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Watching some matches over the holidays, I was disappointed with the amount of times players took the ball standing still and passed onto someone else (often in a worse position) without engaging the defence.

When we consider the principles of the game: Go Forward, with Support, to maintain Continuity and Pressure, it baffles me that seasoned professionals ignore this. Even with highly organized and intense defences, there are plenty of examples out there of teams playing flatter, moving before the pass, and having multiple options off the initial receiver, yet many teams are forgetting this.

Here are two videos I made highlighting how static and one-dimensional attack turns over initiative to the defence…

… and one that shows plenty of examples of forwards and backs, and everyone, taking the ball to the line …

This is the second post related to my quest to simplify what I do at training. If you didn’t see the first post, which has activities for attack, follow THIS LINK.

A re-cap of the areas for improvement and design principles …

Areas for Improvement:

  1. Athlete-Centred
  • Their needs … requires assessment; ask them, but provide options (don’t know?)
  • Their wants … open or from a list of choices
  1. Representative
  • Percentage of action can be a guide.
  • What do they really need now / for the future?
  • MUST look and feel like the real game: starts, boundaries, numbers, variation, equipment, rules. Pressure, timing, realistic information vital to skill development.
  1. Repetition (without ‘repetition’)
  • Balance between ‘getting reps in’ and providing randomized problem solving
  • Activities: static, transition, multi, broken
  1. Constraints-led
  • Providing opportunities to explore, discover, adapt/adopt
  • Constraints are NOT limitations but invitations
  1. Challenge Point
  • Finding optimal ‘learning zone’ (40-60% success?)
  • May need differentiated activities to meet needs of all
  1. Self-Determination, Discovery
  • Discovery is most impactful and robust form of learning
  • Focus on outcomes. Guide more than instruct. There are ‘wrong’ ways, but there are many ‘right’ ways. Clear objectives will keep them focused. Give time and trust them.
  • Question more than tell; questions should not be a guessing game or a regurgitation of cliches; consider Bloom’s taxonomy and don’t be afraid to leave for later
  • Mark Bennett’s “Rule of 3” (individual, peers, coach)
  • James Gee / Amy Price … missions; challenge, clue, cheat, change
  • Early or mid-activity debriefs (teachable moments) more impactful than after-action

1 v 1

Procedure:

  • Attacker and defender stand face-to-face, retreat to own line and come forward
  • Attacker is passed ball, tries to evade
  • Defender comes forward, tracks, wraps safe and strong; aims to drive back or out
  • If defender cannot, can still ‘win’ by wrapping from behind and pulling back

Adaptations:

  • Closer = more contact
  • Wider = evasion
  • Full Contact = incl. supporters to jackal and ruck

1v1

1 (+?) v 4 Unit Defence

Procedure:

  • 4 defenders and same/fewer attackers start on opposite lines
  • Coach/extra player passes ball to one attacker, and defence comes forward; supporting attackers do a down-up before moving to support
  • Defenders aim to take away space, make a tackle, and win the ball back

Adaptations:

  • Narrower channel for forwards
  • Wider channel for backs
  • If focus is more on defensive pressure and coordination, can remove full contact and go wrap = down
  • Can join two together, playing the ball from one group to the next group

1v4

Multi-Directional Unit Defence

Procedure:

  • Three defenders start in the middle of a large playing area (cone in the middle is their rallying point)
  • Attacking teams on the sides take turns trying to score a try on the other side
  • They must announce themselves before moving forward and must wait until the defending team has returned to the rallying cone in the middle
  • Defenders can stay in for a set number of attacks or aim to hold off a target number

Multi D

Defensive Pressure Game

Procedure:

  • Evenly-matched attackers and defenders face off in a large playing area
  • Attackers start with a tap at centre and have 10 phases to score; the value of the try decreases by one point every phase, starting with 10 points from the onset
  • Defenders touch/wrap to not just stop them, but win points for themselves:
    • ball carrier caught behind gainline (1pt)
    • pressure or create turnover (knock-on, thrown forward, into touch, intercepted – 5pts)
    • try scored (intercept, turnover recovered and scored without being caught – 10 pts)
  • When caught, ball carrier goes to ground and offside line becomes length of their body; defenders can move forward on play of the ball

Def Press

Whole Team Game:

See: Limited Phase Ruck Game in the attacking activities section … can provide various objectives and/or points as per the Defensive Pressure Game above.

