From The Coach’s Office: Struggling To Handle It

By LEE ADDISON
THE first commentator I remember using the term was Shaun McRae, a coach and commentator in the English Super League before he headed back to the NRL.  
“It’s a knock-on-a-thon”
I’m not sure I’ve heard it much since then, but it’s a term that stuck with me and I’ve used it several times since.  I’ve either said it or thought it in my head.
Many games in our top competitions are inundated with KNOCK ONS!
Early 2019, I said this to some of my mates in the lounge room one day when a game was on.  I said “watch it for five minutes and see”.
There were two handling errors in that five minutes.
Fans overlook this because errors add to excitement.  A turnover by your team in your own 30 metres gives the opponents a bonus attacking set.
Yet in a game that seems so obsessed with completion rates, the handling error count sort of sneaks under the radar.
So the footy coaching geek in me decided to do something of a rudimentary study of this hypothesis.
A brief look at the NRL stats showed that players, over a season, average about an “error and a half” per game and the worst culprits already had seven and eight handling errors  under their belts by Round five in 2019. In 2018 some of the most decorated players in the game had more handling errors than games to their names! I couldn’t believe it!
A look at team completion rates tells a better story for coaches yet, when looking at completion rates, the reader has to factor in that penalties gained and tries scored contribute to a positive completion rate.
Dig a little deeper and you will see teams were averaging between four and 10 handling errors per match in only the first five games of 2019. Over a full season in 2018, the average was between 5.8 and eight handling errors per match.
These are the NRL official stats. Not mine. The English Super League has a similar statistical service but not in the same detail.  For example, handling errors and errors are not separated like they are in the Australian version but, on face value, the stats given are scary!
At the time of writing (10 rounds), teams had between 93 and 102 errors!  And a couple of
individuals had 16 or 17 errors to their names already! After 10 games that reads a team average of nine/10 errors per game and a few individuals are close to two errors a game.  (on average)
When analysing these stats from both competitions, we need to consider that they could include stray or forward passes rather than knock ons. We definitely need to factor in the early season rustiness; teams that are winning may chance their arm more and there’s not necessarily a link between low errors and on-field success.  That evidence is somewhat skewed.   Also, how many of these handling errors are opposition strips unidentified by the referee?(continues below)



But let’s look at it from another angle for a second.
If a team was to get say, 40 sets and upwards per game. the statistics suggest that, on average, up to a quarter of those sets will end in handling errors in the rugby league world.
It’s not apples for apples, but if the England, Australia or New Zealand (or any) cricket team dropped a quarter or even one fifth of their catching opportunities, there’d be widespread calls for fielding coaches and players to be sacked.
Bear in mind, many of the attempted catches on a cricket pitch will be diving low or high efforts, so really we need to narrow this down to a slip fielder with all catching opportunities coming into their immediate orbit (no diving needed). Slip fielders tend to take most of their chances.  And the ball is a lot smaller, a lot harder and not is not intended to be caught by the batsmen.  It comes flying through in most cases.
Can you imagine a Premier League soccer team not controlling a quarter or one-fifth of their passes received ?  They’d look like a Sunday league team placed in the wrong division by accident.
I can’t help but think that many of these errors are due to a lack of ENOUGH core skill, catching and passing practice.
In my last column, I spoke about the recruitment mantra of “You can coach an athlete to be skilful but you can’t coach someone skilful to be an athlete”. The stats suggest they’re not coaching it that well.
I’ve seen so many coaches pay lip service to core skill practice  as players are growing up in rep sides, schools and clubs.  I’ve seen some of the most decorated young players have hands as bad as you’ve seen.  Some simply can’t catch a ball cleanly or pass consistently.
Many coaches of juniors with at times, limited on field coaching time, haven’t got core skills on their radar or alternatively they haven’t got the knowledge on how to teach it, monitor it, give feedback and improve it.
When a player gets to 18 and upwards it’s a long journey back to repair that player’s ability to grip, pass, catch, carry.  I remember the Penrith NRL coaches telling me about the difficulty they had trying to change a veteran player’s grip, pass, catch, carry.
The player in question was an international and Origin legend, as decorated as they come. But his core skills were poor.  And it was only a few years ago.
As I’ve said before, I believe rugby league is a game of skill AND the physical attributes. To do this properly, players need to be well versed on how grip the footy, catch it cleanly, transfer it efficiently across the body, pass it consistently and with accuracy and it all starts with a good, well sustained carry.
Like I said earlier, from a product or entertainment point of view, these errors add to the drama.
Yet I’m sure it frustrates the hell out of the coaches.
So what has this got to do with the Corona Reboot? Well if our game is rebooted, with less money spent on getting a physical edge, then hopefully skill will start to come to the fore a lot more.
Instead of teams being significantly focussed on physicality and solely focussed on dominating collisions, they might try and unlock defences in other ways. Imagine more offloads, more cheeky kicks, more ad lib football….
Lee Addison is the current Poland Test coach. Find him at rugbyleaguecoach.com.au

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