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Effective Teams

I’ve been listening to a wonderful podcast for a few months now called The Perception & Action Podcast, hosted by Professor Rob Gray from Arizona State University. His informative episodes cover a range of topics on human movement and psychology in sport. Often, the episodes consist of him relaying information or examining new research, and I must commend him that he generally does so in language that is accessible to non-academics. Occasionally, he has interviews with other academics and sports science practitioners. His most recent interview, with ASU colleague Nancy Cooke, had me scribbling notes and going back to re-listen to important concepts more than usual. She talks about working with the US military to enhance the effectiveness of their drone teams. Their discussion especially hit home because of my coaching practice and my work life – I currently work in a military museum, and I’ve become very interested in military training and leadership. I’m going to outline some of my thoughts on how Cooke’s statements relate to my beliefs about creating an effective sporting environment, but check out the interview first: perceptionaction.com/22a/

The first concept that jumped out at me was “the rhythm of information sharing”. I’m still learning about Dynamical Systems Theory, but it makes sense to me to consider a rugby team – especially, given how many players we have and the different roles within the team – as a dynamic, complex system. Within that context, athletes have a variety of skills, knowledge, and perspectives – both fixed perspectives about how the game is played and ones which emerge within the game. To me, a “rhythm of information sharing” is absolutely vital, and the more fluid it is, the more effective your team will be. Cooke talks about members of a team having different knowledge that everyone needs to know. Typically, in a rugby team, we have a top-down communication pathway from the fly half and/or scrum half to the rest of the team. I see this even at the pro level: players in position to take advantage of an overlap are obviously not saying anything about it as one of the halfbacks directs play in the other area. Rugby players do often get caught looking inward at the ruck without considering what’s in front of them and those who do don’t communicate it or don’t do so early enough (I won’t talk too much about anticipation and recognition in this piece, but have before and will again so stay tuned!).

Cooke talks about an effective rhythm as having a push-pull nature in a timely manner. The big questions asked are:

  • Who has what information that I need?
  • What information do I have that others need?
  • When is that (information) best passed?

From a life-and-death critical military perspective, this is quite understandable. And while I’m not a coach who treats the game as a win-at-all costs battle, I do love to see a team ‘clicking’ and functioning effectively and efficiently. If ALL of our athletes use these questions as part of how they see the field and interact with their team mates, they will be a more effective functioning unit rather than a group of individuals who are maybe (at best!) working toward the common goal of scoring, but in a random, inefficient manner. While I do think that the halfbacks should have control over how play is directed, information fed to them by team mates who aren’t under as much pressure and who have scanned / assessed their field of vision can only enhance and speed up their ability to make the best decision. When Jonny Wilkinson retired, he humbly admitted that he played his best when he had centres Will Greenwood and Mike Catt feeding him information. Sometimes our amateur athletes won’t have made the best assessment, or the situation may have changed suddenly, but giving an idea of the unfolding play outside of a decision-maker’s field of vision is better than leaving them in the dark to scan/assess on their own in a split second when they get the ball.

I can’t emphasise strongly enough that this sort of thing should not be left until game day. Athletes have to train for this in realistic conditions so they can become familiar with patterns and communicate information accurately and in a timely manner. This is exactly what the military do to ensure both effective execution of their goals and to minimise risk to their lives. I’m no expert in military training, but a few books on modern operations have told me that rehearsal in a realistic and high pressure environment helps soldiers not just become confident in executing their mission, but also allows them to deal with mistakes and unexpected occurrences. I’ve often heard soldiers say “We go back to our training” when a crisis occurs. It makes sense when you consider that they’ve been doing that thing countless times, both the orthodox way and with sudden changes thrown at them, in a training environment that looks and feels the same as the operational one. How often do we do that at rugby practice? A series of boxed drills does not replicate the multiple variables that unfold as a result of the flow of the game and the actions of 30 dynamic individuals. I’m glad our sporting world isn’t as dangerous and critical as it is for the life of a soldier, but I think in the quest to see athletes having fun and playing together as an effective unit, there are some lessons that can be learned from the military’s methodology.

