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Skills Toolbox Game

Recently, I’ve been wondering if we can simplify the way we approach rugby training. I’ve been an advocate of ‘game-based’ activities for many years now, but am concerned that I use too many different games. With the time needed to teach the nuances of each and for players to get used to the rules (not to mention for both of us to actually learn from them), I probably do waste a lot of time when I could simply rely on just a few really good activities. Now I can understand that those who coach in places with long seasons need to have new and engaging content to maintain attention, but here in Canada – at most – the club season runs four or five months. So, can those of us who coach in short seasons focus on just a handful of reliable and multi-faceted activities to train all that rugby demands? I’m beginning to think so, and will re-visit this when I finally nail down what those ‘few’ might be…

Currently, I have several games in mind that are my go-tos for ‘big picture’ concepts. I had to remind myself that I often encounter or support coaches who have athletes that are completely or fairly new to rugby. So what kind of activity can still be opposed, game-like, but still encompass a wide variety of ‘basic’ skills? When I looked at a lot of ‘drills’ I used to run, and considered what’s at the heart of them, I noticed that a lot of small unit activities were pretty much the same. So I’ve decided that most individual and small group attacking and defending skills can be done in something I’m calling the Tool Box Game. Simply, you have a simulated ruck area with a number of balls and ask x number of attackers to play against y number of defenders and different widths on either side so they can explore options under different conditions.

Tool Box Game

Above, we see how the left side is narrower than the right, providing different conditions when the attackers go that way. Normal rugby laws apply, especially with defenders staying onside (their side of the coned-off ‘ruck’ area) until the ball is played by the scrum half. I prefer ‘hugby’ (wrapping up safely, but without a completed tackle) over touch because it allows carriers to slip through and even hand-off poor defence (i.e. few defenders can make a tackle only with their out-stretched hands). Various constraints can be employed if attackers are truly struggling to exploit/create space, but they shouldn’t forget that ‘in-contact’ aspects can still be worked on in this game: offloads, screens, mauls. They shouldn’t be the default, however, so constraints on defenders should delay them rather than remove them (in a real game, our athletes are more likely to encounter defenders out of position than significant numbers advantages, so let’s have ours work out ways to take advantage of poor alignment rather than the obvious 4v2 overlap). Some delays I use are placing one or more defenders in ‘arriving’ positions (full back, coming from opposite side of ruck, etc.) or by making them do a down-up or turn their backs before the ball is played so the attackers can start with positions to exploit this.

If there are only four players, maybe the attackers can start play by tossing the ball up in the air a bit? Five works perfectly for a 2v2 game, and I don’t think I’d go much larger than 3v3 (with players positioned as seen above) or 4v4 (having defenders line up 3+1  scrum half or fullback or 2+ sweepers in both SH and FB positions?). This way, the participants can have more goes than if they were waiting in line for their turn. On this, I strongly encourage coaches to not be afraid to have multiple stations set up so athletes can experience maximum repetitions. You don’t have to give them feedback on every go; in fact, it’s better for them to not only keep trying, but also to figure out why things did/did not work, and if not from their own self-assessment, from peer feedback. If they’re truly not getting something or need to work on something they’re not noticing, that’s when a coach can pose a challenge for them to work on at length themselves.

With this self-management aspect in mind, it recently struck me that I could help them by creating a laminated ‘score card’ that allows them to keep track of successes and leave comments. It’s based on a concept I learned at a coaching course many years ago: the Attacking Toolbox. Simply: the full spectrum of options players can make before accepting a tackle and setting a ruck. For detailed description and examples of what those skills would be, look at this section of my website: https://rugbyguide.ca/welcome/attack/attack-individual/

Players can keep their score cards in the ruck area and make notes as they go or after several goes (or they can shout in to a coach or player waiting their turn / injured player looking to stay involved) with white board markers. The coach can collect them afterwards and keep a running tally of what they’re doing well and what areas they might want to improve upon. The content is completely flexible but I think it’s important to remind players of the full spectrum of possibilities (and as much as I’m a fan of kicking, I want ‘running only’ to be the main constraint of this small-sided game). I also think it’s important to score only things that get players over the gain line because that should be our focus in matches. Having run this activity many times, one thing I notice players who lack skill/confidence do is to start deeper and deeper, giving themselves credit for beating defenders but well behind the gain line and being caught by a cover/chasing defender before even getting back to the original gain line. I don’t like to lay down extra cones and say ‘start here’ but that might be needed to ensure players aren’t too deep (though their lack of success might indicate that).Tool Box Score Card Image

 

I listen to a lot of podcasts and a lot of them leave me with one or two things to think about but aren’t worth blogging about as such or because I’ve already commented on the issues. This recent chat between John O’Sullivan from Changing the Game Project and author David Epstein really had me jotting down a flurry of notes (requiring three listens of the interview!). Epstein wrote the fantastic book The Sports Gene that looked at how various people were ‘built’ for their sport, and how sports are getting better at finding people who are best suited for them. His new book, Range (which I have yet to read, but am on the waitlist for at my library), focuses on people who succeeded while being a ‘generalist’ – that is, sampling a lot of activities and taking a winding ‘path’ toward success despite the pervasive narrative we hear about kids starting young and succeeding after 1000s of hours of deliberate practice (you’ve probably heard the 10k hours of practice line, which is largely a myth).

