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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.

I’m one who favours defending square and with coordination being more important than quickness. This ensures integrity of the line, without anyone rushing ahead of another or having to rely too heavily on a team mate. Staying square means you can defend off either shoulder and make easy adjustments as attacking players do.

Most, if not all, of the attack solutions found in the Drift and Blitz defence posts can be used against flat, man-on-man defences. In some of the video examples, you can see how teams started square, but then had to resort to a drift, otherwise turned their bodies to chase an attacker, or one player shot up ahead of his / lagged behind team mates. With coordination and trust being vital to effective defence, attackers should consider ways to break this and find opportunities for themselves or their support runners. This doesn’t require fancy, multi-faceted moves with decoy runners. It can be done with a simple dummy pass and/or sudden change of direction. I don’t know if there’s a ‘non-negotiable’ rule for any of these, but players should be trying these things out in training in natural 4v4 games in realistic conditions so they can work out what works for them. Some key reminders should be to keep the ball in two hands to always remain a threat, to keep changes of direction sudden and sharp, to aim for shoulders to draw attention.

Supporting players have to be especially proactive a they’re the ones who have a wider view of how defenders in line react to what the ball carrier’s doing. Too often, I see ball carriers – to their credit – trying to make things happen, but see their supporting players hanging back expecting to be given a golden pass. I think, more often, they have to go looking for space that’s created, defenders whose attention is drawn away from them, or to make an early call to the ball carrier regarding better options. A short while ago I read a great interview with World Cup-winning legend Jonny Wilkinson who said:

I remember coming off the pitch at Twickenham and doing TV interviews with the media being very flattering and I was feeling like a fraud, thinking: ‘Are you kidding me? I’m not a genius — I just heard someone say give him the ball, so I gave him the ball!’ My best-looking games were when someone was in my ear for 80 minutes telling me what to do.”

I figure if one of the greatest fly halves of all time can say that, then certainly decision makers at every level should be demanding more from their support. The decision-maker’s arguably more different task given that he won’t have a Will Greenwood outside him/her is to know what angles, dummy passes, decoy runners, etc. do to defences, quickly consider the advice, and pick the best option for what he/she sees in front. It’s another reason I think we need to play more realistic games at training, because this is rugby. Training against passive defenders – or no defenders at all! – will not allow players to develop these skills. And I challenge all my players, from props to full backs, to be able to step into that position and make a good decision based on what they see and hear.

So, after that long-winded introduction, how can we disrupt or manipulate well-organised defences? Let’s look at some examples:

Each of these two-man moves can be done anywhere on the pitch – in wide open spaces, or close to ruck. While more support might be needed to score, the aim here is to breach the defensive line. (I’ll cover support options and lines of pursuit in a later post, though I think the lines people take are often fairly easy to spot at ground level – Go for the space and move away from the threat!)

2 v 2 Options

The first is an example of a classic Unders Line, where it’s important that the ball carrier stays straight, to fix the defender, and that the supporting runner’s directional change is sudden and sharp. If the defender covering the ball carrier is properly fixed, the strike runner can aim for the space behind his shoulder, ensuring that he gets away from the man covering him. The Overs Line is pretty much the opposite, with the strike runner flaring outward instead of inward, aiming for the space behind the third defender or off the shoulder of his if he’s turned inward. Of course, the pass is different for each – soft and flat for an Unders, and hard and wide (maybe slightly deep, but definitely in front of the runner’s hands).

The second example is often called a Y-Line these days, with the ball carrier making the sudden move. He aims for the space behind the defender beside the defender covering him. This sudden and sharp angle either allows him to slip behind that defender or draw his attention. It should be a win-win scenario if done properly. If the defender stays on his man, he can exploit the space and get behind the defence. If the defender bites, he can pass to a supporting runner who picks a tight line behind the back of the turned defender. This is usually seen going out, but can also be done on the inside if there’s enough width.

The third features a classic loop. Some people think the receiver should pop back to the passer on the inside – before she goes around – while others have the receiver pop when she’s gone around and is straightening up into the gap. I don’t mind either way, but think that each depends on how soon the receiver got the ball, how much space is in front, and what the passer intends to do when she gets the ball back. Some teams use the looping player as a decoy / distributor to pull even more defenders out of line. Other scenarios would have the looping player strike into an open gap between the second and third defenders. Ideally, the looping player would keep both options open!

