Rugby’s matrix-busters - Green and Gold Rugby
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Rugby’s matrix-busters

Rugby’s matrix-busters

It’s long been said that you select your tighthead prop first. The assumption was that you will commit so many handling errors that you will be scrumming a lot under pressure and therefore require steadiness at this vital set-piece.

As a researcher of school’s rugby I see a different picture unfold at this level of the game. Firstly, in school’s rugby you have a 9% chance of winning scrum ball off an opposition feed. This is based on well over 1000 games measured. Secondly, you are not allowed to move an opponent backwards more than 1.5 meters. So while a strong scrum will always have advantages, the ‘must-have’ player is in my opinion no longer the monster tighthead.

We need more options 

In 2013 during the Lions series against Australia, Irish center Brian O’ Driscoll was dropped in favor of a Welsh center combination featuring the Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies. This combo is was said offered a bigger threat with their kicking game. I never quite understood this until I started running skills tests of young players to learn which weaknesses exist in skills development.

GAGRImage

Above is a depiction of 81.3% of all players I have tested since 2014 (713 in total). As you can see, by far the majority of rugby players prefer passing to the left, kicking to the right and tackling with the right shoulder. This is simply because most players are right handed.

If you are to study the migration patterns of a rugby match, you will notice just how programmed most games are, due to the large majority of players preferring to all shift and move in the same direction.

Most passes occur to the left, whether there is more gaps or not. The 10 and 12 just feels comfortable shifting the ball that way. Most kicks occur to the right, whether the option to pass existed or not.

However most tries are scored when teams pass to the right hand side. This is an odd statistic because the defense runs with their predominantly strong shoulders on the inside. To beat the defense when playing to the right side of the field, you have to try and beat defenders on their outside, yet this is more likely to happen statistically speaking (teams score on average 3.4 tries per game on the right side of the field compared to 2.2 to the left).

The rise of the ‘southpaw’

Australian Barbarians vs Fiji Schools 2017 Photo by Rod Skellet

Left foot box clearance by the Australian Barbarians vs Fiji Schools 2017 (Photo by Rod Skellet)

Left handed (and footed) players, affectionately known as ‘southpaw’s in the boxing world, really screw with the matrix when it comes to rugby’s usual migration patterns. Not only do they kick to a different side and pass the wrong way – they also have a different ‘leading shoulder’ in the tackle, which confuses the attack. Often you will see a perfectly orchestrated backline move end with the ball carrier smashed to ground due to what most would consider a good defensive ‘read’. Chances are the move contained a cut-back scenario – not knowing that the defending 12 is a southpaw who loves nothing more than an attacker cutting back into his left shoulder!

The emergence of the ‘ambo’

It is said that true ambidexterity (having no leading hand or foot) exist in only 1% of the population, while around 9% of people mix and match a bit. You may see a kid who writes right-handed but kicks left handed or vice versa. Or one that can kick off both feet but still have a weak tackling shoulder. These ‘ambo’s’, like their southpaw mates, can really complicate matters on a rugby field because they are even less predictable.

My argument is that these ‘golden freaks’ today are the first names you pick on your team sheet, because of the way they disturb normal migration patterns. I also urge parents and coaches to ensure that their kids pass and kick to both sides at all times. Not only does it improve your balance and coordination – it also gets the right brain activated and improves your creativity.

The tighthead prop is dead! Long live the southpaw’s and the ambo’s!

  • Nutta

    Hello Brendan. As a current player with +40yrs of time in the front row, I feel compelled to warn you that I must now kill you.

    Seriously though, you are entirely correct on both fronts; a monster TH prop is unnecessary at Schoolies level and players who dodge, dip, dive, duck, and … dodge off an alternate foot (or better still off both feet) are truly valuable finds because they do that wonderful thing of forcing the opponent into an unexpected situation from which they must make an unexpected choice.

    • Brendon Shields

      Hi Nutta, thanks for responding. I am not sure why at school’s level they made the scrum pretty much as cosmetic feature. Funny how many coaches still condition props to the hill for these scrum contests that yield nothing but a bit of pride. They are simply not as crucial to the result anymore.

      • Nutta

        I’ve lamented much over the years on how the School game impacts the Opens game. A classic example of this was how we had a whole generation of guys come through where, because the scrum was effectively a non-contest at Schoolies, that allowed for fat back-rower crash-tackler ball-carriers to be tossed the No1 or 3 jersey at rep levels to get them in the side as opposed to focusing on guys who were genuine 1&3 prospects in the Opens. Given guys pretty much have to be in the right schools and the right programmes by 16yrs tops, this excluded the guys who were the proper future props from even being in the realistic hunt. We saw this play out in unmistakable terms when we had a solid 12yrs wherein we paid that price of having a rash of guys who looked great in singlets and could intercept, drop-kick and carry quite nicely but their scrum was an embarrassment in Big Boys terms. It has taken us 5-10yrs to begin to correct that. Even closer to home, look what 1 single U20’s French prop did as a replacement vs Oz at the recent Kids World Cup. He dead-set turned the game.

