My soccer playing eight-year-old daughter walked up to her (elite rugby player) seventeen-year-old cousin and asked… “Hey Haz? What do you do when you play rugby?”
“I smash people,” responded Haz.
While I figured that there was probably a bit more to Haz’s defensive responsibilities (at the top end of schools representative rugby) than his brief description provided, I guess it summarized his role pretty well for a curious rugby know-nothing eight-year-old.
Maybe not. Maybe Haz was just telling it like it is. If you can believe Gal (Paul Gallen), Joey (Andrew Johns) and Gus (Phil Gould) former elite rugby league players who now work as commentators and NRL analysts “aggressive” players at the very top skill level of professional rugby league football just charge off their goal line at full speed (to shut down an opponent who is a skilful ball player) and run into him as hard as they can to prevent him from making a play. No planning. No thinking. No organizing yourself. No careful looking at the opponent. No visualizing the tackling technique to be employed. No visualizing where the hit will take place. No time for any of that. Just charge… smash. Mindless. No skill involved. These experts argue that “people who have played the game” understand that that is the way that things must be done and, unfortunately, sometimes things can go wrong with this approach. But that is Rugby League. It is a tough contact sport. That’s what happens sometimes. It’s not deliberate. It just happens.
Really Gus, Joey and Gal? Do you really think that?
I have not “played the game” at their level. I guess that is why I disagree with them. I have played and coached multiple sports at much more basic levels for decades and I have come to believe that, even under time pressure, players (even not very good players) can be coached to react to pressure situations and carry out offensive or defensive roles in an effective and appropriate manner. After hearing Gus, Joey, and Gal’s analysis of the incident where South Sydney’s uber-talented Latrell Mitchell’s high tackle on his Eastern Suburbs opponent and friend, Joey Manu, I have to say that I was extremely surprised at their unanimous lack of belief in the capacity of elite athletes to be coached properly. To suggest that an “aggressive” guy like Mitchell doesn’t have the capacity to quickly sum up a pressure situation and carry out a jarring but effective and fair tackle (at speed) by using highly developed defensive skills seems to me to not give Mitchell himself, the game of Rugby League, or the profession of rugby league coaching anywhere near enough credit. Surely this sport and its coaching has reached a higher level of sophistication than “when in a pressure situation close to your own line, come off the line as fast as you can and smash the person with the ball.” Sorry. I just don’t believe it. The game… and its coaches… are better than that.
The experts were also concerned that any effort to change Mitchell’s playing style might stifle his aggression. No. Mitchell’s aggression… and even his arrogance… are things that help to make him a great player and a fun player to watch. It seems to me that rather than attempt to “change” Mitchell’s style someone should take on the responsibility of teaching him to tackle more effectively and to help him to increase his defensive skill level.
The argument that players at the top of their game like Mitchell don’t have the time to react with subtlety and finesse under the circumstances where Mitchell accidently caved in the side of Joey Manu’s face don’t hold water. In every highly developed sport the best athletes make critical adjustments to their actions and behaviours with mere hundredths of seconds at their disposal all the time. Cricketers. Netballers. Divers. Swimmers. Basketballers. Baseballers. Soccer players. High jumpers. Sprinters. Tennis players. The list is endless. Not enough time is not a good enough excuse when poor technique creates a horrible outcome.
Good coaching and effort
When a massive dude like Shaq O’Neill (in attack) used to back into another massive dude like Luke Longley (in defense) at the low block, was it an example of a mindless road grader pushing against a witless tank with the stronger of the two coming out on top? Maybe, partially. But there was also a huge amount of skill on display. Skill that had been coached. Skill that the athletes had developed with enormous amounts of hard work. If, instead of watching their banging bodies, the observer looked at both athlete’s footwork, the use of their hips, the use of their knees and elbows, the use of their butts, the use of their hands, the use of head and shoulder fakes, one would see two highly tuned dudes playing a game of skill against each other. If people like Shaq O’Neill and Luke Longley can display enormous technical finesse, when doing body-banging work (all condensed into a tiny moment of time), so can an athlete with the innate talent of Latrell Mitchell. It just takes good coaching and effort on the part of the athlete.
While we are on the subject of what coaching can and can’t do there were also a couple of other moments in the same game where, according to the pundits, coaching would do no good. At one moment, South Sydney’s Cody Walker executed a beautifully timed left field pass off his left foot to create space and set-up a try (normally such a pass would be executed with weight on the right foot). “Gus” Gould proclaimed, “You can’t coach that!” Not long after, the brilliant Walker swung a two-handed pass around the back of an opponent to find his outside runner and set up another try (around the back passes are normally executed with one hand). Immediately, “Joey” Johns let us know “You can’t coach that.” Really?
Oh you former players of little faith! Of course you can coach that. Neither of those plays are impossible to coach. While it is true that few athletes will ever execute such “expert-level” skills with the brilliance of a Cody Walker it is not true that such skills cannot be taught. Have a bit more faith in coaching. I am particularly surprised that Johns made the “can’t coach that” claim given that he has coached and taught numerous rugby league halves and hookers to perform extremely difficult kicking skills over the years. Surely he knows that talented athletes can be taught all kinds of new and wonderful skills.