Ref consultants have role to play in coaching set-up, say Musikanth and Kaplan
Following the Crusaders’ 37-18 win over the Lions in the 2018 Super Rugby final, coach Scott Robertson talked up his flyhalf, Richie Mo’unga, but he also made it clear that the work of his ‘Rolls Royce pack’ played a massive role in the team securing back-to-back titles.
While the pivot was superb and his attacking influence and solid outing with the tee greatly helped the scoreboard move in the Kiwis’ favour, the grind of the Crusaders’ forward unit certainly made things easier for Mo’unga. It was a collective effort, and it was the perfect example of how ticking different boxes can bring you closer your goal – in their case, that goal was yet another Super title.
Many of us are probably yet to meet a coach who would tell you that winning comes down to any one area, one player, or the contributions of only one of the mentors in a coaching set-up.
It just doesn’t work like that.
It’s a system – every area presents a piece of the puzzle, every assistant or specialist coach has a role to play.
Ask former UCT Ikeys head coach Kevin Musikanth and former Test referee Jonathan Kaplan, and they’d tell you the same.
Kaplan was a part of Musikanth’s coaching team in 2014 when they orchestrated a comeback like no other to beat NWU-Pukke and lift the Varsity Cup trophy.
His role was a rather unique one, especially at that level, as he was assistant coach for player technical development, strategic thinking, and referee matters.
While the weight of Kaplan’s influence in that role can’t be put into solid numbers, Musikanth is confident that his contribution was a significant one and both he and Kaplan believe that it’s a position that should become more commonplace in coaching set-ups.
"Coaching is getting a player to play better than they ever thought they could, and the only way to do that is by giving them all the tools that are necessary to perform, and then some,” the Israel Director of Rugby said.
"You have a scrum coach, a lineout coach, and a fitness guy, which is normal. You have a mental toughness coach, which is also normal now. Jonathan was one of those roles, the same as a scrum coach would be. You can't pin-point which one thing was the difference, but when it's only one inch that gets you over the line...if you take away any of those inches, we wouldn't have got over the line.
"Jonathan worked with me in 2014 when we won the Varsity Cup and then again in 2015 when we made the semi-final and won the University World Cup, and he was working with me as part of the coaching team. He fell into the 'and then some' category.
“Why would a tennis player who isn't as good as Roger Federer feel that maybe he can beat him? Maybe because some technical person gives him something extra that Roger isn’t getting. But on a pure ability perspective, we all know that UCT couldn't perform against certain teams, there was a reason why UCT hadn't beaten Stellenbosch in 7 years or so in the Varsity Cup.
"Maybe 15 or 20 years ago it would have been breaking ground having a mental toughness coach linked to your coaching staff, now it's commonplace, and I believe in five, six, or seven years' time you will have somebody who is an expert on the application of the rules of the game as part of your team, even if it's not necessarily a ref.”
It's almost become expected for a weekend of rugby to be followed with a few unhappy utterances relating to officiating from those in the rugby fraternity.
Much of that comes down to communication and it’s another aspect that can be aided by involving referees in coaching set-ups, according to Kaplan, who has worked with the Stormers, the Sharks, the Cheetahs, and the Springboks, although not as a dedicated consultant while he was still an active official.
"Sometimes the coach-player lingo and referee is slightly different, even though we're aiming for the same thing, and that is to make the game more simplified for the public and for the players.
"People are sticky downwards and they try and stick to what they know, and the game moves on. I think there's a lot of value attached to focusing on your strengths rather than always going back to your weaknesses. Here's an example, I spoke to David Campese the other day and we spoke about this, the mistakes that he made, and if you offset that against his attacking genius, and then if you look at the net result…if you always want to talk about the mistakes that David Campese made, you'll focus on these errors - that he threw a nowhere pass and the British & Irish Lions scored a try, or that he missed a tackle and Pieter Hendriks ran around him, or whatever it is, I don't even know if that's true, but versus the other way where we accept it and say 'listen, we're all human beings and we all make mistakes, so let's focus on his genius'. I don't think it's helpful to focus on the downside, and the upside of a referee’s inclusion to staff...I agree with Kevin.
"The role of the work that I did with UCT was strategic, it was to sit down with Kevin and figure out how we're going to win or what would be a good approach to attack a team that was often superior to us, my role was about strategy and helping coaches with their product and then also in two respects with the team - one, if an individual player came to me and asked specific questions about their roles and how they could improve their output, and two, helping them as a collective.
"By using my experience at the elite level, at the coalface, to give perspective and understanding to collective effort…I think those are areas where there could definitely be some value.”
Kaplan added that total buy-in would be needed to ensure such a role delivers the kind of results he believes it can.
"All referee managers and coaches should try and get referees as close as possible to managing it in a specific style, you should have some type of idea of what your prototype looks like.
"Looking at how successful this role can be - the essence of that success depends on the legitimacy of the position, for example, how the coaching staff accepts this other cog and how the players accept and understand the role of this person. I've always felt it's a good idea to get other people's opinion, not always, because I don't want to confuse myself, but certainly if someone was as experienced as I was and knowledgeable in the realm, I'd consider it a plus, so it was quite important for me that there was legitimacy attached to the role. Buy-in is important.
Musikanth went on to say that the importance of a referee or expert in that field should be on the same level as traditional assistant coaches.
"For me, as coach, Jonathan advising us has given me a new dimension on how to be around referees and how to manage it correctly.
"You need to have that maturity to acknowledge that there are people out there who can add value, above you and underneath you. A lot of coaches can't handle very efficient experts alongside them because somehow they feel that they'll lose control or the respect of the players as the head coach.
"My belief is that players are honest and they will respect you more if you give them what they know they need. We had a big leadership group and I can tell you now from Jonathan's perspective how he helped them in terms of analysing the refs and analysing how the game was being managed. So, I believe just as important as the attack coach or defence coach is somebody who should be assisting you to at least understand how to navigate your way around the management of a game.
"How is it possible that such an important realm, which is a cornerstone of many, many games being won, important tournaments being won…I am absolutely convinced that using a ref consultant can be a factor for rugby teams going forward, in terms of being successful.
"You've got a TV ref, you've got two ARs, you've got an assessor, and you've got a referee. So, how do we understand that as coaches and players if we've never experienced it ourselves?
The game has changed, it's evolved, so should we if we want to stay on track. And the addition of this role to a coaching team, whether it's a referee or not, can only encourage that evolution.