Congratulations to Ireland. Ireland were in full control of that game. And in his selection, Eddie Jones showed a panic in changing his side that I would not have expected of such a seasoned coach.

He made selection changes that seemed rushed and reactionary. Changing a 10-12 axis and a fullback who is one of the most positionally astute in the World?! Against a highly precise kicking team like Ireland this wasn’t a good option?!

2 years ago when Ireland were being criticised for their patterns of play, Joe Schmidt stuck with his players and his structured style. That of the system. 2 years later the results of said trust can be seen to be yielding a rich return.

Jones won’t change his style, but he changed his players re-actively for this game, whereas Schmidt did not. Whilst the game was over at this point, the last 20 minutes with England’s distribution dynamic at 10-12 and with forward momentum, showed how potent their attack can be.

This begs the question. What makes a great coach?

We can look back through the greats of the game. Steve Hansen, Wayne Smith, Graham Henry, Rod MacQueen, Clive Woodward, and now, Joe Schmidt.

What is it about them that drove their teams to the top table?

There are many, and no coach is the exact same. Yet, in two of the coaches above, and the only two coaches who have been my heroes, they share very similar traits.

These coaches are Joe Schmidt and Rod MacQueen.

Yet for me, there is one they share, that is for me the most important. And separates the Champion coaches, from the good.

Never a Complete Master of the Game

The reason why I idolise MacQueen, and Schmidt, originates 8 years ago at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Camberley, England.

It was a Leadership day for the boards of FTSE 100 companies who we were assisting in command tasks. One executive and I got talking about our shared love of Rugby on the bimble in between, and whilst not for Rugby, he recommended a book that he thought I should read as a Military man. A book that he himself used for his leadership and strategies within the workplace to beat the opposition.

That book was The Art of War. Written over 2000 years ago by a Chinese General named Sun Tzu.

I’ve written a series of articles about the All Black weaknesses that you will get a teaser of today, that will make you realise just how much the philosophies of this book changed my views on Rugby. It opened my eyes!

Originally, I believed it an absurd concept. The concept that principles and philosophies on war written 2000 years ago would be relevant in today’s age. My 20-year-old self couldn’t have been more wrong.

By vlasta2, bluefootedbooby on flickr.com – https://www.flickr.com/photos/bluefootedbooby/370457835/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1616393

I read the book, face-palmed myself immediately, and then began applying the principles to Rugby, thinking myself rather clever and innovative. When I was deflatingly told by my Australian coach, a fervent MacQueen fan, that the style of play and preparation espoused by MacQueen was based upon the philosophies of Sun Tzu to a near fanatical level this led to me watching multiple MacQueen Wallaby games and reading his autobiography.

The combination of both making me a very big fan.

Brumby Mode example

Attacking in numbers, flooding a channel and overwhelming through speed as shown in Brumby mode, is based on Sun Tzu’s; “Attack like water through valleys“. Relentless, and focused on one point of the defence.

His focus on analysis, knowing how the opposition team like to play and then attacking the individual opposition players strengths and weaknesses was pioneering at the start of the Super 12. Again, a nod to “If you know the enemy and yourself, you need not fear the result of 1000 battles“.

His keenness on speed, and shifting the point of attack to the channel most exploitable was the reasoning behind his fanatical determination to improve the fitness and handling of his Wallabies. Both derived from “Appear at points which the enemy must hasten to defend; march swiftly to places where you are not expected“.

Joe Schmidt

Joe Schmidt is cut from the same cloth as MacQueen. Everyone in Rugby knows that Schmidt is a Coach who does his homework. He even had his players write reports on their opposite numbers in an identical process to the way MacQueen did with his Wallabies. So they would know their opposite number as well as he did.

He has structures and processes based on detail and sequences in play. But he will focus on the opposition to find out everything he can about them, as well as knowing his own team’s strengths inside out. He then, using those strengths, has multiple ways of playing within his structure to target those weak points. And will customise a game to exploit these accordingly.

Rory Best

This in itself is commonplace amongst Rugby Coaches. Analysis and video footage/GPS data is rife within teams. However, something Rory Best said at the end of the England game, is very telling:

“We just had to make sure we made every moment count, every single moment, “build the moments on top of each other” and try to build as close to a perfect 80 minutes as we could”.

Sun Tzu said “Opportunities multiply as they are seized”. In other words, Moments taken, lead to more moments. This is something that I’ve coached since I started coaching. As when you have them under pressure the best thing to do is to hit them before they’re prepared again.

You make the most of a break. It leads to more opportunity. You make the most of that opportunity, it leads to more. With speed and accuracy, the principle can make a team near unstoppable. When you think of Ireland and their ball retention policy, how hard it is to get the ball back off them. How else would you describe them?

This principle is something that we saw in 2016 when Ireland beat the All Blacks and then said Irish Influence on the Lions tour.

Opportunities Multiplied

This is not an analysis piece on the All Black weaknesses. Those will come later, but this emphasises my point and the principle behind this statement under Schmidt.

The Weaknesses

Here are two All Black weaknesses in defence (out of five) that I have identified.

1. The AB defence has a gap in-between its shoot and drift portion that is exploitable to the flat pass.

2. In multi-phase defence, their Pillar Defence (3 guards) are spread. Be it in the open or on the blind to overlap for the counter. And Aaron Smith is part of the Pillar Defence to exploit turnovers quickly.

Now we’ve seen examples of these weaknesses. The above two sequences are basically MacQueens “Attack like water through Valleys” ethos. Straight from Sun Tzu.

Exploiting the All Blacks through combinations

Ireland’s patterns were altered by Schmidt to exploit these. But, they also combined them.

Using the weaknesses highlighted, Murray and Sexton targeted them exactly how they did in Chicago. The sequence of play was identical. Overwhelming them by targeting different weaknesses in quick succession. This is similar to another Tzu quote: “There are not more than five primary colours, yet in combination, they produce more hues than can ever be seen“.

There may only be three or four weaknesses to a sides defence. But they can be combined for a lot of combos.

Once they had the advantage, they pressed home with another quick decision to target another known weakness when the All Blacks are still in disarray.

Moments building on Moments.
Sun Tzu

We can’t be sure, but for me. These are Sun Tzu Principles. And Sun Tzu called all readers of the book “Students of War” Students.

This is under the realisation that you can never stop learning, never stop pushing for those fine margins and details that added up over the course of a game, can be the difference between winning and losing.

For the Irish, it’s ensuring you have 10/10 rucks secured with your breakdown rather than 8/10. Over the course of a game. Think how many times those 2 rucks can cost a team.

For MacQueen, it’s not stopping the attack when you have the pillar defence down, and keeping with Brumby mode to engage before they even can tackle.

MacQueen and Schmidt had and have this quality to keep bettering themselves along the lines of Sun Tzu as well as their team. And the lessons learned from the same principles, for me is one of the best qualities that makes a Champion Coach.

Author: Conor Wilson

Recently retired from the Military, Skydiving and rare Steak Enthusiast and Coach and Player of the beautiful game of Rugby.

Joe Schmidt, Will Greenwood and Rod MacQueen are my heroes, and my proudest moment was putting Jason Robinson in for a try at a promotional Rugby day. It was truly beautiful.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Looks like I have a book to read! Excellent works as always Connor. Your articles always inspire new ideas in my coaching philosophies.

    • Appreciate the comment mate! 🙂 If you get a chance to read the book you won’t regret it. Though John Minford’s translation is the best version i’ve ever seen… I’ve trialled 4 versions. 😉

      Glad you take something from them also.

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