Applying reason to rugger

24th November 1995 at 00:00
Peter Breuer recalls how a Q and A approach sharpened up his rugby team. For reasons beyond my control, and against my better judgment, I once took a job as schoolmaster at a boarding school. The headmaster was a games fanatic, and the boys played rugger every weekday afternoon during the two winter terms. The boys worked at it, but they lost their matches with monotonous regularity. Because I taught science, I did not have to coach games, but I watched the matches. After six years of feeling frustration at their defeats, I volunteered to coach the first two teams at rugby.

Out of 39 subsequent matches the teams lost only two, each by a penalty goal. In other matches the teams walked all over the opposition. The headmaster was mystified, but it was quite simple. When in doubt, go back to first principles.

"What is rugby?" I asked the boys. They looked puzzled. "Rugby is a game of brains, played between two teams of roughly equal strength and fitness. " The boys looked doubtful.

"What is the object of a game of rugby?" I asked.

"To win the match," they said. Their hearts were in the right place, but the answer was wrong. "The object of a game of rugby is to score points."

"What do you need to score?" Now there is a question. The ball, of course, " they said. "How many balls are there on the pitch?" I asked. "The man is clearly off his trolley," they thought, but they obliged by suggesting that the answer might be "One".

"How do you get hold of the ball?" I asked. "By winning it in a scrum or a line-out," they ventured. "So once you have fought for the ball tooth and claw, why give it back to the other side by kicking it to them or giving it back to them via a line-out?" The result of such reasoning was a ban on kicking for touch outside their own twenty-two. In consequence the players were forced to handle. "Now what advantage have you got over the other side?" I asked. They looked blank. "You have a plan. You know what is going to happen, and what is not. When they kick the ball, it will not be kicked back, so get on side, and run with the ball." They had to pass, and pass fast, because in my theory of the game, anyone who is tackled with the ball in his possession has failed.

"What is a player going to do if he is checked before he can pass? Before you answer that one, I am going to tell you what he may not do." I told them that no player was to put his head down and charge. If he put his head down, he could not see what was happening around him. Furthermore, they were not to run into a ruck, because that is tantamount to offering their ball up for competition.

"So what is left?" I asked. "Turn round, so that you can see your whole team and all the passing options," they said. "OK," I said "but he must not do the driving. One player must pack on each side of him to drive him forward, while he looks back at his options."

"When the scrum has won the ball, where is the scrum half going to pass that ball?" I asked unkindly. "To the fly half," they said with misplaced confidence. "If he does that, what will the fly half have to do?" was the next question. "Stand still until the ball arrives," someone said. "Well then, the scrum half, or any other player taking the ball from the base of the scrum will pass the ball so far in front of the fly half, that he is in danger of falling over as he runs and stretches to reach it. That will ensure that the ball passes down a three-quarter line which is moving fast."

"What is the wing going to do at the end of the line?" They suggested that, if he could not pass the ball back along the line, he should kick the ball to land in front of the scrum, and run forward to put the scrum on side.

It worked, and nothing succeeds like success. School teams came to visit us, and instead of enjoying their customary victory, they went away mangled. We visited other schools, and instead of coming home dejected, teams came home elated.

I was asked to take charge of the first two teams at cricket. There is not much you can do about a team's batting ability, but I applied first principles to the game as a whole, starting with the questions "What is cricket?" and "What is the object of the game?" In the event, both teams had the undefeated seasons which had just eluded us at rugby.

Now I am retired I like to watch rugby and cricket on television, but it frustrates me. Week after week I see British teams making the mistakes even schoolboys should not make. Mistakes you do not expect from international rugby players or test cricketers.

By the application of first principles, England could have won the World Cup in South Africa. The talent was there, but the principles of the handling game were ignored. When Sky Television shows how well the teams from the Southern Hemisphere do that, things might change. Meanwhile, parents and schoolmasters should stop clapping school fly halves when they kick for touch, or anywhere else, other than over the bar.

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