Changing The Curriculum

Some instances in the last few weeks have got me thinking. Then something that came to my attention last night got me to get it down in script.

After seeing the performance of David Pocock against South Africa I got to wondering about what brought an individual to be the type of player capable of pulling off incredible individual feats. Then I heard Rob Moffat say that he would like Scotland to play an 18 or 19 year old back sooner, rather than later. I’ve been pondering over the question of skills.

At my second Under-19 World Cup I played against David Pocock (we recorded an historical loss in Dubai…). He was as dominant, quick and technically brilliant then as he is today. At the age of 18 he had a set of tools any international 7 would be proud to have. Yet because of this I am caught considering two things: how do Scotland specifically address the issue of skills and; are we bothered enough to change the status quo?

Now something else has happened, which makes me panic. We need to change things. Fast.

A group of renowned ex-props have put forward a paper hoping to amend some of the “unjust, illogical and inoperable” scrummaging laws. Some of them certainly do need changing, and they succinctly highlight this. However, some of the paper has drawn to my attention problems with individual skills.

“If one prop were 6ft 4in and the opposing prop were 5ft 10in then, if everything were equal, it would be likely that the hips of the taller player would be above the level of his shoulders. Surely therefore this law constitutes bias against taller men,” a section about the height of hips states.

Taller men. 6ft 4in. Our game is now played by monsters. If these guys have it their way (which, if there is further tweaking, they probably should) then the pack going forward will normally get the advantage. That is logical. Brutish sets of 8 will be at more of a premium. Sure some smaller men may survive, but their technique will have to be impeccable, and their bodies strong.

The future of our game is one where collisions and pressure situations ensure that the biggest with the most skill will be the best. The supremely gifted will still find a way, but it is the technique that counts. As it should be.

At the moment we are not producing any Pococks or international tyros. We struggle to name 6 prop forwards technically proficient enough to handle an international scrum and some of our most talented junior 10s aren’t good enough to kick as well as run, or vice versa.

According to an SRU spokesperson we have 77 Development Officers in Scotland. Spread throughout the country these DOs are tasked with offering expert coaching advice to youngsters whilst they are working with youth teams, clubs and schools already. On top of this there are 8 regional Development Managers (according to the SRU website) that cover all aspects of development in the regions of Glasgow North, Highland and Islands, Central,  a combination of Renfrewshire, Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Tayside (Fife), Grampian and Edinburgh (mid and west Lothian). There are also four regional Academy Managers, overseen by a senior manager, and Stevie Gemmell. Finally we have Iain Monaghan as Elite Development coach with Glasgow Warriors, Bryan Easson as Elite Development coach with Edinburgh Rugby and Graham Shiel covering the Sevens and whatever else he can fit in with Elite academy players.

These are the men in charge of unearthing our most talented individuals and optimising and honing their skills. These are the men in charge of sifting through the SRUs given number of “43,400 registered players” in 2011, and picking out those good enough and young enough to develop into Scotland players.

Now for me it is ridiculous to hold the DOs, those out of the 77 that aren’t Managers, responsible for not unearthing or creating enough talent. It isn’t their fault. With their Level 3 UKCC qualification they can “coach techniques & tactical concepts of rugby union”, “demonstrate an understanding of the units & sub-units and their contribution to team play and the principles of rugby union” and “demonstrate an understanding of the principles of attack and defence”. I am assured they only have a certain remit, and therefore they cover a wide range of youngsters. They are not qualified to specialise. They cover ‘Rugby’. They will not create a Pocock.

As for the Managers, well, they have a huge responsibility.

I am again assured by the SRU that the DOs are not required to have any Strength and Conditioning qualifications. There is no way of keeping up with which ones have. For me such qualifications are a complete Must Have. Particularly with the Management caste and those running academies and overseeing those at the critical ages of 15-16.

Now I am not saying that I want these kids doing heavy weights and piling on muscle. I agree with Steve Bates that we focus too much on weightlifting, because we can still catch up later (I remember when Fraser McKenzie first turned up at Edinburgh Rugby, at 17, having never lifted weights before in his life. Now he is crashing into contact in the Aviva Premiership). What I want instead is a technical, lighter understanding of weightlifting and the techniques involved (as youngsters are still growing and changing physiologically) as part of skill specific training.

Specialisation from a younger age is key. With increasing regularity we should have props and hookers working on specific scrum technique with an expert coach so that they are able to scrummage properly, even though they are using U19 rules. They need new techniques and gym work, but at 16 they don’t need brutally heavy squats. We should have second-rows using training techniques that high-jumpers and long-jumpers use, as well as one-handed and two-handed skills when a ball is in the air and they are unstable. We should have 10s working on evading contact and kicking under pressure, perhaps whilst pulling a sled, but also whilst doing dynamic exercise. Some stuff involving heavy pressure, but with additional skills like kicking needed.  We need agility work for all of our flyers. We need flexible back-rowers that can wrest a ball free, having trained their body to do so, but without inflating them in to walking chests.

