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NRL's copycat coaches losing sight of the big picture

Point of difference: Ben Matulino looks to offload for the Warriors, one of the few teams with a style of their own.

Point of difference: Ben Matulino looks to offload for the Warriors, one of the few teams with a style of their own. Photo: Getty Images

One of the more common inquiries I receive each week from fans is to explain why all teams play their attacking football the same way.

To a point, that is very true. I guess if all teams played in the same coloured jerseys, it would be hard to tell them apart.

They all have the same structures, patterns, philosophies and the same plays. Each set of six in their own half looks the same.

When they get into attacking positions and are trying to score points, the structures and plays all look the same.

If you watch the NRL  regularly you know with 90 per cent certainty what comes next. It’s just a matter of whether your team can do it better than the rival team this weekend.

Very few NRL teams have a style they could truly call their own. Perhaps the Warriors provide a point of difference to other teams. There are certain aspects of Des Hasler’s Bulldogs that stand them apart. The Sea Eagles have a little something, too.

My simple answer to these questions is that if all NRL coaches are playing the game pretty much the same way, then this must be the best way to play.

It’s difficult for those of us on the outside looking in, to question those who are engrossed in this space every day.

If there was a better way, I’m sure someone would’ve produced it by now. I get the feeling that if someone tried to play the game differently, they would probably get thumped. That’s certainly the fear that prevents most coaches from straying too far from the beaten path.

I do understand how fans of particular teams must get exasperated when they see their team is struggling, but they keep doing the same things over and over, each and every week, even though the results don’t get any better. I share their frustration.

I get irritated watching games where teams are going through their attacking plays as though they were choreographed dance sequences, even though this style of football doesn’t necessarily suit the skill set of their players they have at their disposal.

Some of them look like a dog trying to run on wet lino. There’s plenty of energy and effort, you can see where they’d like to go, but all they are doing is spinning their wheels going nowhere.

Don’t get me wrong. Today’s players are truly outstanding athletes. They are fitter, stronger, bigger and more powerful than ever.

But how many of them are really students of the game? How many of them actually look outside their own pocket of action on the field? I guess the bigger question is, how many are encouraged to look outside their pocket of action?

The scary thing is that it goes far deeper than just the NRL teams we see on television every weekend.

If you watch the lower-grade football, it is identical. The development pathways and junior representative teams pretty much replicate what the big boys are doing.

Even if you go right back down into park and junior league football, you can see the influence of NRL structures as far back as teams at 10 years of age.

From very early in a young player’s career they are being taught to play in lanes.

The vast majority of kids are confined to a playing zone, either in the middle, left or right side of the field. The skill set being taught to kids may well be specific; however, I find it to be very limited and restrictive.

I don’t think it gives kids an overall knowledge of the game. Versatility is now a rare commodity. The kid could end up playing in this one part of the field for the rest of his days, because that is all he has ever been taught.

So if this is all we are coaching into kids from the time they start playing, chances are we are going to be locked into this style of football for at least another 20 years.

If we study the evolution of attacking football down through the decades, we can see elements of the game  that was played in the 60s and 70s still very evident in the modern game.

We can see the influence of great coaches and special individual players from certain eras on today’s action. However, the roles of players and positions within a team framework have become more defined, more scripted and more controlled.

I have long held the fear that junior league has been far too influenced by what they see in the professional game. The thought of junior coaches coaching kids like they were NRL teams has always been of great concern to me.

I think we coach creativity out of kids. By the time they have come through the more elite development and junior representative programs, we have pretty much taken their size and their skill set, and moulded it into becoming a more common cog in an even more common wheel.

Kids are coached very much on the HOW. I’m not so sure coaching spends enough time coaching the WHY.

Of course, attacking football in the professional game has been heavily sculptured by several factors.

The effects of almost two decades of full-time training, rigorous video analysis, the vastly improved fitness and strength of the individuals, constant rule changes and the evolution of tackling and wrestling techniques. It’s something of a vicious cycle in this regard.

The players being recruited and developed these days are primarily in the size and power mode. They are recruited to fit a mould or a specific job within a team framework, therefore, the style of game and player is being perpetuated.

Old timers, such as me, keep an eye out for the kid that just plays like a footballer. They are still around.

But if they can’t hit, stick, wrestle or physically push their frame through the defensive line with brute force, they are generally overlooked before they get the chance to develop their talents.

Players are not so much promoted on ABILITY, but rather on their RELIABILITY. Coaches look more at whether the athlete will stand up to the physical demands for the long term, rather than imagining what else the footballer may bring to the team?

The basics of football have never really changed. If you want to win consistently , your team needs to be able to go forward, control the ball, kick, chase and tackle.

That’s pretty much football in a nutshell. There isn’t a great deal of science in all of that. If the player has the physical capabilities, the coach can find a role for him within this framework.

However, I  believe so many other aspects of these basics are being neglected. Or at least they are not being fully explored.

How conscious are we of developing or expanding the individual talents of a playmaker? Or helping all players within the team THINK their way through games rather than just using their bodies and following a  rigid script?

