From The Coach’s Office: Arrested Development

By LEE ADDISON

SO it’s 50 years since England or Great Britain last won a Test series over Australia. It’s also very nearly 14 years since they won even a match against their main rivals.  

When you consider the two main countries for rugby league are often considered to be Australia and Britain and they host the two major competitions in the world of rugby league, then this is an absolutely terrible state of affairs. In a two-horse race, to not be able to find 17 blokes to topple Australia in more than one match for over half a century is something that defies belief. It needs to be treated more seriously than ever before. New Zealand (who don’t have a major competition over there) have managed to get the world number one or two spot over England/GB, winning some tournaments including the 2008 World Cup.   

It got me thinking about the reasons why. Firstly, I got angry and wanted answers. Is it just me, or is it like no one in England cares as much as they should do anymore? Then I considered what my own answers to the problem would be. To do that, its important to know what Old Blighty is up against. It is also important to know that Australia doesn’t have it’s developmental house in full working order too.  

I’ve coached at clubs, schools and rep sides in England, New South Wales and Queensland and I’ve coached players that didn’t know one end of the Steeden from another, all the way to those who have played NRL and Super League. 

There are very obvious and explainable differences between all three locations.   Remember, many rugby league folk see themselves as Queenslanders or New South Welshmen or women first, Australian second when it comes to their allegiances. This also manifests itself in subtle differences in approaches to coaching and playing the game.   

Coaching down in Sydney was quite a ‘political’ experience for me.  From the minute my plane touched down in my first season here, I was exposed to conversations about which kids were getting picked out of nepotism and favouritism rather than merit. And the same accusations were applied to when it came to representative coaching positions for the adults. That was just in Manly-Warringah – traditionally one of the ‘smaller’ breeding grounds for Sydney footy.

Heading out to western Sydney to coach and to an area like Penrith was an even further eye opener. To put this in some kind of context, Penrith has 24 junior clubs, Manly currently operates with around 12.  St Mary’s, the biggest junior club in Penrith has its own flourishing leagues club and has playing facilities that are arguably the envy of all junior clubs in Australia.   

But the politics in Penrith made Manly’s look like a playground argument in comparison.  And somewhere in between those two areas you have several others such as St George, Parramatta, Canterbury and the like. So, you get some kind of idea of what it is like being a junior player or coach in that kind of environment. 

Then, on top of all that, throw in the powerful school’s circuit. 

Schoolboy rugby league in Australia is televised and quite a big fish. In the last two decades we’ve seen the emergence of “sports high schools” which basically means kids get to do rugby league as a subject at school and train in the day. There is also a national schoolboys competition.  

 It’s very hard for a ‘non-teacher’ to coach in the schools system so the vast majority of coaching jobs in the school network are taken by school teachers and therefore, by default a lot of ‘non teachers’ go for the representative jobs in the junior club regions, coaching the development squads and the junior representative squads in the prestigious Harold Matthews and SG Ball competitions.  So at least that gives the coaching politics a little bit of a ‘breather’ but there is still a ‘dog eat dog’ attitude when it comes to acquiring these jobs. I was one of the few ‘lucky souls’ who was head coach of a high-profile school and a junior rep team at the same time and off the top of my head, I can only think of a few who did that over the years. We were certainly in a small minority.   

But whereas there is something of a distinction between the talent and qualifications needed to coach these various squads, this distinction doesn’t really apply to the children themselves. Some of the players you see running around in the NRL now were regulars in both the school system and the junior rep pathways.  Because the junior rep squads are run by NRL clubs, some kids were and are being asked to do four training sessions a week in the evenings. Throw an elite school into the mix and the training session count goes through the roof.  

The powers-that-be in the state have made every attempt to minimise the impact on these kids, with the junior representative season running from February to May and the school season from May to August/September, yet the reality is the coaches all want to win, they squeeze as much as they can out of their players, the players don’t want to let them down or lose their spot and the players end up serving two masters (three if they still play lots of club football too)

Back to the coaches and, particularly when it comes to junior representative teams, they only have a short window of time in which to impress their bosses, namely the development managers and recruitment managers of the NRL club.  Also, the development and recruitment managers also have to impress their paymasters, as they want to see good juniors coming through and there’s no surer short-term sign of that, than a junior rep team that wins.  