Of course before the age of 15 or 16 we also need persistent emphasis on handling skills, and also on kicking skills. If a child is comfortable hand-catching, passing and, if a back, kicking then it will be much easier to work on position specifics by the 15-16 year mark where rugby gets more competitive.

Truthfully the academy systems need a helping hand. We are not producing junior coaches able to coach a position specifically, because we look at ‘Rugby’ as a whole. The rest of the world is focussing on the coming changes, and analysing each position to death. Sure cover rugby, but schools and youth clubs have a responsibility to lay the skill foundation before it is time for specificity. Perhaps we do not have enough DOs, but we certainly need to raise standards across the boards.

For the big schools and top under age clubs there should definitely be a minimum UKCC level ‘suggested’ by the Union. Specific skills should be worked on more than once a week. Players should have a ball in their hands the rest of the time and the supporting managers sent from HQ should be well equipped to keep their training varied, interesting and skill driven. Specifically skill driven for each group of players in certain positions. Not all positions are the same, but training one player at a time isn’t going to get things done. At the moment the most qualified coaches, according to the SRU, work with an Elite group of few, all in different positions.

By the time it comes to playing our skills should be better than they have been. We need heavy investment in youth rugby. At the moment our Elite systems don’t have that Pocock or 18 year old full-back ready for a shot at the 6N. Change costs money, and access to facilities may be an issue, but at this stage we need to speculate for the future of our game.

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Dundonian Alan has played rugby all over the world for various teams including Dundee High School, Heriot's and the Scottish Club International. Now writing from London he covers all issues international and unreported.

10 comments on “Changing The Curriculum

  1. Big Al on

    Part of the problem we have is the role of schools in supporting rugby as part of the sports they offer. Outside of the key rugby areas (Borders etc) I would be interested to see how well school rugby is supported in the public system. Scottish rugby needs to change the image (be it right or wrong) of the game being played by the middle classes and toffs and an exclusive sport. To make the game more enclusive the game needs to be pushed more strongly at the grass routes.

    These arguments are age old though – for as long as I can remember I’ve grumbled about the need to increase access to rugby in this country.

    On a side note I see Armenia (I think) have now included Chess into their School Curriculum as a mandatory subject for all school children…..think we could do the same for rugby?!?! :o)

  2. Kev on

    Get the DO’s to work with locally qualified S&C graduates who are specialists in S&C who can perform player profiles. Rugby coaches should coach rugby! S&C is far too grey an area for individuals with BAWLA or UKCC certs. Agree with getting the props & hookers specialist coaching though. It’s not all about the amount of tin you can shift (or is it now???)……how many young academy front rows are not playing each week because of S&C timetables? Or overprotectio from physios?

  3. A.D. on

    I am not saying do more gym work than now- i’m not even saying do the same amount of gym work now. We focus too much on it, as I’ve said. However the way we use it should be changed. S&C means strength & conditioning. We all get hung up on this meaning weight training and focus on body mass building. That is due to the way the profession has been abused by rugby over the years. In the last 10 years Scotland has been asking, “can we have an instant conveyer belt of 18year old MEN, big enough and strong enough, please? Just like England…”

    The problem is that England have been doing this too, which is baffling because they have so many people playing rugby they can afford to be responsible. New Zealand and Australia seem to be producing players with the adequate skill-sets because they have worked on skills and been conditioned with these skills in mind. (Even saying this, Aus are struggling to produce the front rows, and have second rows that are back rowers. Is the position of second row falling out out of existence?!) (South Africa are more like England but are scraping by because they are blessed with natural athletes and their club rugby creates hard, hard men).

    what I am trying to say is that the Union already uses local S&C coaches as part of their Academy and Elite programmes. Have done since I was a ‘supported athlete’. Since then the only players from the same programme that had the skills to challenge the best of the best were arguablly Barclay and Beattie (regardless of how far back they have both fallen in the last 2 seasons- most likely because they opted to stay in Scotland). The status quo is unequivocally failing.

    By training our TOP DOs further (and having the top school and club coaches reach the same level of expertise) we can have rugby-oriented conditioning, rather than the other way around. We aren’t building brutes, but taking a player, for example, built to play 7 and then getting them to work on ball stealling, link play and tackling. Mixed in with that training (with ball work at a premium) will be flexibility work for hamstrings and backs, and LIGHT weights that encourage dynamism (like Cleans and explosive light/er squats) and chest work like cable/pec flys (I’m no expert but something that trains the 7 for pincering a rugby ball in an opponents arms). Most of this can be done outside the gym- except the cleans and squat- but it should be PART OF rugby training, and rugby training should be PART OF S&C away from the paddock (i.e. bring a tackle bag into a gym, or just outside, put a medicine ball on the other side and simulate sprinting in to come over the top and steal the ‘ball’. that is training for a skill rather than doing bench press and cutting our body fat down to 12%).