Here’s the chat: https://changingthegameproject.com/116-david-epstein/

Here’s the book:

My highlights as it relates to my experience / philosophies as a rugby coach are as follows:

11 mins … ‘Kind’ Learning Environments

Rather than the given examples of golf and chess, rugby is a sport that isn’t turn based and with closed skills. It’s largely random, often chaotic, and while it has recently been heavily structured with set piece like moves creeping into open plan and prescribed plans taking up a lot of play, it doesn’t have to be. Especially at amateur levels, where defences aren’t great, anticipation and reading of the situation is all that’s needed – if athletes are allowed the opportunity to experience this at training. Unfortunately, a lot of rugby training consists of blocked (i.e. box drills) practice and without opposition. Why do we train in ‘kind’ environments when the game isn’t kind? We don’t have to make it as high pressure as the game, but can still train with certain parameters that allow athletes to experience pressure and develop anticipation / reading skills from actual rugby contexts (and for Pete’s sake, please make them ‘rugby-like’ and stop playing rugby netball … we don’t pass forward in the game, so why do it at training at all when you can play or create something that actually challenges athletes to deal with constraints of rugby?)

14:30 … “breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer”

Rugby is a dynamic game that requires athletes to do a whole variety of things – and possibly the complete range of rugby skills – every few minutes. It’s not golf or baseball or even football, but teams often train like it is, doing things in isolation and often with very rigid plans. Rugby also tends to train very narrowly with, in my opinion, and over-reliance on ‘progressions’. How often do players see a neat 2v1 in a game? For new players, that’s a fine drill, but why not quickly move toward small game scenarios where they have to find or create the 2v1 amongst even numbers? The best players can anticipate play, react to opportunities/threats quickly and they’ve done this in environments where they’re allowed to explore and discover solutions that work for them. This can happen with even beginners and small children if the parameters of the activity are realistic to their needs. Provide them, as suggested by Epstein, with principles and the opportunity to develop adaptable skills rather than only giving them procedures to follow and heavy instruction on ‘the ideal’ way to execute techniques (which aren’t as likely to hold up under pressure and risk holding back from athletes a true understanding of the game, because they only ever have to do what they’re told).

From Epstein’s book: “…the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity.”

24:30 … The Calculus Course Study

I found this story fascinating and it highlights that ‘teaching to the test’ isn’t doing the students any favours. I’ve seen this in teams that kicked butt at school level because they had a solid plan and were up on some of the tricks that other teams didn’t know, but you wouldn’t see those players at the next level of play. There’s nothing wrong with teaching your athletes more advanced rugby knowledge – I’m all for it if they’re ready – but it’s important to ensure they know why such things work and how to remain flexible and adaptable, that is having actually learned the skill, not just applied what they were told blindly.

Supporting this is the discussion at 28 mins involving the teacher that seemed to be engaging whilst offering hints to students, with the reality being that they didn’t learn the concept, only eventually had the answer given to them. Lots of coaches now are taking on questioning strategies, which is better practice than simply telling, but a lot of time the questions already lead them to the answer or follow-up questions do, when the coach would be better off leaving athletes with an open question to answer when they’ve worked out the answer themselves (or keep the know-it-all athlete from interjecting!).

33 mins … Spacing

This is a concept I learned a few years ago and still am unsure how to best implement. Maybe there is no fixed way to space out activities to test and it depends on the group? When I did my Level 2 and learned about season planning, most of it didn’t sit well with me. I’m no expert, and admittedly it did seem like a lot more work, but I didn’t want to treat a rugby season like a box-ticking exercise of starting with basic skills and working towards more advanced. Why not mix it up: always working on fundamental skills and addressing things we need to work on as determined by the last game? It seems this is a sound way of doing things, as mentioned in the interview, because revisiting things not only allows athletes to keep working on them but when appropriately spaced out and when faced only with the challenge, not the answers, tests their recall (i.e. whether or not they’ve learned the skill).

Noteworthy coach educator Mark Upton talks about the “challenge point” and former England kicking coach Dave Alred refers to “the ugly zone” – where an activity is not so easy that nothing’s being learned and not so difficult that all the athlete experiences is frustration. And when these activities are returned to at random so that it’s not part of a blocked, robotic, rote procedure, the brain has to reframe and relearn, which apparently builds stronger neural pathways (i.e. the skill is actually learned and easier to recall / apply later). If you think about studying things over and over, even at random intervals, rather than cramming for a test or trying to recall something you learned at the beginning but haven’t visited for a long time, then it totally makes sense. One way Upton demonstrated the limits of repetitive basic practice is asking someone to do simple times tables over and over. Same with forever doing 2v1s… eventually the athletes will get that it’s a simple either/or exercise. We even see this when teams will have their complex patterns all down pat, but then blow a simple play because it’s not something they’ve worked on in ages. Using the math example, throwing in more complex math questions or random ones that aren’t related to each other, causes an individual to use mental math strategies. The same is true when you challenge athletes to solve various, realistic problems that help them with pattern recognition and applying various strategies to see which are best. Small sided games are great for this, because the conditions in any given moment (space, time, who they have vs who we have in this space, positioning of those bodies, etc) all make for a different challenge that isn’t as neat as a drill.  What we want are athletes that have strong understanding of the principles and fundamentals of play and a wide range of flexible/adaptable ‘tools’ that can be applied to any given situation quickly. As such, I think it’s best to work on these things at random so nothing ever becomes rote or is left for such a long time that they cannot be recalled quickly enough when a moment in the game invites their use.

52 mins … Immersive Environments

I’m not sure if it’s 100% true, but years ago it was suggested to me that New Zealanders are as good as they are because they play the game first and fine tune skills later. We tend to do things the opposite way: work on ‘skills’ (often just techniques) separated from the wider context of the game and then explore the game later (if the kids are lucky). Even if a Kiwi kid goes to school or club training and does the same drills as us, if I’m correct in thinking ‘game first’ is part of their success, it’s that their kids will have played a TON more rugby with friends in the park, family in the back yard, and in PE class where things won’t be nearly as structured. If our kids aren’t playing the game like that, then it’s up to us to recreate that at training with a lot more rugby-like game play. Especially in Canada, where our kids tend to start later, if we want to help them learn and have so much fun that they’ll stick with the sport longer, it only makes sense to give them a LOT of game play to develop context-influenced skills and enjoy their time at training. It might not look as neat and ordered as a traditional drill-heavy practice, but ‘immersion’ seems to be not just more fun but also more beneficial!

