Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Blowouts, mismatches, a/bs, and the meaning of "development"

We've all been there - you show up on match day, thinking you are playing a B side, or a developmental team, a friendly match, whatever, and low-and-behold, staring across the pitch from you is a player that just last week was wearing a USA jersey. Or a Territorial select side jersey, or a National 7s jersey, or just played in a national championship game.

More and more teams are moving away from the A side/B side designations and going to "Senior and Developmental" or "D1 and D2". The reason? Well, the promising new rookie just flat out learns faster playing next to stronger players. Let's say we've got young #9 we're trying to develop. Play her with your least experienced pack and a brand new #8, and she's doomed to failure. She will develop at a snails pace and your backline is unlikely to see the ball at all, which hinders EVERYONE's development.

But, play her with your champion of the world #8, and an experienced #10, and suddenly she's got clean ball, she can make decisions, and she's operating at a higher work rate than she ever would in the "b side" game. NOW, she has to step up. Let's face it though ... your champion of the world # 8 is still going to run picks, she's still going to make monster tackles, she's still going to poach the ball. And if she's playing against a team that is not quite as fit, big, or well trained, she's going to break tackles, evade defenders, and get into space.

Is this fair? Where is the line?

The reason I bring this up today is that my team and I ran into an awkward situation this weekend. Expectations clearly weren't communicated between match secs and coaches, and we put out a stronger team than our opposition coach thought we should have. Bottom line, for me, there is a real difference between a B side game and a developmental or "mixed side" game.

We were a D1 team playing two separate matches against two local D2 teams, and in an effort to best develop all our players, we decided to split our 38 person roster right down the middle and play "mixed sides". We had a couple of senior select side players who played in each of the matches, not more than 20 minutes each .... and a couple of very high level U23 players who played most of the match. Two of our select side players sat out completely. Our coaching staff and selection committee did what we though was our due diligence, and were obsessive about how we selected - we wanted enough A players to keep the work rate high, provide leadership, and get good ball to our developmental players, while still giving them the bulk of the game time. When selections for each match shook out, it was right down the middle - 1/2 and 1/2 for both games.

This plan backfired horribly. Or maybe it didn't. It's an ethical dilemma, I guess. We won both of the matches, the first, vs what we perceived to be a slightly stronger team) by 40ish points, the second by 27 points. Not huge blowouts, but decisive wins.

I thought our competition - both teams - performed impressively, and was delighted that only one or two of our tries were the result of solo efforts. I thought everyone was happy. I thought the rugby was good, clean, fast, and physical. There were no yellow or red cards, scrums were safe, the ref didn't give any warnings and it seemed like people were having fun. There was one unfortunate injury to one of our first opponents, the result of a BRUTAL small-woman on small-woman level 3 tackle. I was in my little coaching world, pleased we were attacking space like we practiced, and making mental notes about turnovers, ball retention in contact, and lineouts.

Well as it turned out, we (I, the president, the match sec AND the captain) were vehemently chastised for playing ANY select side players at all. It was, apparently, an issue of "sportsmanship". A good sportsman or woman, the theory was proposed, would not let Select Side players play at all against a D2 team.

So - what does the general public think? Is it OK for an Eagle, or a TU select side player, to play in a D2 game, or should D1 A side players be limited to D1 games, and D1 B side players to D2 games? If it's OK to play your top players in a mixed roster match, how much is too much? How strong is to strong? What score is indicative of a blowout? What's the line between fair and competitive? Is it possible for an individual player or players to be TOO GOOD to step on the field against a particular opponent? Is it possible for an individual player to be TOO BIG (one of the assertions) to play against a team that doesn't match up to her size?

To be fair, the games were won not through the efforts of these handful of players, who barely had time to get warm, but through teamwork and an elevated level of play by all the players on the pitch ... but i digress.

For those of you who are with clubs that have two rosters, how to you develop players? A/B games, mixed squads, what?

I realize it's risky to write about a specific event like this, but its been bothering me, and I want to know what ya'll think. No disrespect intended to anyone, but its a valuable, if sensitive topic, so POST AWAY. Please, productive posts only.



Anonymous said...