I might go into them in greater detail later, but you can combine both Unders and Overs lines together in what are called Blocker and Slider moves to really open well-disciplined defences, but I think at amateur levels, the above are usually quite effective.  That said, the essential element of a complicated move is usually just one move – in a Slider, for example, the second attacker suddenly flares outward toward the third defender. If teams are truly ‘playing rugby’, they’ll assess what that does and simply pick the best way to attack the way the defence reacted to that move.

In this second post focusing on simple ways to beat typical defensive styles, I’ll focus on the blitz defence. It’s also referred to as a ‘rush’ or an ‘umbrella’ but for the sake of simplicity I’m going to stick with ‘blitz’. This tactic is more recent in rugby’s history, and I’m led to believe it comes from rugby league. London Wasps used to be renowned for it when league legend Shaun Edwards was coach there. In this link from BT Sport’s Rugby Tonight, you can hear Edwards talk about it: [click here]. It does have quite a few limitations and it’s often referred to as a high-risk/high-reward tactic because it can stop teams deep behind the gain line or give them a huge opportunity to break out if not done properly.

Blitz Defence Characteristics:

  • Defenders typically align on the outside shoulder of the attacking player, with the intent on keeping the play contained close to the origin of the play
  • They push up fast looking to make a tackle deep behind the gain line (or go for an intercept), making them vulnerable to side steps
  • Often the outer defender comes forward more than the interior group of three or four, which looks like a gate swinging shut (whereas one could say a drift defence looks like an open gate)
  • In other systems, a central defender shoots up ahead of the rest looking or the big tackle or intercept
  • In both cases at least one defender comes further forward than the rest, leaving space behind that can be exploited by the ball carrier or a strike runner
  • They also tend to leave a lot of space between the rushing group and the full back

Exposing a Blitz Defence:

Exploit the Space Behind

If outer defenders run too far forward, they give a great exit opportunity for the ball carrier. In the diagram, the passer dummies a pass hoping the outside defender sprints up to put a big hit on the receiver, but then slips behind with a sharp angle and a burst of speed. It’s key that the ball carrier run away from his/her defender and and behind the inside shoulder of the next defender. In some cases, that defender recognises this and is able to adjust. This defender is now out of the play allowing the player he was covering to sprint forward and go looking for an offload from the ball carrier.

BLITZ - Dummy and Go

Exploit the “Shooter”

If the pass is made early and a defender “shoots up” ahead of the rest, there’s an opportunity to send someone else from either side in behind. In this situation, the support runner has to run a sharp line aiming for the space behind the defender and make a timely call for a sympathetic short pass.

BLITZ - Shooter

Similarly, when one “shooter” comes forward to cut off a pass or in an overzealous attempt to intercept, a patient passer can hold and pass behind the shooter to a strike runner coming up flat.

BLITZ - Shooter 2

Pass Deep to Get Around the Blitz

As a blitz defence usually only involves a small section of defenders coming forward, there is an opportunity to go around the closing ‘gate’. The team using this option requires patience, quality execution and belief that they can play from deep (a tackle here can mean a costly turnover!). They have to hold their depth and make early and accurate passes with little forward running so they have time to get to the outside. It can be a less-risky option to take, however, if the players leading the blitz aren’t the most agile and if support is present to run into the holes created.

BLITZ - Deep and Around

Pass Over the Blitz

If the defending line is up fast and tight, there is still an option to pass (remember: the aim of a blitz is to contain the ball on the inside and contest from a powerful, go-forward position of strength behind the gain line). In many blitz defences, the wing holds back to cover a kick. If the passer has a good long pass, he/she can try lobbing a quick one to the winger coming up flat over-top the blitzing group. For reference, Quade Cooper often does this, but he has also thrown intercepts or set up the receiver for a big hit when the pass was floated too high, allowing time for a defender to get under.

BLITZ - Over the Top

Kicking Behind the Blitz

The group rushing forward often leaves a big gap between them and the full back, inviting a short kick behind for someone to re-gather. Although a lot of people hesitate to kick as one can be giving possession away, this tactic used more than once early in the game can also cause a blitzing team to ease off, not wanting to give away too much space behind. This is one of the reasons that teams use blitzes more as an occasional / situational tactic rather than a continuous style of defence.

