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.