JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

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

          Make a comment

          You are logged in as [Logout]

          All information entered below may be published.

          Error: Please enter your screen name.

          Error: Your Screen Name must be less than 255 characters.

          Error: Your Location must be less than 255 characters.

          Error: Please enter your comment.

          Error: Your Message must be less than 300 words.

          Post to

          You need to have read and accepted the Conditions of Use.

          Thank you

          Your comment has been submitted for approval.

          Comments are moderated and are generally published if they are on-topic and not abusive.

          NRL Season 2015

          Round 1
          Thu, 05 MarTimes shown AEDT
          BRI 6 vs SOU 36 Report Stats
          Fri, 06 MarTimes shown AEDT
          PAR 42 vs MAN 12 Report Report Stats
          Sat, 07 MarTimes shown AEDT
          NEW 24 vs NZW 14 Report Stats
          GCT 18 vs WST 19 Report Stats
          NQL 4 vs SYD 28 Report Stats
          Sun, 08 MarTimes shown AEDT
          PEN 24 vs CBY 18 Report Stats
          CRO 20 vs CBR 24 Report Stats
          Mon, 09 MarTimes shown AEDT
          STG 4 vs MEL 12 Report Stats
          View All Fixtures
          Round 2
          Fri, 13 MarTimes shown AEDT
          CBY 32 vs PAR 12 Report Stats
          CRO 2 vs BRI 10 Report Stats
          Sat, 14 MarTimes shown AEDT
          PEN 40 vs GCT Report Stats
          MAN 24 vs MEL 22 Stats
          NQL 14 vs NEW 16 Report Stats
          Sun, 15 MarTimes shown AEDT
          SOU 34 vs SYD 26 Stats
          CBR 6 vs NZW 18 Report Stats
          Mon, 16 MarTimes shown AEDT
          WST 22 vs STG 4 Stats
          View All Fixtures
          Round 3
          Fri, 20 MarTimes shown AEDT
          MAN 12 vs CBY 16 Report Stats
          BRI 44 vs NQL 22 Report Stats
          Sat, 21 MarTimes shown AEDT
          NZW 29 vs PAR 16 Report Stats
          CBR 20 vs STG 22 Report Stats
          MEL 36 vs CRO 18 Report Stats
          Sun, 22 MarTimes shown AEDT
          SOU 20 vs WST 6 Report Stats
          GCT 18 vs NEW 20 Report Stats
          Mon, 23 MarTimes shown AEDT
          SYD 20 vs PEN 12 Report Stats
          View All Fixtures
          Round 4
          Fri, 27 MarTimes shown AEDT
          PAR 29 vs SOU 16 Report Stats
          WST 24 vs CBY 25 Report Stats
          Sat, 28 MarTimes shown AEDT
          NEW 26 vs PEN 14 Report Stats
          CRO 22 vs GCT 24 Report Stats
          STG 12 vs MAN 4 Report Stats
          Sun, 29 MarTimes shown AEDT
          NZW 16 vs BRI 24 Report Stats
          SYD 34 vs CBR 6 Report Stats
          Mon, 30 MarTimes shown AEDT
          NQL 18 vs MEL 17 Stats
          View All Fixtures
          Round 5
          Fri, 03 AprTimes shown AEDT
          CBY vs SOU 16:00ANZ
          GCT vs BRI 20:35Cbus Super Stadium
          Sat, 04 AprTimes shown AEDT
          MAN vs CBR 17:30Lavington Sports Ground
          NEW vs STG 19:30HS
          Sun, 05 AprTimes shown AEST
