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Found this great clip from a recent game and shared it with my team, reminding them that it’s not just a great step by Rokoduguni, but he read’s Masi’s body language perfectly as well!

Masi makes the mistake of preparing for the tackle too early, chopping his feet and dropping his butt to take the hit rather than trusting his own ability to continue through and make a more aggressive tackle. He had a good line of pursuit to avoid being stepped on the inside – not to mention having two speedsters like Daly and Varndell there. He’s also a big enough guy to be an imposing figure and make a powerful smothering tackle on the Fijian.

On the reverse angle you can see the opportunity Rokodunguni is presented. Masi begins to slow down quite early – and a tackler doesn’t want to be too fast because a simple sidestep will do the job as the would-be tackler goes past like a missile. He still needed to come forward and remain on the balls of his feet to be able to adjust to the carrier’s changes. Rokodunguni picks the perfect moment to step, just as Masi has dropped his butt and almost gone flat-footed. With his centre of gravity that low, sitting back almost on his heels, it’s not going to be easy – if at all possible – for Masi to change direction.  The Bath winger’s step isn’t even massive and the inward cut probably wasn’t even necessary; he just read Masi’s passive body language and picked the perfect time to change direction.

I don’t really care if defenders go for the big hit or a passive hit – though there are ideal times for each if they are within one’s power/ability. I do, however, maintain that defenders must come forward to deny the ball carrier time and space to think and operate, but to also maintain the initiative and be able to react to sudden changes of direction. It’s a tricky balance that probably differs with each individual, based on their own agility and confidence versus opponents with unique abilities. How fast? When to put on the brakes? How low to get? When?  This tackle tracking and approach situation is something I have my players practising in 1v1s (and 2v2s / 3v3s to work on coordination and communication) every week for a few minutes, often in drill form in a series of small groups to get maximum reps. I don’t even think the tackle aspect is necessary if the final move is a powerful step and shoulder into the midsection/on the hip. Getting into that strong and balanced body position should make the tackle easy.

I genuinely feel its in your abilities to play open, dynamic rugby, moving the ball around and attacking from all directions. I urge you to play with your heads up, look for or create opportunities, play to your collective strengths, and establish continuity with clever support and timely communication. If you’re not already thinking on those levels, I will get you there. I will foster each player’s understanding of the game and development of her skills and hope that when individuals acquire this knowledge they, too, can support the learning of others in an efficient, constructive, and positive way.

Types of Activities

My training sessions tend to be drills light and scenario / game heavy. Research shows this to be the best way to develop your understanding of the game and they’re more fun! I think it’s especially true of rugby given the amount of players on the field facing off in two nearly-complete lines. No other invasion game has that kind of congestion. We’ll continually look at ways to find and open ‘doors’ rather than blindly bash into ‘walls’. Most activities are done at game pace, with game-like pressure, multiple variables and realistic context that will help you become attuned to the conditions of the game. This cannot be done in closed drills where you really aren’t making decisions, but are just going through the motions like robots. And we certainly don’t want to save game or game-like practice until Saturday!

I will also teach you to read the play; learning to anticipate actions, be aware of visual cues, and recognise patterns that will allow you to be more successful. By doing this in small to large groups, you will be better able to sift through what sports scientists call contextual interference (i.e. all the stuff you see when in a game) and develop solutions to these problems through perception-action coupling (i.e. choosing an appropriate action as a response to what you see in front of you). The aim, therefore, is to keep you active, give you lots of touches of the ball, and to put you in challenging situations that will be constrained in various ways to make the learning objective more obvious.

Rugby is a messy and chaotic game, so we’ll spend a lot of time in that state so you can get accustomed to it and process ways to deal with it individually and in groups. Ever hear a top athlete say the game ‘slows down’ for them? What they really mean is that they know their abilities and those of their team mates. They also are very familiar with the playing environment and patterns of play so well that they’re better able to deal with the multitude of variables in front of them and choose the best action. I want you all to take steps in that direction!

