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How to judge a young player

JackMooves

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Joined
8 October 2023
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OK - this is one for the people who are involved in coaching or watch a lot of junior or amateur rugby. What are the little things which tip you off about a player and whether he might hold some promise for the future? I read a book by the great former San Francisco 49ers coach, Bill Walsh, in which he said something like, "He [or she] has to flash something interesting. Because if he can do it once I can coach him to do it better and often"

One thing I'm always looking at is how someone addresses the ball. Is it on his finger tips or in his palms? Does he catch using his body or is it always to hands? Can he high-point the ball in mid air or is he waiting for it to fall and dragging it into his chest? The first time I saw Jamie Lyon play I remember it was for Australia during a downpour (I think at Wigan but I might be wrong) and the ball was slung in his direction very low to the ground. Jamie reached down, plucked it out of the air with the tips of his fingers an inch off the ground, dragged it back in and took off. Anyone else and it would have been a certain knock-on. Instantly I thought - this kid can play. Incredibly rare for someone to have that kind of hand-eye co-ordination and for me it's a really good indicator of whether someone is a genuine prospect for greatness.

I know other people have different ideas and I'm interested to hear them.
 
I think the qualities you look for differ greatly depending on the position the lad plays. That's stating the obvious, for sure, but it's key.

I personally think awareness and game-intelligence is something that will give any young player a definite edge.

In the very occasional (casual) game I played in my 30's (after not really playing from being 20'ish), I was struck by how much more aware of the game I was and how natural it had become to play with my head up and see so much more - and as a result play so much better (although the old body wasn't up to as much by then!). I played most of my rugby when I was in my teens and didn't realise at the time how insularly tunnel-visioned I was when playing (I played mostly centre). I remember thinking in my 30's "I wish I could transport present-day me's mind into my young self".

Some players, though, had that ability of vision/awareness/game intelligence from a young age - and they always stood out.

Some players with sufficient physical attributes will succeed regardless - and some will gain that vision/awareness/game intelligence as they go through their careers - whilst others never will (at least in their playing lifetime).
 
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Yeah. Agree with that. Footwork is another factor. Some players are just light on their feet. Always on their toes instead of rocking back on their heels. It's surprising how much of a competitive disadvantage you are at with all your weight through the heels.

I think for a lot of people they are so wrapped up with execution they never have time for thinking outside of that framework. Especially if you are under pressure to perform because of competition for places. A player can become obsessed with getting everything right and it can sometimes be his undoing. Practice and repetition are important. If you can get to a point where execution is pure muscle memory (like driving a car) the game begins to slow down in your head. Suddenly you have time to think and improvements come thick and fast. You see this with juniors coming into their third year in the first team. In years 1 & 2 they are essentially just clinging on for dear life. They're already at a physical disadvantage to fully mature players so the deck is loaded against them.

Of course fitness is important. Because it's easy to talk about this and that when you're at rest and fully engaged. But as the saying goes, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all". And everything can go to hell in a handcart when you've run the tank dry. Some players just have that innate ability to lock in and cut out all of the extraneous noise. I think it's what's known as a "Flow State". Welsby has that. Roby and Scully had it, too.
 
Attitude and willingness to learn is a very important factor then a high level of basic skills. I remember a 12 yr old James Roby who would take on an older and bigger player without feeling uncomfortable, he learned a tackling technique from his coach at a very early age which kept him in good stead for the rest of his career.
There is also your maverick player which are usually half backs, the abilty to play whats in front of you without being regimented and robotic. Murphy and Goulding would only take a few seconds to create a situation. Long and Martyn had vision to see 2 or 3 plays ahead and would adapt to make it happen.
Self belief and the ability to influence the rest of the team, here we have the likes of Joynt, Scully, Cunningham, Graham and Lomax leaders by example and very resilient.
 
Ability to recover from a mistake or a bad injury and not let it eat away at their confidence. The ability to ride sledging and not let it affect their performance or even use it to play better. Some players have a lot of mental strength, others maybe less so.
 
