Our latest regular contributor, The Inside Man is a coach that has moved to South Africa to do a Sports Diploma at a prestigious Rugby University. Because of the sensitive nature of the material he covers, all names and locations have been altered. The Inside Man will be commenting on coaching styles, difference in playing styles and specific issues within the team and season, while dissecting the incredibly professional and intense structure of South African Rugby
Part 5: The Blame Game
It is a question that has baffled commentators, analysts and journalists since the conception of the sport. Who is to blame for losing?
In football (normal or American) people are quick to blame the coach, wrong tactics, wrong motivation etcetera, etcetera. Excuse me? Are the coaches on the pitch? Are they paid hundreds of thousands to play the game? Are the players not adults who can motivate, train and mature themselves to a point?
In rugby the criticism is nowhere near as spectacular, only at the very highest point of the game is there even a vague move towards this line of thought, and even then it only truly comes from the rugby first tier nations such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
The simple reason is that even the most neolithic rugby followers can understand that a coach does not teach a player how to miss a simple first up tackle, or how to miss a basic six foot pass to a team-mate. No, in rugby the coach is blamed for overall strategic errors, for an incorrect game plan and, if he is particularly combative, of dividing the dressing room (a rarity).
In case you had not realized by now, we lost. Again. Unlike last week, this was a complete implosion, no feisty fight back at the end, utter capitulation. We were supreme in a cagey first half, our try line defence utterly unforgiving. A clean break from a rampant openside flanker was met with a bone shuddering tackle ON the try line, from our blindside winger. Up by a small margin at halftime, but the opposition had been frustrated and looked unlikely to breach the fortress walls that were our try line. I say ‘were’ because after half time, the wheels (along with the doors, roof and engine) fell off the bus. End result? Well we lost. Badly.
After the game, the head coach, a man far more gifted than most of us could ever hope to be at rugby coaching, questioned whether perhaps it was his fault. He suggested to the team that perhaps he was the problem. A coach does not teach a player to miss a tackle! If a team plays poorly from the start of their season, if a team’s lineout is in disarray and their structure non-existent THEN it is the coaches fault, but this team has won before, this team has shown incredible promise in training and in parts during matches. So if not the coach, well that only leaves one other possibility.
I do not know much about psychology, I do not pretend to be even an educated amateur about it. But I know one thing about rugby. There is a fine line between knowing you can beat a team and maintaining your intensity, and knowing you can beat a team and stop playing because of it. This team has been capable of beating every single opposition team it has played, by a distance, but they know it and so they stop.
And that is the problem, as I explained to the head coach when he, perhaps rather ill advisably, asked for my opinion, in America you can stop playing and still win if your margin is big enough, in England too, even in France you can get away with smashing a team for forty minutes and then sit back and relax. Not HERE! Not in this country and not in this competition. This is a country that is famous for producing rugby players that simply do not care how good your team is, they will win, they do not care how amazing you look on paper, they will win, and above all they do not care how far ahead you are on the scoreboard, THEY. WILL. WIN! The great teams do not simply want to win, because anybody can want to win a game. The great teams refuse to lose! They are bad tempered and bloody minded about this one goal. England 2003, South Africa 2007, New Zealand 2011, they did not play pretty rugby, they just refused to stop!
Perhaps that is the mentality that a team on the ropes needs, a burning rage that refuses to allow them to consider losing. But one thing is for damn sure, that desire is not something that can be coached, that desire is something personal and private. Something that each and every rugby player must find within themselves. Coaches can motivate but the responsibility lies with the player to know if he can bring that level of intensity to his game.
So if it is not something that can be coached, then I ask the question again, if a team stops playing in the second half of a game, after a spectacular first half, in which everything they have trained and been coached to do works beautifully, who is to blame?
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