As a result, coaches tend to coach with short term goals in mind. Holistic long-term approaches to player development, unless communicated well by the club, tend to be hit and miss. This collision of philosophies and goals was in full swing during the mid-noughties onwards.  

 This was some of the thought process when NSW were suffering their long-term drought in the Origin arena to the champion Qld team including Thurston, Smith, Slater et al. It was thought that NSW were churning out too many ‘robotic’ players with a reduced amount of instinctive skill thanks to a playing journey perpetuated by being mentored by ‘career coaches’ and being run into the ground on the training field.  

To watch Jonathan Thurston at his peak was to see a player who still gave the impression he was just having fun in the park. Seeing Cooper Cronk was to see a well-coached but ‘manufactured’ half thanks to his mentor at Melbourne Storm, yet he wasn’t hamstrung by too many previous bad habits or pre programmed ideas from his time growing up in Queensland.      

When, in 2012, I arrived in Queensland to coach, I could see that free spirit still in flow amongst juniors. The junior players in Queensland produced skills I had rarely seen, particularly from further up north or country areas.

Around about the same time I arrived up here, Queensland Cup clubs were in the early throes of starting junior rep programs similar to those in Sydney and there was an ever-growing powerful schoolboy circuit. Now, as I write in 2020, the Cyril Connell (Under 16s) and Mal Meninga Under 18s junior rep competitions are well entrenched and Queensland schools have supplied the majority of the most recent national schoolboy champions.
To this day, those junior rep teams in Queensland train a lot less than their equivalents in Sydney. Most teams do twice or three times a week. I’ve not heard of any doing any more. Schoolboy ‘Super 6’ rugby league in south-east Queensland is absolutely the toughest Under 18s football I have ever seen and coached in. Up in north Queensland, schools such as Kirwan often produce teams that beat everyone south of their location.
In recent years. NSW have started to wrestle the mantle off Queensland as Origin kings and, since Slater, JT, Cronk and Smith et al retired from that scene, Tommy Turbo, Teddy and the like are the ones grabbing the headlines.
But a look at the NRL on a regular basis shows that instinctive ‘eyes up’ play is still not the common thread. It’s been boosted a little bit by the new ‘six again’ rule but I can promise you that, if I took any random game in the NRL and pointed out where the space on the field is versus the choice each player takes, you’d never look at the game the same way again. If you look at the picture within this article

 

you’ll see Newcastle Knights in action against the Brisbane Broncos recently. Anybody can see that Newcastle just needed to pass right once or maybe twice and they would have scored on that very tackle against one isolated Brisbane defender. The fact Brisbane are aligned like that is bad enough and is an indicator of why they may be having defensive (and many other) troubles at the minute, but the fact that Newcastle, currently
riding high in the ladder, didn’t see that space and played out virtually a full set before scoring off a kick, is indicative of a deeper ‘eyes up footy’ problem.
So what I’m getting at here is, the less a player is spoon fed the Xs and Os by an over exuberant coach (or generally over-coached) the chances are, if he is good enough, or is guided by a coach or organisations with a more long term strategy in mind he (or she) will find what’s needed and it will be a more powerful and long-term learning experience.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Australian development system is a mess. It isn’t. it’s just not completely co-ordinated across all stakeholders and possibly never will be. If it was, Australia would probably never lose a Test match again. The strength of Australia is in the numbers, there are simply far more players and the whole thing is just a far bigger deal here than anywhere else. Throw in a climate suited to outside activities and the Aussies have three of the biggest ingredients to suit any endeavour – personnel, profile and playing conditions. They could do the player development thing a lot better, yet even their 5/6 out of 10 is enough to cling on to the world champion title.

Yet this mantle is under some threat and not necessarily from the traditional foe in the Northern Hemisphere.
Back in 2008, the rugby league world was shocked when NZ won the World Cup. But what the Aussies suddenly realised was that many Kiwis had relocated to Australia as kids, gone to Australian schools, played in junior rep systems and gotten themselves an ‘Australian’ footy education, before donning the famous Kiwi jersey when the time came. Benji Marshall was the highest profile of that group.

NRL contracts now ask players to declare their allegiance right from the start, but with the
emergence of sides such as Tonga and Samoa, there are now a few more knocking on the elite door.
Tonga seems to be the current powerful force with momentum, with many players who could qualify for NZ playing instead for Tonga. Pacific players now make up 45 percent of the NRL in a 2019 study.

