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This is a subject I meant to cover at a later date as I’m still sorting out the best way to word things in a rugby context, so consider this a ‘conversation starter’. I’ve been asked to comment here by a friend who said I should more publicly share some thoughts I posted on facebook in support of this ‘vlog’ post by Stuart Armstrong at The Talent Equation. Stuart works as Head of Coaching for Sport England and as Player Pathways Manager for the English RFU, so he certainly knows his stuff! As such, I’ll let his words do the talking on the issue before I say anything …

If you’re craving more, check out his blog, or his interview on the Perception and Action and Coach Your Best podcasts.

He’s also offered some practical advice in a blog post entitled: The War We Are Fighting with Game Designers … an idea I first encountered from an article entitled Level Best, which examines some of the reasons why kids find video games more engaging than sport. Stuart mentions it in the video as well, but for me, the simple answer is that video games are more fun than the fitness- and drill-heavy training sessions kids are forced to endure before those few minutes at the end (if they’re lucky) when they get to play an actual game.

Why not make all of training game-like?  With the Women’s Premier side I coached last year, I think we maybe dedicated 20 minutes a week to set piece (more to give this week’s lineup a chance to sort some things out before doing it all in a full-on contest for 20-30 minutes against a nearly (if not fully) complete side). Players were welcome to do ‘skill work’ (more on why this is a misnomer later) prior to training, and we didn’t do much in the way of drills at all. Everything else was either a small-sided game or a situational skill development activity (say, two evenly numbered groups arriving at a ruck and playing three phases off it).

Drills really only focus on technique with a bit of pressure and usually a predictable course of action. Those are the good ones. Poor ones have no opposition at all! Research I’ve encountered suggests that good drills are useful for new learners to acquire an effective movement pattern, or to become familiar with the pattern that’s new to the learner. But, as Stuart says, experts suggest these don’t really transfer to the game that effectively. [This post just being a ‘conversation starter’, I won’t go deeply into the research as I’m still learning about it myself, but the Perception and Action podcast is a great gateway to learning about all this stuff!]. I’m still not 100% on a definition for ‘skill’, but my Australian coach educator put it on a higher plane, as a combination of techniques in a dynamic environment.

At the other end of the continuum from drilling technique in isolation is ‘the game’ itself. The game can be a great teacher, but many people can muddle through a game they love for years and never really get better. As Stuart mentions in the video, it also doesn’t necessarily allow for some individuals to get as many touches of the ball as a drill might, so opportunities for learning could be few and far between.

Somewhere in the middle of this we have game-like activities. I think coach Dave Alred is spot on when he said recently that rugby decisions are typically made among a maximum of five people (see this wonderful lecture for that quote and more). In the amount of time an individual has the ball, there are usually not more than that many people who can effectively participate in the action chosen. Those individuals are faced with a similar number of opponents in their field of view. With this in mind, it only makes sense to work in small groups.

The key word Stuart kept saying was ‘context’, and it is everything when developing skill and learning the game. Drills offer high repetitions, but very low context compared to a game – and I think it’s safe to say that rugby players face more contextual interference / visual stimuli in their field of vision than any other athlete (barring maybe a football quarterback, who’s often relying on set patterns of play rather than dynamic decision making). When you think about it, it’s ridiculous to only work on technique in low pressure activities, leaving the high pressure contextual stuff until game day! It’s no wonder rugby teams can look very one-dimensional as soon as the whistle blows.

As indicated by the title of Professor Rob Gray’s podcast, “perception and action” coupling is key to skill acquisition – that is, one has to ‘perceive’ the environment and choose an appropriate ‘action’ that will hopefully lead to a successful outcome. Skill acquisition experts have called these ‘affordances’ (if you want to do more Googling) that invite a response, and they are not just visual, but can also be auditory and mental. Players can recognise cues or anticipate actions based on any number of affordances. By the very nature of drills being low context, in a smaller playing area, with fewer people, it’s not very likely that athletes are able to assess, coordinate, and problem solve in them.