          SYD vs CRO 16:00AS
          Mon, 06 AprTimes shown AEST
          PAR vs WST 15:00ANZ
          MEL vs NZW 17:00AAMI
          PEN vs NQL 19:00Pepper Stadium
          View All Fixtures
          Round 6
          Fri, 10 AprTimes shown AEST
          BRI vs SYD 19:35SUN
          CRO vs NEW 19:35Remondis Stadium
          Sat, 11 AprTimes shown AEST
          PAR vs GCT 15:00Pirtek Stadium
          NZW vs WST 17:30MSS
          PEN vs MAN 19:30Pepper Stadium
          Sun, 12 AprTimes shown AEST
          CBR vs MEL 14:00GIO Stadium
          STG vs CBY 16:00ANZ
          Mon, 13 AprTimes shown AEST
          SOU vs NQL 19:00ANZ
          View All Fixtures
          Round 7
          Fri, 17 AprTimes shown AEST
          CBY vs MAN 19:35ANZ
          STG vs BRI 19:35Jubilee Oval
          Sat, 18 AprTimes shown AEST
          GCT vs PEN 15:00Cbus Super Stadium
          NQL vs NZW 17:301300 Smiles Stadium
          MEL vs SYD 19:30AAMI
          Sun, 19 AprTimes shown AEST
          WST vs CBR 14:00VAS
          NEW vs PAR 16:00HS
          Mon, 20 AprTimes shown AEST
          CRO vs SOU 19:00Remondis Stadium
          View All Fixtures
          Round 8
          Fri, 24 AprTimes shown AEST
          CBY vs WST 19:45ANZ
          Sat, 25 AprTimes shown AEST
          NZW vs GCT 12:00MSS
          NEW vs NQL 14:00HS
          SYD vs STG 16:00AS
          MEL vs MAN 18:15AAMI
          BRI vs PAR 20:00SUN
          Sun, 26 AprTimes shown AEST
          PEN vs CRO 14:00Pepper Stadium
          SOU vs CBR 16:00Barlow Park
          View All Fixtures
          Round 9
          Fri, 08 MayTimes shown AEST
          BRI vs PEN 19:35SUN
          SYD vs WST 19:35AS
          Sat, 09 MayTimes shown AEST
          CBR vs GCT 15:00GIO Stadium
          CRO vs NZW 17:30Remondis Stadium
          NQL vs CBY 19:301300 Smiles Stadium
          Sun, 10 MayTimes shown AEST
          MAN vs NEW 14:00BO
          PAR vs MEL 16:00Pirtek Stadium
          Mon, 11 MayTimes shown AEST
          SOU vs STG 19:00ANZ
          View All Fixtures
          Round 10
          Fri, 15 MayTimes shown AEST
          CBY vs SYD 19:35ANZ
          NQL vs BRI 19:351300 Smiles Stadium
          Sat, 16 MayTimes shown AEST
          PAR vs NZW 15:00Pirtek Stadium
          GCT vs CRO 17:30Cbus Super Stadium
          MEL vs SOU 19:30AAMI
          Sun, 17 MayTimes shown AEST
          STG vs CBR 14:00WIN
          NEW vs WST 16:00HS
          Mon, 18 MayTimes shown AEST
          MAN vs PEN 19:00BO
          View All Fixtures
          Round 11
          Fri, 22 MayTimes shown AEST
          SOU vs PAR 19:45ANZ
          Sat, 23 MayTimes shown AEST
          WST vs NQL 19:30CSS
          Sun, 24 MayTimes shown AEST
          CBR vs CBY 16:00GIO Stadium
          Mon, 25 MayTimes shown AEST
          NEW vs BRI 19:00HS
          View All Fixtures
          Round 12
          Fri, 29 MayTimes shown AEST
          PEN vs PAR 19:45Pepper Stadium
          Sat, 30 MayTimes shown AEST
          GCT vs SOU 15:00Cbus Super Stadium
          CBR vs BRI 17:30GIO Stadium
          NQL vs MAN 19:301300 Smiles Stadium
          Sun, 31 MayTimes shown AEST
