The Corona Reboot – Part 1, What has our game become?
FIRSTLY, let me tell you that I’m a practising coach of over two decades and I’ve coached at almost every level of the game on both sides of the world. Before I became a teacher in schools, I was also an administrator in Super League. So this column will therefore be a mix of on-field and off-field discussion, reflecting somewhat my time so far in the game. But right now, we will start with my favourite – the on-field stuff.
Coronavirus has stopped our world as we know it in i’s tracks. Rugby league in particular is feeling the pain hugely with players and staff being laid off work or some are “furloughed” in the UK. A future column as part of this ‘Answering the Corona Question’ will talk about that in more detail and how the game could be ‘re-booted’ from an administrative and marketing perspective after all this.
But now, we think of players, coaches and all the support staff and the culture that has engulfed the sport of rugby league, sometimes all the way down to grassroots. In my first few columns I’m going to basically outline the things I think need to be changed or rethought in the game – a game I feel has lost its way in so many ways.
One of the reasons rugby league is in the place it is right now is that the sport has always existed in its own fishbowl, with the possible exception of the Storms and the Roosters of this world.
There is talk that the game could revert to being a part-time sport again. Even if it doesn’t become part-time, one would imagine the players and coaches won’t have all the trappings of their pre-Corona existence. Less of the support staff, the sports science, the analysts and the like as budgets are shrunk after the loss of income this pandemic has caused.
So, a coach like me starts to look at what is essential v non-essential, what the players and coaches actually NEED rather than what they may desire.
My big beef with much of the NRL, for example, is that the game is less a “football” contest these days than a battle of the athletes, the bulk and the brawn. There’s that much wrestling in it, players would be forgiven for having their own entrance music, wearing knee pads and reaching for the steel chair! Some of the lifting in the gym that players do these days is truly remarkable. In a future column I will also talk about the damage all this is doing to players’ bodies.
I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I were to tell you that one top NRL coach I’ve had a little bit to do with would talk about the physical elements of the sport so much in his casual football discourse, you’d be forgiven for thinking the thing with Steeden emblazoned on it was just a distraction.
At the top level, we call our players “athletes” – agents and recruitment managers have become obsessed with size. I’ve dealt with so many of them in the past and when I tell them about a good kid, their first question is “how big is he?”
One look at the current Immortals list alongside those tipped to be Immortals in the future tells you that this recruitment approach is completely flawed. I’ve seen young, very talented players totally ignored because they “aren’t big enough” or “won’t grow”. There is one player in particular from my own coaching career that springs to mind and I can’t reason with it to this day. The kid would regularly turn a game on his own, in one of the top junior competitions in Australia, featuring future Origin and NRL stars. If I was to name a team of the best 17 players I have ever coached, he would be one of the first on the team list alongside James Tedesco, Clinton Gutherson, James Lomax, William Hopoate and Dallin Watene Zalezniak. That’s how high I put him.
Yet our game deemed him too small. I’ve seen the game do this to so many kids.
They’ve become obsessed with athleticism. They recruit on the basis that they can “coach an athlete to be skilful” yet they can’t “coach someone skilful to be an athlete.” (continues below)
In turn, our game is full of coaches who teach “mechanical” football with pre-prescribed sets and moves, all the way down to our juniors. We’ve coached the talent and instinct out of so many kids. I’ve seen it so many times with my own eyes!
This recruitment and coaching by the numbers has flooded our game in Australia for the last decade at least. As a result, I feel the NRL down has become a little less skilful, with players not ‘looking up at space’ when they should, they drop ball far too often and their tackling technique is all about the eventual wrestle. They call it “catching”.
With less budget available to clubs, it stands to reason that some of the physical developments in the game may slow down. There will be fewer sports science experts around clubs, head coaches will have less assistants, diets won’t be as forensically examined and it just stands to reason that the era of the footballer-athlete ‘personal best’ might be put on the back burner somewhat.
It will hopefully bring an emphasis back on to the ‘football’ aspects.
I’m going to unpack a load of this in future columns.
To get into my mindset though, you need to watch a game and look at it from this standpoint…..
Our game is 13 v 13
In attack, 13 players are allowed to attack
In defence, there are often two players at marker and one fullback.
That leaves 10 players in the defensive line.
So, on every play-the-ball, the game (if you do it right) is essentially ‘13 v 10’
Throw in the principle of passing the ball to ‘someone in a better position than you’, props and back rows running in order to create space on the next play and everyone aiming for quick play the balls.
The 13 should ‘win’ the majority of the time, getting either a passive tackle or a full line-break.
This is exactly how I coach rugby league football and have done for nearly two decades with a lot of success. Of course, there is a lot more to it than that, but essentially, these statements form my footballing philosophy.
Watch a high level rugby league game through this prism of thought, and we can hopefully get on a similar train of thought for our future football discussions!
Lee Addison is the current Poland test coach. Find him at rugbyleaguecoach.com.au