So what do we do instead? Simply, treat elements of the game like dynamic scenarios with a few athletes at a time either rotating through the scenario or having to repeat the process over a number of phases (above, I called them by the hardly-sexy term ‘situational skill development activities’). You probably already do activities like this, but I’d urge you to get out of the habit of calling them ‘drills’. You shouldn’t be ‘drilling’ or prescribing anything into a dynamic situation that can have a few or many possible outcomes. How else will athletes make those decisions in the game (rugby being one of the most continuous, high pressure games with the coach(es) far removed from most athletes)? I like to use these as a build-up to conditioned games that allow units or an entire team to play something almost like the real game, if not exactly that. It’s like allowing squads of soldiers train together and coordinate tactics before coming together as a platoon and going to war.

Scenario-based activities allow for a lot more ‘repetition’ – i.e. many touches of the ball – if you’re willing to let go of control and set up as many of them as you need to keep everyone moving constantly or, at most, having a 1:1 work / rest (and, importantly, observe!) ratio. Here’s where coaches can limit the possibilities:

  • Having just one set up so people are still waiting in line, making the activity over complicated … or too simple! … How often do you get 7v4 or have 20m of space between attack and defence in a real game? Rugby’s more often about working in lanes with not much space in front.
  • Frequently stopping to correct. Mistakes are learning opportunities, so try using feedback on the fly or simply let athletes time to sort out their own ideas before coming to you if they’re really stuck.
  • Focusing too much on the ‘rules’ rather than the learning objectives. Instead, state those learning objectives from the onset and trust that athletes know what’s expected. If they’re struggling to reach 50% success, then a quick chat about what’s not working and what is, with a willingness to alter the playing area / rules to increase success will help. You want athletes to be able to test and understand the consequences of their decisions, so a little bit of both is necessary. Because self-discovery is a powerful way to learn and retain those lessons, it’s also important not to give out too many answers!

As Stuart so rightly points out, this makes training more fun and engaging. Regardless of how well my team did, I was most pleased when people told me how much they enjoyed these activities and how I could see transferable results in game footage, attacking with the same sort of dynamism they showed at training.

This is a follow-up to the recent post I made that examines a simple attacking structure that I think can work for any team, but is best for one that has some pace on the outside and not a lot of big players to batter the defensive wall. In putting it together, I was reminded of a lecture I attended with former French player and coach Pierre Villepreux. When we think back on it, my buddy John and I do a terrible impression of what we felt was his key message, but it’s stuck: “Why do you want to run into ze wall? Why not go where eet eez easy to play?” And that’s it. Play where there’s more space. The structure discussed in the previous post and expanded upon here hopefully will allow your team to organise themselves each phase to play where it is easier to run, pass, and support on their way to the try line.

To recap, conceptually speaking, the set piece or tackle contest creates either a Big Open side with lots of width or a Split Midfield with defenders having to balance themselves on both sides. In the first case, width either spreads defenders out, allowing room to run through them, or draws them toward the touchline, allowing the attacking team to get around them. In the second case, defenders (especially amateurs) tend to condense themselves around a ruck, stacking as many as 6, 7 or 8 defenders in a very narrow area, allowing space on both sides. This allows an attacking team a better opportunity to take advantage of poor alignment or mismatches.