Cooke calls the roadblocks or unexpected changes imposed upon people “perturbations” and they insert them into the training environment so teams can work on their adaptability and resilience. They can develop plans and solutions for those perturbations in case they appear in the operational environment. The more you work on them, the more the ‘unpredictable’ becomes ‘predictable’, or at the very worst ‘adaptable’ with confidence and efficiency. Rugby players typically ‘truck it up’, running straight into contact or kick the ball away when the unexpected happens. Especially in our amateur environment, there are usually alternatives that can still allow us to reestablish the aims of going forward, with support and continuity, re-directing pressure on our opponents elsewhere. In addition to practicing and analysing problems in a realistic environment, rugby players need to make sure they are aware of who contributes what to the variety of ‘solutions’ to ‘problems’ we can experience. Cooke also notes, building on the rhythm of information sharing, that it’s important to know who does what in a team, I think there’s an implication there that trust is vital in a crisis, that the parts can either come together quickly to solve the problem with their various areas of expertise OR work somewhat independently to deal with smaller elements that need immediate seeing-to, reestablishing a flow once those fires are put out.

Here’s an example. Scrum half has got hit while carrying the ball and while we’ve maintained possession post-tackle contest, he’s trapped at the bottom of a ruck…

Typical reaction: Too often, I’ll see the fly half direct forwards to do a pick and go and even when the scrum half pops up after that first attempt, they’ll have a few more that don’t really go anywhere and then they’ll spin in wide without having really disrupted the defence. They’ve had a very simplistic pattern of play – forwards, forwards, backs – without a real purpose or consideration of what’s going on in front.

Did the defence swarm to the ruck seeing that the scrum half might have turned the ball over? Did defending forwards converge on that ruck expecting the typical pick-and-go scenario? Where were our forwards at the time? Or the backs? Where there apparent gaps in the defence somewhere else? Who else could move the ball from that breakdown, and onward to the area of opportunity? What sort of sequence of actions could get us back on the front foot based on our strengths?

Intelligent Reactions: If trained for situations like this, players might recognise that the defending forwards did clump around the ruck. A particularly skilled forward (can’t stress enough training ALL athletes to have a full range of skills) could pass the ball out the fly half, or a blindside winger could come in and do it, or the fly half could and a full back could step into the fly half role… or maybe the forwards could play a short, dynamic play to expose the weak side and drag defenders away from the open side, where other team mates would be setting up for the next determined phase rather than holding their previous positions still holding onto the same move they had in mind a few phases before, though the situation has changed.

Listening to Prof Gray’s podcast, and other readings I’ve done from sport science, has taught me that teams are dynamic systems with many interdependent parts. To train athletes outside of realistic contexts in ways that only creates robots rather than thinking, feeling, analysing, communicating organic creatures who can interact and become efficient in, first, the simulated and then actual playing environment just doesn’t make sense to me. As Prof Gray often says in his podcast, let this be a “call to action”!

 

A few weeks ago, this video was doing the rounds on my social media feeds with rugby friends all wanting to give it a go. It features one player, harnessed up like a plow horse going after medicine balls in a tractor tire while three friends hold him back with flexible straps.

[link from USA Rugby facebook page]

Sometimes I’m a bit too quick to be negative about such things as my focus is on using activities that look and feel like the real game. That said, when I used to play (American) football in high school, I did have fun with similar activities like ‘The Bear Pit’ – one player surrounded by a dozen team mates, making attempts to smash out of the circle while they’d squeeze together and make it difficult to do so. (I would say, however, that this did mirror the needs of those of use who smashed each other on the line of scrimmage. I’m not so sure that can be said of the above drill… )

In thinking about this video clip over the last couple of weeks, I thought I’d use it instead to offer some advice for coaches when selecting activities to help with the development of amateur players (… remembering that pros have a lot of free time for flashy drills that the rest of us don’t have). Firstly, I do occasionally use things like this, but leave them as an end-of-training ‘treat’ or something to ‘warm up’ with and engage the team through a bit of fun (though not with something this physical, and with more efficient use of personnel, but more on that later). My initial criticism was that this drill seems opposite to the demands of going for a ball or otherwise competing in a ruck – the forces coming from behind in this activity, whereas one has to drive through forward pressure in a game. On the other hand, if I’m fair, it would be great for physical conditioning and emphasise low body position. (An alternative I’ve used is ‘rucking relays’ – teams nominate their toughest to hold a bag against another team and individuals take turns driving him/her back in a race against other team’s ‘champions’.)

