Chaos and ‘x-factor’ rugby – Debunking the ‘Warrenball’ myth

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The term ‘Warrenball’ angers Warren Gatland. It has become synonymous with direct, physical rugby, but ask two men who know Gatland best and they say attacking unpredictability is high up in his coaching philosophy’s pecking order. This group of British & Irish Lions are looking to bring rugby chaos to New Zealand.

Tony Hanks knows Warren Gatland better than most, as their coaching paths intertwined for the past two decades. On Wednesday night Hanks, now the Blues’ high performance director, will come up against his former Wasps and Waikato colleague at Eden Park, and he is expecting anything but a predictable attack.

Hanks will be perfectly positioned to relay to the Blues side what they can expect in attack from Gatland’s team. Like a magpie from his time at Wasps — Hanks started working there with Gatland in 2002 — he has taken and developed aspects of coaching he has learned from Gatland, but ask him about ‘Warrenball’, and the various perceptions around it, and you are given a stark warning.

“Warren’s a much more positive coach than that term gives him,” Hanks told ESPN. “It’s a bit personal to me as I’ve known Warren so long, but this criticism of this direct way they play … I thought I saw in the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians game a little bit of intent to shift the ball and offload whereas they could’ve just put the ball up the jumper and won more comfortably.”

Warren Gatland (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Rob Howley, Gatland’s Lions and Wales attack coach, also is bewildered by the ‘Warrenball’ pigeonholing. “I don’t know what Warrenball means,” Howley said. “I haven’t got a clue. That is all I can say having been part of my third [Lions] tour [with Gatland] now. I’m not too sure what Warrenball means. I dunno, have we played that over the last few years? I’m not too sure.”

The term ‘Warrenball‘ was coined by ex-England attack coach Brian Smith, who described, back in 2013, Gatland’s philosophy in the following terms: “It involves very big, extremely powerful players taking the ball round the edges and equally big, powerful wings making dents infield at a high tempo set from half-back.

“There may be one or two unexpected tactical flourishes … but basically, this is about belligerence.”

For belligerence, read predictability, and it’s something Gatland has grown to loathe. He believes the broad stroke term around his gameplan is potentially due to jealousy and also in part due to his team of giants with Wales when he had the likes of Jamie Roberts, Alex Cuthbert and George North running hard and direct. On Monday he seemed almost exasperated by further mention of it in a press conference after it had been a running theme in the local press over the weekend.

This is not to say Gatland does not like physicality and speed in his defensive line, something we saw in his Wasps sides and with Wales.”We have a game blueprint the players understand that when things get messy we are able to get into shape and organisation,” Gatland told ESPN in 2015. “What we’ve been trying to encourage the players to do is play more of what is in front of them with decision making and offloading and variation.

“As teams have got better defensively and more organised there is limited space on the field. Kicking strategy is a really important part of the game. Defensively for us we are good in the air. If you look at the Premiership at the moment, those who are kicking most are winning most of the games and that’s the difference between attack and defence. That brings more kicking as teams are reluctant to play in their own half and that’s where we are with ourselves.”

Hanks can see these trends in the analysis he has done on Wales and the Lions from their opening match.

Tony Hanks worked with Warren Gatland at Wasps and Waikato Jan Kruger/ Getty Images

“You’re probably talking to the wrong person as I understand the science behind it,” Hanks said. “Look at how his teams play without the ball. They’re aggressive and attacking all the time.

“Test rugby is different to Premiership or Super Rugby; you have to earn the right. When they get that right — I’ve seen times when Wales put the All Blacks under pressure and while they couldn’t go the distance, they’re able to put big teams under pressure with that game. It’s a collision-based game and you know that his teams will be conditioned for that.”

One of the main pre-tour critics over Gatland’s perceived style of play was England coach Eddie Jones, who said: “I think they are looking to attack like Wales with big, gain-line runners with not much ball movement. I think you struggle to beat the All Blacks like that.” Steve Hansen, the All Blacks coach, also spoke along the same lines in a recent Daily Mail interview, saying he expects the Lions to “cart the ball up and come around the corner”.

But one of the buzzwords on the tour so far has been how the Lions plan to unlock their’ ‘x-factor’, and Howley’s role is to find a way to facilitate that. Far from mere carting balls up, the Lions want to deploy their own chaos theory.

“Rugby is dictated by speed of ball and numbers in the defensive line and it’s important that we are able to adapt and play what we see,” Howley said. “One thing players have enjoyed is what we call rugby chaos, 15 against 15, it’s very unstructured.

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“The majority of the game now is from kick returns and turnovers, and it’s the ability to react in those situations and to not get left behind, to be ahead of the game. That’s in terms of support lines and handling skills.”

In the recent Six Nations, Wales put the ball through the fly-half more than any other team. And the message from Gatland, ahead of Wednesday, is for his team to embrace their creative instincts and take risks.

“To match the All Blacks you have got to display a bit of X-factor and if that X-factor means an offload or something that is a little bit outside the box, the players are being encouraged to do that because that is what we are going to need to beat them; and express themselves, back their skills and back their ability and we don’t want to be prescribed and we don’t want to play by numbers.”

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