        I’m not arguing with your premise – you are correct in the observation that as the scrum is deliberately de-powered at Schools there is no need for heavy tight players. I am lamenting the disconnect this creates in our development pathway towards what the Big Boys need (which generates the acclaim and the cash which both populates and funds the kids – in theory).

      • Nutta

        If I remember correctly, the U19 variations including the no-wheeling (reset), 4-part call (C/T/P/E) and 1.5m shove rule came into effect in 1987. The given-reason why was straight up safety related. And to be fair, they were necessary to temper some of the carried-away stupidity that used to take place. However we used to get around the 1.5m rule by simply concentrating on a snap-shove as called by the Tight side Breakaway (who can see the ball and has the wind in his lungs to call). 1.5m is still a fair distance if you drive it quick and hard.

        The next truly scary time in schools rugby was when ‘lifting’ lineout jumpers came into play. The initial iteration of the facet had no provision around actually holding onto your man and bringing him down again so certain numb-nut coaches had their yungfellas literally throwing the little guys up in the air and letting them go and then trying to catch them on the way down again. It was bloody ridiculous. Lowest common denominator stuff.

        • AllyOz

          I wonder if, rather than the 1.5 m shove rule, they have just concentrated on the engagement (and moved to something similar to open rules now) if that would have resolved most of the potential issues around injury. Do you think most of the potential injuries at junior/school boy level would have been around the engagement? or further on in the scrum?

        • Nutta

          Schoolies had problems with general instability leading to lateral movements. This came both at impact (engagement) but also if one scrum was over-powering the other because in both scenarios the weaker scrum would not just retreat and collapse but also tended to sheer off to the side and so tilt necks already under strain. So the drive-through was a problem but that said it was much less a problem than initial collapsing from charging-in. But to your point, if steps were taken to ‘get them in & stable’ prior to ball and strain it largely negates the charge-in AND the drive-through issue regardless. To that end – and aligned to our other chat a minute ago – a lot of it stems from props confidence and willingness to engage as that vigor then infects the rest of the 8 to compete. That comes from firstly a natural hunger to engage but from there being taught basic elements of strong shape

        • AllyOz

          Not sure whether you will agree with me on this one but I think teaching proper lifting technique for the big exercises – squat and deadlift – would help improve technique for scrummaging. I am not talking about it from a pure improving strength perspective but I feel doing those lifts – particularly at weight – get your body position for the scrum right. It is not a direct substitute for scrum training but, if done in conjunction with scrummaging, I reckon one reinforces the other.

        • Nutta

          I completely agree. Go back and look at footage of Ben Alexander in particular from when he first moved to TH from LH. His right hip was routinely a mile too high at the pre-engage. As a LH that didn’t matter so much as his Lock could compensate in various ways and the split stance of a LH doesn’t require the same hip-balance required at TH where you must be more ‘square’. For a start that high outside hip on a TH made him susceptible to long-boring by the opposing LH. However it also meant any effort from his Breakaway was wasted as it went ‘up and over’ his spine instead of through it. Thus our TH was statically unstable before the scrum even started. The way to fix that high hip is through squatting. Put a man under +200kgs of weight on flat feet, then get him to squat. He will naturally learn to drop his weight between his knees (not over them) and you will soon see him fix his hip-balance or spend hours on the Chiropractors table having them fixed for him (plus also secondary issues with knee and ankle). Whilst we need to be careful of heavy-weight impact on developing bodies, suitable static-weight exposure beginning with full power-cleaning (all the way up, not stopping half-way with the bar under the chin as is the trend with sprinters etc) moving into dead-lifting and then into squat forces a physique to develop in a balanced manner. This body-balance makes you more powerful but also much less exposed to injury when under strain – at least that’s my opinion.

        • AllyOz

          Yep I agree – also on the confidence and testing it part

      • Who?

        One major reason why we drilled kids really hard in scrum technique was that we wanted our kids (and this is juniors, not teenage) to take that same body shape into the ruck contest. So we didn’t just work on one-on-one contested scrum practice (working up from positioning, to holding weight, to a small shove, to full contests) for props, we had the full pack doing it regularly, and even the backs.

  • T.edge

    Good Article Brendon.

