On the 13th September 2010, James Thomson Greenwood passed away at the ripe old age of 81.

The close-knit Scottish rugby community mourned him and, in relative obscurity, his family grieved as any other would. However, Jim Greenwood was an unheralded giant of Rugby Union. He was both a pioneer and an innovator; a man responsible, by his written word, for a revolution in the game. This revolution is now coming to its logical and beautiful conclusion. A mere twelve thousand miles from his Scottish birthplace; in New Zealand.

In 1978 Jim Greenwood finally got his coaching book “Total Rugby” published. It had been a labour of love, to try to encapsulate the innate simplicity of a devilishly complicated amateur game. An amateur game played on an international stage. However, in the Corinthian atmosphere of rugby in those days, the sales of his book were slow. Even the most dedicated of the Tuesday/Thursday brigade passed it by.

Jim was confident though that he had laid bare his rugby soul in print. All of him was in the book, his philosophy, his beliefs, his teaching skills and his sense of adventure. He had carefully described the fundamentals of the game in as simple a way as he knew how. He broke every aspect of the game down to its elemental form.

The creation of attack is denoted in six ways: enlarge a gap, create a diversion, change of pace, a varied point of entry, a varied angle of entry, miss pass.

In the immortal words of Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday, “That’s football, that’s all it is”.

Total Rugby in action?

Last Wednesday morning the Blues beat the Lions in the second challenge match of their 2017 tour of New Zealand. How did the team that has managed one of the worst Super Rugby records in the NZ conference beat a team of seasoned internationals by three tries to one?

Ken Owens. Photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.Photosport.nz
Ken Owens. Photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.Photosport.nz

A shell-shocked Ken Owens, interviewed by Sky UK after the game, bemoaned a “lack of discipline”. And Mario Itoje, fresh from the fray, said, “On an individual level you have to have a better understanding of how to operate within a team, within the team structures, as a collective we need to back ourselves in our structures..” There is no doubt that Mario Itoje is an intelligent and erudite young man of immense talent. But the heart sinks on hearing such hackneyed responses. Thoughts immediately turned to Jim Greenwood and his openness and honesty in expressing what rugby should be. When Greenwood talked of “flair”, he reminded us that it was a quality only of use when properly supported and understood. A flair player could become lost if they relied too heavily on it alone.

Akira and Rieko Ioane. Photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.Photosport.nz
Akira and Rieko Ioane. Photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.Photosport.nz

In contrast, Akira Ioane was asked the most inane of rugby questions by Will Greenwood in a subsequent pitchside interview. Ioane, still out of breath from the celebrations and with no time to think, responded to the question “Was your offload to SBW a set move?”, with the following. “I should have let it go earlier, but I didn’t see the space, luckily the big man (SBW) runs some good lines, so I just threw it up there”. Instantly Ioane displayed, maybe without realising it, the difference between the sides. His emotional, self-reflective and self-effacing answer culminated in praise. Praise for the anticipation shown by a teammate summed up the principles that Greenwood outlined for success in 1978.

The VUCA Environment

The British Army, and many other armies for that matter, train potential officers in the skills necessary to survive. To win. To succeed under pressure. There is an old army adage, coined by German General Helmut Von Moltke that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. Underpinning officer training is the principle of preparing for a VUCA environment. VUCA stands for: vulnerable, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Training and planning for these are essential. They must be understood, no matter how counter-intuitive that sounds.

New Zealand rugby coaches have been doing this for a very long time. You could argue as far back as Buck Shelford’s 1989 vintage. But through the years, the process of filtration and refinement has led All Black rugby to this point.

The great Wayne Shelford. Photo: Bruce Jarvis/PHOTOSPORT
The great Wayne Shelford.
Photo: Bruce Jarvis/PHOTOSPORT

New Zealand rugby coaches realised a long time ago that to maintain their dominance in an increasingly professional game they would have to adopt a unique approach. They needed a three-dimensional philosophy. A philosophy that included the players’ ability to think, to react and to decide as well the ability to relate to space on a flat pitch. To differentiate that approach from what Steven Connor in his book “The Philosophy of Sport” describes as the two-dimensional view “favoured by bombs smart or otherwise” they turned to the writing of Jim Greenwood. Wayne Smith described Greenwood’s book as a “bible”. Smith’s influence on the current generation of provincial and Super Rugby coaches has never been in dispute.

New Zealand Coaches

So, how is the approach taken by New Zealand coaches characterised?

Eddie Jones, not exactly a Kiwi, but he understands where they are coming from. © Matthew Impey / www.photosport.nz
Eddie Jones, not exactly a Kiwi, but he understands where they are coming from.
© Matthew Impey / www.photosport.nz

Eddie Jones summed it up recently at a coaching conference in Wellington, England where he mentioned that he refused to recognise the New Zealand win the 1987 World Cup. He described it as the Tuesday/Thursday World Cup where “everyone else was on the piss”. He went on to say that the back to back World Cup wins of the All Blacks is far from a coincidence but tempered that by saying “it took them 30 years to get there”. Eddie has a genuine connection with the New Zealand coaching structures, though doesn’t always admit that in public. He understands the time and effort it takes.