The story in the interview about Dynamo Zagreb stars who only joined the club late, despite claims that the legendary club ‘developed’ them, made me chuckle. That happens a lot in rugby as well, especially in countries where big money schools offer scholarships to the bring young talents who were already looking good on their own previous environment’s work / natural abilities.

So I think it’s important for our governing bodies – and for those of us ‘in the know’ where that’s not happening – to share best practices with everyone so we can create immersive environments where kids can not only explore and discover practical and creative solutions to the game’s problems, but where they’ll actually have more fun than if they’re forced to do a lot of drills and hope for a game at the end of training. It’s okay if it gets a bit messy, because that’s where learning occurs. A good coach will also adjust the parameters or constraints of activities to ensure that things aren’t too easy or too difficult, and give those who already ‘get it’ new challenges so that they’re not dominating and preventing the others from learning. (Just on that note, one I love is devaluing tries of dominant players: “Great try, Johnny! That’s your five-pointer now, and the rest are only worth one until the rest of your team has scored their five-pointers. You might want to help them by getting assists.”)

In the summer, while touring around Germany, I read a book about the history and evolution of American football tactics and formations called Blood, Sweat and Chalk by Tim Layden.

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Years ago, I stumbled upon an article that covered this (which I haven’t been able to find since!) and it made me think about rugby’s evolution and the use of tactics. I do have a great book called Developments in the Field of Play by JJ Stewart, but it seems there was more innovation in the first 100 or so years of rugby than in the last 50, and largely because of law changes, not because coaches dared to be different. At the time of reading these, I didn’t think there was as much creativity in rugby as there could be. In the last couple of years, I think top level rugby has become even less creative and when I again hunted for the article, I stumbled upon Layden’s book. It covers about 100 years of changes from the pre-passing days to the current era. It admits that football has some of the same ‘copycat’ issues that rugby has, especially when an innovation proves successful, but it also suggests that there are still varied approaches and that the ‘old way’ occasionally gets re-used. Rugby doesn’t have such a wide range of historic approaches like football, and I’m not advocating rugby become very rigid like the American game can be, but when was the last time you saw, say, a dribbling rush in a rugby game? Do you even know what a dribbling rush is? (Forwards would kick the ball along the ground to advance it because you can’t be tackled if not carrying it!)

I’ve been thinking of some more creative approaches to playing, inspired by old rugby manuals, and this book has further emboldened me to see how they’d do in today’s game. What follows are my reflections from Layden’s book that might help you also make the game more interesting and rewarding for your players.

“Their work is equal parts science and art – the science of outmaneuvering an opponent like a military field commander and the art of understanding the subtleties of player’s abilities.” (9)

In expanding upon the above quote, Layden adds that while ‘chalk talk’ involves the study of concepts, that “the game isn’t played by concepts; it’s played by human athletes.” (10) This is a great reminder that no matter which point of the spectrum you fall, between ‘just the basics’ and ‘extreme creativity’, you still have to select approaches that suit the players you have, and that can change year to year. Professional teams – and some might say even representative teams (but I’d argue, for junior grades, that’s wrong and inhibits growth) – have the ability to select the athletes that fit the system, but the vast majority of us don’t have that luxury, nor do we have the time to mould raw athletes into a specific system when we can simply select strategy and tactics to suit them.

“Football innovation repeatedly proves itself the product of coincidence, of personalities thrown together and forced to improvise strategy for the sake of survival.” (27)

Layden tells the story about how, possibly, the ‘Wildcat’ formation, which snaps the ball to a non-traditional ‘quarter-back’, was born out of a coach having an incredibly fast receiver who’d played quarterback in junior high. He hadn’t known it was similar to the ‘Single Wing’ formation used decades before that had fallen out of fashion. The ‘unconventional’ approach worked for the boys he had, as it did for the coaches who employed it way back when, showing how working with, not against, constraints can produce something fantastic. He also talks about how good coaches see better roles for players and encourage them to play elsewhere when the stereotypical or traditional (i.e. “I’ve only ever played this position!”) might no longer suit (pp. 54-55). A high school quarterback who was too erratic to deal with defences / system at the next level found a new home and success as a wide receiver. The less-flashy backup ended up being the perfect steady QB to unleash the creative star. I’ve seen this several times in rugby where coaches put their best players at 9 or 10. Instead of putting them in roles where their space is limited, opt for competent ones who can deliver that ball in space. I suspect that’s why rugby League hookers act more like Union scrum halves, allowing all backs to operate in space. One of my teams allowed our incredibly elusive scrum half to do her thing in space with forwards making short passes to her from the breakdown, rather than force her to dig out every ball.

From innovation comes further innovation. Coaches who like the principle behind something new or a certain aspect of a creative approach can either tweak it to suit their own players or dream up something different having been inspired by it. One example given in the book looks at how the tight ‘Wishbone’ formation was altered into the wider ‘Flexbone’ formation (61), one relying on concentrated power with the other more on exploiting space. Football coaches, no matter the formation, always have many options of them. One of my critiques of top flight rugby at the moment is how the rigid systems approach claims to have options, but really the options are very few (and they are rarely ‘opted’ upon). As such defences tend to have an easier job when dealing with forwards, in particular. Pods almost always crash into the line with the first receiver, occasionally play out the back, and rarely ‘tip on’ to a second forward. Rare do we even see some of the intricate running lines and passing options seen in League, which, incidentally is where Union got the idea for dummy runners and second man plays. If every phase – including small groups of forwards – featured players in a dynamic shape, each with the potential to get the ball and do something with it in hand, defenders have a much more difficult task. The hesitation, over/under commitment, reactive rather than proactive decisions imposed upon defences by creative and dynamic attackers gives them the initiative. Doing the same thing everyone else does 75% of the time means you’re only, really, hoping for a rare mistake or to win a boring and exhausting battle of attrition.

