NRC: West is best for Muggleton

by Brett McKay

He was the defensive guru who helped deliver a Rugby World Cup, and helped build the Wallabies’ golden wall of defence that changed the way international rugby teams approached the game when they didn’t have the ball.

Now he’s leading a Buildcorp NRC team and trying to capitalise on exactly the kind of attacking and offloading game that is designed to bring all his previous hard work undone.

Back in Australia after a season working with Laurie Fisher at English Premiership club Gloucester, John Muggleton is reminding everyone of his coaching abilities in the National Rugby Championship, at the helm of the Western Sydney Rams.

After a glittering rugby league playing career that netted premierships with Parramatta, State of Origin appearances for NSW, and a couple of Tests on the famed 1982 Kangaroos Tour of England, Muggleton turned to coaching in the late 1980s, as an assistant and lower grades coach with the North Sydney Bears.

In 1997 he joined Rob McQueen’s Wallabies set-up, and their beefed-up defence netted the 1999 Rugby World Cup. Over the next ten years, the Wallabies won or retained the Bledisloe five times, and secured the old Tri-Nations twice.

After the Wallabies, he has stints with USA Rugby, Welsh club Scarlets, the Georgian national team, and then re-joined McQueen in late-2011 for a couple of seasons at the Melbourne Rebels.

He returned to Australia after the Gloucester stint, and this season helped the Parramatta Two Blues side one day a week.

When the Rams came calling, he didn’t need a lot of convincing to take the job.

“No, not really,” Muggleton told this week.

“I helped Brian Melrose out when he was the first Rams coach [in the 2007 Australian Rugby Championship], back when I was with the Wallabies.

"It’s something that I feel very passionate about; what’s happened with rugby in Western Sydney and the poaching that’s been going on since time immemorial.

“Young players have been pinched from out here in the past and spend time travelling to the eastern suburbs or wherever, and we say to young guys now, ‘how much better a footballer would you be if instead of spending six hours a week in a car heading east, you put even half that time into working on your fitness or your skills with a mate passing the ball?’

“We’ve got to make it more attractive to them, we’ve got to get our clubs stronger, and that’s something we’re working on with the Rams – to attract players to play for the Rams, but also to get them to sign for our local clubs.

"Hopefully we can start an upward spiral, rather than the downward spiral that’s been happening for thirty years or so, which was when Parramatta last won the comp."

“In that regard, Southern Districts have been a role model for clubs out here, in how to restructure, and how get people into the area, and the right sort of people.

"That’s a huge positive we can learn from,” he said.

The Western Sydney side Muggleton has assembled for the 2016 competition illustrates that point perfectly; he has only a handful of Waratahs-contracted players.

The good news on that front is that hooker Hugh Roach will make his first start of the season for the Rams this weekend up at Ballymore, against Brisbane City.

The even better news is that big off-season signing, Waratahs and Wallabies lock Will Skelton has been released from the national squad this weekend to make his debut for the club.

Skelton had previously played a handful of games over the past two NRC seasons with the Sydney Stars.

The Western Sydney Rams have always been about playing entertaining, ball-in-hand rugby that people will want to watch. Nothing has changed in 2016, either, judging by their game against the Sydney Rays.

From our Match Centre stats, the Rams got 20 offloads away against the Rays, and offloaded every second time they beat a defender.

There’s no doubting their desire to get the ball past the gain line, but it comes with risk: they also conceded 20 turnovers, with plenty of them being last passes going to ground. It’s the eternal fine line that coaches need to manage.

“Everybody can offload, at any time,” Muggleton says.

“It’s doing it in the right situation, and with the right skill [that’s the hard part]. Most of our patterns of play on the weekend ended with a dropped ball, or just the ball being stripped; the Rays were very hard on the ball, and often just ripped it out of our players’ hands.

“So the fact that you can play that way doesn’t mean that you should always play that way, and I thought in the first half we overplayed our offload game and paid the price for it.

"At halftime, we spoke very strongly about the need to play more direct - play the ball at the line, rather than away from the line – and when you do that, you can get halfway through.

"And then that’s when that support line becomes very important.

“We offloaded in both halves, but I thought the second half was much better, because with some front-foot ball it wasn’t panicked offloading, one-handed sort of stuff.

"It was more close-quarters, get the hands free, and with a bloke running a nice line off it.”

Muggleton said his team have developed a new method of attack for 2016, but that the players kind of forgot about much of it in the first half and played too laterally; too instinctively almost.

In the second half they were able to get back to their preferred pattern of running to the line and reacting – and playing – based on the movements of the defenders.

“We want to play at the line, and we want to have more than one option going at the line at any one time, too." he said.

"That’s how you overload a defence."

“The beauty of having that attacking structure means that you’ve got people hitting the line together, and the ball player making the option.

"The ball player should still be alive, and then both of those runners become the support for each other; whichever one gets the ball, the other player adjusts his line and becomes the support for that ball carrier.

“We’re very hard at training about not switching off in our drills; taking the ball the ball to the line, working defenders hard, and playing the option.

"You’ve got to work hard at keeping going to the next ruck and making sure that people change their line and not just run through and give up, or just put their hands in the air.

“We work on metre by metre. From there you can step in and clean out if you have to, or you can step out and take a pass if you’re in the right position.”

A big Polynesian contingent for the Rams means the desire to offload and play entertaining rugby is the easy bit.

The hard bit – and Muggleton knows will be one of his biggest challenges in 2016 – is that the skills to do that, and the decision-making to do it in the right situation have to be sound.