          NZW vs NEW 14:00MSS
          STG vs CRO 16:00Jubilee Oval
          Mon, 01 JunTimes shown AEST
          SYD vs MEL 19:00AS
          View All Fixtures
          Round 13
          Fri, 05 JunTimes shown AEST
          BRI vs MAN 19:35SUN
          WST vs GCT 19:35VAS
          Sat, 06 JunTimes shown AEST
          NEW vs CBR 15:00HS
          SOU vs NZW 17:30nib Stadium
          PEN vs MEL 19:30Pepper Stadium
          Sun, 07 JunTimes shown AEST
          CRO vs SYD 16:00Remondis Stadium
          Mon, 08 JunTimes shown AEST
          CBY vs STG 16:00ANZ
          PAR vs NQL 19:00Pirtek Stadium
          View All Fixtures
          Round 14
          Fri, 12 JunTimes shown AEST
          WST vs SOU 19:45ANZ
          Sat, 13 JunTimes shown AEST
          NZW vs SYD 18:00MSS
          Sun, 14 JunTimes shown AEST
          GCT vs CBY 16:00Cbus Super Stadium
          Mon, 15 JunTimes shown AEST
          MEL vs PAR 19:00AAMI
          View All Fixtures
          Round 15
          Fri, 19 JunTimes shown AEST
          MAN vs WST 19:45BO
          Sat, 20 JunTimes shown AEST
          CBR vs NQL 15:00GIO Stadium
          GCT vs NZW 17:30Cbus Super Stadium
          CBY vs PEN 19:30ANZ
          Sun, 21 JunTimes shown AEST
          NEW vs CRO 14:00HS
          MEL vs BRI 16:00AAMI
          Mon, 22 JunTimes shown AEST
          STG vs SYD 19:00AS
          View All Fixtures
          Round 16
          Fri, 26 JunTimes shown AEST
          BRI vs NEW 19:35SUN
          SOU vs MAN 19:35ANZ
          Sat, 27 JunTimes shown AEST
          NZW vs CBR 15:00MSS
          NQL vs CRO 17:301300 Smiles Stadium
          PAR vs STG 19:30Pirtek Stadium
          Sun, 28 JunTimes shown AEST
          SYD vs GCT 14:00AS
          WST vs PEN 16:00VAS
          Mon, 29 JunTimes shown AEST
          CBY vs MEL 19:00Belmore Sports Ground
          View All Fixtures
          Round 17
          Fri, 03 JulTimes shown AEST
          PEN vs SOU 19:45Pepper Stadium
          Sat, 04 JulTimes shown AEST
          STG vs NQL 19:30WIN
          Sun, 05 JulTimes shown AEST
          MAN vs CRO 16:00BO
          Mon, 06 JulTimes shown AEST
          WST vs PAR 19:00ANZ
          View All Fixtures
          Round 18
          Fri, 10 JulTimes shown AEST
          CBR vs NEW 19:45GIO Stadium
          Sat, 11 JulTimes shown AEST
          PEN vs SYD 17:30Pepper Stadium
          CBY vs BRI 19:30ANZ
          Sun, 12 JulTimes shown AEST
          NZW vs MEL 14:00MSS
          CRO vs STG 16:00Remondis Stadium
          Mon, 13 JulTimes shown AEST
          GCT vs MAN 19:00Cbus Super Stadium
          View All Fixtures
          Round 19
          Fri, 17 JulTimes shown AEST
          PAR vs CBY 19:35ANZ
          MEL vs PEN 19:35AAMI
          Sat, 18 JulTimes shown AEST
          CBR vs CRO 15:00GIO Stadium
          NEW vs GCT 17:30HS
          STG vs SOU 19:30SCG
          Sun, 19 JulTimes shown AEST
          SYD vs NZW 14:00AS
          BRI vs WST 16:00SUN
          Mon, 20 JulTimes shown AEST
          MAN vs NQL 19:00BO
          View All Fixtures
          Round 20
          Fri, 24 JulTimes shown AEST
          BRI vs GCT 19:35SUN