I play for a D1 team, and while we don't generally have the opportunity to play D2 teams, we have played several college teams during the course of this spring season. We play these games with mixed sides but we have not purposefully sat anyone for these games because they were select side players. It is my understanding that the point of developmental games is to learn. a game that is played with minimal injuries and infractions and results in a score that is not absurdly skewed sounds like it is in line with the goals of a developmental game. the real question is, did the team on the losing side of the score learn anything? if people only play with and against players who are at the same level as them, they will not learn as quickly as they will if they challenged. the score really isn't the point in these types of games.

Anonymous said...

In my territory, my D1 team regularly plays D2 teams as part of the league structure. Its sortof expected that the D1 teams will win those games, sometimes by a lot, but the point is really to provide both teams with development opportunities.

We get to play our "developmental players" or "b-side players", play people in different positions, try different combinations, etc, without having to worry about the result. The D2 teams get to experience a higher level game and test themselves against better opposition.

It works out well for both sides, even if it does lead to some lopsided scores, and most teams in the league have been pretty happy with the arrangement.

Incidentally, I've also been on the losing end of those lopsided games when we've played opponents who were significantly better than we were. I would never want those teams to sit their best players in order to avoid beating us too badly. In fact, I relish the chance to play against better opposition and I think my team learns a lot from the experience. Nothing makes me happier than seeing one of those top teams put in their Eagles at halftime because they aren't beating us as thoroughly as they were hoping to.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the two commentators above. The reason I didn't progress as a rugby player in high school is simple; I didn't have to. I could continue doing the same things and would be successful. Only when I came to college and began playing with and against players of a higher caliber was I able to stretch myself. Also, I beleive my team learns a lot from a hard fought loss against a superior opponent. When we travel abroad we relish the chance to play against older, more experianced players because it pushes us to grow not only as individuals, but as a team.

It's also part of the reason select side/USA camps are worth it; you learn and are pushed out of your comfort zone.

-Alison W.

Kentucky said...

I've been on both sides of the big team/little team scenario....D1/D2 scenario....and you know what, I've learned that you can get something about of a 70 point loss, as well as a 70 point win - it all depends on what you're working on and having the right mindset. Back when I played on a D2 college team, sometimes we would have to play very good D1 teams. we would lose. But I learned to work harder under pressure, to make tackles, and to focus on fundamentals. Now that I play for a D1 team, we win a lot - so i try to focus on exploring the options, trying a few kicks, etc. Forty points is not a slaughter, and it sounds like a pretty respectable game - too bad your opponents (or their coach, I suppose) couldn't have gotten something out of it..

Blondie said...

My team is D-1 in the Midwest and we often struggle to find a full roster, but we have several talented players who are midwest/national level.

During bad seasons, we often have heard that we should move down to D-2, but we know that to continuing trying to be your best, you need to play the best. No matter the end score. So we only schedule D-1 and very competitive d-2 whenever possible. We never schedule college teams, unless we're hosting a scrimmage or clinic.

Any team - no matter the division - should've realized that if they are playing a certain team, they should be ready for what that team can bring. You shouldn't apologize for the effort you put in to make equally mixed sides, considering you could've decided to play your starters.

The only lesson perhaps, greater communication with your officers who handle your schedule. Make sure the messages are there so your opposition knows.

I'm going to post this today and hopefully others will leave comments too.

Anonymous said...

I am as well a D1 player but some of my territorial teammates are from D2 teams. Just because a team is D2 doesn't mean they can't be as competitive and have players that compete at the higher levels.

Sarah said...

I play for a D1 team that does frequently schedule highly competitive D2 teams for our Dev side. We also have several territorial players and have in the past had U23 players who did not regularly play on our senior side, as our senior side was full of amazing players so it was hard to break into. Should we have had those players - who played dev more than senior - sit out the D2 games b/c they were "of higher caliber"? Of course not! That would be insulting to everyone involved, on our team and the D2 team!

It sounds like you did the best you could to make sure to provide a good game for your team, and a fair game for your opponents. It does sound like communication may have been the issue. If there were 2 games scheduled, I would have assumed your Senior side players would be playing too, but perhaps the other team was not really thinking that through.

Emily said...