Constructive Feedback and Questioning

My environment is a ‘safe to fail’ one because I want you to learn from mistakes and be ambitious in how you play the game. Each activity starts with an objective / problem and we will quickly discuss possible solutions. With those in mind, you should be able to apply that knowledge – or knowledge from previous lessons and even other sports! – to the task at hand. Typically, during the activity you will hear me celebrating people’s successes, reinforcing the reasons why that worked so you can add it to your movement memory.

I will always be willing to offer positive and constructive advice when you’re struggling to grasp the concept(s), but will start with questions so that you might become more self-aware and analytical. If you’re not sure, I’ll then go to a more specific question that gives a hint, but not a direct answer. I want to give everyone the opportunity and sufficient time to process their own mistakes and seek advice only when they’re unsure. I hope you will allow follow my lead in not offering immediate (constructive?) criticism to your team mates. No one likes to be reminded of their mistakes and I will not have people making others feel worse when they occur with negative comments or body language. Give the situation some ‘time to breathe’ and, if relevant, make sure to be specific, positive, and constructive with feedback.

Even better, research shows that women are more likely to open up – rather than push back or go into their shells – when simply asked open questions like: “What happened there?” (Check out this interview if you want to hear more about that: Athlete By Design) This gives athletes a chance to reflect on what they just did and learn from assessing the process, compared to simply giving an answer that may go in one ear and out the other. It allows you to take charge of your own development, which is empowering and builds confidence. Growth and retention of knowledge is enhanced using the questioning method, and it’s a right every athlete deserves to have. In addition, it improves inter-personal relationships between players which is immeasurable when it comes to the atmosphere within the team and our performance on the field.

Season Outlook: Values

The following are some of the values I bring to the team and/or demand of the players I coach.

Having Fun – I have always believed that training shouldn’t be something athletes must ‘endure’ just so they can get a game. Training should be fun and relevant to developing the complete player, both physically and mentally. I encourage athletes to be ambitious, to express themselves creatively and to choose the exciting option when it’s on. I take pride in seeing teams ‘play pretty’ through clever play, only taking credit for maintaining a permissive training environment that allows them to work out the best times to have a go. I get more joy from this – win or lose – than grinding out a win by playing ‘not to lose’. Keeping fun at the forefront also allows us to maintain perspective. We must remember that this is amateur sport and but one small part of our busy lives, so there’s no need to take it too seriously.

Safety – Rugby, to the uninitiated, can look more dangerous than it is because its lack of equipment and regular contact. (To which, I say, body on body contact hurts much less and happens at reduced intensity than plastic on body contact in football and hockey!) People do get hurt, but so do people who participate in other sports, or even jogging in the park. That said, I focus on preventative measures and especially teaching athletes proper technique in hopes of avoiding injuries. This includes not teaching dangerous and illegal tactics and discouraging individuals from adopting them if picked up elsewhere. I take our trainers’ advice seriously and will err on the side of caution when we are unsure about a player’s status, especially were a suspected concussion is the concern. I expect players to be as cautious and prudent, reporting symptoms of injury, seeking professional advice and taking the necessary time to get healthy.

Growth – If we didn’t make the effort to learn, re-learn, or improve upon learning each and every training session, there’d be no point in having them. I could ask you to keep fit for Saturday and leave it at that – “See you next week just before kickoff!” I expect that players come to training with an openness to learn new things and a desire to develop their skills. I also think sport allows us to grow as people as we take on challenges and learn more about ourselves. I spend a lot of time planning meaningful training sessions and analysing progress at training as well as in games. I also do a lot of research into the art of coaching and trends within the game as well. I am always happy to share this extra information with interested athletes and am always happy to hear that players I coach go on to be coaches themselves!

Class – I see the team I coach as an extension of me and my vision. I believe completely in the ethos that rugby was built upon and while I don’t preach its virtues often enough, I certainly do demonstrate respect, fair play, and humility at all times. I expect players to follow suit and demonstrate their class with each other, opponents, referees, and fans at home and when we’re away. We’re a big club and you are a highly-visible element of that club. You all are leaders and must act accordingly.