As mentioned in the previous article, our team focused on playing at least 10m away from every ruck, typically outside the third defender. What I discovered watching our highlights was that a hell of a lot of tries came as a result of attacking in one of the following scenarios:

  1. Open – Attack the Middle

Open - Middle

  1. Open – Go Wide

Open - Wide

  1. Split – Go the Same Way

Split - Same Way

  1. Split – Rewind and Go the Way We Started

Split - Rewind

It was also interesting to note that the most successful passages of play involved an Open move turning into a Split scenario or a Split scenario becoming an Open one. This seems pretty basic to me now, but (and I’ll show an example of this later) attacking close to the previous ruck almost never resulted in significant gains. If I were still working with this team, I’d stress that we really should be attacking on these guidelines all the time to get wide, play in space, and either get through, get around, or get behind defenders. Here are some examples… [Just a note on my titles: the first word indicates where the ruck occurs Split or Open, and the words in brackets indicate where we go next Middle, Same Way, Rewind], and a dash in between this pairing indicates the next phase]

Split (Same Way). This play starts messy (full credit to the uni team competing at the breakdown!), and around 0:32 a forward smartly opts to pick to establish a bit of a platform. From here, we go same way. I love that the hooker steps in at first receiver and not only commits two defenders but times her pass perfectly.

Split (Rewind). I can’t remember how this play started – possibly a penalty that didn’t find touch – but a forward brings us into the midfield. At around 0:10, the ‘Same Way’ option is on with excellent shape, but as I zoom out, we can see that four tight five, the 8 and a winger have noticed that too many defenders have converged on a ruck. They call for a rewind and move the ball for one of my favourite tries of the season!

Split – Open (Wide). Starting from a scrum, we go in one direction with some great hands and create a Big Open opportunity. Three quick passes gets the ball to our dominant winger in space. If any had carried the ball to the line, the defence would have likely stopped them in the midfield. Importantly, they also stayed square when passing which kept the defence also square – rather than step / turn sideways and pass, which would have invited the defence to drift sooner and close off our winger’s space.

Open (Middle) – Split (Same). Starting from the right touchline, we make very good use of a numbers advantage. This is not simply draw and passing to the wing, either, as the centre has a go herself before passing to the fullback for the try. This highlights how multiple attacking threats in a given area causes defenders to hesitate. Attack that hesitation and force them into making poor decisions.

Open (Middle) – Split (Same Way) – Open (Middle). Here’s an example where two phases really manipulate the defence. On the start of the third phase, note how narrow they are and how wide the attackers are. Once again, multiple threats cause indecision and lack of focus such that we don’t even have to go too wide as the no. 8 spots a gap and has a go herself.

Split (Rewind) – Open (Middle) – Open (Wide). Here’s another example where two phases draw the defence over to one side. This team is reasonably well spread out, but a poor first pass halts any thought of going down the middle. Both centres pass quickly to get us out of trouble and the full back does a wonderful job of not just straightening, but she cuts back in slightly before passing. This fixes the chasing defenders in place and provides the winger with plenty of room.

The following two clips show that playing too close to the ruck didn’t always work for us…

Open (Middle) – Split (Rewind) – Wider?. We sometimes bust through defences with this powerful ball carrier, but in this case the opposition was ready for her.  She did impressively gain ground despite three defenders being ready for her, but an infringement at the breakdown halted play (I’m still not sure what happened). Another positive is that the shape of the players waiting for the next phase is excellent – lots of width and supporting players behind the front line of attackers. Ultimately, we’d have been better off with a late pop to get the ball a bit wider or even a back door pass to get it to the backs.

Around the Corner – Split (Same Way) – Pick and Go. Here’s an example where four around-the-corner phases gained us no territory and did virtually nothing to manipulate the defence. One could argue that it did set up for a return phase, but a couple of long passes could have done the same thing and probably gained more ground. The return phase is a good example of what a Split – Same Way phase can do: when the scrum half has hands on ball, there are seven defenders at the ruck, six more on the far side, a winger who’s turned in and not calling for help (not likely realising that she’s isolated with a former national team winger!). The amount of territory gained means the defence has had to turn and chase back (rather than shift and back pedal slightly like before), causing enough disruption for an easy score. If they’d plugged the gap, many still would have had their backs to the attack when the pass was made and a try could have been scored anywhere.