Taking a creative approach to play is something many school and club coaches shouldn’t fear doing. What’s to lose if you’re already a team that’s perennially in the bottom half of the table or if jobs / recruitment aren’t affected by results? Hell, your players might actually understand the game better if they’re exploring how to do something different than the rest! To innovate beyond the status quo, you’ve got to know what it is. From the formations examined in the book, it seems that most innovation in football has come from college and even high school programs that took a risk or created a solution to a problem. Don Coryell’s San Diego State team, which couldn’t compete with local rivals to sign the best runners and blockers coming out of high school, revolutionized the passing game because he was able to get decent (possibly small?), underappreciated quarterbacks and receivers from junior colleges. Their success with the throwing game, when most others ran the ball, made me think about how many coaches discourage kicking in rugby. Yes, some players kick when the run option was on, and keeping possession is more likely with safe carrying and efficient ruck. But teams that are known to kick can face reduced pressure if the defence is not sure when the kick will come, some defences do not how to deal with kicks, and others will kick it straight back, allowing for a nice open counter-attack with defenders spread out all over the place.

The throwing game in football seems to be en vogue at the moment, and Kurt Warner’s statement on why he likes it also had me thinking about kicking in rugby. “The design of the offense was to continually put pressure on the back end of the defense. It was all about getting chunks of yardage.” (88) Bill Walsh’s use of short passes to expose blitz defences also seemed to have had both a reactionary and exploitative effect. In between going for the big scoring play and grinding teams down through dominance is achieving moderate gains through short plays 4-8 yards at a time. I’m someone who doesn’t put a lot of time into set piece plays and I’m also not in favour of the boring, attritional approach of one-out rugby and pick-and-goes. Like Walsh’s short throws, I challenge my athletes to break the gainline on every single phase – wherever that may be. They can follow a pattern if nothing clear and obvious presents itself, but as soon as possible, they should get back to a state where we’re breaching the gain line and forcing the defence to scramble a few metres back to re-establish their line. This perpetual state of disorder will eventually cause them to give us an easy scoring option, exposing uncovered space, a mismatch or an overlap. One of Coryell’s credos in this sense directly applies to rugby: “Never pass up an open receiver. If he’s there, stop ‘reading’ and throw it to him.” There’s no need to follow the script if something better is immediately apparent. Rugby has even more advantages in football in this regard, because we’re not limited by four downs. Going for short gains works everywhere so long as you win the ball back at the breakdown. In the recent November series, I was disappointed to see the All Blacks not do what they do best until late in the game – get behind the gainline by going wide quickly. Instead, they bashed it up the middle a metre or so at a time, which allowed the well-disciplined Irish defence to reorganize themselves and be ready for the the next one. Ireland may have only allowed a few more metres when the All Blacks went wide, but there’s a big difference in attacking defenders who’ve had to turn and run back and aren’t quite set / focused compared to running against those who’ve only had to take a couple of steps back and to the side, keeping your next wave in their field of vision the whole time. More ambitious moves that keep defenders guessing, giving up several metres at a time, and well-placed and chased kicks can offer the same sort of opportunities to turn pressure into better attacking options.

The other major takeaway I got from the book was related not to on field stuff, but off-field collegiality. There have been some immense rivalries and we’ve seen seemingly hard ass football personalities in the media, but the book suggests that much of the American football world is open to sharing ideas. Thinking back on my 18 years coaching, I can’t remember a time that a coach from another school or club shared what he or she was doing, and admitted to myself that I’ve only been doing it in the last few years. We talk a lot about rugby being this ‘gentleman’s game’ and having some kind of aura of inclusivity, but too often we’re going against that by protecting our own interests and not thinking about the bigger picture.

“Football socializes. Everything belongs to everyone else, especially diagrams on a board or the plays on a film.” (139)

Great coaches know that there’s always room to improve but how can any of us improve if we’re not challenged? I’ve seen programs dominate locally year to year, but then get shocked when they attend a tournament elsewhere? If you care about development and doing well at other levels (not to mention ensuring your players can go anywhere and be successful), then it’s up to us to be more open and share so we can raise our game. Our region challenges others to raise their game, and our province challenges others to match us, making the national team as strong as can be. I believe that’s the main reason New Zealand is so great, but I do wonder if that may wane a bit if the top schools continue to poach talent from the have-nots? I suspect they’ll be okay, though, because All Blacks and great pros continue to emerge from these schools, suggesting that their coaches still know how to develop good players even if they don’t have a wealth of talent at their disposal (especially given that rugby is a late development sport… how many of those school poaches go on to be great players would make for an interesting study!).

In football … “Coaches find each other. They hang out together and eat together and drink beer together… It is their way of finding normalcy. But it’s also a way of staying in the endless loop of innovation. Friends do not hide discovery from each other.” (149) Layden talks about coaches holding clinics for coaches and sharing resources even while they’re still using them. There’s a money-making aspect to it, sure, but there’s also the belief that letting others know what you’re doing will force you to do it better and develop ways to combat the ways your opponents would defeat your strategy and tactics. As suggested by the analogy offered at the start, the shrewd general is aware of how his enemies might defeat what’s made his army successful – the science of battle. He is also astutely aware of the subtle ways that his subordinates and troops on the ground operate, which is the art of leadership. I think the barriers to knowledge sharing and innovation in rugby are breaking down via social media and YouTube. With them, you can learn about a lot about how the top-level approaches rugby, but I think we can do a lot more to both share with the grassroots level and also not be afraid of trying to do something completely different than the pros. Whether or not your innovative approaches become the next big thing in the sport or even over-come the limitations you face, the process of examining deeper demands, needs, and possibilities will help you and your athletes understand the game so much more and allows them to benefit from a richer experience of exploration and discovery.

