Provincial selection – a dated model

By James Winstanley – IRB Level 3 Coach

“The cream always rises to the top” is a mantra I have sworn by as coach for as long as I can remember. It has enabled me to be intentional with selection, particularly when the margins are tight, and the stakes are high.
The provincial week selections have once again shone the spotlight onto the selection processes, with many voices of dissatisfaction ringing from around the country. Worthy of mention at this point is that very rarely is there an absolute agreement from all stakeholders on a team selected to represent a province and so contrasting opinions will remain indefinitely.

Coaches, parents, and players from any one school would naturally perceive their own pupils to be better than that of opposition pupils particularly when the calls are close ones. Then we often observe the trend of Head Coaches selecting pupils from their own schools as they know personal backgrounds and have significantly more reference points to call upon than that of an opposition pupils. In all the above scenario’s bias may be perceived in one way or another with the human mind unable to remove all the subjective filters that form an opinion.

An additional factor prevalent in many provinces is that of a selection committee who varies in rugby backgrounds and actual involvement in the school’s game. Where there are people involved, there are spheres of influence taking place. Canvassing and horse trading are often the norm with assurances of support for one or more players in exchange for reciprocal selections long before trials take place.

Schoolboy coaches at tier one and two schools are often sceptical if not fearful of trials. They typically fall after intense Easter festivals and mini tournaments such as Wildeklawer where fatigue and soreness are guaranteed. Coaches know that their prized assets are at significant risk of injury just as the term two derby season starts and this can have detrimental effects on the first team season. The credibility of the trials process is often shadowed by the sheer volume of participants, and it is in this uncontrolled environment that injuries can take place, with many players also getting lost in the frenzy.
Interestingly, the threats of non-selection for players that do not participate in the trials process are bandied around with absolute conviction, placing the players, coaches, and parents in a real conflict of interest. This threat in conjunction with the timing of trials, does not consider the changing nature of the game. Surely it is unreasonable to expect a well-known player to participate if they are certifiably injured, particularly when they are demonstrating their abilities week on week? I could never imagine Western Province not selecting Sherwood of Bishops and Julius of Paul Roos in their 2022 centre partnership if one or the other was unable to attend a first-round trial.

Nonetheless, the human element we are observing is not going to change anytime soon, so what can change to improve the provincial selection process?

Given the increases in physical intensity and ball-in-play time, just how relevant are trials in the exiting landscape. Often composite teams of mixed abilities can be mismatched in many ways. One team has a good hooker whilst the other does not. One line out cannot function whilst the other one does. The same can be said for the scrum, one teams gains possession and the other does not. This seems fair until you are the aspiring lock, flank, number 8, or any backline player for that matter in the team without the ball. A weak scrum half feeding slow ball to a backline, the examples are endless. You may be significantly better than your opposite number, but the uncontrolled environment does not allow for your skill set to be directly compared to your opposite number. Many players are compromised at some point in a broad trial process.

This scenario is a bit left-field, but let’s imagine a bodybuilding contest with a hundred participants and yet the competitors never stood side by side at any point during the event. In this format you would need to identify the best based on memory over the course of a full day. As silly as this example is, this format for judging talent would be laughed at. If instead you placed them next to each other and ranked them on symmetry, size, and the criteria used to assess proficiency, one would assume it is significantly easier to identify the best candidates. Why do we then watch seven or more trial games over a full day when you can fast track the process by following a similar protocol of placing contenders’ side by side?
The metaphor used above whilst unconventional does suggest some potentially more efficient protocols for controlling the environment of trials. That we see midweek rugby trials taking place two to three times in as many weeks in between rugby derby days does very little for the validity of the process. Apples are not compared directly with apples.

Screening is surely the way forward.

Let us assume we replace the existing method with a more deliberate process of screening players in isolation. Scrum-halves are all assessed together on base passing, line out passing, box kicking – side by side. Fly-halves are contrasted on pass, run, and kick skills against one another, midfielders on decision-making with creating and preserving space. Outside backs on evasion, kicking and kick receipt. Unit skills for forwards with jumping, lifting, throwing as well as scrummaging all done in controlled environments – player versus player, prop versus prop etc. Selectors and coaches could include some passing, decision-making, evasion, breakdown and tackling skills with bags to ensure they get the full picture. All of this with players grouped together by position and you would be able to eliminate 75-80% of players within two hours without excessive amounts of contact. What remains is the cream.