The end of that previous point brings up something I believe should be our first aim in attack – scan for and seize clear opportunities. As was noted in the previous article, if the ruck is poorly defended then we don’t have to rely on the structure. We just play the opportunity that exists in front of us. Too many defenders converged on the ruck, leaving room for our scrum half to pick and go at the huge gap.

Here’s one more clear opportunity to close off this article. In this turnover situation, the attacking players realise there’s space on the short side so they have a go and score with a quick pass to the fullback (note that it was one of the aforementioned forwards who made the perfect pass!)

Attacking Structure

Just last week, I finally figured out this rugby thing.

People who know me well will think that statement ridiculous as they tend to believe I’m the most knowledgeable rugby person they know. After 17 years coaching that’s gone into some 120-odd posts in this blog, I probably do know a fair bit. Over the past year I’ve been thinking a lot about the balance between structure and free play, having started out being overly focused on the former, while moving toward the latter in more recent years – and I think I’ve finally found a perfect mix. Structure gives players a focus and a plan of action they can rely upon. Free play allows athletes a chance to show their skill, both as individuals and combined in pairs, threes, or in larger collaborative units. Both also have their limitations. What I’ve been wrestling with is how to combine the two in an effective way for amateur players that only meet each other twice a week (if everyone shows up!).

Essentially, I want every player not involved in the ruck to get into position quickly to be an attacking threat on the next phase. Attackers establishing good depth and width between each other opens space between defenders. It not only allows you multiple options, but it causes defenders to consider – and hopefully be confused by – multiple threats. Too often we see one single line of backs with no options behind them or a pod of forwards where it’s obvious who’s getting the ball and, from their passive body language and lack of voice, who are only there to ruck after that ball carrier crashes it up. At the highest level, even, you see teams bash it up around the corner for several phases in hopes of wearing down the defence, and nothing more. Even worse, players at all levels can be seen jogging between phases, leaning on rucks, or hanging out behind them, rendering themselves useless for that phase when they could be an attacking threat. As such, defending is relatively easy.

It’s the multiple variables and sources of information that defenders have to sort out that causes hesitation and incorrect decisions. By getting into an ‘dynamic shape’, I want my players to align themselves either in the front line – a line of backs or a short line of forwards – or the support line, tucked in behind, ready to receive an offload at the line or a back door pass to go wide. Some specific tactical examples can be seen in my Two Layers in Attack post. This sort of body language will test the abilities of defenders – especially amateur ones! – to recognise threats, adjust to them, and make the right decision under greater pressure than one-out-pass-and-crash, round-the-corner rugby does.

I’ve been pushing this for my teams for the last couple of years and have especially loved seeing forwards get excited about being instrumental decision makers and distributors. The last team I coached had legitimate distributors at hooker, tight head, and number eight! But while recently watching our highlights from last season, we did look a bit random from phase to phase. Attacks were usually successful because we had such a strong team that won every game by a comfortable margin. It was a bit scary to think that we could have been even better with more structure and focus to our attack.

So what has been my amazing discovery? I used to scoff when I heard professional players from teams I’ve deemed ‘boring’ say things like: “We just need to play in the right parts of the field” and “We’re trying to get the rucks in the right place.” While I still believe those teams are too robotic and could afford to be more ambitious, I’ve taken something from those phrases. We DO want to play in the ‘right parts of the field’ – that is, where the defence isn’t heavily concentrated. And by considering the location of the ruck, and what it affords in terms of available space to the left and right of it, we can make a concerted effort to take advantage of it on the next phase. The revelation: There are only two areas from which we launch our attacks – rucks in the middle of the pitch and rucks near the touchline. I’ve given them two slightly fancier names:

The Big Open – With a ruck in between the touchline and the 15m dashes there is a lot of width to use, with 1 or 2 defenders likely going to cover the short side and three defending the ruck on the open side. Attackers can overload the open side and spread across the field, which opens gaps between defenders. Extras can tuck in behind the front line of attackers, offering an outlet for a back door pass, a target for a late pop pass or offload, or a misdirecting decoy line. You can think of this as one big dynamic unit or two – and even three – separate mini units.

