Australian team of the week - round 7
15: Kurtley Beale (Rebels) (2). Photo: Getty Images
Waratahs coach Michael Foley made a comment the other day that made me think about what the real expectation was of incorporating new players into a different playing environment.
"Sitaleki Timani has, through coming back from Japan late, undertaken a three or four-week crash course on how we are playing,'' he said.
The timeline given was probably a little longer than most people would assume it would take to get a player up to speed. The impression some people have is that rugby is rather homogenous and therefore the next player should automatically step-up and be able to fill in. The reality is this view is far too simplistic.
Late starter … Sitaleki Timani. Photo: Getty Images
The old ''throw it to the front of the lineout'' when there is pressure still holds true but is often thwarted by the fact the opposition is aware you may be targeting the area on your throw. It's also the worst place from which to launch a back-line play.
In a club sense there is a similarity and familiarity that allows players to move up and down grades while still understanding calling structures and moves. Clubs pull this together on a limited training schedule and therefore there is a logic that a player can adapt quickly to any environment, no matter what level.
In professional rugby, teams and players have more time to prepare. This doesn't necessarily mean more time on the training paddock but there's more opportunity for meetings and other knowledge-based learning activities, including research, opposition analysis and other mental preparation work.
The complexities at the elite level are far superior and the ability to change game plans and adapt from week-to-week comes from a learnt base of knowledge and practice. I'm directly referring to the mental aspect of the game here, as skill development takes a lot longer to teach.
Foley suggested three to four weeks was what is required for the detail of the game to become familiar and second nature. The paradox is that you learn most when you are in the starting XV.
As a reserve you gain less exposure, while if you are outside the 22 then you tend to be running the opposition's attack and defence. This means the uptake of knowledge is slower and you are forced to work harder around the edges.
It's very difficult to introduce players at short notice and expect them to be able to operate in a system with intuitiveness. Being instinctive is when you change gears in your car without thinking. Instincts are just as important on the field.
Within the frantic nature of rugby, it's the little things that matter and decide the result. A winger five metres out of position creates opportunity while a mistake in your defensive system leaves a hole. This can then be exploited through analysis or error.
The beauty of rugby is that it's not played or coached the same way and this is where it gets complicated to integrate players.
When you bring a player in from within your system they have a chance to develop instincts quicker than others in all facets of the game. Still, it's difficult for these instincts to be developed in a week or two - let alone in the heat of battle where the pace of the game is generally higher than what they are used to.
Knowledge is king and if you can impart this in a short time then it's empowering. However, too much knowledge can be debilitating as it inhibits your ability to think freely. Often the best method for new players is to simplify what's going on to ensure everything continues to function smoothly.
The difficulty though is that while the necessity for a simpler game plan allows better understanding, it can also come at a cost to other players. It's a complicated exercise.
Positional requirements obviously have an impact on the ease of the transition - it's easier to integrate a winger than a hooker. The spine of the team is harder to change as positions 2, 8, 9, 10 and 15 require facilitation and cohesive roles, and combinations are critically important.
For example, change the hooker and it's harder for the jumpers. Add in the complexity of lineout calling and the need to maintain tactical supremacy from game-to-game and it can get messy. Philosophies might be similar but what you hear and what you compute instinctively can vary massively.
Theoretically the easiest way to win lineouts is to keep the pace of execution high. Bringing new faces into the squad lessens this pace and your options, allowing your opposition into the game through the creation of physical and mental pressure.
However, it's not all doom and gloom, as sometimes new players rise to the occasion. We have seen this in recent weeks with David Harvey from the Western Force and more recently at the Queensland Reds with Sam Lane. They were brought it on short notice and prospered.
Both are talented players and there are always exceptions to the norm. They were able to impose their own intuitiveness to the occasion and come up with their own points of difference on the night.
This is one of the most enjoyable parts of the game - to see players take their opportunity. It's never an exact science, but increasing the learning curve can occur simply by having faith in the next man in.
This was evident with the emotional and physical support Lane was afforded by the Reds group before his debut and the result speaks for itself.