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.