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Physicality in sport no replacement for skill


SHOULDERING THE BLAME Jonathan Sexton (right) tackles Mathieu Bastareaud, France, with Robbie Henshaw during the 2015 RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship.  Pic: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

Andrew O'Brien

I saw a video recently of Eddie Jones, the coach of the English rugby team, answering questions at the Oxford Union. Many Irish people, regardless of whether they follow rugby closely or not, have a bit of a gripe with Eddie. The root of that animosity comes from the fact that, prior to the start of last year’s Six Nations he queried Jonathan Sexton’s fitness – Sexton had just spent time out with concussion problems – and suggested that his parents should be worried about him.
The general consensus was that Jones was just playing mind games and should leave Sexton’s family out of all rugby talk.
Having worked with him in the past, I can tell you that Eddie Jones is a very intelligent man, a brilliant motivator, but a sometimes prickly character. He is someone who watches and thinks about every sport, but obsesses about rugby.
I worked in video analysis at Australian Rugby when Eddie was the Wallabies coach. If we arrived at work at 6am on Sunday, Eddie was there, when you left that evening, he was still there. There wasn’t a thing happened in the sport that he didn’t know about. Players talk of going for coffee with him and finding sugar sachets scattered over the table as he uses them to demonstrate his latest plan.
In his recent appearance at Oxford, Jones was asked whether rugby had become too size and power obsessed, at the expense of skill. His answer could be used in any sporting context, and is something that I think is worth repeating: “The game of rugby is a balance between skill and physicality. I think in the Northern Hemisphere they’ve allowed physicality to become too important.”
Jones tells of a brilliant young player who is told by his club that he needs to gain weight, rather than being told to get more skilful. In Eddie’s words, “This is just ridiculous … because the easy part is the physical part, the hard part is skill.”
I have to say, I couldn’t agree more.
How often have we heard of a team losing a match and blaming their fitness? Or of a beaten coach running players into the ground for the following week? I even read a report recently of a college football coach in the US putting three players in hospital with rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which the body has to break down muscle as fuel, the waste products of which can lead to kidney failure. Apparently it’s not uncommon, with reports of up to two dozen players from one high school having to be treated after one training session, with several of them needing surgery.
The simple fact, but the hard thing to improve, as Jones said, is that most of the time, a team loses because they just aren’t good enough. Their core skills weren’t as good as the opposition’s.
Look at the dominant teams in any sport, and you will see the same thing. The All Blacks are no bigger than anyone else, no Dublin footballer is an Olympic-level sprinter, and to the best of my knowledge, no Kilkenny hurler is a high-level power lifter. The thing that sets these teams apart is skill and decision making. Sure, having a high level of fitness helps, but if you can’t catch when you’re not fit, what’s the point of running all day before you try to learn?
My son has recently started going to Gaelic football training, and I’m pleased to say that all the coaches of the under 6s care about is that the kids learn how to catch and kick. At that age, some will find it easy, others not so, but taking the fun out of sessions by making kids chase a ball if they can’t do anything with it once they get it is just daft.
So back to Eddie Jones, he’s right, anyone playing any sport should concentrate first and foremost on skills: catching, passing, kicking, serves, volleys, shooting, and, in a certain Mr Sexton’s case, tackling.

Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie.


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