The tangible impact of skills coaching
Identifying and accurately charting the effectiveness of a particular coach is one of the most difficult parts of the analysis of any sport. Too often correlation between the identity of a certain individual and results – either positive or negative – is interpreted as causation, belying the unique nature of every professional team and the complexity of factors which contribute to performance. The corollary of this is not that causation cannot be attributed in this way, but that it is important to be careful in the way we attribute it and to place reliance on on-field evidence when doing so.
One aspect of rugby where conventional wisdom and on-field evidence align is the belief that regular, top-class skills coaching can have a substantial impact on a team’s performance, and for the 2017 season the Blues have recruited one of the best in the business.
For on-field evidence of this impact we can look to Joe Schmidt’s Leinster: a team who sought to be the ‘best passing team in Europe’ by investing time in regular, focused training of specific skills, and whose levels of execution of these skills dropped off significantly in the Matt O’Connor era. We can look to the All Blacks of Sir Graham Henry and Steve Hansen, whose technical standards were consistently driven to new heights by the teaching of Mick Byrne during his eleven years on the coaching staff. We can look to the Wallabies of 2016, who in the short period that Byrne has been part of Michael Cheika’s team have seen significant advances in specific technical areas such as offloading which were a huge part of New Zealand’s excellence at the culmination of his tenure. Most memorably, however, we can look to Connacht’s transformation into one of the Northern Hemisphere’s best ball-playing sides under the tutelage of Pat Lam and Dave Ellis, who has been working with Tana Umaga and the Blues in Auckland since the start of 2017. The western province’s players – and Lam himself – attribute a huge part of their technical improvement to Ellis and his methods, and his departure was greeted with dismay when announced in November. From the Blues’ perspective, however, the signing of Ellis represents a real coup for a franchise whose squad which is filled with physically and technically talented players, but whose performances in 2016 were marked by critical errors at key junctures of games.
One major issue for the Blues during 2016 was the way in which they conceded tries through poor defensive organisation. Elton Jantjies exploited poor back three rotation with his attacking kicking game in R12, while poor realignment around the ruck was a consistent theme. Teihorangi Walden’s try in R1 and TJ Perenara’s in R3 were two examples of their inability to manage their weak-side drift in the early part of the season, while in all three instances below a try is scored to the right of the ruck on the following phase:
In addition to these structural issues, an interior midfield of Ihaia West and Piers Francis – a possible combination until the return of Sonny Bill Williams from injury – may be physically overmatched, and would put a lot of pressure on the back row to defend the transition zone (particularly off set-piece ball). This will likely cause Umaga to favour the selection of Blake Gibson at 7 – rather than opting for a heavy-duty trio of Kaino, Ioane and Luatua – and push Luatua into the second row when the Blues are at full strength, where he featured at times in 2016.
In their opening win over the Highlanders and the two losses against the Hurricanes, there was sufficient evidence to suggest that given time and consistency of selection the Blues could develop a varied and effective attacking gameplan. Ihaia West found the outside edge successfully in R1, while in the first half of the R3 defeat to the Hurricanes at Eden Park West and Bryn Hall were able to diffuse their linespeed with a split forward pattern off 9. In this game and the return fixture in R15, they also used midfield depth to play around the Hurricanes’ blitz and work the ball to space:
This was aided in R15 by the ball-playing 10-12 combination of West and Francis, but whether or not this is deployed regularly in 2017 depends on Umaga’s comfort with them as a defensive pair and the health of Sonny Bill Williams.
In essence, this is symptomatic of the Blues’ problems. The Aucklanders are attempting to define their playing style in order to compete in a conference where each team has a clear tactical identity, and appeared to make progess towards the end of Umaga’s first season as head coach; however, their off-field squad management policy means that any further improvement in this regard in 2017 will first be tempered by the necessary integration of new players into key positions.
The fact that Tana Umaga can feasibly select a starting pack of seven All Blacks and openside flanker Blake Gibson – whose athleticism and technique in contact at 7 should see him capped in the near future – is evidence of the individual strength that defines the squad. Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Charlie Faumuina, Patrick Tuipulotu, Steven Luatua and Akira Ioane are all dynamic carriers, and Ellis will be looking to develop their offloading & catch-pass ability in order to add an additional layer to the Blues’ attack off 9.
The major signings for 2017 come in the backline: Augustine Pulu at 9, Stephen Perofeta at 10, Sonny Bill Williams at 12 and Michael Collins at 15. Half-back depth behind Hall and West was an issue in 2016, but – in addition to the signings of Pulu and Perofeta – the wealth of options at centre may mean that Piers Francis serves as a secondary option at fly-half.
Caleb Clarke is likely to feature in the New Zealand U20 squad in his first year out of school, and will remain eligible until the 2019 tournament. He dominated as a carrier at schools level with his footwork and speed, and – in a similar fashion to Ireland U20 captain Jack Kelly – will need to work on refining his transfer of the ball in the open field as he progresses to the professional game:
Comparing this break for MAGS to an example from Rieko Ioane below, we can see that the way in which the teenage All Black transfers the ball between one and two hands to provide balance and hold defenders is the characteristic that sets him apart from other outside backs who dominate at age-grade level: