McKenzie's conundrum: Game plan versus Cattle

McKenzie’s conundrum: Game plan versus Cattle

McKenzie’s conundrum: Game plan versus Cattle

Listening to Alan Jones speak in the doco “Rise & Rise of Aust Rugby – The Grand Slam” a few years back, he made a very interesting point about core coaching philosophy.

His idea was to make the fundamental choice to either pick cattle or pick a game plan. He chose to select a game plan first and foremost – or a core game plan with a small number of closely related variations based on clear ideas on the sort of game you want to play married to close analysis of opponents to identify avenues of opportunity – that achieve what you want it to.

Then you select players who will deliver that game plan. Apparently this is what drove him to reinvigorate Steve Cutler (previously marked “do not pick”) and chase after Topo as he wanted an attacking lineout and an attacking scrum.

Alternatively, it can be validly argued Bob Dwyer seems to bat for the other side in that he picked simply the best players available as he saw them (often over positional specialists – note including Cody over Miller at the RWC and of course the Ella situation) and built a game around their strengths. This is aligned to his often quoted ideas on “a good big fella will beat a good little fella” and his core concept of simply making sure you have 5 world class players in the team somewhere. He picked cattle first.

Jonesism vs Dwyerism

So we have two competing philosophies – game plan vs cattle plan. Or “Jonesism” vs “Dwyerism”.

At this point it is probably sensible to acknowledge that neither approach is pure. I am not arguing absolutes and there are clearly instances where each philosophy (and indeed each coach) borrowed elements from the other approach. However I do not think anyone can rationally argue against that each guy generally came from opposite ends of the cattle vs game-plan spectrum as the starting point of their philosophy.

Following the point through, Dingo was clearly a guy who selected players first and foremost and then fitted them into a team. it could even be validly argued he did this with no overly clear game plan (“play what’s in front of you”). His philosophy was demonstrably more Dwyerism than Jonesism.

link and woody

It is interesting that Link has appeared to have tried to do both. Especially at the Reds he clearly had different game plans for different opponents (Jonesism) and he would tinker with his side accordingly. But that tinkering was to change game-plan based on the same cattle (Dwyerism). Lately he has been more into picking the best generalist (and fit) cattle available and fitting them into a team with one core game-plan with minor deviations (Dwyerism).

I am not sure which approach is better. My gut tells me Jonesism is better. In the business world you design a business model with functions or jobs within that then find someone to do that job – not the other way around. Alternatively in the supply arena you apply the Porters ideals to identify a niche or demand or place of opportunity (game plan) then source a product/offer to fit that demand – not the other way around.

The score board

Is either approach demonstrated as better? The best test of this is success. So a brief look at the other World Cup winning coaches is insightful:

1. Brian Lochore – Dwyerism

2. Bob Dwyer – Dwyerism (duh…)

3. Kitch Christie – Jonesism

4. Rod McQueen – a little contentious but I would say Jonesism (so 75% Jones)

5. Clive Woodward – Jonesism

6. Jake White – Jonesism

7. Graham Henry – a little contentious but I would say Jonesism (so 75% Jones)

Note – ok, Jones didn’t win a World Cup. But he did win a Grand Slam – the World Cup of the time – and he did it as the first Wobbly coach to do so. Surely a notable achievement.

Another interesting coach or success point to consider is Cheks and the Super title. Clearly Super is not a RWC, but it is relevant to the Australian perspective of “a successful coach”. And Cheks clearly is Links biggest current rival to the Wobblies job. So it is pertinent to acknowledge that he is clearly a devotee of the Jones idea of game plan over cattle.


So we could say of the 7 RWC winning coaches above, at the most Dwyer-generous the score is 2.5 vs 4.5 (2 Dwyer vs 3 Jones & the 2 weighted votes). Then if we include Cheks, the Jones victory is even more clear. Either way Jones got up. So it would appear both by weight of numbers and perhaps even more tellingly by the more recent success of Jones vs Dwyer approaches, the concept of picking a core game plan over a core group of players has a greater probability of RWC success.

Make your mind up time

And herein is the conundrum. Link has tried to be both. And he has not achieved the level of success demanded/expected.

Furthermore I do not think the two models can exist simultaneously and succeed.

So I think Link is getting to a point where he needs to crystalise his core philosophy and refine that. At the moment, from the outside looking in, it appears we are trying to be jack of both trades and mastering none.

I say again I am not convinced which model is better, although the evidence suggests that whilst both models has resulted in World Cup success, Jonesism is a more successful philosophy.

But of more importance, the current “bet each way” is not working and to continue doing the same thing and expect a different outcome is one definition of madness.

Your assignment – should you chose to accept it – is to consider the above and discuss. Does Links approach lack a clear philosophy? Which approach is better? Which approach should Link apply or can he continue to have a bit of both?

  • Davey

    Fantastic article Nutta. I’m a fan of Jonesism but I’m not sure there are enough fit wallabies at the moment at have the skill level (at tet level, quite distinct from S15 level) to execute the game plan that Link wants to play.

    • Davey

      * test level

    • Nutta

      Cheers Davey

    • Parker

      Dead on with your fitness comment.

  • brumby runner

    I know little about coaching philosophies other than what I perceive to be simply by observation so I am in no position to contradict the points you make, but I’ll try in one aspect.

    A major common denominator between the Wallabies coached by Jones and those coached by Dwyer was the presence of the Ella brothers. Not sure that anyone can say that Jones picked them to fit with his game plan while Dwyer picked them because they were the best and built a game plan around them. From my observations they pretty much played the same for both coaches, and I have always held the view that I (or anybody) could have coached the Wallabies with equal success with those three in the team. The right players have a bigger impact on the success of a team than the coach unless there is an overriding dissatisfaction with the coach by the team as a whole (Greg Smith?). Although the Brumbies showed in 2004 that even then they could go on to success without the input of the unpopular coach.

    Maybe Dwyer is closer to the truth if his view is that you need 5 world class players in the team to be successful. If you’ve got that, the game plan is probably more or less irrelevant.

  • Chris M

    I’m not sure there is a dichotomy between the “Cattle vs Gameplan” thing. It’s more on a continuum. For instance, I think Dwyer has a very particular gameplan. He just expects his players to practice it a conceptual level rather than having specific plays.

    How many times have you heard Bob say that a 12 needs to take the inside shoulder, a 6 needs to have a high workload and stay tighter, a 10 needs to try to get a second or third touch in a phase or that halfback passes need to be taken from the ground.

    These sound quite like a gameplan to me.

    I don’t think you need to be on one side or the other in this.

    • teh other dave

      Good point, though I’m sure that Dwyer would argue that these fall into the category of ‘fundamentals’ rather than ‘strategy’. There are aspects of a coach’s game plan that would not waver whether he was coaching third grade on a quagmire on Sydney Uni no 1. or a Bledisloe at Ballymore. Presumably he would pick the best players in each position who meet those fundamental requirements, and THEN tailor game plan to cattle, opposition, and conditions.

      I doubt anyone would go purely on cattle or gameplan – picking cattle is subjective and coaches value attributes with varying weighting; likewise, sometimes there simply isn’t a 110kg centre who can do 20m in under 3.05s to fit your ideal game plan.

      • Chris M

        Surely a coach’s idea of fundamentals is the very essence of their strategy.

        Nonetheless, my point is that it isn’t an either/or proposition. And it seems you would agree with that.

    • Nutta

      I agree with you Chris. It’s not one or the other but the two ends of a spectrum. My point is that it appears Link has oscillate’d from one end to the other. This indicates he doesn’t have a clear philosophy from which to start. I contend this means there is perhaps a lack of clarity. And when the Boss lacks clarity it trickles down…

      • Chris M

        I try really hard not to guess at what’s in people’s heads, but I think McKenzie is very much a game-plan oriented coach. However, the gameplan changes significantly from game to game.

        Perhaps he struggles to deliver his gameplans with the players he has at his disposal, as well. Or perhaps he has a primary gameplan which revolves around someone like Cooper and he is having difficulty applying it in the current context.

        In fact, that would explain quite well the initial selection of Beale and subsequent shifts in plan.

  • Bill

    A good coach can pick guys to fit his/her gameplan, a great coach makes the gameplan fit the best available players and engages the players. If they can’t be engaged, that’s not necessarily the coaches fault. At the risk of descending into generalisms I was watching some commentary on youtube the other night on Rob Ryan who in one season as defensive coordinator useing much the same personnel as the previous year under a different coordinator turned the new orleans saints around from the worst defence in the history of the nfl into the 3rd or 4th best defence in the league, the commentary was (from a rival team’s coach) : “he’s the sort of guy who proves the saying ‘players don’t care what you know until they know that you care’ “. I’m not equating that headspace to OZ, but the effort last game from the players in SA, I think they might have cared.

  • Observer

    I’d like to add that it does seem from earlier articles that Link builds a game plan based on the opposition.
    There seemed to be more of an intent to defeat the opponent’s plan than force them to try and deal with ours.
    Personally, I’d rather see oppositions trying to work out how to stop us, rather than the other way around.

    • Bill

      In his time at the reds I wouldn’t agree with that except for the final against the crusaders in 11, We were pretty containment then, we had a pretty good go at the Blues in the preceeding final. Maybe the available cattle and opposition then dictated the ‘gameplan’. Maybe they do now, maybe they did at the tahs. I could wish we were showing a bit more faith in Higganbotham…I’d usually add Gill to this little exercise but Hooper was excellent last week.

      • Observer

        Both great matches those, and yes, the game plan they were using forced the opposition to try and cope with them.
        You would also say that they had some players there in the team that were simply brilliant and at their best.
        It just seems that we haven’t been able to force that point at test level and we’ve got some bloody good players.

    • bad ass

      That’s a very interesting point. He does seem to focus on the opposition rather than what the wallabies can bring.

    • Nutta

      Strategists from Sun Tzu, Von Klausvitz to Hertzburg all talk of being clear on your own strategy first as to overly rely on 2nd guessing the opponent means you are always reacting and not dictating. It’s a very valid point.

  • Rugby Tragic

    While the game-plan theory looks great on paper, not even Jones could just revert his team entirely to suit a specific game plan. Different game plans only work if you keep a core team framework of brilliant players who can adapt their gameplay (like the Ellas for Jones), and build a team to support the style they will adopt.

    While a great attacker, Foley doesn’t have the game management skills to play any game we need him to (the last 10 minutes on the weekend is testament to that). For the Wallabies, the most likely to do play that balanced game has been Cooper (consider Ireland game vs Wales game last year, literally a week apart). I imagine Ewen will probably put him back in the 10 Jersey looking towards the spring tour, probably with Genia for the combination (or Phipps who is a similar player) and build his backline around providing the right options (think styles of Toomua + Kuridrani vs Beale + AAC in the centres or Horne + Cummins vs Speight + JOC at the back).

    • LazyRunner

      So the last 10 minutes was all Foley’s fault? That’s quite a stretch. That game could only have been won by sustained attacking pressure in the last 10 minutes and that requires all 15 players with a game plan. (or a committed charge down attempt on that field goal).

  • gurgler

    Don’t see how McKenzie goes for Dwyerism. He’s picked Rob Simmons in every test he’s been in charge. Who honestly thinks that guy is the best lol

  • RugbyReg

    What about McQueenism? Pick all time legends Eales, Horan, Larkham, Gregan and go from there.

    • Bobas

      Link did pick McCabe.

    • Nutta

      Classic Dwyerism. That being said, with cattle of that class you almost rise above the plane – similar to the current crop of AB’s ( bastards – but credit where it is due)

  • Chinese Dave

    Whichever way he goes, one thing is for sure. Link needs to acquire some humility and talk to some people outside his circle of subordinates. Scott Allen for example, on The Roar, raised some good points about selection balance in the back row. I’m not saying Link should do what person X says, but what’s going on now isn’t working and it seems a fair bit down to his arrogance. Cases in point are the Beale selection disaster, the continued exclusion of Hodgson, the continued purposeful ignorance of Neville and Jones.

    Speaking of Jones, all this talk of Alan Jones in a positive light is making me sick.

  • RedAnt

    Ironically, probably a more strident exponent of Jonesism was the other Jones. And Eddie wasn’t all that successful.

    Having said that, I pretty much agree with you, Nutta.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that 95% of winning at the elite level is between the ears and the coach’s main role is to help the players get that right – in particular, the right attitude and role clarity (i.e. your role in the team game plan). So yeah, whether it’s getting the ‘right’ players or getting the best ones to do what you want, the game plan wins.

  • Antony

    I liked this article – I want to disagree on one slight side point though.

    I would put Henry pretty firmly in the Dwyer category. He was a big “project” coach, where he would pick guys who he thought would be great and then tried to mould them into something that he needed (e.g. Kaino, Toeava). He also changed his game plan to fit in his favourites, like the way he accommodated McCaw no longer playing a traditional 7 role by favouring scavenging tight forwards like Andy Hore, and the way he’d always find a way to include Kahui.

    Hansen on the other hand is a Jones-ite (aside from continuing Henry’s use of McCaw), with the classic example being the way he has handled his halfbacks. He freely admits that Andy Ellis is often the most in-form halfback in NZ, but he wants people who can play up-tempo. Also the way he handles starters v. bench-players (the idea of the ‘specialist finisher’ that he has going with Barrett). Also see his use of Luke Romano.

    • Bill

      All good until you realise Barret should be flat out starting. He is not just some flash dan. Some of the stuff he’s done, he reminds me a lot of some Darren Lockyer’s 5th tackle plays.

  • Robson

    Steve Hansen – game plan, but he also has the cattle to do it. So you can fit the game plan around any cattle, so long as you’ve got the cattle. If you’ve not got the cattle, the game plan has to suit the cattle you’ve got. So the issue around this is maybe one of recruitment versus development. Development is the long way to achieve the objective and it has to be done in a multi tier environment as well as an intensive developmental phase at each level. But in the end it serves the purpose better than recruiting. But with recruiting you can, hopefully, mould the game plan around the cattle. For my money you can pretty much create successful game plans around players with moderate skill levels and sometimes the successful element to this is called attitude; something that too many of the Wallaby bench players in the Republic the other day didn’t have enough of.

  • rebelpirate

    Wallabies just need more ticker.

  • Hack Ref

    Nutta, nice to do some cerebral rugby for a change. Hats off!

    Whilst the philosophy of the coaching is worthy of discussion and I cringe as I write.
    If you look at the successful test teams rather than coaches coming from Australia and NZ. Then think about the catch and pass skills.Seriously I think player fundamentals in todays game must always be at 105%. The Blacks have owned that for the last ten years, and we tend to ignore it.

    Fast flat passes, draw and pass and an awareness at the brake downs of what you can and cannot do. They must be first above all at the elite levels. Infact they should be mandatory. Simmons for all his good points wouldn’t make the AB squad due to his lack of awareness at the brake down. Versus Ratalick a skill set at 105%.

    When we are at 105% like the Blacks then we go Jones-esk but until then must always pick Cattle first before we start to dream. Otherwise we lose again.

    In my mind the hi-light of our last test v the Saffies was our fundamental shift toward solid D, and a great awareness at the brake down. But our catch and pass was 70-75% not nearly good enough and we lost. We worked our way into great attacking positions but our catch and pass failed us in attack.

    In the1st game against the AB’s our strong D and willingness to compete at the brake down saw us close. But the catch and pass was poor for NZ (due to our D) and we stayed in the game.

  • The Rant

    So the Questions is: What is Links strategy at all????????
    When he was at the Reds – one of the great things that team seemed to be able to do was change it’s gameplan up to beat the opposition – they didn’t run the same blueprint against the bulls as they did for the crusaders. And that worked at the time but required his generals knew the tactics and stuck to them and generally cooper and genia were good at this. This is perhaps the best endorsment you’ll get out of me for the cooper/link combo.
    But this years wallaby team has also tried to mix it up I would say – and in the wrong way at the wrong time. They should have played more like they did in cape town when they were in perth and vica versa. They should have been smarter with territory in sydney in the wet. Against the french and pumas we were just better. But against the topsides Link is not out-thinking anyone.
    So in this sense I think Link is neither Dwyer or Jones – cos jones wanted an established gameplan like Cheika.
    But is Link then picking the best and playing to their strengths?? If you look at strategy you should immediately ask – who did he pick at 10. Well first he picked Beale – a free-wheeling spirit who he then tried to balance with Toomua (who he has also played at 10). That failed dismally and we can also wonder is that beale or links fault. Now we’re where we should have been and have foley
    But I honestly don’t understand the point of picking foley and then also picking Toomua. Foley’s strength is ability to attack the line and release players in every direction. He need’s a running centre like beale or even horne who played great last year off foley at 12. Or as Dwyer keeps saying – kurindrani to 12 and AAC at 13. (I fully agree and see kurindrani as a like for like SBW).
    Another example of not playing to our strengths is Folau – the best aerial’s man in the business but to my reckoning they have never tried to put him one-on-one in the air in the 22 with anyone this year??? Currently we are not releasing him in the backline either – luckily he naturally goes looking for work – but he’s a marked man (another thing you can take advantage of by using him as a decoy which we don’t).
    So I just don’t think Link is clear on what he wants. It seems to be the best of both worlds between the brumbies and the Tahs and for me that sounds great but is probably not achieveable.
    Sadly I’m not yet convinced that the 2014 wallabies would beat the 2014 tahs.

    • Bill

      I think 13 is the new 12 as far as crash ball guys go. Next year there won’t be that room there, you might as well be 12 I’d suspect. But after Kuridrani’s performance? Opposition teams will be working themselves into a lather as to how to deal with him.

      • The Rant

        think you’ll find 12 was the new 13 first

    • idiot savant

      You make some good points Rant. Link’s game plan is not abundantly clear to me either and appears to have gone through some changes.

      I think there is a distinction between game plan as a style (e.g. Cheika’s ball in hand or old fashioned 10 man rugby) and match day plans (eg. the ABs going wide against us in the RWC final) . There is also the complication for test coaches in not having a side to work with every week of the season. In a sense you are bound to the products of other cultures which is great if you’re a kiwi test coach but problematic for an Aust.

      At the moment Link appears to be throwing one of those parties where everyone puts their keys in a bowl.

  • subfreq

    Cheks success in Europe and with the Tahs suggests to me that in reality you need a 75-25 Jones-Dwyer split.

    The Joneswyer the better.

    Structure provides opportunities but you must have World Class Cattle to create a point of difference. At Leinster his plan often used BOD, Rocky, Nacewa and Thorn as the point of difference. If the player didn’t directly influence play the psychological impact of that player influenced the opposition and created opportunities.

    Leinster were a great team but the imported cattle(+BOD) made the difference.

    IMO Link should be employing a game plan to create opportunities and psychological pressure for Key Cattle to exploit.

    We have a pretty good herd in the back line at the moment: Speight, Kurindrani, Beale, Falou, Genia,

    The forwards and 10 need to be selected to make sure a plan provides suitable pressure and opportunities to exploit.

    • Bill

      Let’s just get Speight, Cooper, Genia and Folau all back in there first. Even then, everything else you do? Cooper at his very best will kill them, the oppo, 90% of the time , kill you 10 %. I’m willing to back him, a lot of noisy cu%ts aren’t. They tend to see what is comfortable for them.

      • subfreq

        Cooper creates doubt and has one of the best passing games in World Rugby. If the philosophy is play with ball in hand it should be a simple decision to include him if in form.

        The piggies still have to dominate and our front row is really fronting up. We need a dominant second rower to complete what is becoming a very good pack and then the prospect of the below back line would dominate anyone on its day.

        9 – Genia
        10 – Cooper
        12 – Kuridrani
        13 – AAC
        11 – Beale
        14 – Speight
        15 – Folau

  • Rocky Elboa

    I think Link certainly looks at game plan first or at least pick players he believes have the ability to adapt.
    I have said this before (in a comment to a previous article) but it is much harder to be game plan first when you are coaching a representative side. You don’t have the luxury of long preseason and continuous player development, think Pat McCabe & Toomua at 12 as well as Alexander at loose head for the wallabies but playing and training a very different role the majority of the year. Also think how the tahs might have been different if they didn’t have Jackpot and how we would give our left nut for another Vickerman.

    The problem is as a representative coach you only have a predefined  group to select from so the best plans can come unstuck with the right cattle. This pool shrinks as there are only so many player who can cut it thr higher the level the level of rugby you play.

    Looking at what Link is doing I see (as he has for a while, think back to tahs preseasons when players played with their initials on their back rather than numbers) him attempting at least to get an attribute from a player/position that does not traditionally fill that role. I think a lot of people on the site have an issue with this philosophy as they see a position role defined by something equivalent to the laws of the game.

    A prime example of Links pragmatism is our forwards, if we had a big strong ball running lock who could scrum and hold his own in the line out then Link would pick him (pause for the obvious Tahs outrage… he can’t jump and the other one for better or worse has been ruled unavailable for selection). To counter this Link utilizes Kepu ability to crash the ball up and this allows Carter and Simmons play a more narrow on the ball/defensive game.

    Then there is Hooper. What Hooper brings to the game far out weights the benefit of having a traditional 7. So while Hooper plays like a short 6 Link has instructed our 8 (both McCalman and Palu have played the same role) to play tight and Fardy to play on the ball. We saw this finally come together on the weekend. Add to this the additional running and passing we can get from Slipper in a linking role and you can’t start to see how Link is selexting the team to fulfill the game plan.
    This also explain the absence of Higgers from the starting side, he is neither an over the ball or work horse player (at least in the same mold as Palu or McCalman) so while he has many good qualities he does not fit within the current mix.

    The problem is without the long preseason you don’t have time for players to develop and understand their roles in the team, so while Hooper and Slipper excel playing their natural game others are left behind still coming to grips with their new roles within new structures.

  • Mickeyb

    Great article nutta and a trigger for a full blooded discussion to follower. Wouldn’t it be great event to have our three former and most successful coaches in Jones, Dwyer and McQueen on a panel discussion be it in person or on a GAGR podcast to discuss these philosophical approaches.

    And importantly, what we need to be doing now in preparation for RWC 2015? Nothing against Link, but I don’t know if there’s a plan or if we’re coasting test to test until we reach the inevitable.

    I would pay for that!!


  • Rolly

    Interesting note with Dwyer. I am not sure if you are quite right though. If you look at the situation that he was in after the 1989 British Lions series he decided that the cattle then did not suit the game plan that he required in order to win the world cup. That is when he picked guys Horan, Little, Eales, Ofahenguae, Roebuck, Daley, Kearns so that they could execute his game plan. So while it was a case of picking best players he also picked the players because they were best to carry out his game plan.

  • Nutta

    Thanks for all the commentary. Some good thoughts expressed. To be clear on my position, I am a Link fan. The bloke generally brings success and I feel he is a genuine guy (viewed from afar to be fair). I hope he survives the current BS, gets some clarity in the game plan, gets some fit players back and has a term as our national coach that is fondly remembered for all the right reasons.


Underfed front-rower with no speed or ball skills. Started playing footy in the 70's and still going. Can't remember the last time I passed on a ball, beer or karaoke mike. Motto - "Meat and potatoes first. Then gravy. And you don't put gravy on the plate first Boy."

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