The Split Midfield – With a ruck anywhere in between the two 15m dash lines, there’s a very strong chance that it has drawn a lot of defenders around it (1 or 2 in the tackle, 4-6 more defending the fringes!). Alternatively, it might allow for overlaps or mismatches depending on how defenders have aligned themselves off that ruck. On one hand, too few have ‘folded’ around to the side the attack was headed; on the other, too many have folded over, leaving the other side lightly defended. Anticipating and recognising this can allow a team to have a simple numbers advantage or pick off individuals who are slower or smaller or otherwise disadvantaged.

Before getting too deep into how we’ll create a strategic plan from this, it’s important to remember what we’re trying to do tactically. Our aim in attack is always to:

1. “Go Through Them” – find and exploit gaps or mismatches in size / speed and go straight through the defensive line. Create gaps to exploit with clever angles, timely passing and change of pace.

2. “Go Around Them” – take advantage of the overlap with quick passing and get around their defensive wall. Straight running fixes defenders, preserving space out wide. Swerve runs cause outer defenders to turn in, creating space for team mates outside.

3. “Go Over Them” – use a kick to get the ball back if the full back is missing, winger flat, etc. (and this can include a kick to touch if our lineout has dominance over theirs)

4. “Get Behind Them” – when all doors are closed and the wall is well organised – and we don’t want to kick possession away – an attacker should either get behind the defender making the tackle or shove their defensive line back. In both cases, the defence has to retreat and reorganise and we should be on the ‘front foot’ as a result, with players ready to look for better opportunities on the next phase.

Our structure – that is treating every ruck as creating either a Big Open, with lots of space, or a Split Midfield, with defenders condensed and possibly overloaded on one side – basically gives players an idea of what’s likely to be in front of them and where they should play next. The tactical aims listed above give them a focus on what to do when they get there. They will choose one based on who’s there in support and what the defence is offering. To me, this a perfect mesh of everyone following a plan that gets them into purposeful positions, and being free to use their vision and skills when getting aligned together.

This structure worked for us because of the strengths (and limitations – we weren’t going to bosh over players and didn’t have much of a kicking game) of our players and some truths about the way our opponents defended. We had speedy outside backs, good passing halfbacks and midfielders, some mobile forwards who pass and a few big forwards who pull in defenders. Teams we face had the following tendencies – which I think is true of most amateur teams:

  • Tend to stack two and three defenders tightly on both sides of the ruck, so we tend not to attack that space (unless it’s not actually well defended!)
  • Tend to look inward at the ruck more than in front of them, making outside player susceptible to late changes in alignment, swerves, overs lines, and not calling out overlaps.
  • Tend to have many players who aren’t that fit and/or fast, who consequently get out of position when having to run chase the play across the pitch.

Early on, I realised that if we happened to run a subsequent phase close to the previous one, play really slowed down. We didn’t gain any ground and too many bodies were involved in that area, so urged that we move the ball away well away from every ruck. Once this was in place and because our halfbacks could make long passes, our subsequent attacks tended to happen at least 10m away from the previous ruck. Our wide game obviously led to a lot of tries, but only a year later did I see a pattern in the build-up. Looking at our highlight reel, the trend seemed to be that the next phase from one of the two aforementioned scenarios led to the other scenario on the subsequent phase. So if we started with a Big Open, the next phase would almost always be a Split Midfield because we either tried a move with the midfielders or tried to punch through wider gaps with forwards. Going from touchline to touchline (i.e. Big Open to Big Open) tended to waste time in setting up, giving advantage to the defence, unless the defence was very narrow toward the other touchline and we could get a few long passes away quickly. (What can work better, especially if your passing isn’t great, is a cross-kick in the opposite direction after reaching one touchline… so long as your kicker is good and the opposite winger is paying attention!)