In my first post related to the recent Wasps v Leinster match, I looked at Wasps’ defensive issues around the breakdown. In this post, I will examine some issues they had away from the breakdown that led to Leinster tries. My analysis and tips to avoid the issues will follow each clip.

CLIP 1: Recognition and Changing Tactics

Here we see Leinster make great use of Johnny Sexton’s signature move – the loop. He’s used it countless times for Leinster and Ireland, so right off the bat, Wasps have no excuse for failing to adjust to it.

As the ball is passed, we can see that Wasps are evenly matched with Leinster, each having four players. Sexton has turned his whole body to pass and is already following the ball. This is a clear indication that the loop is a possibility, if not a certainty given the personnel involved. When the clip pauses again, we see that the Leinster forward has passed back inside as soon as he’s received the ball. The Wasps forward mirroring Sexton should be calling for a push here because the loop is now clearly on, but his two teammates have dropped their backsides and frozen on the big forward. He’s completely out of the play now so, instead, they should be pushing beyond him to pick up Sexton wrapping around and the outer threats. The lankier of the two (#6) rushes up but Sexton makes his pass. The bigger defender is too slow to catch up and the winger is left to face a three on one. Before I move on to the next issue, if the player mirroring Sexton had called a push defence, the three players outside him could have stayed connected and contained Leinster toward the touchline.

Wasps’ winger starts jockeying backwards to buy time for support to arrive and his fly half does show up to help. What they fail to do, however, is actually get connected to hold the Leinster attackers there or force them wide with a drift. The winger is still backpedaling while the fly half comes forward, getting himself into no-man’s land. Leinster’s prop makes a great dummy and pass around him to free his teammates. If the fly half had better communicated to the winger, they might have stopped the attack there.

Simply, defenders need to anticipate / recognise attacking threats and communicate options / changes to stop those threats. As soon as they lose their coordination and connection (i.e. keeping shoulders in line with each other to create a defensive wall), attackers can easily pick holes to get around, through or behind them.

CLIP 2: Tactics, Responsibility and Trust

Teams that attack with a conservative one-out, same-way pattern are typically hoping to occupy the defence in an area to create an overlap in another area. By pounding up the middle, they hope to eventually find a moment when they can outflank the opposition out wide. Defenders need to fold around the breakdown quickly, with the outside defenders moving further out to maintain line integrity toward the touchline. Players work quickly and communicate responsibility in transition to ensure gaps are covered. It’s easier for the folding defenders to come around the breakdown to the near side and push teammates out, rather than run behind those defenders and get wide themselves.

Given that the strategy described above is common in rugby, when the clip pauses, the defenders around the ball carrier could have been better at re-aligning themselves. Leinster’s ball carrier isn’t a major threat and is suitably covered by the defender in front of him, but the outer defender (with the scrum cap) needlessly joins the tackle. Instead, he could have stayed out and protected the gap, then slid out as the two other defenders folded around. His act leaves the next phase without someone who could have shored up their line.

The two folding defenders are in a good position and ready to come forward, but the player outside them (third out, with a beard) is both offside and guilty of ruck-inspecting. He hasn’t properly assessed the threat in front of him until the ball is passed. When the clip is paused again, Wasps are in a pretty good position to defend the unit in front of them, but as the play unfolds it’s painfully clear that they are not coordinated with each other. Leinster opt for a dummy runner + pull back play which could have been forced wide if Wasps had started an aggressive drift as soon as the scrum half passed. The defender with the big hair should have pushed out hard on the receiver, with the bearded defender taking the dummy runner and the fly half looking out for the deep option. Instead, the one with the big hair passively holds his gap, the bearded defender gets caught in two minds (focusing on both the passer and the dummy runner, taking neither), and the fly half pinches in on the dummy runner, allowing the deep option to swerve around him into the gap.

Defenders need to be aware of their opponent’s strategy – and most teams have a clear one these days – so they can anticipate patterns and plays, stopping them before they come to fruition. By working hard off the ball to get into position and not over-committing where not needed, defenders can maintain the defensive line across the pitch and have time to plan for the next phase (to act, not just re-act). As the ball is played, defenders need to aggressively move into position to deny the attacking team options, force them to make errors, and/or get into positions where the ball can be won back. If teams passively go about re-aligning and be exclusively reactive rather than proactive, then good teams will be able to attack as they wish without pressure. Finally, taking responsibility, communicating intent, and trusting teammates are essential components of effective team defence.

 

Upon seeing last night’s massively lopsided Leinster v Wasps score, I assumed the English club was simply outclassed by one of the most dominant franchises in the northern hemisphere that can often boast a starting lineup chock full of Irish internationals. When I saw the extended highlights, however, I couldn’t help but think that Wasps had some simple-to-fix defensive issues that made Leinster’s job easy.

The following clips will show key moments where issues in Wasps’ breakdown defence allowed Leinster to score, with my analysis and tips to avoid such mistakes following each. (Other footage from this match in a follow-up post will look at some open field issues.)

CLIP 1: Defending the Ruck

At around 5 seconds in the clip, we see Wasps #5 in a moment of indecision as to whether he should stay or move to the other side of the ruck. Having moved across from the previous one, it’s important to note that not once has he got his body square and only briefly did he check over his shoulder to see where the threats were. On the reverse angle, we can see that his movement opens at least 5m of space between the ruck and the next Wasps defender. In addition, there were already four Wasps defenders on the short side covering just two or three Leinster players so he wasn’t even needed there.

