With the November Internationals all but concluded, Expert Witness is honoured to welcome one of the true heavyweights of the game, former England fly-half and former England Rugby Professional Game Director Rob Andrew, for an exclusive insight into the reasons behind the formbook of Test rugby.
A year on from one of the most memorable World Cups in history, the leading nations are in a state of flux as some rebuild, some consolidate and others maintain their usual standards.
New Zealand still lead the pack but beneath them, we’ve witnessed a rebirth of English and Irish desire, a decline in Welsh hywl and Springbok physicality and interesting results from Italy, Scotland and Australia.
Rob Andrew, a pioneering exponent of the sport both as a player and a coach, sees a number of themes emerging from the November Tests.
“Rugby, played well, is a simple game,” Andrew said.
“However, it’s one that relies upon a combination of elements; skills and fitness are obvious ones, technique is clearly important, but what sets the best aside is the ability to make decisions.
“It’s absolutely crucial to the game and this is what separates the leaders from the pack,” he advised.
“If you break a game down, there’s 30 players or so with the ball in play for an average of around 35 minutes. I believe each player makes around five or ten micro decisions per minute, sometimes intuitive, sometimes deliberately. What’s that? Something over 8000 micro-tasks in a game?
“It’s an incredible but absolutely accurate statistic.
“Those decisions may be as simple as when to blitz, when to step a pace to guard, when to clean out, when not to handle. There’s a myriad of things that inform those decisions and fatigue, timing, strategy, game opportunity and opposition tactics are just a few of the things the players have to deal with,
“What has been clear to me in watching all of the Tests in the last month is the sides that have a structure and strategy and have players capable of making those risk/reward decisions at pace effectively are the sides that are succeeding,” explained Andrew.
“Looking at how this translates into winning performances by elite athletes the key is to develop players who have not only the skillset and fitness to deliver but the mind-set to implement structures and strategy through good on field decisions under immense physical and intellectual pressure.
“It is the key to consistent international success,” noted Andrew.
“Looking at the nations in detail it goes without saying that New Zealand are a way ahead of the chasing pack, led by England, Ireland and Australia.
“The All Blacks have enjoyed decades of international dominance and rightly so. Their fitness, their skills and their decisions are of the highest order imaginable. Their winning culture is the envy of any team in any field of sport you’d care to mention.
“At the centre of this culture is a coaching ethos that coaches match-real situations.
“It is a given that to be an All Black you can perform basic drills and skills. If you can’t do that you’ll not be picked. In New Zealand from the age of five kids will play touch, learn skills and pace, identifying space and gaps, honing moves that other youngsters don’t see until they step into a club structure.
“So, the key to their coaching philosophy is creating scenarios that require decisions to be made on the training pitch, rather than the mind-numbing drills that many of us have seen at less elevated levels.
“Drill coaching is counterproductive as it removes the need for the player to think and react, as by definition drills are controlled by the instruction of the coaches, not the players.
“New Zealand, since the disappointment of 2007, have slowly progressed to another level entirely. Little weaknesses that may have existed in the set-piece have been eradicated. Their lineout and scrum is now absolutely the best and, as Ireland showed, to beat them, you have to compete across every area in the game and for the entire 80 minutes.
“What has been apparent during the Tests is that England and Ireland also have developed sides that have an overall ethos, a structure with which they want to play.
“One of the biggest mistakes a coach can make is to rely on player availability to win over creating the right structure.
“In the modern game a player will be unavailable for a variety of reasons for around a third of the season; this makes it essential to have a number of good selection options to fit into that structure.
“Joe Schmidt has developed real depth in the Irish ranks. We’ve seen Ireland lose some huge personalities like Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll in the last few years, yet the Irish structure, based upon a great lineout, a kicking and chasing game and a powerful showing at the contact area, allows players to replace those personalities almost seamlessly.
“On the other side of the coin, Wales have relied for a long time upon some world-class players like Jamie Roberts, Alun Wyn-Jones and Gethin Jenkins. Those guys, when not available, take a huge impact out of the Welsh game. They have defined and delivered the Welsh plan for a number of years now.
“If sides nullify those players and plan, there is less of a method to fall back on and the structure to win is not clear, as other players around them have relied for too long on delegating decision making to those big names,” concluded the former England fly-half.
South African rugby has always been defined by hallmarks of power and passion, yet the Springbok decline this year has been remarkable, culminating in an unthinkable loss versus Italy.
“The issues South Africa face are incredibly complex,” observed Andrew.