To look at the bigger picture of selecting relevant activities, ask yourself some big questions:

  1. Is this relevant to our needs?Too often, people select novel activities that aren’t relevant to immediate needs – running before they can walk. Is it worth working on jackalling technique if your team isn’t getting to the breakdown in time / overcommitting and in poor body position? Are you spending a lot of time on 20m spin passes when 2-5m push passes are going everywhere from head, to shoulder, to knees come game time?
  2. Does the percentage of time spent on this reflect the frequency it occurs in the game? This is a tricky balance that should be reflected in a well-prepared, but also flexible, season plan. When I took a Level 2 course in Australia, I found myself re-thinking the way I plan activities when an instructor said a simple way to make these decisions is look at what you do most on the pitch and divide time spent on those things proportionately. Simply, if 80% of the game is spent on ‘open play’ then maybe most of a training session should be spent on that aspect. Spending 40 minutes of a 90 minute session on something that only happens maybe 5% of a game might not be worth it if you’re not doing so hot in that 80% category. It’s not to say that small things aren’t important, but can they be built into a bigger, all-encompassing activity? Sport science seems to suggest that drills are best for introducing a technique, but I think too many people continue with those drills for an entire season without putting them into game context. There’s also a new trend toward working on ‘micro-skills’ – little techniques that supposedly improve the whole think (like wrist flicks for passing). I suspect, however, that making more realistic passes, over various distances, with defenders forcing those adaptations, would much better serve everyone’s passing abilities. In the case of jackalling drills – as is continually proven by the likes of George Smith and David Pocock – it’s not just their technique in the tackle contest, but their success lies in how they read the emerging information in front of them and assess which way and how is the best to have a go.
  3. What is the ratio of participating players to supporting players?This is one of my major pet peeves in sport coaching. The biggest culprit in rugby, off the top of my head, is the gauntlet passing drill. Eight players standing on cones in pairs down a narrow corridor passing and receiving balls while one player runs in between, catching and transferring. Not only does it lack the context of an opponent, which is a major determining factor on one’s ability to catch and pass, but those eight players are standing still themselves not really working within the context of a game. There are plenty of drills in rugby like this where more people are stood around watching, holding bags, or otherwise not really getting involved in the action. Most look ‘sexy’ and flatter to deceive that they are teaching something, but I often say the ‘sexiest’ drills are the least realistic and least effective ways of acquiring skill in rugby. These weren’t needed by greats of the game prior to the explosion of coaches and fancy drills from about the 1970s onward – which, I seem to recall hearing, everyone adopted because Communist sports teams using such methods dominated for a while (ignoring the fact that they trained and ate better – and, possibly, had other ‘enhancements’ – than your average amateur athlete who also had a job, family, and possibly ate, drank, and smoked too much). If the likes of Barry John and Colin Meads dazzled the world without stepping ladders and up-and-back bag smashing cycles, then why should players of today?

So much in rugby depends on assessment, prediction and timing. I think we might have the most difficult task in training skill compared to any invasion game because the space in front of our athletes is so congested, with variables in front multiplied depending on where one’s team mates are. Training within contexts that look and feel like the game allow athletes to adapt more efficiently and select appropriate solutions to the problems they regularly face (i.e. true skill development) than when performed in isolation without any visual / spatial / physical context. Ask yourself, then, when planning a training session if the activities are best preparing the athletes for the demands of the next game.

 

I’ve started a small collection of coaching books from yesteryear and continue to find really insightful bits of wisdom within them despite the game’s evolution over the years. Some of the big-picture, ethos statements – especially – have grabbed my attention, not only because of how well-worded they are, but because some are messages that we hear infrequently these days.

The latest comes from a little book – almost a pamphlet – I picked up at a used book store. It’s entitled Coaching Rugby Footballers: Some suggestions on the organization of coaching for young players (Extracted from the Manual of Rugby Union Football, Part Two).  Published by the English Rugby Football Union first in 1952 and later 1961, it kicks off Chapter 1 with this brilliant three-part objective of the game section:

General Principles of Coaching

The Object

1. The cardinal point for a coach to remember is that the game is played for the enjoyment of the players. The better each man plays, the more he will enjoy it, certainly; and the better the team plays, the more enjoyable for all of them. It is also undeniably pleasant to be on the winning side. But the game is played for fun, and nobody should be expected to play it in a state of anxiety, in the constant expectation of being criticized for errors he had no wish to make, of being told that he is “letting the side down” and so on.