Ideally, players should take responsibility for their own positioning and assessing the opposing team’s attacking threats. This clip demonstrates that it helps to have the scrum half patrolling just behind the main defensive line, helping to make sure all of the gaps are plugged and the threats accounted for. Whether or not you subscribe to that notion, defenders must endeavour to stay ‘square’ with the opposition (shoulders facing the opposing goal line) so they can see as much as possible. Rather than turning, Wasps’ #5 would have been better side-shuffling into position. It’s also important to organise ruck defence quickly and with purpose; it’s the shortest route for the attacking team to achieve an easy linebreak if not secure.

CLIP 2: Quick Realignment

A defending team should try to avoid giving away large linebreaks. A good mantra for a defensive line is to ‘bend, but don’t break’. When the attacking team gets deep into your territory, it forces defenders to turn and chase backwards. They expend more energy and have to realign without knowing where the attacking team is lining up for the next phase(s) than if they just had to shuffle backwards / sideways a little bit. In the above clip, Leinster get a nice linebreak from a long cut-out pass and score after two more phases. The initial pass and run are probably inevitable but where Wasps fail is in getting to and setting up for the subsequent phases.

In the replay and wide angle, we see that Wasps’ outer defenders tracks well to contain the winger and that there are enough players around the breakdown to prevent a quick pick and go try. Their #1 even does a good job of hustling back into a post position. Not quite so good is #3 immediately resting his hands on his thighs as he gets onside. He’s visibly tired and unready. I bet that if Leinster’s #12 attacked him, he’d not have been able to prevent a try given his body position. Poor readiness is critically demonstrated by both him and the hooker on the next phase, as Leinster’s scrum half is able to dart in himself to score. When he picks, Wasps’ #2 isn’t close enough to the breakdown, nor low enough to prevent the diving score and #3 was in a useless position behind the breakdown.

During phase play, whichever side is aligned and ready first has the initiative. To be fair, this try comes at the end of the first half and the large lads are clearly tired, but this is a time when players have to be especially switched-on mentally. With the big linebreak and five forwards having to get back to defend the next phase(s) just off their goalline, they must realise that their effort and focus is vital. If they work extremely hard for these few seconds – not just to get organised, but also to slow down the phase in contact – their teammates will have time to prepare themselves for the next one. Going for a steal might be risky at this level, given referees’ current tendency to issue cards for red zone infractions and the harm that can come from a penalty or kick to the corner catch-and-drive. But one player being a legal nuisance at the ruck in the corner could have bought the big boys a few precious seconds to get themselves more prepared.

CLIP 3: Defensive Scanning

Here again, we see Wasps’ #5 being passive at the breakdown. While his hands do appear to be off his thighs, he appears to be flat-footed with legs together – which is NOT the stance to adopt whether one is going to come off the line and ‘attack’ on defence or prepare to take someone in a low, submissive tackle. He’s also committing the critical sin of ‘ruck inspecting’ – i.e. looking only at the breakdown and not scanning for threats in front of him. It also appears the teammate outside him is also guilty of this. Both notice too late that a Leinster forward is charging right at them (and kudos to him, as he’s likely spotted that they weren’t focusing on him and called for the pass!). As a result, he and the scrum half achieve a massive linebreak because the Wasps defenders were not scanning the pitch for threats, let alone communicating responsibility to teammates in the immediate vicinity. This ‘little talk’ between defenders helps them stay organised and focused.

Leinster end up scoring from some brilliant passing, but again we see poor breakdown organisation from Wasps. After the tackle, Wasps have three defenders on the short side – both centres and a wing. I suspect that the one with the scrum cap realises this leaves a lot of forwards on the openside to prevent a possible all-in, wide attack and he pushes his centre partner over. The flanker who allowed the linebreak just gets back onside, having fell during the last play, and the wing is left to defend three players so shoots up to kill the play with the first receiver. Wasps’ flanker doesn’t attempt to stop the attack until the Leinster duo have crossed the gainline and by then it’s too late.

Simply, this is another example of why focus, scanning, and a ready-to-act body shape is vital in defence, at every phase. With a lot of teams adopting conservative approaches to attack (made easier by refereeing that favours attack over defence), stringing together many simple phases, it’s important that players do not lose focus. There will be many breakdowns that aren’t worth contesting, but each should invite defenders to scan for another attempt to disrupt the attack and get the ball back (the prime directive of defence!). If players fall into a lull of going through the motions, getting onside and merely setting the line, then they invite shrewd attackers to pick on the ones who aren’t ready to stop them.

During the Wasps v Leicester Tigers match yesterday, Tigers’ lock Will Spencer was shown a red card for a high tackle that made forceful contact with the head of Wasps’ hooker Tommy Taylor. Without getting into the social media storm about whether or not it should have been (which angered me as, for the sake of player safety and forcing change, it HAS to be nothing but…), I thought I could address those people who questioned what a 6’7″ player (or any player) could do when caught in a position where it’d be very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid delivering a high tackle.

First, here’s the incident:

Firstly, I think it’s important that we stop talking about rugby as being a ‘collision sport’. In some regions / teams, it certainly looks that way with ball carriers running straight into contact and defenders launching themselves into tackles. I recently heard a pro player say it was a ‘game of inches’, which no doubt comes from the NFL and the film Any Given Sunday, but it’s really not. Rugby is a game about possession. It’s really only become a battle of attrition because teams haven’t the ability / skill to evade and cleverly unlock defences and that (frustratingly) the law enforcers allow so many transgressions at the breakdown that it’s not worth contesting much of the time, so they spread their defenders out and offer no clear opportunities for the attack. With referees favouring the attacking side in tackle contests (rucks, mauls), it’s also fairly easy to string 10+ phases together of crash balls where the supporting players immediately seal off.

