LET’S be honest. There have been times over the last few years when being Glasgow’s attack coach has looked like the easiest job in the world.
The extent of the offensive armoury in the Warriors’ locker room has been awe-inspiring in some games. The instinctive flair of now-departed backs such as Niko Matawalu is something that cannot be coached, and when players like that have been on song, they have run riot to devastating effect.
But, as Danny Wilson identified when taking over as head coach last year, the commitment to attacking play was often taken too far. Especially when winning possession deep inside their own half, the Warriors would at times try to launch an elaborate counter-attack from deep when all that was needed was a no-nonsense boot to touch.
Wilson has insisted that some method is needed as well as madness, some structure in addition to spontaneity. It is a theme which Nigel Carolan has amplified since coming to Scotstoun as attack coach in the summer, and so far the players appear to be embracing the change with a fair measure of success.
After finishing off last season with four straight wins in the Rainbow Cup, the Warriors have begun their URC campaign by taking two points from a narrow defeat in Ulster and then beating the Sharks in some style at home last weekend. This new-look Glasgow side may well be a year or two off their peak, but there is little doubt that they are heading in the right direction, thanks in part to the coaches’ assessment of what needed to change.
“The word that sums up what we’re all about is ‘balance’,” Carolan said yesterday. “Not only the balance between attack and defence, but in attack – and there is a balance between playing and overplaying.
“My view of the historical Warriors was that it was flamboyant and ambitious and fast, but there was a lack of balance. A few years ago you would get away with that, but defences are so well organised now. When you do get turned over in your own half it can have repercussions.
“I haven’t changed a whole lot in terms of the attack: I’m just looking at it through a different lens. In some ways, simplifying it.
“I haven’t come in with a template from my previous role [as backs coach with Connacht] to say this is how it needs to be done. I’m working with what’s there and there is really strong DNA in Glasgow for ambitious rugby. I want to tap into that and challenge myself to adapt to their style.”
Carolan certainly appears to be doing that, but by the same token the squad are also adapting to his style. “What we saw at the weekend, certainly in the first 50 minutes, is the template for how we want to play the game,” he said of the 35-24 win over the Sharks, in which the Warriors had the try bonus point in the bag by the break.
“There has to be an element of unpredictability. Our tries coming from set-piece, from turnovers, from multiphase and being relentless when we get into the opposition 22. We are trying to add strings to the bow, but I haven’t changed a whole lot.
“Coming in, I’m very conscious that their game wasn’t broken and their attack wasn’t broken. What I’ve tried to create is just to put a different lens on it, maybe use different language – say the same thing but in my terms.
“Our attack is very much a framework. I don’t tell the players what I want them to do in training or in a game. I just set them up in a certain way and they decide what the best options are. There is unbelievable flair and natural ability here and things you couldn’t coach.”
There certainly are things you cannot coach, such as a natural feel for the game or basic athletic ability. And sometimes learning has to come from on-field experience instead of things like video analysis.
But coaches can accelerate learning by asking the right questions of players – something that Carolan has been working on with stand-off Ross Thompson. The 22-year-old has so many strings to his bow, the coach suggested, that realising which asset to use when is a crucial part of his development. Once that has happened, Carolan is convinced, Thompson will mature into a playmaker of global significance.
“Ross Thompson is a young player who is quite impressionable at the moment,” he said. “His natural instinct is to run the ball, but you saw at the back end of last season that he’s got a really good kicking game. And when I spoke to him in the review this week it was about finding the balance, because he has a triple threat: he’s got a running game, he’s got a passing game and he’s got a kicking game. It’s about selecting which one to use at the right time.
“Sometimes he gets a bit flat when he wants to kick and a bit deep when he wants to run, but for a young fella who’s got the triple threat he just needs that little bit of balance. When he figures that out – and he’s going to figure it out, because he has a feel for it – he’s going to be world-class.”
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