Attitude and willingness to learn is a very important factor then a high level of basic skills. I remember a 12 yr old James Roby who would take on an older and bigger player without feeling uncomfortable, he learned a tackling technique from his coach at a very early age which kept him in good stead for the rest of his career.
There is also your maverick player which are usually half backs, the abilty to play whats in front of you without being regimented and robotic. Murphy and Goulding would only take a few seconds to create a situation. Long and Martyn had vision to see 2 or 3 plays ahead and would adapt to make it happen.
Self belief and the ability to influence the rest of the team, here we have the likes of Joynt, Scully, Cunningham, Graham and Lomax leaders by example and very resilient.
The Roby point is a good one. I'm always confused by players who have to work like crazy to make a tackle. Practice. Technique. Repetition. Make tackling as economical as possible and you are adding years to your career - as Roby proved. Lewis Dodd is also very economical in his tackling. Never seems to be working hard. And yet rarely misses his man.
 
I think I am with BN on this one. There are any number of things that might make you single out a player as having promise, but for me, the ability to read the game, assess and react quicker than anybody else, is the key indicator.
Of course, the basic physical abilities and a good attitude are very important, but the real superstars are the ones who seem to have a heightened level of awareness, the ability to see things that others can't, or see them quicker than the rest.
I think this applies to many sports. Think of the young Wayne Rooney who, even as a teenager, seemed to have eyes in the back of his head.
For the big lads up front, the important assets are, as BN says, different to the backs, but given that the physical prowess of top players should be a given, I feel that reading the game and anticipation, whatever you want to call that ability to get a jump on others by quick thinking, sets the real top players apart.
 
OK - this is one for the people who are involved in coaching or watch a lot of junior or amateur rugby. What are the little things which tip you off about a player and whether he might hold some promise for the future? I read a book by the great former San Francisco 49ers coach, Bill Walsh, in which he said something like, "He [or she] has to flash something interesting. Because if he can do it once I can coach him to do it better and often"

One thing I'm always looking at is how someone addresses the ball. Is it on his finger tips or in his palms? Does he catch using his body or is it always to hands? Can he high-point the ball in mid air or is he waiting for it to fall and dragging it into his chest? The first time I saw Jamie Lyon play I remember it was for Australia during a downpour (I think at Wigan but I might be wrong) and the ball was slung in his direction very low to the ground. Jamie reached down, plucked it out of the air with the tips of his fingers an inch off the ground, dragged it back in and took off. Anyone else and it would have been a certain knock-on. Instantly I thought - this kid can play. Incredibly rare for someone to have that kind of hand-eye co-ordination and for me it's a really good indicator of whether someone is a genuine prospect for greatness.

I know other people have different ideas and I'm interested to hear them.
Very interesting, as is a lot of the comments. I've coached 10 years at BARLA Lancashire u17s (kids were 16) and coached at a local Community Club for many years before that. Some of my "old boys" are members on here as grown men.
One time, I was lucky to have both Kevin Brown and James Graham in what was a very good u16s side reaching BARLA National and County Cup finals..... looking back, rather than specific aspects, lots of players had very similar skill levels but I'd say it was things like endeavour, application, industriousness, determination and the like that saw them through..... oh a slice of luck also helps 😊
 
One of my bugbears watching football is when the commentator/pundit/analyst describes some player as being "All left/right foot". It boggles the mind that a professional footballer isn't proficient with his opposite foot. I get that it's very difficult to be equally proficient but when you see strikers hitting the corner flag or skying it into row z you wonder what on earth they are doing with their time? The same applies to professional rugby league players who can spin the ball accurately in one direction and then you see it dying like a duck shot out of the sky the opposite way. And it's not a problem strictly with British rugby league. I mean, it was a lottery where Joey Lussick was going to put the ball sometimes. One thing I'll say about Welsby - he can spin that ball in both directions. Sometimes it has tendency to go high when he's passing to his right. But it's still on the money and he puts some real zip on it. Thankfully we seem to have moved on from the bad old days when the likes of Andy Gregory literally had to do a one-eighty to pass the ball the opposite way. Probably the best passer of the ball I've seen is Andrew Johns. I know he worked extensively on moving the ball quickly and accurately in both directions. Wally Lewis could also deliver a laser beam to his centre or winger from thirty yards. I didn't realize Lewis is credited with introducing the spin pass to Australian rugby league from his Union days. I always thought it had been in the game for much longer. I don't know who was the first person to introduce it over here. Maybe someone with greater knowledge of history can answer this question.
 