    • Brendon Shields

      Cheers mate!

  • Cameron Rivett

    Thanks for the great article Brendon. I am in total agreement – in my view, if you have a choice between a right-handed/footed/etc player and a left-handed one of similar skill, you should pick the left-handed one. This is why I think Will Harrison’s left boot gives him an edge over the other young flyhalves in our country (Mason, Donaldson, Stewart).

    • Brendon Shields

      Yeh that left boot is not just an option to other sides of the pitch – it changes the entire dynamics of attack and defence!

  • Kiwi rugby lover

    Great article Brendan. I know in NZ, especially at the elite level, there is a lot of emphasis on players being able to pass both ways. I remember being sat between two buildings and having to pass to the right until I could do it without touching the walls and it took a lot of work. The real issue for me is why are coaches allowing players to not develop these skills.

    For all his brilliance at catching a high ball and creating something when given room Folau was crap at passing to the right which really limited his utility and yet was never forced to develop this part of his game. I truly don’t understand this.

    • Brendon Shields

      Those weaknesses are easy to exploit. I remember years back attending a talk when Jake White was the technical adviser to Nick Mallet’s Boks. The Kiwis opted to always kick on Rassie Erasmus even though he was a solid fielder of the ball. Rassie’s sin was his predictability in ALWAYS stepping off his left foot into traffic. This predictability meant the set-piece could be controlled as you could prepare for it. Even at school’s level if you KNOW the preference of each opposition backline player their actions become easy to predict. If an entire backline is right handed they are very easy to defend against.

      • Kiwi rugby lover

        Bang on mate

  • Who?

    What’s really frustrating is when you’ve got kids who refuse to learn to pass or tackle on their weak shoulder. I had two kids in the team I managed who flat out refused to work on those skills. One was the coach’s son. He’s now a rep player. He flat out refused to tackle on his left shoulder, so kept putting his head in very dangerous positions. My son wasn’t a great defender, but I at least knew he wasn’t going to concuss himself by going in with the wrong shoulder. I did what I could, but as manager, rather than coach, I didn’t have the authority to step in and fully drive the required improvement.
    .
    The other player was a winger who flat out denied he could pass left to right. The irony being that he’d make this claim immediately after throwing a 10m spiral left to right. I’d ask him to do it again, he’d deny his abilities, and choose not to develop. He was a rep player, but fell out of the system, because he wouldn’t develop himself.
    .
    .
    It’s also very frustrating when you have rep coaches who cheer when they see a player run out of the line to ‘put on a hit’ with a right shoulder dominant tackle on a kid to their left. There really isn’t any excuse for coaches allowing players not to develop these skills. Because whilst we all have natural tendencies (I’m a left footer/right hander), there’s no reason why competence – if not excellence – can’t be achieved on ‘unnatural’ sides. Maybe the unnatural kick and pass will be a little shorter than the preferred side, but skills shouldn’t be underdeveloped to the point that plays can only be run to one side of the field.
    The same applies with tackling. I consider it negligent and worse when coaches fail to recognise those sorts of failings. It’s a failure to look out for the player’s safety.
    .
    The 1.5m rule in the scrum’s an interesting one. We always had dominant scrums. And they were never stopped after going 1.5m. Generally because the opposition wasn’t collapsing (they were running backwards), and it’s really hard for a ref to call a stop on a scrum that’s moving that fast. We didn’t have monster props – we just had really, really good technique…
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    Regarding Southpaws, I can’t remember which year it was (06, 07?), but one year Tuqiri was barely seeing the ball on the end of the Tahs backline, playing left wing. The problem? They put Matt Rogers at 10, and I think Turinui at 12? Almost the entire backline inside Tuqiri was left handed, so the ball kept going to the other side!

    • Brendon Shields

      Wow its interesting Re Rogers. I thought about him watching the Origin last night. I do a player ‘weakness chart’ for coaches to at least know their own limitations when designing attack play’s. Reckon those Wallabies did not :-)

  • Mica

    Great article, but in the interest of whole of career development the THP is not dead, just need to recognise lifelong development and constant improvement. How about an “ambo” THP that passes both ways and doesn’t have a weak shoulder!!! There’s your real unicorn!! :)

    • Nutta

      Does being an ambo prop count? I play both sides with no worry…

      • Mica

        Can’t like twice unfortunately! :)

  • Bert

    Great article thanks!

  • Thanks Brendon. I played my entire career and never realised why I loved it when players cut back in. Makes perfect sense now. It felt so good smashing them though. I remember wondering what they we thinking.

    As a loosehead I always thought that comment about tightheads was over rated. The front row is a unit like the back row or the halves. You can build a strong scrum around a great loosehead and a great tighthead. but a front row working as a unit can nullify that.