In addition, rugby league coaches have brought to union the ‘big hit’ and swarming defensive structures that dominate their code. It seems all I hear people talking about when it comes to tackle training is making the dominant hit that drives a ball carrier back. This technique certainly has its positives (get defence on the front foot, knock loose the ball, tackler lands on top so can contest easier, etc.) it doesn’t have to be the only way. When it comes to player safety, it’s been proven that the tackler going high is more likely to suffer a concussion than the carrier and than if using a lower and more passive hit. I have seen people get knocked out from making low tackles, too, but the data from pro rugby shows that high is more risky.

Accidental high tackles are still going to happen, but what needs to change is the mentality that lining a ball carrier up for a crunching tackle is the primary goal. It should be ever-present in the mind of tall players, especially, that a smaller player is going to offer a greater challenge. In the Spencer / Taylor case above, people were (I think deluding themselves by… ) saying that Taylor ‘ducked’ into the tackle. There’s no active ‘ducking’ at all; his change in shape came as a result of his attempt to pass. You can see the same dip in body height in Sapoaga as he passes to Taylor. If you’re still not sold on that, the other way that Taylor’s height changed is upon simply realising he’d been lined up for a big hit by an approaching giant of a lock! These are things that tacklers must be aware of, approaching every situation not as a player-possessed, but as a mindful player who can predict and read a situation and use the best option, even in a split second.

So what could Spencer do? Admittedly, he was committed so it’d have been very difficult to do anything else. He didn’t really ‘launch’ himself, but there is force applied that may not have been necessary. He could have better read the situation and opted for a tackle less-forceful. Below is another, not-dissimilar incident where there wasn’t much time to change but with greater awareness and training, a different outcome should have been possible.

Tu’ungafasi leans into the hit and collides with the Frenchman’s face and his own teammate’s head. Better communication with his teammate and recognition that Cane was already attempting the tackle should have triggered in Tu’ungafasi that he didn’t need to put in a big hit. Trust is so very important on defence this is a great example of where the double hit wasn’t needed; Cane was close enough (and certainly capable enough) to wrap up Grosso, leaving Tu’ugnafasi in an excellent spot to jackal / contest possession. For me, the low passive or low chop tackle is sorely under-used, especially when teams have so many capable jackallers these days. A big hit more often puts the ball back on the attacking team’s side, while a low hit more often has it first presented on the defensive side and with the carrier having to fight through the downed tackler to lay the ball back.

Again, rugby is a game about possession. When introducing defence to a team, I always ask the question: “What’s the aim of defence?” Often, the answers I receive are: to stop scores, make tackles, etc. but the primary aim of defence is to get the ball back, legally, as soon as possible. So the first step toward changing the culture of the ‘big hit’ (something that’s only a recent trend, despite some saying that red cards reflecting a greater focus on player safety are ‘ruining the game’ … but didn’t we all learn to tackle low when we were young/new?) is making players more aware of their actions, the actions of opponents, the most important aspects of playing defence, and appropriate technical application for the situation at hand. This is the one area in my training sessions that I continue to ‘drill’ – not in long lines, but in pairs or small groups. The aim is to give players as many reps as possible at reading body shapes and getting their own positioning correct, often without full contact, so they can be more aware, safer, and use the best techniques to make not only the situation but also their abilities and body types.

 

I was fortunate to hear from a friend that noted RFU coach educator Richard Shuttleworth was doing two sessions in Ontario this week and I was lucky enough to be within driving distance of Ottawa to see his lecture and talk with him afterwards. The following is from the notes I took on the night:

 

Foundations

Whichever style one adopts, having philosophical and theoretical (research-based) foundations help back your approach and, importantly, provide crucial answers to the question: Why?

 

New Zealand Approach

Enjoy

Innovate

Positive approach to change

Sharing information (best can’t get better unless opponents drive them to be better)

Use of technology

 

Top 6 Rugby Skills

Responsible

Self-Aware

Self-Organising

Adaptable (creative)

Decision-Makers

Pressure (resilience)

RFU CARDS approach (creativity, adaptability, resilience, decision-making, self-organisation)

 

Athlete-Centred, Free-to-Fail Environment

England development players (U18 / U20) allowed to make decisions on a ‘feeling’ in a given moment. Not random, but based on knowledge of their strengths and how things are going in that moment (real information provided by teammates and opponents).

No wrong decisions. Good ones and poor ones.

Working out why is part of learning. Want athletes to reach a state of ‘safe uncertainty’ – free to work out own solutions without coach imposing (safe certainty), creating stress (unsafe certainty), or not having a clue (unsafe uncertainty). Athletes who can adapt are more resilient to pressure, especially in a free-flowing game like rugby where coaches are far away from the action.

 

Adaptability

Explore – Discover – Adapt (= learning)

… Australian medal winners tend to be younger, because they’ve recently come from this explore/discover/adapt process. Older and former medal winners less likely when they have abandoned the explore/discover process either because they were happy with what made them successful before or because they’ve over-analysed their perceived strengths / weaknesses without properly adapting to new realities / possibilities.

Moving away from old Information Processing model (human as computer – using memory and analytical skills to apply known solutions to recognised problems), which focused on closed and open drills. Now exploring Dynamical Systems Theory and Ecological Dynamics (interactions of athletes based on information of their playing space), which relies more on guided discovery, static and dynamic activities.

Give athletes a toolbox and a problem to solve. Typically, they are given one tool and told to do a specific job a specific way (though Bernstein’s “repetition but not repetition” research proved we never do things the same way twice). The dangers of repeating a process without exploring a variety of tools and solutions stifles creativity, ambition, possible better solutions (especially as we’re all likely to have different solutions or at least different approaches to the ‘ideal’).

