It all starts with ambition: A schools rugby analysis piece – Green and Gold Rugby

It all starts with ambition: A schools rugby analysis piece

It all starts with ambition: A schools rugby analysis piece

I have a data-set of under 19 level rugby that this week counted its 700th game. This resource gives me the privilege of being able to spot an outlier statistic, or to capture when a team starts doing things differently.

Yesterday at Brisbane Boys College I witnessed something very different – and something that made my heart sing with the kind joy mostly reserved for rainbow parades.

Have a look here:

Wide play (1)

I measure this wide play because the skillset required to pull it off is fairly advanced. Team’s who play this way must develop in their players quick hand-speed, as well as the ability to hold their depth. With rush defence now the default, it has become even more difficult to shift the ball wide through 3 or 4 hands at pace.

And yet, in front of my own eyes Brisbane College was making it look easy.

Train how you play.

Prior to the game I watched the warm-up’s of both sides, and noticed Boys College run this simplest of pre-match drills:


The idea is that the ball is ‘transferred’ from left to right or vice versa before the players reach The line. When you transfer the ball, you literally just shift it from where it comes to your target as quickly as possible. You do not first catch the ball before passing it – you ‘transfer’ it!

I must admit to being very skeptical at this point. Firstly, the drill was trained without any opposition, and secondly, nobody passes that way in rugby union anymore. 2019 rugby union is pretty much an art of crashballery, with many backline players not even able to transfer a ball anymore. So what were these guys on about?

The numbers don’t lie

School’s rugby is first and foremost about participation, and then about development. Performance (and winning) comes third. So whereas the Wallabies MUST win, the Reds MUST win, the schools have a duty firstly to make kids like the game, and secondly to develop great players. So if the Reds and Wallabies are struggling, you can find the fault low down at under 9 level in clubs and schools.

Wide play (2)

So when you see Boys College handle the ball 39% more than the world average at under 19 level, you should get very excited, because a new generation is being coached to use space, and coached the skills to exploit it.

It’s of interest to note that 3 of the tries scored came as a result of a line-break smack-bang up the middle. The space opened up because College kept stretching Grammar out wide. By playing in the tramline, the space between each defender becomes wide enough for a player to slip through, and so it transpired.

It’s not all rosy.

I may start sounding like a College fanboy, so in the interest of balance may I inform readers that the under 16A game between the same schools were a total dud. Over-conditioned players kept smashing into the first defender. In comparison, the Brisbane Boys College team handled the ball only 103 times, with an attack variance percentage of 3.7%, compared to the first team who varied their attack by 20.54%.

If in the same school you have two different philosophies where one team is ambitious and the other is not, the development into players with a rounded skillset takes longer and the pool of guys who become ‘ballers’ at pro level is a bit smaller.

However this game got me excited for the future of Australian rugby, and I salute these brave coaches who have the ambition to play the game in a daring and creative way!

  • AllyOz

    Thanks Brendon for another interesting and thought provoking article.

    • Great data insights Brendon – thanks for sharing

      • Brendon Shields

        Cheers guys, I am glad you enjoyed it.

        • Justin Smith

          Hi Brendon, wondering if you caught the Downlands vs Toowoomba game and noticed any similarity in coaching…?

        • Brendon Shields

          Hi Justin, no mate I have not been able to see nearly as many games as I would have liked to. Is it the same coaching setup?

        • Justin Smith

          Don’t quote me – Gareth Morgan I believe with Andrew Walker assisting….

  • Max Graham

    Excellent! I wish I had these insights when I was coaching. Sad to think how limited my philosophy was.

    • Brendon Shields

      Great stuff Max. Why not coach anymore?

  • idiot savant

    Thanks Brendon. I think the quality of schoolboy coaching has improved in the last decade. I think Shane Drahm, former Reds and England flyhallf, is coaching BBC and Phil Mooney is coaching at another school. Brian Smith, former wallaby and assistant coach of England, is also coaching first XV in Sydney. And if the Junior Wallaby performance is any guide the next generation might offer some hope for the future.

    • Brendon Shields

      Thats great news. We need to start seeing the positives and allow that to drive the debate. Not all the negative crap up top.

  • Greg Truman

    Return to the late 70s/early 80s. Ball shoveled wide into space as quickly as possible. Ella backlines. Didn’t play as close to the gainline and defence wasn’t as sophisticated, but it worked when you had players with ball skill. ’77 schoolboys did it quite well. Changed the game for a while.

    • Brendon Shields

      True Greg. We are so spooked by the line speed of modern defences, but we forget that 12’s never bashed to set up a phase much before. The 12 tended to have quick hands to shift ball. With rushing defences today the risk is higher, but the reward is still the same.

  • Been said for a long time that we need to focus on junior Rugby (School boys [GPS and other] and Clubs – Under 16/18/19/20) and it is great to see it getting serious attention. Australian Schoolboys and Under 18’s were great last year and the Junior Wallabies were really special.


I research schools and club sport to help coaches create better training sessions and smarter game plays based on science. I believe that data hides these coaching gems that are very rewarding if you are willing to mine deep enough! Yes it's nerdy, but it works!

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