Being a bit of a history nut as I am, I was reliving old glories and watching the documentary “Rise & Rise of Australian Rugby – The Grand Slam” again the other day. For those who haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it for a number of reasons, but particularly just to build a picture of where we came from leading into the heady days of the 1990s and 2000 (and so perhaps how to get back there).
Anyway, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I was listening to Alan Jones’ comments a bit more than I usually do. And, in the midst of his various ramblings, Jonesy made a very interesting point about how a coach will establish their core coaching philosophy. His idea was that a coach has to make the fundamental choice as to a ‘guiding presumption’ in terms of how they frame their tenure to either pick the best cattle available and then select a game plan to match that herd, or to pick a game plan and then select cattle to deliver that game plan.
To be clear, I don’t entirely agree it is such a singular choice of one or the other. I see that choosing cattle or choosing game plan are two ends of a spectrum. And coaches will have to find the place they rest at in between. And they will move a little, relative to the players available and the opponents as they present themselves. However, fundamentally, I do take his point that a coach will swing one way or the other as their preferred or presumptive position.
Now Jones chose to select a game plan first and foremost, or a core game plan with a small number of closely related variations based on clear ideas on the sort of game you want to play married to close analysis of opponents to identify avenues of opportunity. Apparently, this is what drove him to reinvigorate Steve Cutler (previously marked “do not pick”) and chase after Topo Rodríguez, as Jones was quite clear that he wanted an attacking lineout and an attacking scrum (who will ever forget that pushover against the Welsh).
Alternatively, it can be argued Bob Dwyer, as the other great Aussie coach of that era, generally seemed to posit himself at the other end of the spectrum in that he tended to pick simply the best players available as he saw them, often with the opponents in mind (often over positional specialists: note including Codey over Miller at the RWC, the shifting of Lynagh from 12 to 10 to bring in Lloyd Walker and then Horan and of course the Ella situation) and then built a game around their strengths. This is aligned to his often quoted ideas on “a good big fella will beat a good little fella” and his core concept of simply making sure you have 5 world class players in the team somewhere. Dwyer picked cattle first.
So here we have two competing coaching philosophies: game plan v cattle plan. Or “Jonesism” v “Dwyerism”.
At this point it is probably sensible to call out again that neither approach is ‘pure’. I’m not arguing absolutes and there are clearly instances where each philosophy (and indeed each coach) borrowed elements from the other approach. However, I don’t think anyone can rationally argue against the point that each guy generally came from opposite ends of the cattle v game plan spectrum as the starting point of their philosophy.
Applying this prism to modern Australian coaches, Dingo Deans was clearly a guy who selected players first and foremost and then fitted them into a team. Look no further then in how he tried to fit the ‘3 Amigos’ into his teams. It could even be validly argued he did this with no overly clear game plan (“play what’s in front of you”). His philosophy was demonstrably more Dwyerism than Jonesism.
Interestingly, Link McKenzie appeared to try to do both and have a foot in both camps. I felt this was part of his undoing (along with a whole bunch of other stuff I won’t go into now). Especially at the Reds, Link clearly had different game plans for different opponents (a sign of Jonesism) and he would tinker accordingly. But that tinkering was to change the game plan based on the same cattle (arguably Dwyerism). Alternatively, in his too-brief stint with the Wobblies, he was looking to pick the best generalist cattle available and then fit them into a team with one core game plan with minor deviations (again, Dwyerism). I see this as just another reason why I’m so sorry he didn’t choose to last longer and go further as the Wobbly coach.
Following Link’s resignation after that notable All Black test, we had Michael Cheika step into the breach from 2014 to 2019. And Cheks was undeniably and unapologetically in the Jones camp when it came to assessing him through this prism. With a game plan demonstrated via the Waratahs as devoted to a 1-3-3-1 forward deployment and hinging on having a Ulrich ‘Mad Jac’ Potgieter at 6, we thus witnessed the demise of players such as Scott ‘Bugger Off’ Fardy and the attempted transmutation of Ned Hanigan into an underaged crowbar as samples of evidence of how he favoured Jonesism. Likewise there was also the insistence in playing Hooper at 7 to suit the 1-3-3-1 plan, even if it meant shoving the world’s best ‘fetcher’ and turnover maestro (Pocock) to 8.
Then we had Dave Rennie from post 2019 World Cup until this year. Again, Dave Rennie was a game plan coach (Jonesism). There is some validity in the argument that the sheer amount of alternative bodies Rennie used, and his willingness to break down the strictures of the Giteau eligibility rules to access more players, could be argued as the actions of someone more interested in cattle to be accessed rather than a slavish devotion to a game plan. However to that argument I would say it was precisely the inability of players to execute his game plan, by either trying and losing (or trying and getting injured), that reinforces my assertion that Dave ‘Kumbaya’ Rennie was a game plan devotee, just that he couldn’t find or keep the players he wanted.