Support – I think rugby has a greater need for support – not just physical, but also mental – than other sports because of its continuous nature and regular body contact. Where other contact sports involve one-on-one battles, rugby’s contact is more of a sustained group effort. Beyond the physical, successful club teams are ones that support each other on the field and off with empathy, constructive behaviours and a positive attitude. We all have a responsibility to make each other better and it must be a unified and consistent process.

Mental Toughness – Rugby is a tough game that demands players to physically front-up to the challenge of tackling and being tackled. It also requires them to endure conditions – from poor weather, to dealing with loss – that make things even more difficult. Veterans will know this from a playing perspective but it also applies to the training environment. The Premier team has lofty goals, and toughness extends to being here as often as possible, to trying your hardest at all times, and to keeping a cool head under pressure or when things aren’t going well. Rugby can be a great outlet for life’s frustrations, but certain elements of interacting with others in a challenging sport can add to it. Calmness and patience go hand-in-hand with determination and resilience as mental qualities needed to meet the demands placed upon you.

Determined Defence

The primary aim of defence has to be getting the ball back as quickly as possible, as much as possible within the laws of the game. In my book, everyone must have this mindset: being alert, coordinated, determined, committed and acting with controlled aggression. In fact, we are going to ATTACK on defence to deny the opposition time and space, cause confusion and seize the initiative.

Our league has good referees, often ones who don’t allow anyone to play the fine line between legal and illegal play, so I prefer to see the team playing honestly but with a unified urgency to get the ball back. This also means making efficient use of our resources and energy, namely not pouring people into rucks that are already lost. I’m happy for us to submit defeat at this ruck to have extra numbers for the next tackle contest. Attacking teams will typically put two or more into a ruck to secure it. If we have just one person to have a shove and be a nuisance (if they don’t disrupt the ball and give us an immediate opportunity!), this gives us at least one extra defender to go for the ball or a choke in a double hit or act as a planned lone shooter. It’s this sort of thinking that makes defending more than just tackling and preventing points from being scored!

Important Factors in Achieving This:

  • High Work-Rate – As with attack, the team that is set and ready to go first has the initiative. We build the defence from the inside-out, taking care of the fringes of the tackle contest first and then pushing or folding out from there. Wings and full back are especially useful in pulling people out, which leads to the next point …
  • Communication – Constant and specific communication helps us point out threats, declare responsibility (again, from inside-out), make adjustments and even target opportunities. I have no problem with ‘Big Talk’ like “Hold!” and “Up!” as they are great commands to coordinate the defensive line, but the constant bleating of those words not only gets on my nerves, it’s white noise that prevents more relevant communication from occurring as the play unfolds. Kept it short, loud, specific, and ideally attached to a name or at least with some sort of direction/acknowledgement from the people around you.
  • Layered Structure – Generally speaking, the defensive line should be a flat wall that offers no gaps or holes for the attacking team to expose. That means no one up ahead of or behind the rest in the main line. A good attacker will go for the space left open and draw extra defenders, opening new space where they were if she doesn’t get through. That said, a completely flat line is an easy one to kick against or if there’s a breach, it’s more difficult for covering defenders to stop it. So, our defensive line has a few layers to it. The obvious one is the full back who generally shadows the opposition fly half and then tracks the inside of the ball, watching for cut backs but then taking the last attacker if there’s an over-lap out wide. The wings should hang back a few meters to deter / cover wide kicks, coming up into the line when it’s obvious the ball is going to be run. The middle zone between them is covered by the scrum half – who has an important ‘traffic cop-like’ job organising the tackle contest, but then must sweep behind the defensive line, again staying inside the ball, in case of line breaks or short kicks.
  • Hunting Pack Mentality – When the ball comes out of the scrum / lineout / ruck / maul, we have to come forward and take away the space and time the attacking team has. This MUST be coordinated, without the aforementioned shooters / laggers-behind, compromising the integrity of the defensive structure. It must also exhibit the qualities listed in the opening paragraph. We must dominate the contact area to get the ball back by aggressive but legal means. Simple as that. The pack mentality provides focus in that defending is never an individual effort, usually requiring at least three players to contain the ball carrier and her immediate support options.