I set myself a challenge this year of keeping the number of activities I use down to a minimum so we’re not wasting time teaching athletes a new one every few sessions. I think these cover all the bases for novice and experienced players and are adaptable enough to include more or less contact, space, players, etc.

For Defence activities, click THIS LINK.

First, some design principles …

Areas for Improvement:

  1. Athlete-Centred
  • Their needs … requires assessment; ask them, but provide options (don’t know?)
  • Their wants … open or from a list of choices
  1. Representative
  • Percentage of action can be a guide.
  • What do they really need now / for the future?
  • MUST look and feel like the real game: starts, boundaries, numbers, variation, equipment, rules. Pressure, timing, realistic information vital to skill development.
  1. Repetition (without ‘repetition’)
  • Balance between ‘getting reps in’ and providing randomized problem solving
  • Activities: static, transition, multi, broken
  1. Constraints-led
  • Providing opportunities to explore, discover, adapt/adopt
  • Constraints are NOT limitations but invitations
  1. Challenge Point
  • Finding optimal ‘learning zone’ (40-60% success?)
  • May need differentiated activities to meet needs of all
  1. Self-Determination, Discovery
  • Discovery is most impactful and robust form of learning
  • Focus on outcomes. Guide more than instruct. There are ‘wrong’ ways, but there are many ‘right’ ways. Clear objectives will keep them focused. Give time and trust them.
  • Question more than tell; questions should not be a guessing game or a regurgitation of cliches; consider Bloom’s taxonomy and don’t be afraid to leave for later
  • Mark Bennett’s “Rule of 3” (individual, peers, coach)
  • James Gee / Amy Price … missions; challenge, clue, cheat, change
  • Early or mid-activity debriefs (teachable moments) more impactful than after-action

 

Tool Box Drill

Procedure:

  • Ruck area with ball straddles 5m line
  • Defenders start at back cones
  • Attackers aim to get over gain line using full ‘tool box’ of options
  • Numbers should be even or +1 attack
  • Teams alternate left/right, each side having different widths

Adaptations:

  • Touch = high pressure, skill, timing
  • Wrap = allow for tight spaces, contact options
  • Defenders can be delayed with a down-up upon arrival if attackers need help

Tool Box

4 v 2 / 2 Open Field Attack

Procedure:

  • 4 attackers start in the middle of a deep and wide playing area
  • 2 defenders wait at each end, moving forward when attackers start in their direction
  • Attackers aim to score as many tries as possible in a set period of time (competing against other groups)

Adaptations:

  • If numbers aren’t balanced, extra attacker first, extra defender next

4v2

One-Two Punch Scenario

Procedure:

  • A group of attackers start with backs to the playing area
  • Defenders align themselves differently each time in the middle of the playing area
  • On scrum half’s call, attackers turn and decide on first phase to either break through on set up next phase
  • Only get two phases, so need to be purposeful
  • Defenders can be a mix of bags (stop attackers by holding forward progression) and those without (stop attackers with touch or wrap)… can be wrap/touch and coloured shirts if not with bags

1 2 Punch

Limited Phase Ruck Game

Procedure:

  • Two evenly-matched teams square off and play touch/wrap for a limited number of phases (3-6 causes teams to be purposeful in their approach, and is common average for amateur teams)
  • Can start from lineout, scrum, or tap penalty; should be refereed to ensure laws followed
  • When contact is made, ball carrier must go to ground. Defender(s) making touch/wrap must also go to ground, but can jackal if no support has arrived once back on feet.
  • Can require one or two attackers to secure ‘ruck’ or allow to make that choice; defenders not involved in the tackle can come through gate to contest possession.

Adaptations:

  • Can alter points system for desired outcomes, alternating teams for a set number of goes (example: tries from kicks worth more)
  • To incorporate offloads into touch game, give carrier one-step/one-second to do so before requiring to go down
  • Can play to ‘super powers’ of various types of player:
        • Power players require a double touch / tap
        • Elusive players get three extra steps if tagged/wrapped from behind
        • Distributors win ‘free phase’ (not counted against limit) if they / player passed to get over the gain line
        • Support players win ‘free phase’ if call for an offload

 

Rapid Fire Touch

Procedure:

  • Two teams (3 or 4) start in the middle of a playing area. Attacking side taps and runs.
  • If defender(s) touch/wrap ball carrier, or attackers knock-on, throw forward or go into touch, defenders take possession and run to nearest goal line (all must cross!). They start attacking immediately.
  • As initial attacking team leaves, the next group waiting at the side enters and act as defenders.