Wide Attack

If we established a Split Midfield, we’d attack wide one side and the next phase would look like a Big Open. Which side we’d chose typically became a ‘Where are we?’ vs ‘Where are they not?’ assessment. Not enough defenders folding = same direction, especially if the ball is played quick. Too many defenders folded around the ruck = rewind in the other direction.

Midfield Attack

So what are the essential elements and training requirements to achieve this?

  • Understanding of the plan. We can’t have individuals not getting into an effective position or going solo against our aims. We move away from the last ruck – unless it’s poorly defended and we can gain territory / maintain momentum and continuity – and attack wider spaces.
  • Anticipation. Players have to predict what the defending team will do. Are they a slow team that won’t fold around? Are they worried about the wide side, taking too many from the direction play started? Do they condense around rucks too much or evenly spread the field? Who’s likely to be out of position and be ripe for exploitation?
  • Recognition. Amateur teams tend to be more random in how they defend, so it’s vital that people spot opportunities and feed this information to decision makers. An immediately exploitable – CLEAR – opportunity is better than slavishly sticking to a plan for the sake of it.
  • Work Rate. In order to create dynamic attacking situations with sufficient numbers, we need complete and determined effort at the tackle contest (one or two, max?) to secure the ball. We benefitted from powerful cleanouts and incredibly quick/fit scrum halves who could get to the breakdown quickly – this should be the aim for any team. The other, often ignored, element of work rate is getting re-aligned quicker than the other team. Players shouldn’t be jogging from a previous phase while the ball is in play – they are effectively NOT attacking threats at that point. They should be sprinting into position, using the ruck completion time to catch their breath, not to metion scanning the opposition for attacking options and communicating with team mates regarding relevant info (“Poor tackler in front of me”, “On your left”, etc.). Combined with the other two elements, players can save energy by not running to every ruck when the realise their presence isn’t needed.
  • Ball Movement. As has been mentioned already, we want to get the ball into areas where it’s easier to play. An attacking player with a lot of space in front and options left and right is a very dangerous person (which is why some of the best teams have their most dynamic attacker at outside centre). With the way rucks are typically defended, there is only ‘into contact’ or ‘outside’ options given how condensed the defence is there. Wider spaces allow for effective switches and inside passes.

When you put it all together the most important element in this structured / dynamic attack is trust. Trust that everyone’s on the same page. Trust that people can spot and take advantage of opportunities. Trust that team mates will give their all to secure the ball or get into position. Trust that individuals will move the ball into the most advantageous positions. And, as not all attacks will lead to tries, to trust that we’ll be able to repeat the whole process again with positivity, determination and a unified focus.

It’s also vital that teams train for this as much as possible. When I took my Level 2 certification in Australia, one of the lasting messages of the course was to train proportionately for things as they occur in the game. As such, I tend to spend upwards of half to 80% of a training session on open play. We will work on dynamic unit play in activities that look and feel like the real game – some contact, some non-contact – asking players to get into position and recognise / communicate even before the ball is played. I also can’t stress enough the need for defenders to be present and active – recognition and timing are vital, and this cannot be done unopposed. I don’t like touch for this, given that most players are going to blow through a tackle attempt that involves just a grasp of the shirt. Instead, we use ‘wrap up’ to avoid full contact, or flag belts to get defenders closer and focusing on hips (single flag requires immediate offload or two steps and set a ruck, double flag pull equals tackle), or bags if we want to work on powering through smaller gaps, attacking the ‘branches’ of the tree rather than the ‘trunk’. A lot of work in this smaller area is then applied to the entire width of the field focusing on creating these scenarios from Split Midfields and Big Opens. Where clubs have to share minimal space, I’ve found that this work can be done in 1/3 of a pitch given that we’re aiming to score in between 2 and 4 phases.

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.

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