From an early age for most kids in British and Irish rugby the certainty of position based on physical attributes is established, the low numbers and the high numbers. The low numbers jump and shove; they create the utterly intangible concept of momentum, and the high numbers use this momentum to score. This is as ingrained in Northern Hemisphere rugby as any intellectual concept in sport.

Rugby stereotypes are hard to overcome. Chubby children are told not to kick, often not to practice it, despite front row forwards always being the players that like to attempt drop goals before training. “If I ever see you do that again…” is the coaching refrain. The inference in these last statements is of course that this does not happen in New Zealand, and this is far from true, but other things are going on too.

The New Zealand Accent

As late into the process as the 1990s, Auckland Blues were insisting on the Auckland grid as a method of skills training. This method spread like a virus through the coaching manuals of the Northern Hemisphere. It was not fully understood, but that wasn’t the point. The Blues were playing the best rugby in the world at that time. This had to be the secret of their success. However, no one in the Northern Hemisphere took the time to drill down to what was really happening behind the scenes at the NZRFU.

In the Northern Hemisphere, obscene wages were being paid, and academies were being set up. The Auckland grid became a metaphor for professional and organised coaching. But in reality, the process was much more involved. Back in New Zealand, Wayne Smith and others were starting to realise the limitations of the players around them, contemplating a top to bottom coherent approach based on decision making. In the Northern Hemisphere, a New Zealand accent was enough to get you a top coaching job or a playing contract, and the NZRFU knew that the talent drain would be too great.

Wayne Smith imparting his knowledge to Rene Ranger.  Photo: Dave Lintott/Photosport
Wayne Smith imparting his knowledge to Rene Ranger.
Photo: Dave Lintott/Photosport

New Zealand coaches circled the wagons, held their best at home and the rest left for Europe. Among them was Warren Gatland. He invented the 14 man lineout in Connacht. He coached Ireland to a World Cup group stage debacle in Lens. Warrenball was developed at Wasps in conjunction with Ian McGeechan and Shaun Edwards. He rode the wave of European Cup success, but still adhered to the prescription. Players were told how to play not asked to find a solution to the problems that they faced in a VUCA environment.

Problem Solving

In New Zealand they were learning the hard way, losing a World Cup Quarter Final in Cardiff. But they never gave up on the idea of finding the Holy Grail, the Jim Greenwood-inspired problem-solving footballer.

New Zealand skills coach Mick Byrne once opined that being an All Black coach was the easiest job in the world. “Other teams spend all week analysing us“, he said, “what they are analysing is anybody’s guess because we just play in the way that’s required to win the game”.

New Zealand teams adapt. To do that the core skill level of the team must be better than any other team on the planet. Penalty count is controlled by understanding the benefits of challenging or not challenging for the ball. Transitions are ruthlessly exploited because New Zealand players know that they can each only pick one of six options. They just have to pick the correct options more times than the opposition to win.

The genesis of success in New Zealand rugby is a process that started more than 30 years ago. This is the main reason why the Lions will struggle in the test series.

Photos: www.photosport.nz

Author: Paul Dunne

Paul is originally from Dublin but has been coaching rugby in the UK for 11 years. He is currently Director of Rugby at Bryanston School in Dorset, and has coached senior and age grade rugby. He started his coaching career at London Irish, and gained an MSc in Sport Psychology in 2010. Paul also teaches History and Politics at Bryanston.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Great article, I think another advantage NZ has is that lots of kids are throwing a rugby ball around from the age of 5. This is the basis, IMO, for NZ’s impressive ball skills from all players, 1 to 23, this is also true for Ozzie and SAF. If I am not mistaken in the North, given soccer’s dominance, rugby recruitment starts with big gym junkies being lured into rugby about 15 or 16 yrs old, having to start learning oval ball skills much later in life.
    Rugby also has the issue that it needs to be well organised to have a game. If you have 4 kids playing in the street (no cars) they can play a 2 on 2 game of soccer but not a 2 on 2 game of rugby, maybe “force/back” or with a few more kids “touch.” Both are good for ball skills but are not a game of rugby.

  2. I disagree with the comment that northern hemisphere players are plucked from a gym at 15 and told to play with a rugby ball. Not in my limited experience.

    Where we fall down in Wales is the numbers playing rugby. In my town there are 5 junior schools, with approx 150 kids at each age group, yet in our rugby club we have max 30 in each side. The Gareth Thomas show he did for BBC Wales before the lions series, he was visiting NZ club sides where it seemed at each age they had 3 or 4 sides competing. If you have that amount of players competing, the cream inevitably rises to the top alongside the additional increase in skills whilst seeking to be the best you can be.

  3. EJ doesn’t recognise the 1987 RWC?That was one of the greatest rugby teams to ever grace a rugby field,and yet all the other teams didn’t take it seriously.BS.

    I hope England,the most over-resourced,and over-rated teams get their comeuppance in 2019.It is the least this arrogant goose deserves.

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