I would like to replace teaching the kids the HOW with teaching them more about the WHY. Or better still, the WHY NOT?

We teach them the HOW as though this is the only way to perform their role. Every player, in each position, in every team, is pretty much given the same job. The frustrating thing is that their skill sets are rarely developed beyond the narrow scope of their restricted roles.

I get more excited in coaching the WHY.

Why do we run this sequence, this play, this angle, this pass?

What reaction are we looking for from the defensive line? How can we get a defender to react the way we want him to react? How many different plays can we execute to get the reaction we desire?

What other possible reactions could we see? How will we react if they do what we predict? How will we act if they react differently? What comes next? How do we take advantage of any confusion or disorganisation we have created in the defensive line?

I always liked to explore the talents of an individual and determine how and when he likes to get the ball to bring his unique skills or footwork into play.

I liked to study all the ways he will react instinctively in a given situation and then have the teamwork to create these opportunities for the individual.

Coaches should be constantly searching for ways to push beyond the boundaries of what currently exists. Anyone can become good at this game if they train hard and work hard. But how do you become great? And how do you go from being great to being No.1?

You can’t be the best if you simply follow what everyone else is doing.

To me, that should be the goal. Not to be like everyone else, but to be the best.

Phil Gould is general manager of the Penrith Panthers

4 comments so far

  • Phil, how many new Sterlo's, Alfies, Joeys, Wallys, Kennys ,Clydes, Roaches Thaidays are lost when they are 14 or 15 by a coach who tells them you will never make it, junior talent should be given every chance to develop no matter how fat slow skinny or small. All to often the decision has been made before a kid has finished growing and maturing whether they will make it or not.
    The only kid to make it from my age group was in 2nd division in U/15, the 1st Division coach told him to play in the 2's

    Any kid reading this don't listen to a coach that tells you your not good enough ,even if you don't make it find out by trying. not listening to the cool kids in 1st div or a wanna be coach.

    Date and time
    June 22, 2014, 12:30AM
    • Yep, too many robots and too many coaches who demand their players play like robots - not much entertainment in the game the last few years. In a perfect world the NZ Warriors would be on TV every friday night instead of the extremely boring Brisbane Broncos...NZ Warriors are the best advertisement for the NRL...if only more teams played like them.

      Date and time
      June 22, 2014, 10:50AM
      • This is WHY juniors up to 15 or 16 years should be a mix of AGE and WEIGHT, with players below a certain weight playing down one year and players over a certain weight playing up one year.
        At present we see the kid who is 50% bigger and stronger than the average getting the ball 50% of the time. The big kid knows all he needs to do is run straight and hard to score 4 or 5 times per game.
        If this big kid had to play up a year, then he would need to learn some skills such as a dummy, side step, run arounds etc. etc.
        The problem with the big kid getting rewarded with minimal skills, is that one day everyone else catches up in size and strength, then all of a sudden he is regarded as a hopeless lump used for tackling practise by the opposition.
        Likewise the small boy (like I was) can't develop skills when being hammered every game. I would have loved to stay in the game in a 1 year younger year, against boys my same size. I have a birthday in the last week of the year, was the smallest player, got hammered so went to other sports and won 7 competitions. By the time I grew to 6'4" and 120 KG's it was too late to go back to league like my Uncle who played 22 rugby league tests for Australia.
        Mixing a combination of weight and age would be good for the game, good for the big strong kids and good for the small late growing kids.

        RM Northern Beaches
        Date and time
        June 22, 2014, 11:06AM
        • If there is one positive coming out of the Origin period, it's that teams rely less on these structures to score points. Not because they don't continue to employ them, but because the disruption to their line-up with key components of those set plays absent makes them less effective. What we then get are tries scored in very different ways - old-style, if you like - such as in the Bulldogs-Eels match, which I thought was a great spectacle.

          Moving slightly obliquely to your main point, when you say,

          "Even if you go right back down into park and junior league football, you can see the influence of NRL structures as far back as teams at 10 years of age."

          you actually hit upon the reason why David Smith is correct in making 'the punch' more punishable, and reducing unnecessarily violent contact generally.

          Dr NRL
          Date and time
          June 22, 2014, 11:22AM

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          CBR 24vs MAN 26 Stats
          CBY 36vs GCT 14 Report Stats
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          CRO 2vs MEL 30 Stats
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          SOU 18vs CBY 32 Report Stats
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          CRO 40vs WST 18 Report Stats
          NZW 16vs NQL 50 Report Stats
          SYD 12vs BRI 10 Report Stats
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          GCT 28vs CBR 12 Stats
          MAN 16vs PAR 20 Report Stats
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          NEW 18vs CBY 20 Stats
          MEL 14vs NQL 6 Report Stats
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          WST 50vs NZW 16 Report Stats
          GCT 28vs STG 26 Stats
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          CBR 34vs PEN 18 Stats
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          SYD 30vs SOU 0 Report Stats
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          CRO 12vs MAN 14 Stats
          CBY 26vs NZW 22 Stats
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          BRI 31vs SYD 12 Stats
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