This is sort of a difficult question, and really one that falls on the shoulders of the D2 team administrators. My former D2 team had ongoing debate as to whether we should schedule games with the developmental sides of D1 teams...We played a couple of D1 developmental sides while I was there, and always went into them assuming there'd be some excellent competition and expecting a hard game. The value of these games was an ongoing debate though...one faction wanted the experience and competition (especially as the range in D2 is so broad, and its not uncommon for one or two teams to dominate a local union and only lose at tournaments), the other side feared being crushed/playing high level players/wanted to be more social than competitive/whathaveyou. Anyway, I think if its scheduled, it makes sense for both teams to use it appropiately as a learning experience.

side note: I really like the concept of "developmental" versus "A/B", especially for the non-league season.

KLK said...

I play on a DII collegiate team that is used to playing competitive DI collegiate teams. In my years at UCSC we've played Stanford, Chico, Davis, UCSD, UCSB, ASU...we've played to their level, gotten stomped, and even beaten a few teams. We've never played them with our a-side, like any DII team (ie no depth), and I'm pretty positive we've always played against a developmental side(by your def). I think one of the mistakes some D1 teams make when playing DII teams is to put in their b-side alone to try and develop depth as much as possible. What often happens is we'll get ahead the first half, become more comfortable and sub even more inexperienced players...they get riled and put in more starters and what results is a slaughter in the last half. Yes this could be the difference in fitness but I recently played in one such scrimmage match and I found myself in an all rookie tight five mid-match and was quite peeved at my coach when the scrums subsequently went to shit (we had been matching them until that point).

Eh....long story short I agree with your idea that vets act as catalysts for rookie growth but if you're going to mix and match its better to do it initially and keep it consistent rather then radically changing the balance mid-game.

Anonymous said...

Two questions, two answers.

First, mixed teams: Rugby simply is not big enough to have such rigid restrictions. And we have to keep in mind that how good a team is whether D1, D2, or College, is somewhat subjective. Everyone wants to play and have a full team. So, yes I think it is Ok to have a mixed team somewhat misrepresented. However, there are ethics and fair play and coaches and players should be honest when working with other teams and make it as fair as possible for everyone. (in those friendly matches)

If you want players to develop and step up to the plate then you must mix experienced players with rookies. At least in a few games. No matter how hard you coach, players determine thier progress against the other players they play with. If I play with someone that is only slightly better than me . . my motivation to get better is minimal. But if I am playing with superior players, then I feel the need to push much harder. You don't train to climb Mt. Everest by walking up hills.

And I agree with klk, once in, win or lose you must be consistant and not let your ego get in the way, just so you can win. Sometimes losing teaches a team more than that win because I sent in all my starters in the 2nd half.

The Krog

Lee said...

My DI college team recently played a club side that included multiple select side players. Sure, we lost but we did a good job of holding our own. None of my teammates complained about the caliber of the players they faced. Instead, they took pride in the fact that they were able to play a game against such a good team and make it competitive.

Playing with and against players of a higher skill level than you is the fastest way to improve your game. “Mismatched” games are only a bad thing when one side is so overwhelmingly stacked that the game is of no educational value to the losing team. It sounds like the teams you fielded were strong but not unreasonably so. A win by 20-40 points does not indicate that the teams were unfair. We’ve won and lost games against DI teams in our league by similar margins and theoretically, we were on or around the same playing level as them.

OBG said...

It seems like there are two issues: 1) communicating expecatations between sides and 2) tha value of a "mismatch"

On the first, I think you realize that a better job could have been done to communicate effectively so you wouldn't have been surprised by the comments from the opposition afterwards.

On the second, I've always been struck by the fact that in rugby there is no such thing as not "running up the score." In almost every other sport, it's considered good sportsmanship to somehow figure out a way to stop scoring (put in your second string, stop throwing the long passes, run down the clock). But in rugby, it shows your opponent extreme disrespect if you stop doing what you're doing. They have worked hard to be on the same field as you, and no rugby player that I have ever met in my life has ever sought "mercy" or letup from an opponent.

There is value in playing the game (no matter which side of the score you are on) because there are a million separate moments of interaction in rugby from which to learn.

And you chose a good tactic to develop your younger players.