(Diagrams and further explanation of layers and working as a unit can be found here: Principles of Defence 3 )

  • Footwork – This is the first of two concepts I think a lot of coaches forget, if not actually ignore, when coaching defence. Attacking players should try and avoid being tackled. Despite the tendency of Northern Hemisphere – especially North American! – players to run straight into contact, we have to be ready to adjust to changes in direction so footwork is very important. Closing down the space can involve long strides if need-be, but as a tackler approaches the contact area, steps should become shorter, on the balls of the feet, ready to adjust and make a tackle on her terms.  Which leads to …
  • Tackle Selection – Not everyone can make the full range of legal tackles allowed in rugby, and that’s fine. Footwork becomes even more important for those players to ensure they make the tackle as they would prefer. Hopefully everyone can strive to have as many tackles in their bag of tricks as possible because not every contact situation is the same and some can allow for a better opportunity to dominate the contest. Quick take downs allow the tackler or tackle assist player to have a quicker shot at stealing the ball, especially in the open field. Higher smothering tackles can prevent tries close to the line and allow assisting players to ‘choke’ the ball carrier, holding her up for a scrum turnover. Hammering a ball carrier backwards can have both a psychological effect that uplifts the team, but also gives the tackler the best chance of ending up on top, bouncing to her feet and getting hands on the ball. Blitz tackles can have a similar effect and also sets the tackler up to get or cause an interception as well. Supporting players need to be aware of the body language of each as team mates line up tackles so they can support in the best way (helping out or staying out, mirroring the offload threat or getting ready to pounce in for a steal).

In Addition:

1. Turnovers: When turnovers occur, someone needs to have a quick assessment to shout out the best course of action. To doddle or choose the wrong option wastes the opportunity to exploit a team that’s probably lying deep and is certainly disorganised. Typically, two passes away from the contact area will find this space. If someone does have a gap in front of them, support must funnel through and look to move the ball to space quickly. Kicks are usually only a good option if we have a legitimate shot at regaining possession from exposing the lack of covering players from the opposite team (maybe the wing and full back were part of the turnover and we have speedsters in place to chase a well-placed kick).

2. Kick-Chase: When chasing the kick, it’s important to get a group of at least three players in place quickly to either re-gather or contain and hopefully dominate the receiver. The ideal shape they take is not flat, because if one gets beat, they all get beat. If they adopt a ‘flat’ arrowhead shape, with the point taking the ball, then the ‘wingmen’ have time to make an adjustment if this occurs. Also, if the ball is re-gathered by the tip of the arrow, the wingmen are in good positions to support.

 

I’m a few days away from my first session with a new team and I’ve been watching, listening, reading and writing sports and coaching for a few weeks now in preparation. My next few posts are going to condense and outline some of this – also building upon my many years of experience – as a resource for those athletes who’d like to read my thoughts. Hopefully coaches who read this blog will also take from it what they find useful.

Attacking Focus

1. Play Head’s Up Rugby (Low structure imposed upon, high assessment and coordination demanded of players.)

a) Seize and exploit the ‘easy opportunity’ (ex. over-lap, gap, strong vs weak, fast vs slow, poor alignment, etc.)

b) Create an opportunity by using a simple move (can be simple as a sudden and sharp change of direction that manipulates the defence and allows support players options, or a multi-option snap play like a loop or a blocker line)

Before the defence re-aligns, look for a new ‘exploitable’ opportunity. This is a simple cycle where some players will be better at scanning and seizing but will have options to create opportunities if nothing easier is immediately apparent (not just from their scanning, but also from team mate feedback!). While I will train everyone to enhance their ability to anticipate and recognise patterns and visual cues, players not so aware can always start from b), using the attacking tool box mentioned in my previous post.