BLITZ - Kick Behind

Finally, there are two more great examples here outlined by Scott Allen from The Roar:

 

In recent years, I’ve been avoiding the use of set plays as I’ve too often found that players rely on them too much and end up missing easier opportunities. They also require a lot of rehearsal, which can be a huge waste of time given how infrequently they’re used or when you opt not to use them because the opposition has figured them out. So I’d been putting players in situations and games that forced them to be creative and to consider how best to support the ball carrier/passer. This has been quite successful with teens as most I’ve worked with have a creative spark – and what teen doesn’t like to show off, really? The past two years, however, I’ve been working with men’s sides and have found this more difficult as many are set in their traditional ways. So I’ve been working with them on what I call their personal and team “tool box” – skills and tactics they can use for given situations, the same way a builder picks a certain tool for a specific (or general) job.  [Surely we've all used a flat screw driver to open a paint can!]

Another big part of developing analytical and clever decision makers is to put them in typical game-like scenarios and have them assess the visual cues that often appear. This means doing more than 2v1s because, while it’s essentially what breaking down defences comes to, there are so many variables in a line of defenders, that players have to consider a fuller range of options and possibilities.

We always try and attack the ‘easy opportunity’ – things like mismatches in size, speed, or ability, poor alignment, obvious gaps, etc.  Again, for teens this is often simple enough, because in our league there are always ‘exploitable opportunities’ like this. The men, however, are generally more organised, especially as defence is such a major (and easy) focus these days.  So our scenarios therefore have focused on defensive styles and how to beat them based on the inherent limitations or opportunities in their structure (see below). In order to speed up the process of picking the right tool for the task at hand, we brainstormed ideas on how to beat each style and focused on just a few that fell within the team’s knowledge and abilities and which matched our preferred style of play.

Below, and in subsequent posts, I’ll outline some of the ‘tools’ we use for different styles of defence, starting with the classic drift defence.

Drift Defence Characteristics:

  • Defenders align on the inside shoulder and push out
  • Usually space in front on the outside – a tactic used when defending teams out-numbered – with last man hanging back to invite the ball to go wide so they can reduce width and push toward the sideline
  • Susceptible to cut backs on the ‘soft shoulder’ (i.e. inside shoulder, especially if the push becomes lateral)
  • Help from the inside defender is vital to cover the ‘soft shoulder’

Exposing a Drift Defence:

Attacking the Soft Shoulder

As defenders push out, it’s difficult to adjust to someone changing directions against the flow of the push. This is a classic ‘attacking the branches of the tree, rather than the trunk’ moment. A tight line on the inside shoulder might just catch an arm. Too close to the inside defender, and the ball carrier might be caught. If the inside defender is a bit lazy, then there’s a huge opportunity.

DRIFT - Cut Back

Inside Ball to Support Runner

The trick here is that there has to be a reasonable gap between defenders. Again, aided by a lazy inside defender, but not impossible if the timing of the support run and pass is good. The support runner might also expose a different gap than noted below if the inside defender pushes too early onto the receiver, leaving an even bigger gap. If the defenders are disciplined, though, it’s really the space behind the ball carrier’s defender that needs to be attacked.

DRIFT - Inside Ball

Pass Wide and Flat

As noted, drift defences tend to hang back on the outside hoping to force the attacking team toward or even into touch, often accommodating for a lack of numbers out wide. So a simple solution is to get the ball there as quickly as possible. The key element is to get the ball there quickly and relatively flat. If the pass is loopy and deep, the drift pushes out and comes up. Where it’s quick hands or a long and flat miss pass, the flatness of the strike runner will expose the space before the defenders have time to cover it. Drift defences are trying to buy time, so take it away. On the flip side, if the pass is a early, the attackers can preserve width the defenders are trying to close down by straightening up.

DRIFT - Wide

Looping Run

The looping run can be effective if the player looping around is actually quick and if the passer picks a line that effectively blocks the drifting defender. Timing is key here, as if the passer pops to the looping player too soon, s/he’ll likely get tackled from the side by the drifting defender. That said, if the passer recognises this happening, the passer can dummy, hold and go using the looper as a decoy. This situation is made easier for the looping runner if the third attacker moves wide, drawing the third defender. This would present one of those either/or situations that should be win-win … third defender stays on third attacker, and looper has a gap; third defender steps in on looper and s/he passes to the third attacker who should have a massive gap.

DRIFT - Loop

I read an insightful article ahead of this weekend’s England v Ireland encounter and wanted to comment on what I feel is a missed opportunity in the England side, but also for a lot of amateur teams still stuck in the past regarding what forwards are meant to do in attack.  From the article:

“FOR ME, THE biggest work-on at the moment – with the tight-five forwards and everyone – is ‘seeing the game.’ It’s all about the decisions people make on the field, under pressure.

“The more you focus on that, the more all the players start ‘seeing it.’”