2. Any coach on occasion will have to speak sternly – if he sees foul play, for instance, or a flagrant case of funking. But nine-tenths of his time should be spent in encouragement and in “showing how”. It is useless to say “Do hold your passes”; the player only wishes he could. If the coach can point out the reason why the player is dropping his passes, he will be able to be really helpful; otherwise is it usually as well to say nothing.

3. The object, then, is to promote the enjoyment of the players by bringing them to a pitch of skill at which they can play good football together, knowing what they are trying to do and how to do it. But it is not only this possibly distant goal that should be enjoyable; the intermediate stages ought to be so too. Practices and practice games can hardly be as exciting as matches, but they should never be boring.

There’s a lot of good stuff in those three paragraphs! The words that jump out for me are: enjoyment, fun, encouragement (vs “say nothing”!), together, exciting. Touching upon negative aspects of rugby that are still created to this day, I appreciate that they stress training should be free from anxiety, that a coach usually is better off saying nothing if the his (her) words cannot be helpful, and the pointlessness of criticising errors. On that last point, I think even little kids know when they’ve made a mistake. It’s always perplexed me why a coach or team mate would shout at someone for making a mistake – the player probably already feels a certain degree of embarrassment and/or lack of confidence, and anything but encouragement is sure to make him/her feel even lower!

The part that I love the most is at the beginning of the first paragraph, outlining a chain reaction of positivity and even an early model of athlete-centred coaching! Confident in abilities = happier player. X amount of players each feeling good about themselves and each other = a successful team. I think it’s important for all of us to keep this in perspective, and remember that ‘success’ doesn’t necessarily mean winning. We can only control what we have and how we go about improving upon it. What others have and what they do is out of our control, so how we measure ‘success’ must be relative – from where WE started to where WE finished, regardless of the outcome of games. Remember that, and you’ll have a happy team that enjoys their rugby. In the end, that’s all that matters.

… and if you missed it the first time, I dropped some other bits of wisdom from an old coaching book in this earlier post: https://conversationalrugby.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/wisdom-from-the-1970s/

A very good tip for attacking players is that “the hips don’t lie” – if a player’s hips are facing a certain direction he/she is vulnerable on the opposite shoulder. Some people call that the ‘soft shoulder’ because it’s going to take that person more time to turn and defend someone on that side, and any contact they make is likely to be soft. Very often, if the attacking player times it right, that person won’t even get turned at all and the attacker will slip by or behind.

Now it’s not my intention to steal this photo, but it shows a perfect example of someone whose hips are turned allowing an attacking player to get behind him.  (It comes from the magnificent analysis work rugby journalist Murray Kinsella does over at the42.ie, specifically this article: click here. Definitely check out his work, which seems to come out about once a week during the rugby season!)

Here, the Australian player (in yellow) is completely exposed on his right side and a simple pass by the Irish player should see his team mate gone!

While it’s true that the hips very rarely do “lie”, and that this should be a basic visual cue your players look for in attack, I also think the eyes can often give you the same sort of information. A good defender will keep hips square with the goal line, and his body aligned with the player he/she’s covering. Players should not get fixed on that person, and scan with the upper body, turning shoulders or just head to assess threats / opportunities and communicate with team mates. (Fighter pilots have a great acronym for this: the OODA loop, developed by military strategist John Boyd, which demands they constantly observe, orient, decide, act so they avoid getting ‘target fixation’ and miss the threat that could kill them.)

But something great attacking players do is draw attention to themselves. Genuine threats with ball in hand make more than just the defender in front take notice, and that extra attention should be seen as a golden opportunity for supporting players to strike. England’s Danny Cipriani explains a bit of that in the clip below, and I love that he goes against the old adage of “running straight”, demonstrably making a sideways run to draw yet another defender’s attention and free up space for someone else.