It'll be interesting to see how the kids coming through now whi won't tackle till under 9s go on. Obviously it's a massive part of the game but big junior kids get built up by parents before the age of 11, never learning to pass and tackle on 'size' and become completely unstick by 12/13 when everyone catches up. We may see more of a focus on ball handling players?

If you look for specific skills, players who carry the ball in two hands is an easy one, with the ball in the fingers not touching the chest or the palms. Being able to pass off the correct foot is another.

As said above is the willingness to get stuck in and practice
 
One of my bugbears watching football is when the commentator/pundit/analyst describes some player as being "All left/right foot". It boggles the mind that a professional footballer isn't proficient with his opposite foot. I get that it's very difficult to be equally proficient but when you see strikers hitting the corner flag or skying it into row z you wonder what on earth they are doing with their time? The same applies to professional rugby league players who can spin the ball accurately in one direction and then you see it dying like a duck shot out of the sky the opposite way. And it's not a problem strictly with British rugby league. I mean, it was a lottery where Joey Lussick was going to put the ball sometimes. One thing I'll say about Welsby - he can spin that ball in both directions. Sometimes it has tendency to go high when he's passing to his right. But it's still on the money and he puts some real zip on it. Thankfully we seem to have moved on from the bad old days when the likes of Andy Gregory literally had to do a one-eighty to pass the ball the opposite way. Probably the best passer of the ball I've seen is Andrew Johns. I know he worked extensively on moving the ball quickly and accurately in both directions. Wally Lewis could also deliver a laser beam to his centre or winger from thirty yards. I didn't realize Lewis is credited with introducing the spin pass to Australian rugby league from his Union days. I always thought it had been in the game for much longer. I don't know who was the first person to introduce it over here. Maybe someone with greater knowledge of history can answer this question.
I know in Union they were teaching the spin pass early 70’s. I played against Cardiff in Rhodesia where the altitude allowed you to pass further. Gareth Edwards spin passed a ball from a scrum 10 mtrs in to the opposite wingman. That was 1972.
 
I know in Union they were teaching the spin pass early 70’s. I played against Cardiff in Rhodesia where the altitude allowed you to pass further. Gareth Edwards spin passed a ball from a scrum 10 mtrs in to the opposite wingman. That was 1972.
Interesting. I lived in Joburg at altitude during the 80s. Watched the Springboks play quite a bit. It was during Apartheid so they were all rebel opposition teams. But the Boks were great. Everyone is HUGE over there. We had kids in what would be Year 11 here who were the size of Jack Welsby with hands like shovels. Hated PE. Used to get pummeled. Our PE teacher was an ex-Bok international back row forward. No slacking on his watch lol.
 
As a teacher I've coached football and RL (mainly out of necessity, so I'm not particularly qualified) and I'd be interested to know what people's experience is with the better ball playing forwards in our game. I taught at the school where Sam Burgess went to and he always played at 6 for the school team because he had great hands a very good passing game and could kick well too, I'm pretty sure that's where he played for his club, Dewsbury Moor too (maybe 13 also?). My thoughts are that our best forwards were probably just the best players in their school/club and so generally played in creative roles despite their size and so when they became second rowers, loose forwards or even props they had great skill sets. The flip side are those big bodies at a young age start at props and stay at prop forever. Any of you proper coaches out there got any insight?
 
I know in Union they were teaching the spin pass early 70’s. I played against Cardiff in Rhodesia where the altitude allowed you to pass further. Gareth Edwards spin passed a ball from a scrum 10 mtrs in to the opposite wingman. That was 1972.
Wow! I've seen clips of Edwards and he looked some player. It's funny - I was watching Squidge Rugby's channel (I wish he would do more rugby league because his tactical analysis is spot on) and he was talking about that length of the field try by Wales which is always highlighted as emblematic of Welsh rugby. It made me chuckle when he said, "Yeah, what they don't mention is Wales were a horribly dour and defensive side that entire year. People were falling asleep most of the time". :D
 
Interesting. I lived in Joburg at altitude during the 80s. Watched the Springboks play quite a bit. It was during Apartheid so they were all rebel opposition teams. But the Boks were great. Everyone is HUGE over there. We had kids in what would be Year 11 here who were the size of Jack Welsby with hands like shovels. Hated PE. Used to get pummeled. Our PE teacher was an ex-Bok international back row forward. No slacking on his watch lol.
I played Currie cup over there and Ranfurly shield in NZ. At that time the players in ZA at that level were much bigger than the ones in NZ. In the semifinal we played N Transvaal, I was a flanker and they had a centre Gert Muller that probably had 10 kgs on me. I never played anywhere where the opposition wanted to injure you the way they did in ZA.
 