Now we have Eddie Jones 2.0. The last time EJ was the main man we saw an evolutionary shift in Australian rugby coaching with a whole new level of apparatus being applied around analysis, S&C, and sub-coaches. He’s the guy largely labelled as shifting Australian rugby to a highly structured game plan, referred to in some corners as ‘chess rugby’, as tactics were not designed to ‘break a line’ per se, but rather to move players about so as to create mismatches to be exploited by consequence of a tactical play 2 or 3 phases previously. Some may say we haven’t recovered from that overt formulising of play and deliberately ‘drilling out the smarts’ from our play. Certainly our set-piece took near 10yrs to recover from his devotion to ball-playing front rowers over meat & potato exponents. There’s no doubt that at the first time around, Jones of the Eddie varietal was a picture perfect Jones of the Alan varietal example of a game plan coach.
Looking beyond Australia and somewhat more broadly, which approach is ‘better’? Is Dwyerism or Jonesism demonstrated as a more successful approach globally? A brief look at the World Cup winning coaches of recent times and what appears to be their philosophy is insightful:
1984 Alan Jones – Jonesism (Duh!)
1987 Brian Lochore – Dwyerism
1991 Bob Dwyer – Dwyerism (Duh!)
1995 Kitch Christie – Jonesism
1999 Rod Macqueen – a little contentious but I would say Jonesism (so 75% Jones & 25% Dwyer)
2003 Clive Woodward – Jonesism
2007 Jake White – Jonesism
2011 Graham Henry – a little contentious but I would say Jonesism (so 75% Jones & 25% Dwyer)
2015 Steve Hansen – a little contentious but I would say Dwyerism (so 75% Dwyer & 25% Jones)
2019 Rassie Erasmus – Jonesism
Now ok, Jones didn’t win a World Cup. But he did win a Grand Slam (the World Cup of the time) and he did it as not just the first Wobbly coach to do so, but gained some notoriety in the global game for being the first true ‘modern’ coach in his use of statistics, dossiers on individual opponents, detailed tapes and viewing sessions on opposing teams etc. Surely a notable achievement.
One interesting coach to chat about was Steve Hansen and his crop of 2015 All Blacks. That the All Blacks had a very definite style of play at that time makes it easy to say Hansen was a Jones devotee. However I would argue against that by simply recognising that one team which includes the likes of Retallick, Kaino, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith before even getting to Dan Carter, Ritchie McCaw and Kieran Read pretty much means your playing a Dwyerism game by default. Frankly, with that amount of talent on hand, they could have played the game running backwards and still done well.
And anyone who thinks Rassie Erasmus wasn’t playing to a game plan first and foremost needs to check their medication.
Anyway, of the 10 major coaches above, at the most Dwyer generous the score is 3.25 to Dwyer (2 + 0.75 + 0.25 + 0.25) and 6.75 to Jones. Or if we count it by simple absolutes, it’s Jones by 7 to Dwyer’s 3. Either way Jones got up by a significant amount. So it would appear both by weight of numbers and perhaps even more tellingly by the more recent success of Jones v Dwyer approaches, the concept of picking a core game plan and finding players to match it is demonstrably more successful than selecting a core group of players and fitting a game plan to them.
Make Up Your Mind Time
That then leads to the chat about what approach will Eddie 2.0 apply to the Wobblies this time around? Will he stay Jonesism or shift to a Dwyerist coach? Can a tiger ever change its stripes? We don’t know yet. Certainly in his time at England, he was still using a Joneism approach. If nothing else, look at his adherence and promotion of the likes of Sinckler and Genge. Two more unEnglish props you will struggle to find. But EJ stuck with them as he pursued high workrate tight 5ers in adherence to his game plan. And his well known (and self confessed)
infatuation admiration of rugby league reinforces this picture.
However, I would encourage Dear Readers to listen to his quite interesting 30min discussion with Phil Gould on Stan recently, wherein he quite clearly laments that the ‘structuralism’ of rugby has gone too far and needs to swing back towards a more ‘instinctive’ way of playing the game. This discussion suggests that EJ is perhaps no longer so rigid in his adherence to Jonesism as he once so clearly was. Time will tell.
And herein is the other conundrum: what does EJ need to be? Especially given his time at England as a Jones devotee led to his sacking, as it did with Dave Rennie as well. I really don’t think one can ‘have a bet each way’. So I do think EJ has to plant his stick one way or the other. But my gut tells me, particularly after listening to the Stan programme again yesterday, he may not be so ‘game plan rigid’ as I first did think he would be.
Your assignment, should you choose to accept it Dear Reader, is to consider the above and discuss. Have I posited those coaches accurately? What will EJ’s philosophy be? Should it be the other? Which approach is better? Let me know in the comments below.