At Training: Give the desired outcome, challenge athletes to self-organize and explore / discover adaptable solutions relative to pertinent information provided by the activity. Requires the coach to have a sound understanding of the game’s demands, designing realistic constraints to encourage exploration – not force one. (This is related to Gibson’s notion of affordances – invitations to action provided by everything within the space. Perception drives action.)

In Games: Recognise what opponents want to do and take it away from them (within the laws of the game, of course). Deny them comfortability and where do they go from there? On the other side of the ball, unpredictability in attack causes opponents to be unstable, never settled and completely reactionary (i.e. impossible to deny what we want when it’s impossible to predict what we’re going to do; always reacting to and chasing the game).

Adaptive Game – want to live in the ‘Interactive Zone’. At other ends of spectrum are ‘Pre- Planned’ and ‘Re-Active’ zones. Best decision makers are in the middle and can tap into / adapt to polar ends to get themselves back into the dynamic interactive zone.

 

Feedback

Peer feedback is powerful – helps provide recipient with relevant information, does the work of as many coaches (coach will have helped them understand what’s important beforehand), reinforces knowledge within recipient AND deliverer.

Bandwidth Feedback – determine (best if players provide input) what is the acceptable bandwidth zone for success and error. No need for coach to intervene in this range because athletes know why errors are occurring and can self-analyse/organise. When stray outside of acceptable range, coach intervenes, but not too much as players will associate coach’s voice with negativity (coach can balance by providing short and simple feedback within bandwidth – celebrate, reinforce, one word reminders: “Jonny. Height?” “Right, coach! Will get lower.”). Use of questioning outside of the bandwidth is better than providing solutions (not to mention screaming negative comments!) because they are allowed to own the learning process, which allows them to understand ‘why’ rather than just ‘do as I say’. (Huge factor in Canada! Do they understand the principles of play and subtle nuances, or are most just robots bashing into the wall and occasionally getting through/around it by chance?)

An image of achievement both motivates and informs. So very important that our players (especially Canadians!) know what ‘good’ looks like, either through personal experience or by watching ‘the best’ do it. There is a danger in watching too much pro rugby, though … their game isn’t our game. We can create novel solutions on our own based on who we have, their abilities, and how they’d like to play.

 

Interesting Asides and Reflections:

(his information in bold, my reflections in normal text)

A heat map of NZ teams’ actions does not show highly concentrated data – that is, their actions are relative to information provided by opponents and not as much to a specific pattern of play. This is helped not only by top teams allowing this approach, but developed over years by culture of the sport in NZ (lots of free play, mixture of ages, touch’s popularity, skills for all, multi-sport… allowing this to flourish as they get older even in 1st XV sides).

“Rugby is an evasion sport not an invasion sport.” (…whereby ‘invading’ is the direct, attritional approach.) ‘Win the collision’ has ruined the game, in my opinion, leading to predictable, one-dimensional attacks. Arguably, not as safe either!

Academies in Scotland talk and share; English ones do not. Academies and rep sides have to pull together various different approaches – for us, in a short period of time – simple approach, based on principles of play, is easiest. Key, therefore, that people coming into the system have solid foundational knowledge. Broad, quality coach education is vital to provide disparate programs with this foundational information.

‘Skills Coaches’ make their money from being drill sergeants. There is no ‘right’ way of executing a technique or performing a skill. Avoid giving terms to an action as it encourages athletes to believe there is just one ‘ideal’ way. Rugby is often jargon heavy with the fundamental meaning of the action being lost (immediately or over time… ‘linespeed’ is a great example. Fast? How fast? Everyone at same speed? Not everyone runs at the same speed? What about a clever shooter like Owen Farrell?) Added danger here is that they might see that as the only solution to that problem, blocking them from exploring ones that might better suit them and/or playing conservatively because that’s all they know / feel they’re allowed. Provide, instead, outcomes and principles that athletes can simply do and adapt solutions to (Ex. Defence should aim to stop behind gain line and deny spaces to run into, pressuring them to turnover possession… regardless of ‘linespeed’.  With passing, should be in front of hands and delivered quickest route possible … how it’s done isn’t important if those are achieved).

England forwards seeing ‘winning penalties’ as a measure of a successful scrum. Kiwi thought tries scored from scrums would be a better measure, based on their culture.

England U20’s unplanned hotel space – informal / formal spaces, players made formal less-formal and thus more comfortable and open to interactions. Where can we create this space where we don’t have fancy facilities? What do they need to facilitate openness, interaction, collaboration?

Opponent as ‘decision-maker’. The information they offer provides the decision. Good decision makers are comfortable making late decisions, reading the information provided and picking the optimal solution; late means fewer options for opponent (can’t predict and proactively act, only react…if it’s not already too late!). Rather than doing the 2v1, play even numbers and make athletes EARN the 2v1 within it.

There’s a danger in treating the weekly match like an ‘exam’ where everyone’s actions are under the microscope. Leads to unnecessarily high pressure and conservatism and it’s not fair, especially on younger athletes. Should use training to explore, discover and adapt – free from pressure so individuals can extend their boundaries but the game – but game provides the added pressure and uncertainty that is beyond what can be created in training (typically, though England claim to be going beyond to make game days easier than training … seemed to work, but is it now???).

A curriculum / concepts shared for the betterment of the game. Example: Scotland have encouraged a 2-second ruck to speed up play. Probably works for their culture and smaller athletes. What socio-cultural aspects can we tap into? Multi-sport is our untapped strength. New Zealand way is apparent. Belgium football have imposed the 4-3-3 to create more well-rounded, tactically aware players.