    In my perfect world instead of the SRU imposing 3 weight sessions a week on a promising club player, on top of their studies, and rugby training- have rugby encorporate SPECIFIC S&C attributes and have one designated weights sessions, maybe two MAX, in the gym. We can’t forget it completely but F. McKenzie, A. Jacobsen and Jim Thompson, to name a few, came to serious weight lifting late, and they still play at a good level of rugby… Also, I wouldn’t want this as part of UKCC- this has to be a SRU thing. We don’t want the other UKCC Unions thinking outside of the box!

    I’m glad you agree RE: props and hookers. Technique is vital, and skill is the whole point of this article. I totally agree they should be playing more rugby, but again u19 laws prevent serious scrummaging so it comes down to (in my opinion) the woefully lacking ability to coach scrummaging in this country. How many DOs, junior coaches and Academy guys can genuinely coach scrummaging technique, for varying technical problems in Scotland? Scrap that, in the whole of the British Isles. Guys like Feek in Ireland and Cuttitta here are making a killing working with multiple teams, because we need specialists at the top level. We also need them down the levels.We need them more, in fact. I know a guy who is a DO in the midlands and he trained as a scrum-half when he was younger. Because of his level 3 UKCC he can coach scrummaging. Does he really know about the nuances of scrummaging? Does the regional academy coach for Caley, Mark McKenzie, formerly a Sco A Stand-Off know all about it? Bryan Easson of Edinburgh and Iain Monaghan of Glasgow Warriors (Elite/academy guys) both played half backs. If your a prop in the midlands hoping to make it, the only top coach on your way to the pro’s that could possibly look at specialised scrummaging is ‘Central Regional Development Manager’ former prop John Manson. That is a lot of scrummaging to go over in a pretty big region, on top of his job of working on ‘rugby’ with all of the charges in his catchment are.

    We cannot specialise without more work on the coaching system, and what they cover. As I said it is a gargantuan job, but one we need to do or Scotland will fall further behind.

  4. Kev on

    Heres one about former players getting together and putting something back to the U16 and U18 “club” set up?Guys like Brian Ireland teaching horrible wee opensides how to perform to their potential? Brickie by day (so S&C in a working environment) and rugby player after work. You’re right regarding the S&C but we do get too bogged down at gym time. As for front row players, who is teaching the “Dark Arts” nowadays? And could referees cope with a return to the Auld Days when the front rows got on with it and there were less collapsed scrums?

  5. Kev on

    Sent too early..sorry! If we take Mike Cron’s scrum techniques and instill them throughout Scotland from an early age COULD this be a starting point?

  6. Iain on

    One of the biggest problems we face in developing the youth is coaches, schools, clubs and sru not working of the same hym page. The communication between all these people involves is shocking at a local level.
    When you really look into this on a local level you find out that most club coaches and schools don’t even have a page to work of to begin with and you would get many different opinions and goals of different coaches at the same club.
    Coaches need to start getting together more and talking more. DOs need to understand the politics of their regions, clubs, schools and towns better. Communication is becoming a lost art of coaching and I believe this is a big part of the problem.
    As for clubs how many do you know have and implement a long term athletic development plan for rugby? Sru have their own guidelines on this but how many clubs know what skills and strategies they are targeting to develop at each age group?
    As for the weight training argument you cannot expect to specialise early in this for rugby and expect a 15 year old to train in such a specific manner without building the foundations of technique, mobility and strength which the sru programmes are doing a good job of at the moment and the players on the programme are feeling the benefits of. It is clear through years of research that in order to build more powerful athletes who are able to do the type of things you mention need to build fundamental strength.

  7. A.D. on


    The things I’m talking about is fundamental strength- “What I want instead is a technical, lighter understanding of weightlifting and the techniques involved ” is phase one of that. I specifucally say that at 15-16 we don’t look at heavy lifting. You can be dynamic without lifting 200kg.
    I do agree that there needs to be a plan shared by the country- what we need and how to get it. This can’t be purely didactic from the Union, though…

  8. A.D. on


    You’d be surprised how easy it is to get hold of Mike Cron’s stuff. As a starting point it would be great, for those under the age of 15 especially, but after that we need people with an understanding; not just a set amount of bits they picked up from a DVD or manual. What irritates me is that we have to responsibly teach tackling so that young kids don’t get injured as much, but scrummaging technique isn’t really taught ’til the kids are much older. If we assume all are going to go on to play past their teens then we have a duty of care to teach them proper safe srummaging technique like we would a tackle or a ruck clear.

  9. Kev on

    Aye but what I’m saying is there are Scrum clinics set up for ALL players/clubs/schools.
    If we go down the Cron route lets get everyone doing it. Likewise the basic weights techniques which may not include olympic lifts

  10. Dodge on

    Great articles Alan, please do keep up the good work.

    Regarding the future of the game and our legitimate fear of ‘being left behind’, two more skills/techniques that should be taught from a young age are offensively off loading the ball from a tackle and defensively stripping the ball during the tackle – regardless of what position you play. I think we will see these techiques becoming more widely used following the World Cup.

    Also, on a previous point you raised and I suppose further to this article, check out this blog on the BBC website
    and in particular ‘Rippa Rugby’. Could the SRU look to implement something similar?

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