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Counter-attacking and basic skills the keys to Prendergast's philosophy

Grenoble’s new backs coach outlines his areas of focus ahead of the Top 14 season.

Prendergast working with the Munster 'A' team in 2012.
Prendergast working with the Munster 'A' team in 2012.
Image: Mat Mingo/INPHO

WHAT GOES INTO making an effective backline?

Mike Prendergast will look to answer that question in his new position as backs coach at Top 14 club Grenoble, whose ambition has seen them sign up several star names for the new season.

Springbok fullback Gio Aplon joins from the Stormers, Maori All Black centre Jackson Willison signs from the Blues, while French out-half Jonathan Wisniewski will look to stitch play together for FCG after moving from Racing Métro.

Prendergast has been promoted under head coach Bernard Jackman, having impressed last season in his capacity as skills coach. The former Munster scrum-half is keen to swiftly combine new faces with existing personnel and get Grenoble’s backs “firing and scoring as many tries as we can.”

Two of the 37-year-old’s key areas of interest are counter-attack and turnover ball. A large proportion of the tries scored at the top levels of the game come in the early phases of possession, meaning Prendergast will be dedicating time to developing his backs’ ability to strike clinically in unstructured situations.

“In France, there’s a lot of ball kicked and it’s something that means there will hopefully be opportunities. We want to be in the right frame of mind, knowing what our roles in counter-attack and off turnovers are.

“There are going to be certain principles that we look at, but it’s also about playing what’s in front of us as well. Having someone like Gio Aplon, who’s a world-class counter-attacking fullback, is obviously great.

South Africa Rugby Aplon is one of the best counter-attacking players in Super Rugby. Source: AP/Press Association Images

“It’s something that we’re working on at the moment, giving the players a few directions and principles that we can go to [when it comes to games].”

While Prendergast points out that strong counter-attack is about all fifteen players, there is an obvious onus on the back three to make good decisions on the ball. Even outside of counter-attacking, the Grenoble coach expects his wide men to be highly influential.

“You want your wingers working hard. It’s not just about waiting out on the wing, those days are gone. It’s about working off the ball. Most of the time, your back three are your eyes and your ears.

For me, the inside backs have more pressure on them, so the wingers have to work infield, give options, stay active, keep defences honest. It’s something that Joe Schmidt puts a big focus on.

“You don’t want a winger just hovering on the edges, but working infield and providing more options.”

Prendergast spent a year playing with Bourgoin in 2006/07 and recalls having playmaking responsibility planted on his shoulders at scrum-half in a classically French manner.

However, he explains that the Top 14 has started to move away from that model and says that Grenoble will look to Wisniewski and his talented understudy Jordan Michallet to “direct us around the pitch”.

Rugby Union - Heineken Cup - Pool 2 - Edinburgh Rugby v Racing Metro - Murrayfield Wisniewski is a proven Top 14 out-half. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Selection in Prendergast’s backline will not only be based on picking the best individual in each position for every game. A season that extends from the 16th of August, 2014 until the 23rd of May, 2015 means using the entire squad will be important.

Grenoble are keen to build “a culture of real competition for places,” although Prendergast does admit to the importance of  “getting guys comfortable playing together and figuring out what the best combinations are” in the backline.

Whoever is wearing numbers nine to 15 for FCG, Prendergast is keen to ensure that their basic skill levels are of the highest quality.

Back play is not just all about structure or first phase; it’s about individual skills too. Looking at the New Zealanders, it’s something they focus on massively. For me, precision in the pass and decision-making are so, so big.

“When we’re training, it won’t just be focused on moves and first-phase attack, even though we will of course work hard on those. We’ll focus on individual skills too.”

Prendergast laid strong foundations in this area last season as skills coach, with Frenchman Philippe Doussy – formerly of Edinburgh, Italy and the Southern Kings – now having stepped into that role. There is also a big onus on the players themselves to drive the skills work.

“Something that we we started off last year is everyone doing their ‘extras’ at the end of the main session. Guys can work on an area where they’re a small bit down, whether it’s kicking, tackling, passing.

Chris Farrell 22/6/2012 Farrell adds bulk and power to the Grenoble midfield options. Source: Ron Gaunt

“Speaking to guys like Paul O’Connell, they work so hard on their ‘work ons’. They might have played a game or two where they feel they’ve been down on a certain area, whether it be receiving kick-offs or whatever.

“You can focus in on that and keep tipping away on it for the next few weeks. It doesn’t have to always be long, it can just be 10 minutes after a session.”

Two young Irish players will be under Prendergast’s remit as backs coach; 22-year-old scrum-half James Hart and 21-year-old centre Chris Farrell. Hart is now an established Top 14 player, while the Ulsterman has already shown rich promise in pre-season.

Chris has been very impressive. He’s a big guy, a physical player with a really good skillset. During multi-phase play, you can see that he’s got that knowledge, he’s feeding information in.
“James, having been here for three years now, feels he maybe wants to be part of the leadership group. When you talk about ‘work-ons’, he’s the guy who goes to extremes and does an hour when you should be doing 10 or 15 minutes. That hasn’t changed and it’s a credit to the lad.”

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Murray Kinsella

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