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In much the same way we look for opportunities in attack – say a slow or poor tackling player to expose – we must focus on spotting opportunities in defence. We certainly demand players stay aware of threats such as overlaps, powerful ball carriers, steppers, great playmakers, accurate tactical kickers, etc. Communicating and addressing such threats are vital to preventing tries. I like to add a positive spin on playing defence, one that is not so reactive, but creating situations where we can be proactive. To do this effectively, we must make players aware of these situations and visual cues that can allow them to force mistakes or win possession. In my playing days, we used to pile several players into every ruck when playing defence. I still have a vivid memory of popping my head out of a ruck against a touring Welsh side to see three or four of our defenders standing against nine attackers from their side. It was then that I realised we were too often wasting our efforts in rucks that were lost, not only preventing us from dealing with threats on the next phase, but certainly preventing us from actively getting the ball back. Throughout the 2000s, we saw more and more top sides reduce the number of players they’d commit to rucks on defence. It’s common now to see a team commit just one person to make a nuisance of him/herself, if any at all, when the ball is available to the attacking side. This typically means there are more defenders standing than there are attackers (with two or three going in to win the ball). It is from these situations that we must look for opportunities to win the ball back. This process of proactive, attacking defence starts with trust and communication. When faced with contact, the earlier someone declares responsibility for the tackle, the earlier supporting defenders can ask and answer other questions. Does the tackler need help? Is there an offload threat? Should I contest for the ball or are there more attackers there who’ll likely secure it easily? Aided by the scrum half (who should float behind the contact area like free safety in football), making and communicating decisions at the contact area allows the rest of the defensive line to adjust and assess the situation in front of them all the way across the field. Without effective communication, defenders tend to gravitate toward the ball or at least focus too much on it and not what’s unfolding in front of them. From a position of trust, in addition to communication and patience, defenders can maintain a solid line and not waste energy in battles already lost. In much the same way we look for weaknesses in defenders to enhance our attack, we can look for opportunities while playing defence that can allow us to get the ball back sooner than later. As described above, if we don’t over-commit to rucks, we should have at least one extra body in the defensive line to double-team a ball carrier. A popular tactic at the moment is the ‘choke tackle’ – whereby two or more defenders hold up a ball carrier, inviting a maul to form. They get a bit higher than a strong driving position, instead swarming around the ball so it cannot emerge. When the maul’s forward progression stops or if the maul collapses naturally (i.e. not pulled down, but falling due to momentum), defending players are not obliged to let go and the referee awards them a scrum. Several teams have also seemingly given up on putting in big hits in favour of taking ball carriers low around the legs – which some refer to as a ‘chop tackle’. (I imagine coaches much older than me would simply call it a ‘proper’ tackle, and I wouldn’t disagree!) I have written before about why I don’t like dump tackles that much, but proof can be seen in this clip where low tackles make it more likely that arriving defenders can contest the ball before the ball carrier’s support arrives. Finally, a steal is made because the tackler has time (and he certainly wastes none!) to get back to his feet and get his hands on the ball. Defending requires controlled aggression, trust, and communication, but if we only have a reactive attitude, we are only hoping the attacking team makes a mistake. Proactive defending – going after the ball at every calculated opportunity – requires players to read signs and/or body language that provide the best opportunity to strike. Effectively employing the extra tackler requires that person to assess the threat in front of them. If he decides to push out to make a double tackle and ignores the threat of an inside offload then he might have just given away a try. But if the ball carrier has the proverbial ‘blinkers’ on – looking straight ahead, ignoring his support – and has the ball tucked under one arm, he’s open to a hit from the side. This is especially useful on big, powerful runners who are difficult to stop head on. Though no small man himself, Quins’ Joe Marler steps in from the side and lays a big hit on George North because he’s assessed that North is aiming to run over his team mate and certainly not pass. Attacking players change angles to draw defenders out of line. By reading this ploy early and trusting team mates’ ability to hold the integrity of the line, defenders invite ball carriers to run themselves into trouble. In this clip, Quins’ Maurie Fa’asavalu reads the switch and proactively smashes Andrea Masi from a strong position, dislodging the ball and even getting a steal in the process! Sometimes assessing the situation requires the tackler to take a risk. In the following clip, the defender looks to be outnumbered but brilliantly reads the play to put in a devastating blind-side hit. His side manages to win the penalty after a team mate of the ball carrier plays the dislodged ball from an offside position. What Tom Fowlie recognises is that the passer has thrown the receiver a bit of a ‘hospital pass’ – a floated pass where a defender is in a perfect position to step in and make a tackle. (These are things attackers must recognise, and in Wallace’s case, he should have held the ball or maybe attempted a long pass behind Fowlie, who is most definitely lurking with intent to smash Hopper.)  Fowlie trusts that his team mates will cover the break out side and he’s made a calculated gamble on stepping up to either make the big hit or force the passer to hold the ball. If he played this more conservatively, Quins would have surely broke out beyond half, if not scored. In less-risky situations, defenders can step out of line to make big and/or smothering hits or at the very least force the ball carrier into a less-than-ideal decision. In this clip, Northampton has plenty of defenders in the middle of the pitch – where Saracens obviously want to play. On the replay, you can see that Samu Manoa has this tackle lined up from well back, looking both inward and forward to time it perfectly. Sprinting into a tackle as such has some risk when done alone, because the ball carrier could step suddenly or the passer could miss the intended target. Manoa makes his move with team mates close-by who are in a perfect position to counter ruck. (Fair play to Saracens who manage to secure possession!) Another visual cue that can provide an opportunity to win the ball is the quality and/or timing of the pass delivered to the player being marked. Good passes are put in front of the ball carrier’s hands, giving them time and space to make a decision and act on it. Poor passes, thrown too high, too low or even directly at the receiver cause him to adjust his run, if not stop dead in his tracks. In this clip, the pass isn’t that bad – but as the receiver is taking it flat it’s height means he has to check his run ever so slightly. He’s also unfortunately picked a line that has him running directly at a defender, not a gap. Koree Britton is a bit slow to re-align – he should hustle back quickly to have time to assess the situation – but reads the pass and Festuccia’s line just in time, however, to step in and make a solid low tackle. This is a great example of a dump tackle isolating the ball carrier and getting defenders on the front foot so they can contest the ruck. Here’s another incident where a poor pass allows the tackler to step in and make a huge hit that dislodges the ball. Finally, here’s a clip where the passer does a poor job of reading the situation, with the defender doing a much better job of it. The pass isn’t a bad one if the defence was drifting together, but Benson Stanley is already anticipating it and sprints forward early to chop the receiver down and allow his support to win a turnover in the ruck. Defenders shooting out of line run the risk of opening a gap behind them, but Stanley’s timing is perfect, staying level with the passer until the ball is just out of his hands.

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.

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