So said England attacking skills coach Mike Catt of what he’s attempting to achieve with the group of players head coach Stuart Lancaster has identified as good enough to win the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

An intelligent second-five-eighth in his time, Catt wants England to eventually emulate what the All Blacks are doing with their simple, skills-based approach to rugby.
“You look at New Zealand; their tight five can do what their centres do and that’s why everyone else is chasing them,” Catt told Sportsmail. “They have this understanding, an ability to ‘see it’ and make the right decisions at the right time; to do the right things.

“The beauty about what we currently have here is that it’s a young enough team for us to work on developing that.”

There certainly have been signs that Catt’s focused work is bringing about improvements in England’s ability to make more intuitive decisions on the pitch but they remain, for now, a side who rely on a fairly rigid structure in attack.

I’ve been trying the same with the men’s 2nds team I’ve been coaching the last few months.  The message is clear and simple: everyone’s a carrier and everyone’s a decision-maker. Forwards are not just there to crash it up and set up / clear rucks. That sort of thinking is ancient and reduces your team’s potential in attack. Why have just seven or eight players (no. 8s always chosen as players to cross the gain line) when you can have fifteen, and seven more on the bench? Everyone needs to focus on getting through the defensive line or putting someone through the line.

England talk about this a lot, but the bit I’ve bolded is very apparent.  They’re getting forwards into what aren’t ‘pods’ – with a strike runner at the head and two or three ‘support’ players behind (who’re there mostly to ruck or maul). They, as do New Zealand and Australia (probably others) stretch out forwards in what look like mini ‘back lines’ of three our four. The difference between England and New Zealand, however, is what those forwards do with the ball and how they attack.  Currently, in the England team, the guy who gets the ball crashes it up 9.5 times out of 10 (made up stat but seems like pretty much every one, with the odd offload or pass before contact).

All that does is cut off the space that the backs previously had and everyone’s so well drilled in defence these days that they’re not really occupying more defenders to create an over-lap. (This may work at amateur level, but I challenge my players to think on a level that we’re always trying to breach the line, not stretch out phases and hope that the defence eventually collapses in one way or another. Even a few metres gained means the defence has to back up and re-position themselves, which is better than facing defenders who haven’t had to move much at all.)  There are some examples in the article showing England forwards making the extra pass, but I’d argue that the second runner is not really looking to take space, as they still crash it up blindly – and even with a support runner present. The All Blacks and some groups of forwards in the Top 14 are brilliant at moving the ball about in those little units to get beyond the gainline, at least with a half break, not just smash into it and hope to march it back or break a tackle.  I’m a big fan of Lancaster, but I’d like to see England let loose the shackles and make at least one more pass as they’ve got a lot of capable carriers.

For amateur coaches, I challenge you to train and allow your forwards to be more dynamic rugby players – especially if they’re younger and won’t grow into / settle on a position for years to come!  Put all players in realistic situations where they have to work on alignment and scan for, communicate, and exploit opportunities in high-pressure environments.  Below are a couple of scenarios I use before going to a bigger game-like scenario where backs and forwards have to work together in attack.

The first I use with backs and forwards, but can be adapted to just include forwards. The aim is to make that initial break and then support with lines of pursuit that avoids the sweeper(s) – at least a scrum half, if not one other. I like to keep the bags tight so they either have to draw and pass, power step or hammer through and then break out in another gear, fighting through the obstructions to get into good support positions.  With a lot of these activities, I demand players “run in” from the side as if they were arriving to a second or third phase, stressing that creating effective attack starts by getting yourselves into position to exploit / create opportunities – so appropriate width and depth before calling for the ball so attackers can stay straight and have legitimate options left AND right (i.e. players who swing in on an arc invariably angle out, making it easy for defenders to drift).

Shield Wall Breakout

I like this to combine what can become robotic rucking drills, instead giving players a larger contextual sense that the ruck has to be dominant and efficient to provide quick ball for the next phase. I also use this to encourage all players to move the ball from the ruck – note how the tackler rolls away quickly and acts as the half back to get the next phase started (not always realistic, but it certainly encourages tacklers to roll away quickly and get back into the play with urgency!).  That said, the All Blacks are masters at this and it adds to the dynamic of their attack, allowing speedy scrum halves the chance to play in the open field and providing more width. It’s very rare that my team attacks the channel around the ruck, as it’s so heavily defended nowadays, so also reminds everyone that we’re playing from the third defender-out.