Adaptations:

  • Can make ‘double touch’, meaning that ball carrier tagged by one defender can keep going (but not score) until touched by a second defender

Rapid Fire

Kick and Counter

Procedure:

  • One team starts play by kicking off to the other with a drop kick
  • Teams in possession have 3 seconds to run and pass, but must kick the ball within that time (called out by the referee) or concede a turnover
  • If a player is touched/wrapped by an on-side defender in this time, they also concede a turnover
  • Tries are worth 5 points, penalty / drop kicks at goal (if playing full field) worth 3 points (could even allow penalty goals if playing half-field!)
  • Referee necessary to call time and make sure players are on-side, otherwise abiding by the laws

Kick

 

 

Assessing Phase Play

While watching the recent English women’s premier league match between top two teams Saracens and Harlequins, I got the feeling that there was as much one-out (i.e. scrum half passing to a player who takes the ball into contact) play as there is in the men’s.

Here’s the match:

Below is my analysis. Hopefully it’s easy to understand… each section is a series of phases with the starting time, and 1., 2., 3., etc. indicating the phase. 1P = first pass, 2P = second pass, and so on. O = offload from contact instead of pass. F and B are forwards and backs respectively, and + / – is whether the player ended up in a ruck or passed ahead of or behind the gain line (no symbol, the player pretty much reached the gain line). One could have also added metres gained / lost for each, but I was only really interested in seeing how many one-out phases there were to multi-pass phases.

Summary First Half:

Pick and Go: 12

Maul: 3

One Out to Forwards: 33

One Out to Backs: 11

Two Passes: 15

Three or More: 14

Summary Second Half:

Pick and Go: 27

Maul: 4

One Out to Forwards: 28

One out to Backs: 6

Two Passes: 15

Three or More: 13

Most pick and goes within 5m of goal. Most 3+ passes to get the ball to the wing, often with first two receivers still behind the gainline. One-out to forwards most often minimal gain in territory, possible with a zero net gain over the course of a match given how many are 1m (or more) losses. One pass to backs usually a kick. Two pass plays are invariably back to forward (straight pass, little line engagement), or forward to forward. Nearly half (11) of three-pass phases were to forwards and out the back to backs.

FIRST HALF

0:42 Quins Scrum 38m from goal

  1. 1P to B+
  2. 1P to F+
  3. 1P to F
  4. 1P to F-
  5. 1P to F
  6. 1P to B-, 2P to F
  7. 1P to B+
  8. 1P to F+, 2O to B+
  9. 1P to F-
  10. 1P to B-, 2P to F-
  11. 1P to F, Defence commits penalty at ruck 24m from goal

3:10 Q Lineout 18m from goal

  1. Maul, peel off to 3m from goal
  2. 1P to F
  3. Pick by F, scores

5:38 Q Receive kickoff

  1. Carries to 65m from goal
  2. 1P to F-
  3. 1P to F-
  4. 1P to F, Defence commits penalty at ruck 65m from goal

6:40 Q Lineout 51m from goal

  1. 1P to B
  2. 1P to B+, 2P to F+, Defence commits penalty 25m from goal

7:50 Q Lineout 18m from goal

  1. Maul, penalty advantage, 1P to B-, grubbers for B to score

9:50 Q Receive kickoff

  1. Carries to 75m from goal
  2. 1P to F
  3. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 3P to B, 4P to B+
  4. 1P to B (penalty advantage, high tackle)
  5. 1P to F+

11:15 Q Lineout 19m from goal

  1. Pass off the top to B, 2P to B-, 3P to B, 4P to B+
  2. 1P to F-
  3. 1P to F
  4. 1P to B-, 2P to F+
  5. 1P to B-, 2P to B+
  6. 1P to F
  7. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 2P to B-
  8. 1P to B, 2O to F
  9. 1P to F, turned over at ruck…

12:34 Saracens steal at ruck 75m from goal

  1. F carries 5m
  2. 1P to B-, 2P to F, knocks on

13:15 Q Scrum 25m from goal

  1. 1P to B-, 2P to B+, turned over at ruck

13:41 S steal at ruck 78m from goal

  1. 1P to F
  2. 1P to B-, 2P to B-, 3P to B+
  3. 1P to F
  4. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 2P to B-, 3P to B+, 4P to B+, knocks on