I contend that any player can be such a threat, so long as they get the ball with enough space to make a sudden threatening move that makes defenders pause and take notice. (Needless to say, keeping the ball in two hands means that player can pass in a split second.) Often, playing too close to the line makes the defence’s work easier because there’s no time for them to consider what else is going on. With enough time between the last phase and taking the ball to the line, defenders can get caught ball-watching. It’s this visual cue that should sound alarm bells to both the ball carrier and support runners that there is a defender (at least!) who’s overly focused on the ball and not paying attention to what’s going on in front.

In this highlight reel from Rugby League, there are two great examples of attackers taking advantage of defenders ball watching and not paying attention to what’s going on in front of them.

Starting at 0:16 and moving to 0:18 you can see how all the defenders have their hips square and their line is flat, but all eyes are on the ball carrier. The next defender out hasn’t noticed that his man is halfway outside him heading for the gap! The ball carrier’s pass is inch-perfect, putting his team mate away for a try.

The second example starts at 2:17. The first receiver has the ball with plenty of space and he starts running sideways. The defenders are pretty much in line with hips square, but yet again all eyes are on the ball carrier. This is the sort of player who is incredibly quick, so people are fixated on what he might do. Defenders should, of course, respect such players, but need to focus on the threats in front of them and trust their team mates inside to make the tackle / call for help and the sweeper (scrum half, full back for us in Union) to get this player if he breaks the line. Instead, they all get caught ball watching and – even worse than the previous example! – the defender who lets the try scorer through really should have had him in his field of vision. It goes to show how fixated on the ball he was that he didn’t see a free running receiver right in front of him!

I like using conditioned small-sided games to practice this. Attackers are given free reign to attack a realistically wide space, but defenders (either by coach’s call or on their own) either align or move in a certain way that would be considered ‘bad defence’. The challenge is for attacking players to spot and exploit bad defence, and not just by putting all the onus on the ball carrier, but by calling out opportunities as soon as they are spotted. These clips show that even at the highest level poor defence happens, and players need to know what that looks like from regular practice. Going back to the fighter pilot example, going back as far as WWII, air crews – and naval personnel for that matter – were trained to recognise the enemy by the shape of their equipment and patterns they employed. Becoming familiar with defenders’ vulnerable shapes and patterns similarly provides rugby players with an edge in attack.

Over the weekend, in a hotly contested Waratahs v Hurricanes match, a ‘Tahs player was binned for a swinging arm that made contact to a player’s head. Notoriously one-eyed announcer Phil Kearns, and many ‘Tahs fans, felt it “harsh”. You can see the clip here: [link] You can hear the captain say he was going for the ball, and I bet he was, but I also think players have to be aware of what their actions could do and be prepared to face the consequences.

Speaking technically, coming in as he did, Potgieter wasn’t as likely to dislodge the ball as he might have if he came from behind and tried to punch the ball forward rather than back into his chest. There’s not a lot of time to adjust in such circumstances, but these are the risks players take.

A lot of have said that penalising players for things like this is “harsh” and “spoils the contest” when a player is sent off. But I say let’s go harsh to get players to be more responsible in contact! If that means players will be binned, or players will pull up and miss a tackle to avoid a potential card, then so be it. Player recklessness, if not willing disregard for the laws, is what spoils a fair and even contest. Since I started rugby, referee leniency, materiality and treating the outcome rather than the act (‘didn’t knock him out, so connecting to the head is no problem’) has caused certain aspects of the game, like the ruck, to be a mess. Players always test the boundaries, and referees let it go because they don’t want to ‘spoil the contest’ and take a lashing from the fans, one or both sides, and the press. Well I contend that players are the ones spoiling the contest in that regard by willingly playing outside of the laws. I ask my players to play tough and to dominate the contact area, but through controlled aggression and within the laws, not to mention the positive spirit of the game where we NEVER go out to hurt the opposition.

I’m not calling for rugby to go the way of basketball, where a slap on the wrist gets you a foul and six means you’re out of the game, or hockey were teams are down a man for short periods all game. Rugby people get uppity stressing that our sport has not just “rules, but “laws”, and lawmakers have done well to clean up the game in the last decade with things like stomping, mountaineering, tip tackles, etc. being all but gone. Just a couple of weeks ago, a World Rugby directive stressed that contact with the head must strictly be policed. If teams don’t adjust and actually play to the laws, then they face the consequences.

