By Lee Smith, IRB Regional Development Manager Oceania
The infrequency at which the RWC occurs makes the tournament a unique occasion, more so post pool play. In the past, the relative infrequency of internationals and test series made them unique too, less so now as these games are played more frequently. However, for both - compared with club are provincial rugby - the selection situations are unique ones.
This means that few players are experienced at this level. These players are invaluable as the frequency with which they have been exposed to these high pressure situations will result in a progressive improvement in their reaction to it.
Not that older players should be picked on experience alone, but replacing them can be, and should be, difficult. While it is recognised that experience cannot be manufactured overnight, a replacement player must be proven as worthy over a long period of time. If a change in selection is made and the replacement is not up to it, the confidence of two players will have been detrimentally affected, the replacement and the replaced player.
This leads to erratic selection policies as selectors thrash around looking for "miracle cures". This is demonstrated by those unions who have a long list of players who have played a very small number of internationals.
The experienced players will have opinions and their knowledge should not be ignored, but managed. If coaches/selectors are threatened by strong-willed, experienced players they need to look very closely at themselves.
If the coach is unwilling to use experience because he/she feels threatened, then they are unsuited to the job. When experience is not used because of the coach's shortcomings those who made the appointment should look closely at themselves and what makes for success at this level.
A further criteria for selection is the skills the player brings to the position. It is not so much the range of skills but the ability to perform these under pressure even if the range is limited.
Few players will be able to perform a total range of skills under pressure. The player with limited skills that can be performed reliably is preferable to the player who can perform a greater range less reliably.
Under pressure the player with a limited range will persist with what they have and do them well. The player with the greater range may tend to find options in the greater range skills, moving into the range of those that are performed less successfully under pressure. This will create uncertainty amongst team mates and delay their reaction in support.
As a result selectors and coaches must prioritise the skills needed for each position using these as criteria for selection.
This consistency within a range of competency is essential in allowing players to complement a player's actions within the team's game plan. If a player moves beyond this range it can create uncertainty in team-mates. The uncertainty will cause hesitation and the game plan will begin to unravel.
In some positions the essential tasks are mandatory, especially those needed to obtain possession. Once possession has been won or lost options will emerge in attack and defence respectively based on the behaviour of opponents.
In attack those closest to the source of possession must play to the game plan within a limited range of skills performed well to give those furthest from the source a stable situation upon which to base their play.
At the most competitive level of play, playing outside a pattern can be as unexpected for opponents as it can for team-mates. It must be performed conscious that the primary requirements are retention and continuity of possession as play develops.
As a team develops a greater range of options and skills will emerge as they become familiar to the pressure of competition and the play of their team-mates. Urgency in achieving this can detrimentally effect results..
Selection and Game Plan
To select pro-activity or to select reactively - what is the best method.
Proactive selection involves deciding on the best game plan and then selecting a team and training them to play to it. Selection is to an ideal game plan, the one we all know our national team should have played to after its last defeat.
It is not so much having the ideal game plan but a game plan that best fits the talents of the players selected. As a result the game plan is a product of the selected players best talents who are capable of doing the most important tasks consistently well. It is out of this range of tasks that the game plan will emerge.
The variations and options / patterns and tactics that emerge from the game plan will depend on the players' ability to perform a range of skills under pressure compared to the abilities of opponents.
Against some, these will be extensive, against others, the more competitive, they will be more limited. Whatever the variation and change of emphasis within each set of tactics there must be a base-line to which the team can revert under pressure. This is a pattern to which they can play under most circumstances and one that will give the most satisfactory result.
But it is essential that the game plan and patterns are produced proactively and positively from the selected players' profile and the reactive approach used to fine-tune these based on the profile of opponents. This fine-tuning is a luxury available to teams with players adaptable enough to change the emphasis within the patterns from game to game. The basic approach for many teams is to be disciplined to a basic plan they attempt to improve on from game to game.
Select to Reality
By watching players closely throughout a number of games these creatures of habit will let the selectors know what comes easily and what does not, what comes naturally, and what can and cannot be performed under pressure.
Records are worth keeping for reference and justification when selection of a squad is eventually made.
Players can improve on good habits. Some can eliminate bad habits and inferior skills but this will only occur over a long period of time.
And remember a lack of fitness makes cowards of all players.
The best selections will be of fit players who have an instinct for a position and for most there will be a position in a rugby team that best suits them. Then it is a matter of deciding who does it best if there is more than one player for a given position.
A further criteria is the ability to understand and effect the need for change when what has become standard practice has become predictable.
Only select a player out of position if that player is the best option for the alternative position. Don't compromise to select out of position to just get someone onto the field of play. If this occurs in the ball winning positions in particular, the effect will be to not win the ball, preventing the player from showing attacking skills for which selection has been made.
At the highest level a player may be the best goal-kicker but if their positional skills are inferior then the opposition will probe this weakness. On balance the goal kicking may not compensate for the inferior play.
There are some positions for which there should be no compromise selections - ball winning, open-side flanker, half-back/scrum half and out-half/1st 5/8 are some examples in which no compromise should be made in initial selections and in sending on replacements.
A worthwhile checklist is: Points Possession - initially and continually Pace Persistence
This is over and above a baseline of individual skills all players have at this level of play.