14:18 Q retrieve loose ball

  1. B carries to 52m from goal
  2. 1P to B-, kicks ahead

14:30 S retrieve ball 60m from goal

  1. B kicks

14:40 Q retrieve ball 55m from goal

  1. B falls on loose ball
  2. 1P to F
  3. 1P to B
  4. 1P to F+
  5. 1P to F, 2P to F+
  6. 1P to B, 2P to B+, 3O to B, 4P to B+, defence knocks into touch

16:00 Q Lineout 28m from goal

  1. F carries to 22m
  2. 1P to F+, defence commits penalty (Saracens yellow card)

16:30 Q Scrum 15m from goal

  1. 1P to B, 2P to B+, 3P to B+, 4P to B+
  2. 1P to F
  3. Pick by F, scores

19:20 Q receive kickoff and kick back to touch

19:45 S Lineout 50m from goal

  1. 1P to B-, 2P to F-, 3P to F-, knock on by defence

20:30 S Scrum 53m from goal, concede penalty

20:45 Q Penalty 45m from goal, tap and run

  1. 1P to B+
  2. 1P to F
  3. 1P to F, 2P to B-, 3P to B, 4P to B+, scores

23:50 S Scrum 30m from goal

  1. 1P to B-, 2P to B, 3P to B-, 4O to B, kick into touch on full

24:45 Q Lineout 60 from goal, overthrown

24:50 S receive overthrown lineout 40m from goal

  1. F carries, 1P to F+, 2O to F+, 3O to F+
  2. 1P to F-, knocks on

25:08 Q retrieve knock-on 88m from goal

  1. 1P to B-, kick to touch

25:55 S Lineout 25m from goal (Saracens yellow card returns)

  1. Throw not straight, turned over

26:40 Q Scrum 76m from goal, defence commits penalty, +10 for backchat

27:39 Q Lineout 40m from goal, throw not straight

28:00 S Scrum 60m from goal

  1. F carries+
  2. 1P to B-, kicks

28:35 Q receive kick 76m from goal

  1. B carries to 59m from goal
  2. 1P to F+
  3. Pick by F+
  4. 1P to F+
  5. Pick by B, 1P to F+, defence commits penalty at ruck

29:20 Q Lineout 22m from goal

  1. Maul+
  2. Knocked on at ruck

30:40 S Scrum 80m from goal

  1. F carries
  2. 1P to B-, 2P to B+
  3. 1P to F
  4. 1P to B-, kick charged down into touch

31:45 S Lineout 95m from goal, overthrown

31:48 Q receive overthrown ball

  1. F tackled
  2. Pick by F+
  3. Pick by F+, held up in goal

32:45 Q Scrum 5m from goal

  1. F carries
  2. 1P to F+
  3. 1P to F
  4. Pick by F
  5. Pick by F
  6. Pick by F+
  7. Pick by F
  8. 1P to B-, 2P to B+, thrown forward

34:38 S Scrum 95m from goal

  1. F carries+
  2. 1P to F+ (penalty advantage at ruck)
  3. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 3P to B, 4P to B+
  4. 1P to F-, 2P to F
  5. 1P to F-, 2P to F, knocks on (back to penalty)

37:00 S Lineout 25m from goal

  1. Pass off top, 1P to B-, 2P to B-, 3P to B+ (ball buried in ruck)

37:25 S Scrum 22m from goal

  1. 1P to B-, 2P to B-, 3P to B+
  2. 1P to F
  3. 1P to F (penalty advantage at ruck)

38:?? S Penalty 20m from goal

  1. B taps and runs
  2. Pick by F+
  3. Pick by F+
  4. Pick by F
  5. 1P to F+, scores

SECOND HALF

40:25 Q Scrum 50m from goal

  1. 1P to B-, kicks

41:10 S receives kick 80m from goal

  1. B carries to 76m from goal
  2. 1P to F, 2O to F
  3. 1P to B-, kicks for touch

41:50 Q Lineout 23m from goal

  1. Knocked down, B carries to 26m from goal
  2. Pick by F, defence commits penalty at ruck

42:50 Q Lineout 10m from goal

  1. Maul, collapses 8m from goal
  2. Pick by F+, attack commits penalty at ruck

44:25 S Lineout 27m from goal

  1. Ball brought to ground
  2. 1P to B-, 2P to F, 3O to F+
  3. 1P to B-, 2P to B-, 3P to B
  4. 1P to F+, defence commits penalty at ruck