To me, any sort of calls for this stuff to be allowed makes those people no better than Rugby League fans who were crying because shoulder charges and head-highs were banned a few years ago. Rugby’s an amazing game without acts that can cause serious injury. Rugby’s under a massive spotlight now, and whether you care or not about seeing it grow, concussions and sub-concussive blows are going to see many players end up like NFL and NHL vets. Whatever steps we can take to make that less likely, the better, I say.

Wanna see some alternative try-saving techniques?

Genuinely attempt to dislodge the ball…

Get under the ball…


I’ll get down now …

Two Layers in Attack

Having two layers in attack allows multiple options to use or create space. Referred to as an outlet, a 2nd man play, or a back door option – it gives the attacking team a chance to play both flat and deep runners depending on what the defence offers.

Our typical set-up sees a standard first- and second-receiver staggered as one might see a fly half and inside centre, or two forwards off a ruck. Behind them, ‘C’ can be a support player or a second-receiver if ‘B’s opportunity is shut down. In the diagram below, ‘A’ can pass to ‘B’ running an unders line or ‘C’ running an overs line.

A = passer, B = flat option, C = deep option, S = support player

A = passer, B = flat option, C = deep option, S = support player

This formation is common in Rugby League, with any highlights package showing several examples of it. In the following clip from Japan v Maori All Blacks, you can see the A-B-C formation used in a narrow channel. The runner at ‘B’ cutting in draws one defender out of alignment and the Maori winger has to come in to take care of ‘C’, who passes to his own winger. On the reverse angle you can see clearly how the defenders are turned inward, freeing up just enough space for the wing to race down the touchline.

Here’s another example where Bath use this formation in the midfield, rather than off the first receiver. George Ford could have easily popped the ball to one of the forwards standing close-by, but he played it ‘out the back’ to his full back who sets up the winger for an easy try.

Bath use this move a lot to free up their speedy outside backs, but they have plenty of big runners who hold defenders in the middle because they could just as easily bust through. Everyone must be seen as a potential receiver, and therefore a legitimate ‘threat’ to the defence. A player being ‘a threat’ doesn’t just mean being in position to receive a pass either. Defenders are more likely to be manipulated or exploited when those multiple threats are in motion.

In this try, the inside centre runs an unders line and scores from it because the fly half recognises that the defenders are too focused on the wide and deep options. With each of those players in motion, it becomes really difficult for defenders to adjust. They can’t ignore outside threats and have to trust team mates inside to cover runs against the play and inside passes.

The attacker at ‘B’ doesn’t have to run an unders line either. In this clip, he fades outward suddenly, dragging two defenders and allowing the ‘C’ attacker to run straight through the gap untouched. In the following clip, ‘C’ loops outside of ‘B’.

Finally, it’s important that players around the A-B-C unit get into good support positions to take advantage of the linebreak. They have to look for ‘triggers’ in body language that suggest when to move and where to go. In this clip, the fly half, inside centre and winger create the linebreak, but there would be no try if not for the scrum half and no. 8 funnelling through to keep the move alive.

The A-B-C formation provides a bit of structure with many different options. It’s important for potential receives to be active threats and to communicate their intent. Supporting players must also read body language to adjust their timing and choose appropriate actions. Ultimately, it’s up to decision makers to consider all this information and read the defence to see their reaction, and choose the best option. I can’t stress enough that athletes need to practice this under game-like conditions so they can appropriately attune themselves to the pressure, pace, and congestion they’ll face in a game.

One of the simplest ways to break the defensive line and/or create space for supporting team mates is to line up in the gap between defenders. It sounds incredibly basic, but it’s not something you see happen very often. Defenders do tend to adjust and get lined up on the player being marked, so it’s a scenario that isn’t necessarily always going to happen. The following clips, however, show that even at the highest level defenders can lose focus on the big picture. Someone I used to coach with referred to this affliction as ‘ruck inspecting’ – defenders’ heads and shoulders turned inwards looking at the ruck, waiting it for it to come out, virtually ignoring the threat in front of them. Even funnier are those who’ve been conditioned to point and say “I’ve got… ” so-and-so while still looking at the ruck!

