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

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.

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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.

      • 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.
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    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.
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    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.

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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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