for defenders, allowing them time to get organised.  This does not help attackers who have to contend with it defenders who’ve had time to reform their structure and scan for / communicate threats.  Eliminating that ‘pause’ as much as possible, therefore, provides the attacking team with the advantage.

It should be easier in rugby to play quickly and off the cuff, as the depth of support isn’t usually far behind.  Having sound technical ability and a keen sense of how space can be used, preserved and created will aid this seemingly risky strategy.

I like this bit as well:

The danger of the clip
Ask pretty much anybody to describe England’s third goal against Holland in Euro 96, and they will speak of Teddy Sheringham dummying to shoot, then opening his body and laying the ball off for Alan Shearer to smash a controlled slice past Edwin van der Sar and into the top corner. Which is fine, in as much as Sheringham’s lay-off demonstrated a fine awareness of his surroundings, great unselfishness and a deft touch, but the move began far earlier, and was glorious in its entirety.
Tony Adams won possession, anticipating and intercepting after Ronald de Boer had miscontrolled a Michael Reiziger clearance. He strode forward, before letting Paul Gascoigne take over 10 yards inside the Dutch half. He switched the ball left for Darren Anderton, and then received the return just in from the left touchline. As Clarence Seedorf closed him down, he rolled the ball back with the sole of his boot, creating room for a jabbed ball inside to Steve McManaman, who played an exquisite chipped return, arcing the ball over Reiziger and into Gascoigne’s path as he made a forward charge. Gascoigne showed great strength to hold off Aron Winter, barrelling into the box and drawing Danny Blind before stabbing the ball back with the outside of his right foot to Sheringham, who sensed Johan De Kock closing in and pushed the ball right to Shearer.
The point is that every bit of the move was brilliant, and McManaman’s chip to Gascoigne was a technically harder thing to do and displayed greater vision and imagination even than Sheringham’s lay-off. But it is forgotten because of television’s habit of focusing on the money shot. That is natural and understandable – the point of a highlight, after all, is to take only a few seconds – but the build-up, whether it includes a Valdanista pause or not, is vital, otherwise you end up in Charles Reep territory, focusing only on end results and not the processes by which they are achieved.

With the absence of any proper rugby channel here, I watch a lot of clips, and love to use them in my coaching practice as kids/youth are very visual.  But in these clips, found on YouTube and Rugby Dump, nicked from official highlights packages from the networks, I rarely find something of value that I can use to teach the game beyond one good step or pass where there’s more to rugby than that – MUCH more.  I am forever trying to focus on process over outcome – if we perfect the techniques and tactics then the outcomes will come.  Without realising the importance of the build-up, we bang our heads against the door only hoping someone will open it for us rather than considering all possible ‘entrances’ (to continue the metaphor) to the goal line that we might find for ourselves.

Those players I know who talk about watching Shane Williams or Jonah Lomu clips talk more about the finishing move than the build up.  This reminds me of the ‘tries of year’ nominated by the IRB.  They nominated a mixture of both individual and team tries, but I seemed to be rare among general rugby (i.e. non-coaching) friends in preferring the team tries over the individual ones.  The best ‘clips’ to be found on the net are ones taken from the extended highlights (which, in the case of the HEC Special is nothing like it used to be) or taken straight from full matches with several angles while the tee is being brought to the kicker and while the teams form up for the re-start.  I’ve started uploading some as I get them, but the bulk of those available on the net lack a sense of build-up which allows the novice player to gain a better sense of ‘what else’ is needed to set up a try.

I wonder if this is affecting youth rugby as well?  It saddens me to hear that many kids in countries where they can get rugby on tv, they don’t bother to watch it, let alone go down to the local club and and learn something by watching the older guys play, as it was in the pre-internet and tv days.  I keep trying to put this across to my kids, and provide them with all the web links I can to matches and useful clips.  How can you expect to achieve new things in the game if you have no sense of how they can be effective?

Maybe it’s no wonder rugby has gotten stodgy over the last decade in some respects?

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