Ruck Clean-outs for Second Phase

A short while ago I was introduced to the concept of using points in small-sided games to increase the likelihood of players attempting something new or challenging. I first saw an example in a soccer context via the Football Association’s youth development manager Nick Levett’s Twitter account. The point of his game was not just to score a goal, but also to perform a certain skill that was a bit more advanced than the target group’s current range of abilities. Coupled with reading about the benefit of small-s ided games, I thought this would be a great fit for my team for several reasons.

First off, they love playing games and though they haven’t said as much, body language and elevated intensity leads me to believe they’d rather play a game than perform a drill. Secondly, it was rare to see the majority of players attempt, say, attacking angles at all when we transitioned from a drill to a game of touch. The trick, then, was to find a way to encourage players to try the skill practised in a narrow-focused drill to a game-like situation where there were many more variables and options to consider. I wondered if providing a points-based incentive to try the ‘advanced’ skill would help – and, boy, did it!

Instead of doing a drill that focused on angles for 10 minutes or so, we had a little refresher – especially as we’d picked up three new players since I’d introduced the concept – on what an angled attacking or support run looked like. For the sake of simplicity and differentiation, I now call an angled run by a ball carrier a Y-line as the player starts straight and picks an angle that’d look like one arm of the letter from above, aiming for the shoulder or space behind the next defender in line. (Shoulder if trying to commit, space if trying to expose one who’s committed to the next attacker in line) I call an angled support run an unders (running inside) or overs (running outside) line, reminding the strike runner that all he needs to do is yell “tight” or “wide” to the passer and run the correct angle. Again, keeping it simple.

I then told them that we were going to play a big game of touch whereby tries would be worth 5 points, and that you could get bonus points for attempting angles, even if you didn’t score the try. I nominated 1 point for a sharp Y-line (which the guys aren’t too bad at presently) and 3 points for an unders or overs line in support. If a try was scored directly from an angle, it’d be worth 10 points rather than 5. I didn’t know how it’d play out – wondering if maybe guys would over-do the angles to score cheap points – but that didn’t happen. I did, however, see a marked rise in the amount of angles attempted, but also sticking to simpler forms of attack – through the hands to expose an over-lap, an inside ball, a swerve to beat a slower player, etc as those are all comfortable tactics for them and seen as an easier way to score tries. I also made sure to reward and provide feedback in real-time and found that after tries or hand-overs were a good time to shout out the bonus points and what for. (We played touch like league – with a maximum of six phases – so it’s not as if I was counting bonus points for long stretches of play.) I kept tabs in a little note book and was even a bit shocked that after 20 minutes or so the score was a very even 43-41! In addition to the guys enjoying the game and attempting more angles within it, we had a game the following weekend and three of our five tries were scored because of good angles and supporting the linebreak created by them.

However, we’d been focusing so much on attack the past month that we looked a bit slow and rusty in defence so I’ve created a similar game that rewards the desired skills in defence. This hasn’t been tested yet, but I’m thinking 10 points for a try (we want to prevent them!), -5 for allowing a clean line break, 1 for a stop behind the gain line, and 3 for a double hit (as I want to see us working in pairs – when appropriate to contest for possession, and because most of our opponents are of the bigger, crash ball running teams). I might also give a greater incentive for our supporting players to clean up attacking rucks by awarding 2 points if they get two people over the ball in a strong position (we’ll be drilling that beforehand).

I’ve also created what’s maybe a bit more of a skill-drill than a game which will precede the one described above to encourage the players to get off the line in units and work together to stop the attacking team. We were a bit fractured at the weekend, and definitely too passive for the one team in our league that plays with intense speed all the time. Two even teams start at a point where they can run into and get set in attack and defence before the ball is played. They then play one phase of touch, wrap or tackle with the aims outlined in the points table. With that phase completed, they sprint to the next station and repeat. The field layout provides four different widths, two different passing directions, and also allows for realistic situational practice whereby both attacking and defending teams will get the opportunity to play on the ‘front foot’ and have to deal with going backwards and coming forward from the ‘back foot’. I’d have one person at each station to re-set the balls to ensure speed of turnover (like getting people to hold bags, rotating them out after a few cycles.) Depending on how many players and how much space you have, you could have two of these running simultaneously or run players through in cycles. I don’t like having a lot of people standing around, so would tweak the number of participants before having more than half doing nothing, or challenge them to provide positive feedback to the group subbing off – forcing them to pay attention and analyse.

Unit Defence Game

A Coaching Reflection

Someone on a forum asked me a series of questions about coaching. I thought I’d share the answers with the wider public.