2. Maintain a quick tempo and play to our strengths

Playing in a provincial Premier League means we’ll face very strong and well-coached teams. I expect to especially see strong defending teams as those aspects are typically easier to coach (as seen in the recent Women’s Rugby World Cup!) We are lucky to have plenty of options in terms of speed, power, finesse, and game smarts. In conjunction with playing “head’s up” – and sometimes as a default option when there are no easy opportunities / creative efforts are being shut down – we can proactively and patiently string together phases in a logical way. Dominating the contact area to win quick ball, with good coordination and communication, means we should have a lot of people in good positions to keep the tempo up and prevent the defence from getting properly re-aligned. From this situation, defences break down and get us back to the ‘easy opportunity’ situations. For example, consider how even a 3m penetration with quick ball can catch defenders off side or unsure of who they’re supposed to be covering, or how a few phases in one direction with a wide move in the other could find speedy players against unfit ones. Not only do playmakers need to be aware of these possibilities, but all players should be assessing simple things like “Do I need to go in that ruck, or can I stay here and be part of the next phase?” Little ‘rules’ can be devised which fit the players you have – in our case, we’ll have a lot of options as we have a big tight five, mobile back row, intelligent midfielders and speedy outside backs. The trick will be to play to the ‘best’ strength at a given moment – something we will continually work on in game-like practice.

Important Factors in Achieving This:

  • Awareness – at all times – scanning / communicating / listening (playmakers use info to make decisions)
  • Work-rate – whoever is aligned first has the initiative. In contact, the fewer people needed to win a tackle contest, the more people we have for the next phase.
  • Alignment considered – we need more than one ‘layer’ to ensure we can be proactive, but also reactive (i.e. a strike runner can have a go at space, but if the timing is off or the defence adjusts, we need a ‘back door’ outlet to keep the play alive and not resort to something that’ll lead to slow ball). This means more than getting into good positions. It also means that players have to consider their actions. The two most common: forwards jogging to rucks that are already won to stand beside it doing nothing; backs who run up flat when the play has been halted much further inward to then have to back pedal into a good position to receive the ball on the next phase. To maintain a good tempo with sufficient numbers, players need to be efficient in their alignment (it also saves them from wasting energy where they’re not needed). They should also begin to recognise when the defence is on the back foot (allowing us to play flatter and have a quick go at the line) or on the front foot (maybe forcing us to have a plan to cope with defenders ready to pounce).
  • Ball movement – more than just quality and accuracy, timing of the pass is vital to the success of a move. An early pass gives someone else in a better position the time and space to use it. A late pass should be putting someone into a gap. A pass too early, without threatening the defence, can simply allow defenders to push across and cut off our options. A pass too late can be forward, at the wrong target, too hard or otherwise useless. Two quick passes can get us into more space in a hurry. A dummy pass can get us through a gap in that ‘black hole’ area behind a ruck.
  • Thoughtful running lines – straight running fixes defenders in place and preserves space for team mates. Sharp and sudden changes of angle can exploit space and the ‘soft shoulder’ of the next defender in line. Running too early can get you ahead of the play; too late invites the defence to take space away. Remember that a line can be a great decoy, so make sure not to ‘demand’ the ball when you’ve drawn the attention of two or more defenders. Passers also need to consider this and select a better target.
  • Strategic considerations – What’s the score? What part of the field are we in? What are the conditions like? Can we get enough support there? Can they cover kicks? Are they better/worse than us at the scrum or lineouts? Is it wise to have a shot at goal or rely on quick taps? Do we need to get the ball into the hands of our key players more or make a better effort to stay away from a certain player / unit in their team?  … these are all strategic considerations that can enhance or ruin our chances of scoring.
  • Focused roles – more than our individual strengths, consider your best role in attack. Are you a play maker who sees opportunities and passes well off both hands? A power runner who can make holes and drag several defenders in? A speedster who can burn defenders with pace and/or step around them? A strike runner who has a well-timed crack at space in the line? Or an equally-vital support specialist who does more than ‘hit rucks’, recognising when others are about to break the line, getting into good positions to call for and receive a pass?   (Maybe a combo of more than one!)

[I've posted something like this before, but am going to be making of a poster for my team and shared this with someone who was interested. Thought a re-visit wouldn't hurt!]