One solution to this affliction is to condition players outside the Post defender to stand with their inside foot forward. This makes it difficult to turn shoulders and hips toward the ruck. In such a position, they must use their head to scan the field and once the ball emerges their first step is forward. While ‘ruck inspecting’, the usual first-step is one that squares the body, and then the second step gets them going forward slightly. It’s a crucial step-too-many when the aim should be to seize the initiative and catch the attacking team behind the gain line as soon as possible.

The following clips will show examples of attacking players getting aligned in gaps, exposing defenders who haven’t assessed the situation in front of them until it was too late.

In this clip, Northampton had enough defenders in place, but Gordon D’Arcy cleverly got himself into a gap on the outside of the second-last defender. He seizes the gap brilliantly and finds support with an inside pass. The overhead shot shows his alignment even better as he’s on the inside shoulder of the last defender, creating a 2v1 situation that will allow him to slip through the gap if the last defender stays on his man, or pass if the defender pinches in to cover his team mate’s mistake.

Here’s another showing a player getting a pass into a gap and, though caught, setting up a team mate who also reads the play and times his run perfectly. The creator of this clip does a great job of noting the purpose and shape of the Waratahs’ attack, and I’d add that Beale’s ability to align himself in – and attack – the gap flat is as important as Foley’s ability to get him the ball. Too often, receivers sit back waiting for a pass when the defence isn’t aligned properly and/or not paying attention to the potential threats in front of them. Getting the ball deeper and without a plan allows the defence time to adjust. As the video’s creator so correctly indicates, the defence has a lot of threats to consider but they needed to trust the guys on the inside more and focus on their own responsibilities. Foley’s straight and fast run from a relatively flat position holds his man in place and draws the attention of others. Beale’s flatness and Foley’s near-perfect pass doesn’t give the Reds’ defenders any time to adjust once the point of attack has been changed. If they’d have been more attentive, Beale might have run straight into a dominant tackle, but he’s a master at spotting and exposing defensive errors.

This clip finishes with a perfect strike by Quade Cooper, but off the lineout Ben Tapuai does a great job of running a line that fixes his defender and then steps into the gap to get well over the gain line. This is another basic principle of alignment and attack that must be part of every player’s ‘tool box’. Too often, slow or slanted runs are used that play right into the hands of the defence. Here, Tapuai is deliberate in his approach and explosive in his change of direction. Several direct and powerful phases ensue that gets the Lions defenders focused on tight play off the dangerous scrum half Will Genia and the Reds’ capable forward pack. This is where a fly half like Cooper is at his most deadly. Too many defenders are worried about Genia and the forwards. Cooper patiently waits for them to manipulate and draw the attention of the defence before calling his own number. At about 45:15, you can see him shift to his left and get into a massive gap before getting the ball. The defender on his inside is still looking at the ruck when the ball is passed and finds he’s lost his man. He panics, running to where he he should have been, allowing the light-footed Cooper to step him and score untouched – the ball fake holding the other inside defender brilliantly.

In this clip, we see the same sort of scenario – defenders not properly assessing / aligning with the attacking team – but instead of the receiver having a go, he realises he’s drawn their attention and finds an un-marked supporting runner with a pass. Again, the opportunity comes after a few phases and when defenders are overly-focused on what’s happening around the ruck and not getting properly aligned. The overhead shot shows it even better as Canada has five defenders on the blind side and Piri Weepu at 1st5 is lined up in between two defenders with men on his inside. As he gets the ball, both are not in a good position to defend and both have a go at him, leaving the inside channel completely un-marked. Different than our previous examples, Weepu doesn’t have the clear gap once he gets the ball, but by drawing the attention of panicked defenders, he skilfully puts a team mate into created space.

This is a very simple way of reading and exposing defensive mistakes even before the ball is played. The first visual cue is spotting a defender whose shoulders and hips are turned inwards, looking more at the ruck than what’s in front of them. By lining up in the gap, the attacking player either has a clear door to run through or – and this is the second visual cue – can take advantage of of the defence reacts to the sudden realisation that they’re not properly aligned. If the outside defender stays on his man, his inside shoulder is vulnerable. If he pinches in, a pass to the next player outside is on, and his line can be tight if that pinching defender turns inward. If the poorly aligned defender sprints to get across, then maybe he’s vulnerable to an inward sidestep a la Quade Cooper, or a pass to a supporting runner as in the Weepu to Vito pass versus Canada.

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