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What can we learn from league?

Rugby union has made no secret of poaching some ideas from their rugby league cousins over the past few years, but how much have we really learnt from the 13-man code?

A lot has been made of the defensive structures and attacking running lines that league offers union, as the blueprint of what makes a successful team is constantly adapted with fresh ideas.

In the last ten years several league men have had stints as defence coaches in union, such as Shaun Edwards (Wales), Les Kiss (South Africa & Ireland), Dave Ellis (France), Mike Ford (England), Alan Tait (Scotland) and Frank Ponisi (South Africa).

The question remains, however; how much of a positive impact have they made in union?

Stormers backline coach Robbie Fleck is an advocate of bringing some fresh league ideas into union, telling this website: “Over the years if you look from a defensive point of view union has taken a lot from league. That came about a few years ago when several ex-league players came across and started coaching defence such as Kiss and Ponisi [with the Springboks].”

And Fleck believes the various defensive ideas that have been employed in union have started to influence the attacking side of the game, with him explaining: “Over the last two years the attack has changed, because there is a league style defence.

“Now teams look to a league style attack to find ways of breaking down the defence, but it’s not easy to bring the attacking game across to union.

“The key difference is that in union you always run the risk of losing the ball at the breakdown.”

However, there are several rugby purists who question how much union can really learn from league.

Former Springbok flank Rob Louw would know, better than most, about the subtle differences between the two codes, having played for champion English league side Wigan.

Louw is more scathing of the fashionable idea that league has all the answers, and believes union’s defence is hardly in dire need of dramatic improvement.

“I played with Shaun Edwards [at Wigan] who is the backline coach at Wales, and the league guys do come across with some ideas,” Louw told this website. “But I do think taking defence ideas from league is overrated and union knows as much as they do about defence.”

But, despite Louw’s comments, Fleck remains excited about bringing in fresh ideas from league and has carefully studied new tactics that could be implemented in union.

“There is a huge amount to be learnt from league and their structure within unstructured play, with calls coming after a third of fourth tackle and a lot of union teams are striving to find ways to keep the broken play more structured with attacking moves,” he explained excitedly.

“When we [the Stormers] were in Australia last year we went to watch the league side, the Melbourne Storm, train… and I know George Gregan also recently spent a week with them. The Storm are known for their attacking style and Gregan was learning from their halfbacks, because they are the best in the Australian league competition.

“Running lines and the execution of passes and different set-ups from the ruck area are all things that union teams are looking at to get some inspiration from league.

“I don’t know how league can benefit from union, but we can definitely learn from them.”

By Timmy Hancox

* Look out for the remaining parts in this union v league feature, as we continue to ‘tackle’ this debate ahead of the 2012 season in the southern hemisphere.

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