And we’re off.

So here we are, Round 20 of the BetFred Championship. Toronto are currently 7 points clear at the top of the table and have confirmed their place in the middle 8’s. A win this week would see us awarded the League Leaders Shield.

My family have been here for 3 weeks and the sun is shining. A lot. It seems surreal that we no longer have a home in England and that Claire sold my car whilst I wasn’t there as I wouldn’t be needing it again.

‘What about when I go back to England for the middle 8’s?’

‘I didn’t think about that…….’

Anyway, everything is as good as it could be and whilst trying not to think about it, there is a little cloudy patch at the back of my head niggling at me, letting me know that in 11 games time I will be setting up for my last game with the Wolfpack for a while. Even though the journey hasn’t finished yet, I can safely say that this has easily been my best experience in Rugby to date. A big testament to how the club has been run. I genuinely see the future of Rugby League including several North American clubs in a North American / European conference style league. I understand that anyone that hasn’t experienced the fervour over here will be sceptical. And I understand that some feel that expansion should begin in the UK. I’m not going to bang on about it as mostly every player / fan / official that has made the journey has gone home buzzing about where Rugby League could and maybe, should end up. It’s easy for those who haven’t been to throw disparaging or derogatory comments. But those who previously have, and then have visited, have very often changed their tune.

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So I now have to start looking towards my travels post-season and what I will be doing to fill my time. Although there’s the children to look after and home school, I’m going to make the trip a learning experience for myself. As we visit different countries, I’m going to look to visit different sporting teams to see how different teams, in different sports, utilise and perform their coaching and analysis. It’s a journey of development and one that, when I think about it, is an amazing opportunity to develop my own expertise and knowledge. We will be looking to visit at least 5 different continents and I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of anyone that has had such an opportunity and now I can’t wait to start looking at   which teams we’ll be near, which teams I’ve got contacts in and which sports may be worthwhile having a look at. It’s a whole new adventure in itself that will benefit me massively in the long run!

It would seem that the last 2 years with the Wolfpack was just the beginning….

Fitness v Skill

You’re coming up to pre-season. You start to think about the squad you’ve assembled or inherited. Your mind wanders off into visions of the final game and holding up the League trophy and then a night of, no, wait,  a whole weekend of celebrations….*

And then you’re back on the ground with a bump. Are they as good as you imagine? Could they really be as good as you imagine? Do they need just that little bit of bit of luck to bring the dream to reality? Do they actually need a lot of luck to bring the dream to reality? Should we go for the fittest team in the league?

And that’s the moment right there – where your league leaders dreams are shattered. As soon as you think about the being the fittest team in the league, it means that you fear that their skill wont get them through…

But can the fittest team also be the most skillful? Do they need to be? Can a more skillful team beat a fitter team? Should you, as a coach, ensure a reasonable approach to both?

I’m asking more questions than I’m getting answers to here. It’s played out on a weekly basis where the favourite team in a game of rugby are held out for the first 20 to 30 minutes by determination and effort but as the lesser side start to tire, the favourites over-run them and the free-flowing scoring starts. Cup matches, where one team is a few leagues below the other, often plays out the same scenario. The lower league team surprises the so called ‘better’ team with it’s tenacity and grit but in the end the higher team just over-power them. Is this better skill or better fitness and can either provide a winning margin over the other.

I’m asking because there are coaches out there currently in their ‘pre-season’ phase and I’ve already witnessed some of the bodies left prone on the ground after climbing ‘Scammy Steps’ and hitting the Shibden Park sledging hill. Those who know, know…….

Scammonden Dam Steps and Shibden Park hills

Does this all-out, lung-busting, throw-up on the floor routine actually make sense? Or should you try to adopt a more game-centric approach where exercise bursts are generally 30 seconds to a minute long and where the entire time playing the game is around 22 minutes per half in Rugby League and even less in Union. Do you train your body to hit it hard for a minute and a half and then recover thereby training your body to get used to the frequent bursts or do you just go all out to try and make your whole body fitter? Personally, I think there is room for both – ‘a little of a lot goes a long way’ as my old headteacher used to say.

Do you put this fitness acclimation above skill training? Surely, if you’ve had 6 to 7 weeks off, the old handling and kicking is going to be a little rusty, is it not? Again, I think a little bit of both goes a long way. I’m currently of the belief that it works well if you can train your skills whilst under pressure and tired. After all, this is what happens in a game. It’s all well and good that a player can hit a 30 metre miss pass on the captains run but what about in the last 10 minutes of a game when he’s got a 17 stone back rower about to hit him and the score is 10-10. The same with tackling skills. Yes, brilliant to get a tackle bag out for the under 9’s to practice their technique on but at senior level I don’t ever remember seeing tackle bags dotted around a pitch during a game. Tackle a human. They’re much harder to hit. And they move when you’re trying to tackle them! “But what if we get injured?”, Learn to tackle properly and you shouldn’t.