  • Nutta

    Don’t get me wrong because I am not saying I was a big hero at all, but I used to go home from boarding school on school holidays and play seniors in whatever town my folks had moved to. After a few weeks of real scrums etc I would go back to school and whilst the speed was absolutely quicker, just as absolutely I would spend the first few weeks completely schmucking people around ground before coming back to the same as everyone else. My point is the difference in play after even just a few weeks of playing with/against men was remarkable. And it didn’t hurt me one iota.

    • AllyOz

      I was never even a decent prop but, due to injury, I played a couple of part seasons at tight head (and occasionally loose although I hated it) at a level pretty much well beyond my abilities. The first thing you notice is extra physical demands it takes. In the first couple of games I could do little more than scrum effectively and by the end of the game after being worked over for 80 minutes there is little left.

      I had the benefit of very good coaches (Tom Lawton and his brother for about 10 weeks) and they were able to improve my technique and eventually I was able to contribute around the paddock again as well – I had been a relatively shortish slowish second rower but with a reasonable work rate.

      I feel though to be a genuine front rower you need a certain mindset – you need to be a Nutta (in more ways than one) and i am not sure I ever quite had that. You need to be able to absorb a degree of pain and also to enjoy testing your own strength against your opponents. I must say that, it left me with a real sense of achievement when one of the props that had towelled me up in the first of the H/A games acknowledged my improvement by the second round and there was a lot of respect for your opponents – perhaps more than in any other position.

      • Nutta

        Be careful because you are exposing parts of the inner sanctum…

        Regarding fit to play and mind over matter up front – the biggest single element is to relish the contact itself. It’s the thing that allows the average Joe to be better than the athlete. It’s more than getting blood up to punch or tackle or run a ball. It’s a dead-set enjoyment of the contact itself for its own sake. The closest I’ve come to similar mind-set has been with East-European and American wrestlers. It’s an enjoyment of that unremitting in-contact contest. To be a proper prop you have to absolutely love the contact otherwise you are naturally trying to avoid it. Secondly is a willingness to go to physical limits that a lot of other folk simply won’t ever experience in quite the same manner. What I mean here is being willing – even inviting – to be in a position where your losing feeling in your legs, the pressure inside your torso is literally starting to shift out ribs and cartilage, where likely a blood-vessel in your eye is about to go, his head is jammed up under my sternum and my fingers are jamming in under his ribs as I start to pull them out and yet both of us are still willing to drive on. To me that feeling is quite elemental as the only two things you cling to in that microcosm of space & time is to hold body-shape and the committed knowledge that ‘he’ will break first. And we both know it. I can teach body-shape, binds, angles and arm/shoulder positioning. What I can’t teach is a willingness and enjoyment deriving from the relentless contact and taking the pressure – you either have it or not.

        To that end, that’s why there are a few guys around the world where I don’t even really know their names, but I know their faces, and after a game I go buy a few beers and honestly I would rather drink with them than my own team-mates more often than not because THEY GET IT. There used to one guy at a certain club where we didn’t even speak to each other, but just the Visitor bought the Home guy a beer first, we would lean on the car or just stand there and drink a couple, shake hands and walk away. Barely a word would be spoken. But the honesty and authenticity of the mutual appreciation was palpable. And it was fkn gold.

        God I love this game. And it’s why I won’t fkn stop.

        • AllyOz

          I though t you said I was revealing secrets from the inner sanctum? I was only ever a part timer – I was just beginning to get the feel for contact that you talk about and then they switched me back to lock when our regular TH came back from his achilles tendon rupture. In retrospect I would have been better to moved up a lot earlier and adapted my body (and mind) to the position in my early twenties rather than mid. But I did get to play against Matt Ryan (well sort of – thankfully he got sent off for punching me after the first scrum I came on as a replacement – I have never been so grateful for someones violence against me as he could have done me a hell of a lot more damage just in the scrum).

          I think (without going too deep) that you are fully exposed to someone in the front row, mentally and physically. If you are both giving your all you are exposing the limits of your physical and mental capacities. I personally like TH better because it left me with nowhere to go and also on my own so that if I did stuff it up it was mainly me that paid the price. I didn’t enjoy the LH where you were responsible for the hooker too and also you were only “halfway in”. My spell in the front row made me a much better lock. I pushed my guts out after that, understanding what those blokes were going through.

          I never quite did the blacking out mid-scrum thing – I got close once and I also played a couple of games with torn rib cartilage – fine if you were keeping yourself square – a bit yucky when you moved out of that plane.

          Yes its a great game.

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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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