Selection from this pool can then begin in earnest. Realistically, you could get to a squad (approx. 35-40 players) in a shorter time, with greater accuracy. Without fundamental and positional skills, a player won’t survive at provincial week, this is certain. Once these essential skills are confirmed at the screening process, the attention could be turned to the player’s go-forward capacities of ball carrying and tackling, again all in a controlled squad training environment. The best versus the best. In the same session, coaches could introduce attacking and defensive patterns to see the real thoroughbreds starting to emerge. The cream would continue to rise, potentially leaving fewer decisions to be made. The big rocks as I call them (the star players a team are built around) are clear to see and then it’s a case of sifting through the best of the rest – the remaining squad members. If the selectors find they still need more clarity at this point, a short trial game of 20-25 minutes should do the trick.

This concentrated and controlled approach would reduce the likelihood of injuries, improve selection, ensure credibility, increase the scope for trust with coaches, manage injured players as well as reduce fatigue for school derby games. Win-win all round.

In closing I can’t take the credit for this idea, as most schools have been doing it for ages to pick their first teams. SA Rugby does it with their U16 & U17 EPD camps each year to identify potential SA Schools players. The recent inclusion of an SA Schools camp post Cravenweek to improve selection for the international series ensures a changing in the waters. Surely with some increased awareness and robust discussion, we can see it introduced for provincial week selections as well.

29 Comments

  1. Sal nogal interessant wees om ook die statistiek te sien van hoeveel van die o/13 week spelers dit op die ou end maak in n Hoerskool 1ste span en by die Craven week spanne

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  2. @Ploegskaar: Ja ek onthou net dat jul in die 80’s n moeilike teenstander was. Dis maar toe ek op hoerskool was in Gim. Jy moes uithaal en wys teen Boland Landbou.

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  3. @Smallies: Veral in die 70’s was OVS CW spanne nie totaal domineer deur Grey nie…maar dis maar 9 jaar van CW…die laaste 40 jaar was dit maar hoofsaaklik Grey spelers in die span en die stats wys dat OVS nie slegter af was as voorheen nie. Die een voordeel wat OVS nog altyd gehad het was dat hulle CW spelers gereeld as n span saam speel.

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  4. @BoishaaiPa: Jy moet onthou in die 70s en 80s was skole soos Sannies en Sentraal saam met Louis Botha nogal sterk en het gereeld SA skole spelers op gelewer ek dink amper Sannies is na Grey die skool met die meeste SA skole spelers in Bloem

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  5. @Smallies: As mens net kyk na die spanne wat in finale games van die CW speel het Vrystaat nie baie slegter gedoen gedurende die nuwe era nie..1971 tot 1994 het OVS in 8 finals in daai 24 jaar gespeel en sedert 1994 tot 2019 in 9 finals in 25 jaar. Ek weet die finals is n subjektiewe seleksie, maar gee in mate aanduiding van die relatiewe sterkte van die spanne. Grey het in die 70’s en 80’s ook nie altyd die hele OVS CW span gehad nie.

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  6. @Wonder: Ek het geen idee oor julle stats nie, maar wat Boland betref, 67 Craven week spelers, 10 SA Skole spelers, 7 SA Akademie spelers, 4 Springbokke, 2 SA 7’s spelers, 3 Namibiese internationals en 1 Italiaanse international. So jy kan dalk reg wees

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  7. @Kantman: Die kans vir Vrystaat om weer ‘n aantal topskole te hê is bykans nul. Die demografie het verskriklik baie verander en skole sukkel om rugby te handhaaf as sport.
    Laas in die 1980’s was daar talle skole wat goeie mededinging aan Grey verskaf het. Toe het NOVS nog van die sterkste Cravenweekspanne in SA gehad.
    Maar sedert die 1990’s het dinge kwaai verander en nou is dit net af en toe Welkom Gim wat ietwat mededinging verskaf.