What is the extent of time that you devote to coaching per week?
… as a club coach, 3hrs at training, 3hrs at the weekend for game prep/game/post match social (double that, or more if it’s an away fixture when travel is factored in). I’m maybe a bit more obsessed than most with planning and keeping things fresh and relevant. I probably think about each session for about a half hour (more when I was younger and didn’t have an internal database I could pull ideas from), and do a lot of reading on sport science, follow coach development people on Twitter, etc. which is immeasurable. When I was a school coach, it was about 2hrs every week day, with at least an extra half hour a day planning, setting up, etc. but school seasons are only three months long.

Do you think it detracts from other aspects of your life?
… not really. I’m not a very devoted ‘club person’ who hangs out around the rugby club / people as much as others I know. I have a larger circle of friends outside of rugby than within, so can easily get away. But a few months ago I moved out west to take an academy job and do some research / writing on coaching, so it’s a big part of my life right now. My coaching partner last year, however, has two small children, and faced a lot of pressure to scale back his commitment as it can be a drain on family time. (I feel like Mr. Chips sometimes in that regard as an un-married person, with my athletes being like my ‘family’. :) )

What do you get out of coaching?
… I find providing an enjoyable and enriching atmosphere for athletes incredibly rewarding. I was lucky to have great coaches when I was in school and feel it my duty to give back as I have a deep passion for the game and have developed great coaching ability. I used to love being the driving force behind club and school teams that won a lot, though still kept a good set of principles that wasn’t “win at all costs”. (At my ‘worst’, I specifically recruited good players for a club team and while I didn’t turn anyone away, I certainly didn’t have open invites to all the schools in our area. I did still manage to balance everyone’s playing time fairly.) Since reading a lot on athlete-centred coaching, I’ve come around to find developing ‘rugby smart’ players as the most rewarding part of what I do. I don’t care much about winning or losing so much as each individual is enjoying him/herself and that they are improving to a level they to which THEY aspire.

How long do you intend to coach for?
… I’ve been at it since I was 19 and am going to turn 35 this year. There were times in that stretch that I coached three teams a year – school, club, university – and usually two of those. I don’t think I’ll ever stop. I do, however, want to take a break from direct coaching and work more with coaches, transferring what I know to them and/or helping them find their own way. When I was younger, I was climbing the ladder toward being a university coach and aiming for the provincial level. The closer I got to it, though, I realised it wasn’t for me. I’d rather be the person who develops younger and open-minded athletes, not coral the (sometimes entrenched) high-flyers and push them in the right direction needed to win. (I’ve seen as many people heart broken by ‘necessary’ decisions at that level as those who’ve enjoyed success, so don’t want to have to make those difficult decisions.)

Do you have any other observations that you would share?
… I can’t stress enough the benefits of jumping on the athlete-centred band wagon. It sounds almost a no-brainer to say sport should be about the athletes first, but there still is a lot of coach-centred practices where they are largely in it for themselves and not the athletes. At the least, they might have a perception that it’s for the athletes, when it might just be the few (at club level any way) who influence coach to believe that everyone in the team wants to win-win-win. No one’s getting paid for this. Trophies are temporary and there’s no fame from being league champs. The majority of players, I feel, are in it to have fun, experience camaraderie, get fit, etc. with winning being very low on their list of wants.

I’m also increasingly siding with those who, in conjunction with the above, are focusing on using the game to teach the game. It’s sometimes called ‘game sense’ or ‘teaching games for understanding’ (TGfU), where the coach questions more than tells and small-sided games dominate as coaching methods. I design active sessions that favour skill activities / games over drills the challenge of each element is such that it’s not too easy but not too difficult, so athletes get genuine opportunities to learn. I tell players to embrace failure, not fear it, and I’m very positive and constructive with my feedback (often having the players give more than I do!). I don’t waste time with a lot of standing around or ‘fitness’ but keep them moving throughout training, presenting opportunities for them to use their brain and develop individual and team skills.

In Canada, I feel too many coaches rely on drills that don’t have enough game-like context or do the latest and greatest drill that international players do (like crocodile rolls, without addressing the team’s decison-making at the tackle contest). I favour what I’ve heard is a Kiwi mentality – to become familiar with and proficient at essential skills and knowledge first, and fine-tune the little technical things the higher you progress, if at all. I feel one can be a craftsman with just a few effective and easy-to-use tools; there’s no need to over-complicate a project with ones you rarely use and are too specified for general, more frequent use.

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