“In the last few years, a great side got very old together without a succession policy. The All Blacks constantly replace and blood players and have a succession plan, whereas South Africa relied for too long on the same big performers.
“Political issues, player migration overseas and a mish-mash of styles created by selecting from a variety of locations and seasons have conspired to disrupt coaching time together and the ability for the coaches to create a structure.
“There is a question over their current development system which is not entirety meritocratic.
“It’s safe to say that this immensely proud nation are in turmoil at the moment and the enormity of the task to change that is very evident. South Africa need to act fast and create the right development system to allow their gifted players to improve and to deliver the standards required at this level.”
“What I have found interesting is that Scotland and France have spent time developing their domestic structures with Scotland in particular investing into their regional teams.
“Both countries have gone back to selecting units proven at domestic levels and have shown considerable progress over the last 12 months.
“Scotland are perhaps not quite there yet but a little belief, the closing out of tight games and they’ll be a force to be reckoned with, with some classy operators in the back line and some very athletic forwards.
“France, always the All Blacks’ bogey team, pushed them close again last weekend. It’s no accident that Guy Novès, a man noted for creating a certain style of rugby, has managed to do that with the national side again by implementing a simple structure and picking intellect over muscle
“The French back division now features the guile of Fofana and Fickou over the power players we saw a few months ago. They’re thinking on their feet and the results will come,” explained Andrew.
Rob Andrew’s work at the RFU is often misunderstood, but as Professional Game Director, his role was to implement a connectivity between the Clubs, Leagues Players and National Teams.
After ten years of honing, it’s now obvious those plans are bearing fruit as England are producing players of rare calibre and Andrew believes Eddie Jones has inherited a rich trove of treasures:
“Eddie Jones is a man who has learned a lot in his 15 years coaching at the top level,” Andrew explains.
“He’s a very different coach to the man we saw in 2003, who was very reliant on the style developed with Rod McQueen at the Brumbies.
“He’s changed his ethos from ‘coach-controlled rugby’ to something I’d describe as ‘player-enabled rugby’ and as a result is creating a very fluid style for England and has taken us to a new level.
“I believe, knowing the efforts that England had made at junior level, that it was always a matter of time for us to see some of this talent coming through.
“Players like Owen Farrell and George Ford, relative spring chickens in international terms, have played together for something like ten years through the age group system, where the efforts of the age group coaches have been excellent.
“Those guys have learned to make decisions together and have a bank of experience that’s invaluable, all created through having a proper structure to flourish within.
“Against Argentina, this was really obvious to me when Elliot Daly was sent off. Jonathan Joseph’s attacking skills are well documented, but people overlook his defensive power.
“The 13 channel is probably the most taxing defensive role. There’s so many things to process, and the decision to drift or step to defend the wide channel is absolutely key to that role.
“When Daly was dismissed, JJ’s pace allowed him to almost defend two positions on the field including the openside wing. His decisions to push or use the touchline to defend kept England in the match and it was a performance of defensive brilliance from the young centre.
“Looking ahead to this weekend, I don’t believe there’s much to choose between to two sides.
“In June, the 3-0 scoreline perhaps flattered England, but what was notable for me was that England won with poorer possession statistics that Australia.
“For many years, the Wallabies were the epitome of efficient scoring. Up until very recently, Australia needed only 38-40 percent possession to beat England. We needed at least 60 percent to succeed, which tells you that Australia finished things off a lot better than we did.
“That stat moved in our favour in June, and England won the third test with something less than 35 percent, an incredible defensive effort.
“This will be Eddie’s biggest Test yet. A key matchup will be the ruck turnovers. England used Itoje in Australia to counter the threat of Pocock and Hooper; Maro is unavailable this time, as is the other turnover specialist, Billy Vunipola,” observed Andrew.
“I think the match will be incredibly close, but if England can dominate the scrum, so often Australia’s weakness, and compete at the ruck, we should take our 14th consecutive win, but I do believe it’ll be a hell of a game and one that will rely on getting all of those micro-decisions right.”
That is it for Expert Witness this year. We would like to thank all of the players who have given up their time this year and in particular thank Rob for his time and observations.
Rob Andrew MBE was a world-class fly half in the colours of England and Wasps. He won 71 caps for England and five for the British and Irish Lions, for whom he masterminded a series win in Australia in 1989. After leaving the RFU in 2016, Andrew, who has scored a first class century at Trent Bridge, moves sports in 2017 as he becomes CEO at Sussex County Cricket Club.
Rob speaking to James While