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  8. @Kantman: probleem is Welkom Bethlehem Kroonstad val almal onder die Griffins Vrystaat is basies net Bloemfontein en n paar dorpies rondom ,Griffins is n baie groter unie

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  9. @Smallies: Ek dink Vrystaat kort 3-4 kompeterende skole. Weet nie hoe nie. Maar 2-3 in Bloem, 1 Welkom, 1 Noord in Kroonstad. Een provinsie. 3-4 harde games naby aan die huis.

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  10. @Kantman: @Ploegskaar: my opinie is dat dit vir die Kus provinsies tot by Grens en selfs in n mate Die Griquas nie n probleem is nie ,die ander unies sukkel maar en die Vrystaat kak pleinweg af op skole vlak agv dit ….

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  11. @Wonder: Hoeveel POC CW spelers het julle opgelewer die afgelope 5/6 jaar? Sommige omarm dit en dis ‘n flink bemarkings meganisme, nie?

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  12. Ek lees nerens iets van kwotas in die artikel nie,sekerlik verdien die gruwel melding of het almal nou maar vrede gemaak daarmee?

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  13. @Fletsa: Hi, late reply from me. I have no stats, but have not seen this number of injuries across so many teams in any year since 2012.

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  14. Very well reasoned article. Is it just me or are others noticing that injuries at all levels of school rugby this year seem more frequent and more serious?

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  15. This is a very good idea and has huge advantages:

    1. The “qualifying process” is objective. You can either kick left footed or you can’t etc.
    2. Each player is assessed against identical criteria.
    3. A larger population of players has a chance to start the process.
    4. Players who are not ready but have potential can be spotted and a process put in place to work on them.
    5. Fundamentally flawed players can be fixed or weeded out.
    6. Players have a clear idea of what is expected.

    Obviously, after the qualifying phase, there should be actual rugby played to make sure that the measurables translate into actual on-field ability, but this would make sure that a better group of players get looked at at trials.

    It would also be helpful as part of the second phase to assess the players psychologically, to make sure they are able to work with others and be coached etc.

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  16. A very well written article, with some great suggestions. The sooner this type of selection process is implemented the better for all boys. As far as I am concerned, this years selection process was a joke, as per the first paragraphs of this article…..

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  17. While talking about the Craven Week teams for 2022 (selection method aside), have Lions, Bulls and WP teams been selected and announced yet? Can’t find any consolidated list of teams anywhere.

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  18. Dit was nog altyd van die vroegste tye ‘n netelige saak. Ek is bly daar is deesdae darem bietjie meer wetenskap agter die proses. Ek moet egter saamstem met ICEMAN dat die seuns van die manne geskei word gedurende wedstryd omstandighede. As iemand net so groot en vinnig soos jy (of groter en vinniger) op jou afstorm is die hande nie meer so goed nie of die besluitneming nie meer so “spot-on” nie.

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  19. Goeie punte ,my vraag is egterbhoe beoordeel jy al die spelers regverdig in n groot provinsie soos die wp jy kan nie n baseline vir elke liewe scrummie in die wp he nie ,in n klein provinsie soos die Vrystaat is dit haalbaar maar in die noordvaal WP en ook die OP met sy groot platteland gebied gaan dit nie lewensvatbaar wees nie

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  20. …although an ‘average’ player might feel that the dice are loaded against him, because he is not the correct height, or size, or weight, or does not meet demographic quotas….it actually becomes an intricate game. If you look at the Craven week teams down the years – even the SA schools team – there are always names that you recognise who go on to big things, but there are many many names of players who never made it much further.

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  21. What a great piece of writing from a “rugby-minded” coach. Last year, through circumstances (Covid,) the Sharks youth sides used this exact selection method and it was far more robust. This year, they had a similar modus operandi to start but then still went ahead with the all day multiple inter-school games. They then picked two sides and played another trial a week later but these sides were clearly A against B and in both cases the A side dominated so to the author’s point, players in the B side didn’t feature because as a collective they got whacked. All that said, it was clear that certain boys were already selected (they didn’t play in either of the trials matches.)

    I think a more scientific assessment of skills is a great starting point and then an equally matched trials game – great skills under no pressure in an assessment environment don’t always translate into the same level during a match scenario.

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