I played Currie cup over there and Ranfurly shield in NZ. At that time the players in ZA at that level were much bigger than the ones in NZ. In the semifinal we played N Transvaal, I was a flanker and they had a centre Gert Muller that probably had 10 kgs on me. I never played anywhere where the opposition wanted to injure you the way they did in ZA.
Yeah, that's about right. I watched a couple of games at Ellis Park. They'd wheel these rebel tour teams in like lambs to the slaughter. You could tell the Bokke were really wound up by being frozen out of international competition and they made it their business to batter anyone who set foot on the pitch. Those tourists got paid quite a bit of money under the table. But they sure earned it in broken bones and torn ligaments. I remember after the first game I jumped in the Olympic pool next to the stadium. Spent two hours in the water and then two weeks lying on my stomach with severe sunburn. Learned a painful lesson there. :cry:
 
Won't happen but love a few youngsters to be given a game against London.
Give guys an extra weeks rest
 
I always remember a line from Wayne Bennett's book when he was watching some youth game, he loved the effort of one particular player but knew straight away that he wouldn't make it as he lacked 'co-ordination'. That has always stuck with me even though my interpretation could well be different than his.

Fundamentally you just need to be out there with a ball in your hand from an early age. A common theme among the good players I have played with and coached is that they are more comfortable running with a ball than without. The more active they are, the more they learn without realising I tend to find, particularly the hand-eye co-ordination as mentioned in the OP.

In early teens I'm looking for how they prepare for contact, the positioning of the body when effecting a carry or a tackle. For edge players, how they line up off the ruck or a half and the effort they put in to support - it can be taught to an extent but the ability to anticipate when an opportunity presents itself is just as important as the skill and will to execute it.

It's all in the head as these better players age and are put into tougher environments. The willingness to put your body in front of big men charging at you is increasingly underestimated IMO and has seen off plenty of players with great talent in my experience. I played in a successful school team for a couple of years and the best player on it at the time was on the scholarship at Wigan, he took a rib-breaking tackle at 14/15 and never really recovered. Last time I encountered him he was running rings around people in North West Counties division 4 with no desire to move up and test himself again. I am talking very top level here, but look at Matty Lees' tackle on Leota off the kickoff in the WCC as an example - not a particularly damaging challenge but the speed and force he generates into the contact, it's enough to put you off picking up a ball for the rest of your life!

As mentioned though you can be looking at different skills for each position. I think today's game can be played relatively simply by a middle (although to paraphrase Bennett again 'there are no easy Sunday afternoons for a prop') but is becoming more difficult for wingers for example - gone are the days of hiding the little lad out on the wing at anything like a decent level these days.
 
The thing is it's impossible to know how someone is going to pan out until you put them in a first team environment where they are at a huge disadvantage physically and experientially. Can they make good decisions when their bodies are starved of oxygen and they are under extreme duress? Talent and skills count for nothing if you can't hold it together under pressure. One of the reasons Saints love Bennison is they know he aint going to fold when things go sideways. People can wail and cry about his lack of pace and other attributes. But Benno has that dog in him. Type of kid who in WWII would be dragging his injured comrade to safety and then laying down covering fire when everyone else has turned and run. Character counts for a lot with the lads. And it's the reason he'll retain his place in the squad.
 
The thing is it's impossible to know how someone is going to pan out until you put them in a first team environment where they are at a huge disadvantage physically and experientially. Can they make good decisions when their bodies are starved of oxygen and they are under extreme duress? Talent and skills count for nothing if you can't hold it together under pressure. One of the reasons Saints love Bennison is they know he aint going to fold when things go sideways. People can wail and cry about his lack of pace and other attributes. But Benno has that dog in him. Type of kid who in WWII would be dragging his injured comrade to safety and then laying down covering fire when everyone else has turned and run. Character counts for a lot with the lads. And it's the reason he'll retain his place in the squad.
Sums him up well, it's a shame he doesn't have another yard of pace or better passing
 
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