This observer feels that there has been a subtle decline in Australian playing standards over the last few years and, combined with the spreading out of talent on the international scene (and no Smith, Cronk, Slater, Inglis and JT in the Australian side) it means English or British rugby league has a great chance to get some wins over Australia.
But here we have another issue – what’s going on in the UK development wise?
In the 1980s there was a big change in the approach to ‘extra curricular’ sport from teachers at schools and rugby league became less of a pastime in some schools as a result. That probably impacted Great Britain or England to an extent in the mid to late 1990s onwards. But in 1999, a country and government keen to lift its sporting profile on the world stage started funding the Sport England World Class Performance plan, a nine-year program to get England to the top of the world in various sports, including rugby league.
As a result, in the noughties, it didn’t take England long to get things moving. There were wins for the England Academy over the Australian Schoolboys for the first time ever and they often repeated it, including series wins.

So as kids, many of the players who run around the fields of Super League
or the Championships, did as teenagers what they haven’t been able to do as adults – beat the Aussies. David Waite (an Aussie) was the performance director during that period and in my experience, did an absolutely amazing job. His work was skill focussed, selection processes for regional representative teams were thorough and had to be justified whilst transparency and accountability was the name of the game.


He might not admit it but I can’t help think that Waitey’s approach during that time was influenced by the politics of junior rep football in Australia, which he would know all about having once been a school teacher, the Australian Schoolboys coach and a first grade coach at St George Illawarra and Newcastle Knights.  

Another thing that happened throughout that period was that each region picked the 40 best players at Under 14s, 15s and 16s. By regions I mean the whole North West rather than Wigan, Warrington or St Helens and non-traditional rugby league areas were also asked to produce their best 40.    

What seemed to stifle the development of the kids that could beat the Aussies was the different approaches of clubs. Whereas the governing body, the RFL, wanted to see as many of its Aussie-beating youngsters get signed and promoted to first grade by Super League clubs, the reality is a few things came on a collision course with that. For example, a fear of getting relegated is not going to encourage a club to try out a youngster over signing an experienced Australian with 50 NRL games under his belt. Secondly, given a quota for overseas stars, teams tend to fill the quota in a bid to get the wins that year.   Club coaches who don’t produce wins can get sacked. Lack of wins can impact crowds which impacts bottom line which threatens every job.

Also, because the Super League is not as big a business as the NRL, there is less money swirling around the game.  I know of several Super League quality players who could earn more money playing part time in the Championship and having a ‘real job’ than if they were a fringe first grader at a Super League club.        

What has (or should) have helped British talent was the increasing number of them that headed to the NRL. Canberra Raiders in particular have done wonders for the English game! With the perceived slight drop in standard of the Kangaroos and the emergence of Tonga and ever-present threat of NZ, an England or Great Britain team with several hardened NRL players included would be a fast track to producing battle ready Test players ready to end the drought.   

England seemed very much on track under Wayne Bennett.  They lost the 2017 World Cup Final 6-0 and that was played in Brisbane. Maybe if it was played in Manchester, England may have pipped it.  And this was an Aussie team with Slater, Cronk and Smith in.    

But instead, the team representing Great Britain on a recent tour absolutely bungled it.  But it was bungled before they even got on a plane. Wayne Bennett (apparently) used the tour to prepare for the 2021 World Cup.  (A Great Britain team was used to prepare an England team). To me, the key thing is, he was allowed to do that by the governing body.  The whole thing was a real sham from the start.   

All I keep hearing about from a development point of view are ‘cuts, cuts, cuts’.  This is a huge blow yet a lot of what David Waite and those who followed him did so well doesn’t necessarily need to be costing a fortune.        

The clubs have to come onside. Due to this pandemic, they are now at a real crunch point in their evolution and they need to know what a successful England can do for the WHOLE brand of rugby league.    

If they don’t, they’ll be talking in 2070 about 100 years without a series win against Australia.

Lee Addison is the Head of Performance for Spain Rugby League but any views expressed in this column are his own.  You can find him at rugbyleaguecoach.com.au.      He is also offering FREE 4 week training programs for Coaches and Players to help recover from COVID.   Please visit the ‘Rugby League Coach’ YouTube page, click subscribe and send a screenshot to admin@rugbyleaguecoach.com.au for your free programs.

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