No! This post has nothing to do with Star Wars. Although, that would be quite cool… I have recently been inspired by a term I heard used by Russell Earnshaw (England u18s Coach) in which he described part of his coaching philosophy as refraining from developing “sat nav players”. What he went on to suggest was that he wants to coach players who are free-thinking, creative, expressive and unpredictable.
This led my train of thought down the route of ‘Structured vs Unstructured’ styles of play, particularly in attack. To give an example, a structured attacking shape/ platform/ framework (what ever word you want to use) is when the players (and most often than not, the forwards!) are given instructions by which they must follow when their team are in possession of the ball, i.e. “When we have possession, the second row must only play in this area of the pitch, do not roam from this zone…” whereas an unstructured approach is more along the lines of “JOUEZ! – Just go out there and play what you see”.
Here is a great example of the type of “JOUEZ” I mean, look at Henry Slade’s contribution in the try scored by Jonny May… Was this “Structure”?7
As coaches, do we introduce structure because it makes us look knowledgeable?
Do players want structure as a safety blanket? Or because they have grown up in an environment where they have been told since the age of 5 that you need ‘structure’ in attack?
Or is it quite simply because we don’t trust our players to play what they see and attack the space when they have the ball? Do we not trust their scanning, decision making and problem solving skills?
From personal experience, I have been coaching a Men’s 1st XV this season in London 2. We have a group of very skillful players who know how to identify space, identify challenges posed to them by defences and score (lots of) tries. Very early into my coaching involvement with the club I felt that our focus for the season should be on our defence because our ability to attack in an ‘unstructured’ way was what made us so hard to defend. There was a club mentality of: “if you score 4 tries, we will score 5…”
However, towards the end of the season (bearing in mind we were unbeaten in 9 games and sat 2nd in the League), one of the lads asked if we could introduce more ‘attacking structure’ if not for the remainder of the season, then certainly for next season… Honestly, I didn’t know how to respond:
Had I been ignoring the needs of the players?
What might have happened this season if we had introduced a detailed structure?
And why did we need to introduce an attacking structure if we were scoring an average of 37 points a game?
To break this down, I have since been discussing (and at times debating) with coaching colleagues about the pros and cons of ‘structured’ vs. ‘unstructured’ attack. Everyone has different ideas and the question remains still very much unanswered on a broader scale but leaning on personal experience, I have played for a very unstructured free-thinking team, which was a lot of fun and we (the players) were responsible for finding ways to score without feeling restricted to playing in specific zones on the pitch! Moreover, I have also played in a highly structured team which after a few games made me feel robotic and void of making any of my own decisions. I was consigned to playing in a certain area of the pitch until we either conceded possession or scored. As much as I could see space in other areas of the pitch where I wanted to support my team mates, I knew that if I broke from the structure that I would be in for a very hard time in our next team meeting/ video analysis session.
Is it a case that people of my generation have grown up in an environment in which we have been preached to from a very young age that structure is important when we attack? And is it a case that the next generation of players coming through are much more aligned with the idea of playing in an unstructured manner whereby the skills of creativity, awareness and decision making are good enough to enable them to attack as they see fit?
As a matter of good timing, we are fortunate enough to be able to watch plenty of great (and at times not so great!) rugby at the minute with the British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand and the likes of England v Argentina, Australia v Fiji etc. etc. For me, it has been quite interesting to watch how these different teams are attacking. Lots of people are questioning the style and (forced?) structure that Gatland and Howley are insisting on with the Lions and the term ‘Warrenball’ is being thrown around. They have come out in recent weeks and stated that they want to see more ‘chaos’ (definitely buzzword of the month in the game!) but I’m not sure whether tip-ons or offloads qualify as chaos? Surely the Southern Hemisphere are laughing at our interpretation of the term? However, what really struck me the other day was when I was watching the Argentina v England game. It was packed with a number of great tries, loads of offloads and creative ways of going forward. Interestingly, the BBC commentators said:
“England are playing too chaotically. We need more structure…”
I was really taken back by these comments… Why did we need more structure? The game was free-flowing and it looked like so much fun to play!!! Do these type of comments contribute and in some ways support the idea that we need structure in order to score and be successful in attack? I guess there is no conclusion to this blog as I’ve no doubt that this subject will continue to be discussed and argued for a long time to come but I know what approach I prefer, and I know what approach I will continue to advocate…