Anyway, I digress. Fitness v Skill. There is a lot of room for both, and indeed, I believe a winning team should be competent in both. Now, if I just had time to squeeze it into 2 training sessions a week…

* Please see attached form for relevant clearance

night out

Calderdale Rugby League Development Squad

When I was growing up (yes, some may argue that never happened) the highlights of my week were when I was playing sport. Whether that was rugby, football, cricket, golf, swimming, whether it was organised or just us on the park playing an impromptu game of American Football! It meant that I didn’t have to think about anything else…

What made me really proud, though, was playing for the area teams, the county select teams or representative teams. These teams made me feel like I’d achieved something, like the work that I had put in on the training ground, in the gym, pounding the street was not all in vain.

So it saddens me, now, to see lads within Rugby who don’t have an area team to play for, or a West Yorkshire squad to aim for. These lads at 13, 14 or 15 either get into an academy or don’t. If they don’t, they keep playing for their local teams knowing the better players have been whisked off into a professional outfit and they’ve, well, they’ve just lost their best players.

I’m no scientist who has conducted study after study on why competitive games at 14 will break the ‘system’ (but is the system working anyway?). I’ve not researched why having selective teams (i.e. representative teams) will suppress the will of those not picked and send them into obscurity. I’m going by common sense and my own experience. At 16 I went to a Yorkshire trial day. I got through the rounds and was in the final match – 15 against 15. The other stand-off was better than me. And as they read out the 20 names of the selected players, my heart sank.  Mine wasn’t on there. I was nearly in tears.

So did I go home and quit rugby? No. I worked harder. I got fitter. I trained better. And the next year I played for Yorkshire U17’s. In my honest opinion, I think that we worry about hurting kids who don’t get picked. We reduce their resilience by giving everyone a reward. We don’t prepare youngsters for the real world where not everything is fair. I think it’s summed up brilliantly by Jeff Walz, a basketball coach.

So whilst everybody is happy in their non-selective fraternities, Calderdale College’s new rugby academy are expecting kids to turn up ready to train and play in a pretty professional environment without ever having been involved in anything like this before. Amateur to professional in one jump. Some make the change easily, some struggle but I feel that’s our fault for not preparing them.

And that’s the crux of the matter. We haven’t prepared them, so lets prepare them. Let’s get the lads that haven’t been selected for a Super League academy and give them an opportunity to develop in a game that has shaped my life and personality. The friendships I’ve formed, the places I’ve been, the experiences I’ve had. Most of the best ones are in some way linked to rugby. Why should these lads fall out of love with a life changing sport because they are, at 15, not deemed good enough to be at an Academy.

Let’s provide them with that environment in the form a development squad where we can help them learn the ‘art’ of rugby. Let’s add to the amazing job their amateur coaches do and give them some things that these coaches don’t have the time or resources to give them. Lets provide professional strength and conditioning advice. Lets give them sprint training. Lets get a sports psychologist to talk to them about the mental side to the sport. Lets provide full analysis of their training sessions and games. Lets put it all into practice and get them competitive games against harder opposition.

Oh, wait. We can’t do that. The Rules say we can’t have competitive games. That might mean somebody loses and, well, we’ve seen what happens if not everybody gets a trophy.

Yes, I may have a small bee in my bonnet about this.

I recently saw a documentary about rival sporting teams. This one was about 2 American Football teams. The biggest derby in Miami. But these were different. These were 4, 5, and 6 years old. There were different reasons for them playing in one of the hardest neighbourhoods in Miami – they were playing to keep them off the street, to stop them joining gangs and to stop them from being shot and killed. But at 4 and 5 years old they were playing full contact sport and smashing it. In 2016, Miami accounted for the most  starting NFL players – 27 – with most emanating from Liberty City, a 5 square mile area where these two teams play and with a population of 19 725. The nearest competition for producing NFL talent? Houston, with 18 and a population of 2 489 558 more than 6 times larger than Miami. And players continue to spill out of Liberty City, so much so, that Ivy League Universities visit every year to offer kids coming out of Liberty full scholarships at ages as young as 13. So, even though for different reasons, this example shows that competition from an early age produces exceptional talent.

So because we can’t have competitive games, we find a work around. We are allowed to have ‘training’ games so we can just organise training around a game scenario….is this just a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Yep. But rules are rules.

We currently have 29 lads in our training squad. We meet once a month and have ‘training’ games if and when we can find opposition who want to train against us. We have been formed for 2 months now and we’ve had one such match. The match was videoed and all the players have access to the footage. They have received group and individual analysis, they have the game broken down for them so they can watch defensive sets, exit sets or good ball sets. They have completed self-assessment forms that we talk to them individually about. We discuss what they did well, what they thought they can improve on and we decide on an improvement plan together.

This month we’re working on speed and in the month prior to this session, we have emailed all the players with pointers and advice on the subject we’re covering. We ask them to do additional work (not to overtrain) but to do extras after their training sessions. This may be as simple to complete 50 passes off each hand. As we’re working on speed this month, we’ve asked them to actually do some short and medium length sprints – to actually practice sprinting (who does that??) and get used to how sprinting actually feels. We give them information on the subject, advice on where they can do further research and how they can incorporate it into their training. What we want is for them to get used to being responsible for their own development.