So one cold and rainy British Columbia evening when the guys really didn’t want to go outside I said we’ll try a little exercise I did at a conference. The speaker was Gary Henderson, a coach educator from the RFU, and he challenged us to think of the ruck as a ‘failure’ of the principles of the game. Yes, we can win the ruck and go again, but for that moment, we’re not necessarily going forward, support is tied in or waiting for the ball, continuity not certain, and the pressure might be off the defending team if they’ve now got a chance to re-align. So, he asked, what can you do to avoid that situation?

I’m now humbled to say we only came up with six, eight with some prompting to be more specific. So with that challenge, I asked the guys to better that. I didn’t give answers, but kept drawing out of them more specific options with questions.

I’m still fine-tuning this for my purposes, but I was really impressed with what we did … then they felt excited and went out in the sleet and mud to try some of these things.

1. Player, ball in two hands, running at space
2. Evasive footwork when contact possible / space closed
(I’m fine-tuning with swerve, side-step, cut as more specific options in different circumstances)
3. Dummy pass to throw defender off and re-open space
4. Pass when space isn’t present, especially when team mate has space (this could be a first option if I receive and there is no ‘easy’ space to exploit)
5. Fend (includes shifting the ball out of two hands for the first time) to fight defender when they close down
6. Power step to hopefully power through the would-be tackler (change of direction from the midline to throw defender off-balance and go through ‘branches’ instead of ‘trunk’ of the tree)
… contact initiated now … so this branches in two ways …
7. Offload
a. Screen pass
b. Around the body
c. While falling
d. From the ground
(or)
8. Hammer / Latch through contact (partner joins to hopefully plow through, or secure as we go into a maul or maybe a ruck)
9. Long placement on the ground (we reasoned that both a ‘jackknife’ or ‘pencil’ long placement of the ball can precede a ruck if someone’s there to play / move it quickly)
10. Ruck / Maul

So the ‘in-between’ stuff is what we work on a lot, in game-like settings. I don’t stress Gary’s word “failure” after using it for initial shock value, because rucks are part of the game and we have to win that contest. Before that, however, let’s really be conscious that we’ve got a dozen options before we have to resort to to a ruck, so we have to give ourselves the time to scan, think, communicate and coordinate those options. It’s important – vital, actually – that I put them in situations where they can practice these under match conditions so they can adapt to realistic pressure and get their timing right, together as attacking units.

Basics Done Well!

June is a great month for rugby, with the Northern Hemisphere big-wigs on tour and most other nations taking part in international matches. With our season over, I’ve had a lot of free time to watch plenty of these encounters. The football World Cup is also in full swing and watching both has reminded me of a phrase that gets tossed about a lot by players and coaches in both codes: “We’ve just got to do the basics well.” Often, this refers to passing and in both sports I’ve been both impressed and disappointed by the quality of passing on show.

I won’t talk too much about football, but will say that even the masters of the simple short passing game – the Spanish – looked ‘casual’ at times, as have many other nations, giving up the ball in crucial situations due to lack of focus. I don’t know football as well as I do rugby, but I wonder if an expert would say that the passing there could be more accurate? I know this is certainly the case for rugby, with many passes going straight to the receiver – or worse, toward the head, shoulder, hip or any other spot that isn’t quite ideal. “Straight to the receiver?” you ask. “Isn’t that what I want?” No, not necessarily. If the receiver is static – waiting to kick the ball or maybe standing flat to make an immediate transfer, a pass directly to the receiver’s hands is probably ideal. The rest of the time, however, the passer needs to aim for a spot that’s in front of the receiver’s hands.

I shouldn’t even have to mention that receivers should always have hands out where they want the ball, yet often see ‘receivers’ not giving a target, practically ‘asking’ the passer to put the ball anywhere from above the head to knees. I’d love to commission a study on it, but am willing to bet that pass accuracy increases when hands are up and stretched out to meet the ball. I also think passers have to focus not so much on the receiver, but keep him/her in the peripheral and really focus on a spot just in front of the outstretched hands.  In the photo below, I’d be willing to bet that one or the other hasn’t happened – either the receivers hands were down before the ball was passed or the passer didn’t focus on putting the ball in front so the receiver’s had to adjust. Either way, he’s taking this ball low and has probably had to slow down to catch it. Neither are ideal where the aim should be either to keep moving forward at pace or transfer the ball quickly.

