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'My fear is that with talented players, if you over-coach them, you'll kill the instinct'

Nigel Osborne runs the skills-based Rugby and French camps every summer near Biarritz.

A RUGBY OBSESSIVE from the start, Nigel Osborne grew up in the 1980s and fell in love with two of the game’s truly great backlines.

First, the French.

“I absolutely loved the French way of playing the way, with the piano movers up front and the piano players behind,” says Osborne, who runs the ‘Rugby and French‘ summer camps in the southwest of France.

“Depth in attack, good quality passing, keeping the ball alive, using the width of the pitch. Blanco, Lafond, Mesnel – they were guys I idolised.”

NO Nigel Osborne with some former attendees of the Rugby and French camps. Source: Rugby and French

Then there were the Aussies. Different but thrilling too.

“They were the other brilliant attacking backline. The Wallabies were unbelievably flat, great passing qualities with guys hitting space. Peter Grigg, David Campese, those guys.”

Osborne’s formative years left a lasting impression and, to this day, he is a coach who believes deeply in the importance of giving young players the skills to express themselves and enjoy rugby.

Having played with Wanderers and Old Wesley, as well as in France and the US, Osborne has been coaching for around 20 years with Wanderers, Bective and Seapoint – who he guided to three promotions in five enjoyable years – and at schools level with CBC Monkstown since 2006.

Very much a Francophile, Osborne worked with Stade Français on a consultancy basis in 2012 and 2013 when his business partner and close friend, Richard Pool-Jones, took over as director of rugby after Michael Cheika’s time in charge ended. 

Dublin-based Osborne travelled over and back to Paris to help Pool-Jones and had an opportunity relocate full-time, but says a permanent move to France and into professional coaching wasn’t right for his young family.

The strong connection to France remains through the Rugby and French camps every summer, where boys from the ages of 11 to 18 are coached in the core skills of the game, an 11-day camp costing €1,350 per player including flights.

There are French language classes, surfing, sailing and more activities in the camps at a facility near Biarritz, but the primary focus rugby-wise is on helping young players to fall in love with the skills that Osborne believes should always be at the heart of the sport.

“We have a philosophy of teaching the skills of the game at a young age to get kids attached to the game,” he explains. “It’s like in golf – if you hit a wedge to within two feet of the hole, you get a real buzz off it.

French TOP 14 Rugby game - Stade Francais vs Montpellier Osborne previously worked with Richard Pool-Jones [right] at Stade Français. Source: Allaman Stephane

“The same in rugby – a grubber through for your mate, a long pass for the fullback to hit the line, dropping a goal with your left foot – you get a buzz from that.

“Also the collective buzz of scoring a great team try or a great team defensive effort – that’s what the game is about. I had a desire to imbue people with that too.”

Osborne estimates that more than 100 future professional players have attended his summer caps, including Luke Fitzgerald, JJ Hanrahan, Luke McGrath, Andrew Porter, James Tracy, Max Deegan and former England international Alex Corbisiero.

He stresses that their schools, clubs and parents are most responsible for those players going on to ‘make it’ in the game, but Osborne has always hoped to pass on his grá for the sport.

“One of the problems with the game today is that kids are giving it up because they don’t actually fall in love with it,” says Osborne. “It’s an attritional war to be picked in an academy.

“The schools system is the best in the world but an awful lot of time you have it so professional, a lot of ruck shields, so guys get disenfranchised with their rugby.

“What we try to do in the camp is put kids in situations where they’re making decisions with the ball as many times as they can. 3 v 2, 4 v 3, 1 v 1 – what do I do? How do I keep the ball alive?

“Instinctively, players will find solutions. It doesn’t need a whole lot of coaching, it’s not rocket science. If they improve their footwork, that’s a huge thing, and also their confidence in their passing.

“The other thing to recognise is that we do contact work in the tackle and the breakdown because that is a skill, that can be improved by anticipating how guys are going to come at you, moving your feet.”

Osborne cites Steven Aboud – formerly of the IRFU and now working with Conor O’Shea in Italy - Roly Meates and the late Australian coach Jake Howard as being among his coaching influences, while playing in many different positions himself helped grow his view of the game.

Stephen Aboud Italy’s head of technical direction for player and coach development, Stephen Aboud. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

His philosophy on the game is centred around handing responsibility to the players, rather than imposing strict structures and shapes on them. 

He prefers working with younger players, given the importance of building the core skills at that age, meaning he has loved being involved with CBC Monkstown alongside Ryan Corcoran.

“The philosophy in Monkstown last year was that we had a group of 44 boys and every one of them would be treated equally.

“We would play to enjoy the game and we would try and boost self-esteem through the game and give ownership of the team to the team through the course of the year.”

Monkstown had plenty of defeats during the season, but by the time the Cup campaign came around, they simply “got rid of all the moves in the backs,” explains Osborne.

“That simplicity could only work with passing skills, depth and energy – wanting to get on the ball and wanting to support the ball. We had great success relative to the team. They won the Vinnie Murray, lost in the Cup quarter-finals to Clongowes.

“We threw away the cones and tackle shields. I hope they will all continue to play the game.

“My fear is that with talented players, if you over-coach them, you’ll kill the instinct. Some very good players just need a little guidance to trust themselves.”

Asked why he believes this kind of philosophy is less common in the professional game, where rigid structures have become the norm for many clubs and national teams, Osborne indicates that the advent of pro coaches changed everything.

“Coaches are paid for results, they have to justify the work they’re doing. There’s an awful lots of cones, hit shields, structures. At the end of the day, that’s very prescriptive, telling players what to do.

RF The Rugby and French camps take place in Soustons, near Biarritz.

“Whereas coaching should be about empowering people to do it when you’re not there, giving them tools.”

Osborne worries about the amateur rugby mimicking the pro game.

“The amateur game should be about participation, enjoyment, craic. We want amateurs to enjoy the game, to enjoy their training and be there for the right reasons. There’s a bit of a disconnect there.”

But Osborne is optimistic that rugby is about to change with the World Cup in view. He sees expansive, skills-based, 15-man rugby where front row players can pass and kick expertly as being the way forward.

Unsurprisingly, he’s a huge fan of the proposed ’50/22′ law trial that looks certain to be brought in post-World Cup.

“I’ve often thought it would be great to have a Six Nations without coaches, where the players meet on a Thursday, have a chat, find their roles and jobs themselves, then go out and play,” says Osborne.

“The Barbarians still do it. 

“I do think after this year’s World Cup, the game will change and there will be more expression. I think we’ll see the end of the one pass, ruck, one pass, ruck.

“We need to give responsibility back to the players.”

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Murray Kinsella

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