45:50 S Lineout 7m from goal

  1. F knocks on, Q kicks upfield

46:30 Q Scrum 95m from goal

  1. F carries to 80m from goal
  2. Pick by F+
  3. 1P to F
  4. 1P to F
  5. 1P to F-, attack commits penalty at ruck

48:20 S Lineout 5m from goal

  1. Maul, 1P to B-, 2P to B-, 3P to B-
  2. 1P to F
  3. 1P to F+
  4. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 3P to B
  5. 1P to F
  6. 1P to F
  7. 1P to F, defence commits penalty at ruck

49:40 S penalty 7m from goal

  1. F taps and carries to 2m from goal
  2. Pick by F, scores

51:30 S receives kickoff 80m from goal

  1. B carries to 75m from goal
  2. 1P to F
  3. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 3P to B-, 4P to B+
  4. 1P to F-, 2P to F
  5. 1P to B-, 2P to F-, lost in breakdown

52:18 Q retrieve loose ball 34m from goal

  1. F secures possession, no gain
  2. 1P to F-, 2P to F
  3. 1P to B-, 2P to F+
  4. 1P to F+
  5. 1P to F-
  6. 1P to F
  7. 1P to B, 2O to F+
  8. 1P to B-, 2P to F-
  9. 1P to F
  10. Pick by B+, 2O to F+
  11. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 3P to B-, 4P to B+, 5P to B+
  12. 1P to B-, 2P to F
  13. 1P to F
  14. Pick by B+, defence commits penalty at ruck

56:15 Q receive kickoff 65m from goal

  1. Receiver holding on penalty, backchat moves ball back 10m

57:00 S Lineout 6m from goal

  1. Maul, no gain
  2. 1P to B-, 2P to F-, 3P to B
  3. Pick by F+
  4. Pick by F
  5. Pick by F+, scores

59:45 S receive kickoff 70m from goal

  1. B carries to 65m from goal
  2. 1P to F-
  3. 1P to F
  4. 1P to F+
  5. 1P to B-, 2P to B, 3P to B+
  6. 1P to F-, 2P to F-
  7. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 3P to F-, 4P to F, 5P to B+
  8. 1P to F
  9. 1P to F-, knocks on

61:50 Q Scrum 60m from goal

  1. Pick by F, 1P to B+, lost forward

62:05 S recover loose ball 55m from goal

  1. F carries 15m forward, tackled into touch

62:20 S Scrum 52m from goal

  1. F pick
  2. 1P to F+, defence counter rucks

62:50 Q counter rucks

  1. Pick by F
  2. 1P to B-, kicks

63:08 S receives kick 75m from goal

  1. B carries to 58m from goal, defence commits penalty at ruck

64:00 S Lineout 39m from goal

  1. Pass off the top, 1P to B-, 2P to F-
  2. 1P to B-, 2P to B-, knocks on

65:05 Q Scrum 51m from goal

  1. 1P to B-, 2P to B+, turned over at ruck

65:21 S steal ball at ruck 51m from goal

  1. Pick by F-
  2. 1P to F-
  3. Pick by F
  4. 1P to B-, kicks

66:05 Q recover kick 78m from goal

  1. B carries to 70m from goal
  2. 1P to F
  3. 1P to F-
  4. 1P to F, 2O to F+, lost forward in contact

67:15 S Scrum 35m from goal

  1. Pick by F, 1P to B-, 2P to B-, 3P to B-, 4P to B-, 5P to B+
  2. 1P to B+
  3. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 3P to F-, 4P to F, 5P to B+, defence commits penalty at ruck (yellow card)

68:25 S Scrum 5m from goal

  1. F pick to 1m from goal, penalty advantage
  2. F pick, scores

70:40 S receive kickoff 75m from goal

  1. 1P to F+
  2. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 3P to B+
  3. 1P to F
  4. 1P to F+, 2P to B+, 3O to F+, 4O to F+, scores

73:45 Q Lineout 20m from goal

  1. Maul, to 7m from goal, defence commits penalty

74:45 Q Lineout 7m from goal

  1. Maul, peel to 2m from goal
  2. Pick by F
  3. Pick by F-
  4. 1P to F-
  5. Pick by F
  6. Pick by F, penalty advantage for offside

79:00 Q Scrum 5m from goal (yellow card returns)

  1. Pick by F-
  2. Pick by F
  3. Pick by F+
  4. Pick by F, penalty advantage for offside
  5. Pick by F-
  6. 1P to B-, grubber, (try disallowed), defence yellow card

80:00 Q Scrum 5m from goal

  1. Pick by F+
  2. Pick By F
  3. Pick by F+, held-up in-goal … game over.

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.