We don’t stipulate that you have to be at a certain level to attend, but what we do ask is that the players attending have the right attitude. I would much rather work with an average player who works hard, than a prodigy that can’t be bothered. If the players don’t want to do extras, don’t want to learn but just want to play, then the development squad probably isn’t for them.

So – is picking players on ‘coachability’ being selective? Yes. Yes, I think it is….

 

The Academy Process

I can’t help but question things. It’s part of my nature. I’m not sure whether that’s being inquisitive or whether I have an issue with authority (thanks Kurt Haggerty and Mrs O’Connor, both who have questioned this!). I’d like to think I’m inquisitive. That’s why when I was recently offered a position to help launch Calderdale College’s new rugby academy, I was intrigued.

The college runs Halifax RLFC’s Category 3 Rugby League Academy (category 3 being an academy in an educational establishment). However, with the split of Rugby League and Rugby Union in Calderdale being around the 50/50 mark, it seemed only prudent to open the programme up to the 50% that were being overlooked.

As I’ve previously mentioned in another post (The joining of the codes…), I believe that there are massive gains to be made by those that embrace both codes. There is a lot to be learned from each other and I see no reason why players can’t play both (as some regularly do). So why split an academy into separate League and Union ventures?

Hence, the joint academy idea was born. The skill sets are same – we both tackle and pass. We both kick and step, we both attack and defend. Kill the space in defence, exploit the space in attack. Catch, run, talk, visualise. It’s the same game with different rules.

So why not have an academy where players can flourish playing both codes? And then throw into that a 7’s programme at the end of the season and you all of a sudden have an all-rounded player! So here’s the basic plan – train and play both codes during the winter season (September to March / April), some league games, some friendlies – but looking at developing players through a mixture of strength and conditioning, skills and fitness training, analysis and psychology. And then enter a series of 7’s competitions at the end of the season. These will mostly be Union 7’s but I think this is ideal for Rugby League players as the minimal rucking and speed of the game would help the League players adjust. In this period, it’s just skills, skills, skills. Develop handling, develop awareness, develop precision under pressure, develop kicking (even though the voice in your head says never kick in sevens!).

Add into this an educational programme – where players can achieve a BTEC in Sport – and I can’t think of anything I would have enjoyed more when I was 16 or 17. Training and playing in an environment where, when you are not studying, you are involved in the rugby academy process.

The great thing about the academy at Calderdale College is that it gives players a professional training regime in an outstanding facility that also provides them with vocational skills during their 2 year residency. The players get to ‘train’ everyday (which encompasses recovery sessions, analysis, field work, classroom work, gym etc etc) alongside their studies whilst also completing courses such as level 1 / level 2 coaching, gym instruction, sports first aid and other external courses that the college run.

 

By using the partnerships that they have with Halifax RLFC and Huddersfield RUFC, the players get professional coaching and development whilst opening up real player pathways into professional and semi-professional rugby. It really is a win-win all round!

So what’s the down-side? There’s always a down-side isn’t there? Well, no, not that I can see. When we discussed the requirements of the academy, the college were adamant that at the end of the two years, the players should have a vocational qualification with practical experience of the industry that they are studying in. I wanted to make sure that a player who enters the academy is a better all-round player who understands all aspects and is a student of the game itself! I think by having players such as this, it breaks down the stigma between codes, it produces players who know why certain skills and tactics work and not just players who do things because they have been drilled into doing things. I also genuinely hope that I can coach players who are intelligent enough to start using skills learned from one code in the other.

I’ll expand on this a bit because it’s a bit of a passion (or infatuation? I’m not sure….). Anyway, I used to sit and discuss this at great length during games when things happened with the Halifax RLFC assistant coach and all-round rugby guru Chris Rose. Rosie is very much in the same vein as me, in that he coaches, watches and is an aficionado of both codes!! We would watch as, in the last quarter of a game, a team who are chasing the game would produce a short kick off which inevitably they would win back. We would look at each and shake our heads. Now, I’ve looked into this in a very unscientific way of watching some short kick offs and I reckon from the 30 or so that I’ve seen, it’s about 50/50 as to whether they come off. There are two aspects to this that I feel are genuine points. Defensively – if you are receiving the catch, practice receiving short kick offs!! It happens a lot in Union so it’s well practiced but what about if you improvise a bit…..

Have players stand a little closer together on the front line and then if there’s a short kick off get a bit of a lift. The chasing players can’t touch you in the air and you’ll be a foot above everyone else. Safe catch and either offload or take the tackle. Short kick off diffused and I wouldn’t think you see the opposing team use it again.

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And use it when kicking off! When Toronto played Keighley in League 1 earlier this year, Keighley kicked 9 out 10 kick offs short. They won 5 back. That’s 55%. The result from the 4 they didn’t get? Well, a knock back from Toronto which led to a scrambling attack, which led to the first tackle on or around the 20 to 30m mark. Not much different than if they had kicked long and allowed Fui Fui Moi Moi to run at them. And it stopped the wide shift attack. So is it a good strategy? definitely in my eyes.

Pushing in the scrum in League? The long drop out in Union? League have started using scrum plays and Union have started using lead runners and ‘out the back’ plays. It’s all getting closer and closer.

Who knows, the split back in 1895 could even be reversed…shock