          WST vs SYD 19:35ANZ
          Sat, 25 JulTimes shown AEST
          NZW vs MAN 15:00MSS
          SOU vs NEW 17:30ANZ
          MEL vs STG 19:30AAMI
          Sun, 26 JulTimes shown AEST
          PEN vs CBR 14:00Pepper Stadium
          CBY vs CRO 16:00Belmore Sports Ground
          Mon, 27 JulTimes shown AEST
          NQL vs PAR 19:001300 Smiles Stadium
          View All Fixtures
          Round 21
          Thu, 30 JulTimes shown AEST
          NZW vs CRO 22:00MSS
          Fri, 31 JulTimes shown AEST
          NQL vs CBR 00:001300 Smiles Stadium
          STG vs NEW 00:00Jubilee Oval
          SOU vs PEN 00:00ANZ
          SYD vs CBY 00:00AS
          MAN vs BRI 00:00To Be Confirmed
          WST vs MEL 00:00VAS
          GCT vs PAR 00:00Cbus Super Stadium
          View All Fixtures
          Round 22
          Thu, 06 AugTimes shown AEST
          NZW vs STG 22:00MSS
          Fri, 07 AugTimes shown AEST
          BRI vs CBY 00:00SUN
          NEW vs SYD 00:00HS
          CBR vs WST 00:00GIO Stadium
          MAN vs SOU 00:00BO
          CRO vs NQL 00:00Remondis Stadium
          MEL vs GCT 00:00AAMI
          PAR vs PEN 00:30TIO
          View All Fixtures
          Round 23
          Thu, 13 AugTimes shown AEST
          BRI vs STG 00:00SUN
          CBY vs GCT 00:00To Be Confirmed
          NQL vs SOU 00:001300 Smiles Stadium
          PEN vs NZW 00:00Pepper Stadium
          CBR vs MAN 00:00GIO Stadium
          SYD vs PAR 00:00AS
          CRO vs MEL 00:00Remondis Stadium
          WST vs NEW 00:00CSS
          View All Fixtures
          Round 24
          Wed, 19 AugTimes shown AEST
          NZW vs NQL 22:00MSS
          Thu, 20 AugTimes shown AEST
          STG vs PEN 00:00WIN
          SOU vs CBY 00:00ANZ
          SYD vs BRI 00:00AS
          MAN vs PAR 00:00BO
          CRO vs WST 00:00Remondis Stadium
          MEL vs NEW 00:00AAMI
          GCT vs CBR 00:00Cbus Super Stadium
          View All Fixtures
          Round 25
          Thu, 27 AugTimes shown AEST
          PAR vs CRO 00:00Pirtek Stadium
          NEW vs CBY 00:00HS
          SOU vs BRI 00:00AS
          CBR vs PEN 00:00GIO Stadium
          MAN vs SYD 00:00BO
          MEL vs NQL 00:00AAMI
          WST vs NZW 00:00CSS
          GCT vs STG 00:00Cbus Super Stadium
          View All Fixtures
          Round 26
          Thu, 03 SepTimes shown AEST
          BRI vs MEL 00:00SUN
          CBY vs NZW 00:00ANZ
          NQL vs GCT 00:001300 Smiles Stadium
          STG vs WST 00:00ANZ
          PAR vs CBR 00:00Pirtek Stadium
          PEN vs NEW 00:00Pepper Stadium
          SYD vs SOU 00:00AS
          CRO vs MAN 00:00Remondis Stadium
          View All Fixtures
          NRL Ladder 2015
          Overall standings
          Team P W L D Pts
          Newcastle Knights 4 4 0 0 8
          Sydney Roosters 4 3 1 0 6
          South Sydney Rabbitohs 4 3 1 0 6
          Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 4 3 1 0 6
          Brisbane Broncos 4 3 1 0 6
          Penrith Panthers 4 2 2 0 4
          Melbourne Storm 4 2 2 0 4
          Parramatta Eels 4 2 2 0 4
          View all
          Featured advertisers