In “getting the basics right”, one can focus on passing quality in training by reminding players to have their hands up and for passers to put the ball in front of the hands, leading the receiver. I think that a pass that’s a tad ‘too far’ in front encourages the receiver to run faster onto a ball. I’ve seen players take such passes and rip through defences either because they sped through a gap or were able to catch and act so quickly that defenders didn’t have time to adjust. Conversely, the body language of someone who’s been given a bad pass tends to do the opposite, empowering defenders to pounce upon the vulnerable receiver who’s lost the initiative. Here is a pass where the receiver’s hands are up and the ball appears to be sufficiently in front such that he won’t have to slow down. I like a pass to be just about shoulder height, making sure I can receive the pass at a level where I can still keep the opposition in my field of view.

 

Here’s another photo showing how a well-timed pass makes the play possible. If the ball is being aimed at the outer receiver, it’s going for his shoulder and he’s going to get caught in contact. Instead, it’s a hanging pop pass for the inside receiver who is able to run onto the ball and slide behind the defender on the left side of the picture (for a try, if memory serves!).

Too often, I feel, coaches focus on players’ “accuracy” but not specifically enough on “quality” (i.e. happy if they catch, but not focused on where, exactly, the ball is aimed) in unopposed drills where the consequences of poor quality aren’t so apparent. If they’ve had to hop, reach down, reach back, or stutter step to receive a pass cleanly, this isn’t as accurate as the pass should be. This “accuracy” is immediately reduced when pressure is on and a receiver’s ability to act is reduced as a result of a less-than-ideal pass, so why not spend more time practicing passing under game-like pressure situations?

These can be small-sided, challenging games where as many reps can be achieved but require athletes to focus and be accurate or fail. One that I often use requires four groups of players to cross a reasonably-sized square at the same time, completing a full set of passes before reaching the other side of the square. Each group takes up a side and leaves at about the same time, crisscrossing continuously for set amount of time. The pressure of avoiding a collision or holding/making a pass amongst traffic not only increases focus, but I’ve found also increases accuracy. It sounds silly to say – and maybe it speaks more to how my guys prefer a challenge – but I’ve seen greater accuracy in this sort of game than when players do unopposed passing lines jogging down the length of the pitch. One of the club’s junior coaches has started using it and marvels at how well his boys perform, wanting to keep going beyond the set time, determined not to drop a ball.

As with all of my exercises, I outline the criteria for success at the onset and don’t harp on mistakes. Players should know what to focus on and my voice celebrates their specific successes, allowing players to fine-tune their movement memory: “Perfect follow-through, Matt! Hands pointed to the space in front of Joe’s hands. Well done!”  I avoid negative and unspecific comments, and only add technical advice when it’s obvious they’re missing something: “Turn your shoulders, Matt. Square to the target.” Instead of fussing over how ‘perfect’ a pass looks, I’m instead mostly focused on the quality of the pass – in front of the hands, quickly transferred with no hang time or arc (i.e. quickest possible path), and well-timed such that defenders haven’t time to adjust.

I think I’m justified in not worrying about how tight a spiral is or a push pass floating without a wobble when I watch the All Blacks.  They’re the heralded masters of passing in rugby, showing time and time again over this undefeated year-and-a-half they’ve enjoyed that a well placed pass is all that’s needed to be successful.  In their most recent game against England, you wouldn’t call many of these ‘perfect’ technique, but all (apart from the ‘bounce pass’ to Savea) were well timed and well-placed, putting the receiver either in an ideal spot to move it on or to ensure he could maintain his pace toward the try line.

When scoring is the ultimate goal, and especially for junior players who are still developing, let’s focus more on the outcome and not get too nit-picky about supposed “ideal” details that might only frustrate or confuse players as they’re coming to terms with skill acquisition.

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