Justin Marshall 's Opinion

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall: Game plan there to be toyed with

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New Zealand teams show playing off the cuff brings a better result, if not a win.

Blues fullback Charles Piutau  can't escape the clutches of  Francois Hougaard in the game against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld yesterday. Photo / Getty Images
Blues fullback Charles Piutau can't escape the clutches of Francois Hougaard in the game against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld yesterday. Photo / Getty Images

What I saw over the weekend was three New Zealand sides having issues with either the implementation of their game plans, or working off game plans that are possibly not suited to the talent in their squads.

The game plan is the cornerstone document of every team. Each off-season you pick your squad and coaching staffs then formulate a plan to manipulate the talent at their disposal. The plan will be modified week to week depending on the opposition, but fundamentally will stay the same.

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The All Blacks, for example, will base their game plan around Kieran Read's devastating ability two in from the touchline. Everything else they do stems from his creating havoc on the edge.

The Blues were in many ways the architects of their own demise in Pretoria, but there was still enough to suggest the addition of a couple of key personnel will keep them as contenders.

They lost because they were not disciplined - and when I mention discipline, that doesn't just refer to the concession of penalties. There was a tighthead conceded which resulted in 7 points to the Bulls, several times there were players chipping to themselves in their own half with little chance of recovering the ball; there were needless errors costing possession.

A number of the points the Bulls scored were what you call completely unnecessary and "soft".

But still there was plenty to like. The Blues have a game plan that suits them and while errors meant they couldn't implement it effectively, the addition of Ma'a Nonu in particular will have a huge effect. He will be more direct, as will Jerome Kaino. When they're under pressure, they get too lateral, but Nonu and Kaino will rectify that, giving some of their outstanding talent more room to weave their magic.The Crusaders have a game plan and they have players with the know-how and nous to implement it.

What worries me is not the lack of a suitable game plan, but a rigid adherence to it.

There is no spontaneity, the players are not reactive. The Crusaders have their structures and they look like a team that will do anything they can to stick to them, even if it means ignoring opportunities.

In other words, the Crusaders have become far too predictable. We know what they're going to do and how they're going to do it from most situations. They have players in that team who would benefit from having the handbrake taken off; by allowing them to be a bit more instinctive.

Game plans and structures are incredibly important, but I would hate to think we are coaching the instinct out of our players as it is our overwhelming strength over any other nation playing the game.I see some signs of restriction at the Hurricanes, who, after three winless rounds, look in big trouble. They look to me a team who are struggling to comprehend how they want be playing, particularly when they are trying to get the ball out of their own half. When they try to play a formulated game based around kicking they are really struggling.

Their best period was the final 10 minutes against the Brumbies. It is easy to say that was because they were desperately trying to chase a result, but they just looked a different, more confident team when they were playing off the cuff. They finally found some rhythm.

Their game plan is too conservative for the squad they have at their disposal. In the past it was a lack of conservatism, the lack of structures that cost the Hurricanes. They imported a bit of the Crusaders' famed structures when they hired Mark Hammett to coach, but perhaps they have tilted the balance too far in the other direction.

The Chiefs and the Highlanders had a bye this weekend. You'd have to say the Chiefs would be pretty pleased with their plan and the way the players adhere to it, whereas the Highlanders already seem to have benefited this season by reverting to a more basic approach.

As I have said previously, they seemed to struggle last year trying to fit x-factor players into their plan and therefore looked confused for much of 2013.

The loss of some of those star players would have simplified their approach - and on early evidence, it seems to be having the desired effect.

- NZ Herald

Justin Marshall

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall played 81 test matches for the All Blacks, including four as captain. The halfback made his debut in 1995 against France and ended his career 10 years later with a series sweep over the British and Irish Lions. He won five Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, playing 105 games for the franchise. He commentates for Sky Television.

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