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[Note: I had two posts on this topic a while ago and after re-visiting, didn’t think they were clear enough or at best had way too much information. They have been removed and this is the – hopefully! – simplified version.]

A Simple Structure for Dynamic Play

Structure gives players a focus and a plan of action they can rely upon when defences do not offer easy opportunities to exploit. Heads-up, free play allows athletes a chance to show their skill, both as individuals and combined in pairs, threes, or in larger collaborative units. Both attacking strategies have their limitations, however. Rigidly-structured play can make players to worry too much about their positioning within ‘the plan’, causing them to miss easy opportunities that emerge. Heads-up play can be random and hand initiative to the opposition, especially when individuals go alone or players find themselves not knowing where to be. The obvious solution should be to combine the two strategies.

This simple ‘structure’ is more of a guideline that gives players a clear idea of where to go and what they can do when they get there, but still allows them the freedom to exploit opportunities as they emerge and play to their strengths. Note: everything that follows assumes that every breakdown is well-defended and that there are no immediate opportunities to exploit (overlap, gap, mismatch, etc.). This pattern of play, however, seeks to create such opportunities every single phase, so scanning for them should be the first thing done when a breakdown occurs.

This structure is based on an understanding that each set piece or breakdown has two attacking channels, each with its own possibilities and limitations. A set piece or breakdown outside of the 15m lines has a wide Open Side and a Short Side. Between the two 15m lines, there will be two Split Midfield channels that are obviously not as wide as the Open Side, nor as narrow as the Short Side.

Channels

As a tackle contest emerges and a breakdown is about to form, players not needed there adopt an attacking shape and scan for opportunities in BOTH available channels. The playmakers should be able to attack either side of the breakdown, so it’s important that players work quickly to get re-aligned. The tactic those players choose to go through or around the defence will be based on several important factors:

  • the space available
  • the personnel present and the shape they have adopted
  • the amount of defenders present and their shape

With all of those things considered, the tactic should really choose itself! (If you need to turn a screw at one end of a board and saw a bit off the other end, you wouldn’t choose a wrench and a hammer to do the work.) It’s vital that players train for this under game conditions, understanding how they can best use and create space with any given group of teammates. This will allow them to develop a ‘tactical tool box’ of solutions to familiar problems they will encounter in the game.

We have, then, a structure that allows players to know that they are going to align themselves ‘here’ or ‘there’ at each breakdown. Two other factors help players know where we’re likely to go next. When we’ve assessed that the breakdown is well defended, we want to move away from it quickly and play in space. Thinking about the four different channels that exist, it should also become clear that attacks from a midfield set piece or breakdown typically result in an Open Side / Short Side scenario. Open Side attacks result in a Split Midfield or another Open Side / Short Side, and attacks down the Short Side always result in a large Open Side.

Playmakers or players providing them with tactical feedback can simply call Wide, Middle, Tight, or Short to launch a focused attack from the Open Side. When teams play into the middle of the pitch, they will either go Same Way or Rewind and play in the direction the ball originated. Below is the way this structure can play out, starting from a lineout:

Channel Options 2

Again, this structure is based on moving the ball to space and avoiding congested breakdowns that typically result in little gain / disruption of the defensive line. With that in mind, it also becomes clear that there is no sense running more than two phases in the same direction (unless there is a clear opportunity, of course). There won’t be a reasonable amount of space to achieve those two principle aims. Knowing that we’re only going ‘that way’ once or twice also allows players to conserve energy and set up the next phase quicker. For example, from the scenario above, players who were in the lineout and closest to the touchline might possibly be called upon for a Rewind after the first phase. If not, they would likely be involved in a Middle Left or Wide Left move after the second phase. They wouldn’t go Short Side or Tight as the time needed to get there would allow defenders time to organise themselves. This is very common in rugby – players moving across the pitch to a breakdown and taking time to get set, only to face defenders who are ready and waiting to pounce. Even worse, players who are unsure of what’s going to happen on the next phase move all the way over and end up leaning on rucks or aren’t used at all and have to go back to where they might have stayed. This structure is efficient in its simplicity.

In this video below, you can see how each play essentially provides the team in black with a 1-2 attacking punch. A purposeful and well-supported attacking move manipulates the defence in a certain way. The next phase, also purposeful and well-supported, then exploits that manipulation (more space for talented individual(s), defenders stretched or condensed, individuals out of position, defenders over-committing to one side of the ruck, etc.). Effective attack in just a few phases, and the ability to re-set with another 1-2 punch if that didn’t work, is the beauty of this style of play.

 

 

This strategy typically plays out as follows:

  1. From a set piece (or at a point in open play where we need to re-focus), we choose a move that plays to our strengths.
  2. At the next ruck, and every ruck henceforth, we do a quick scan to see if there is a clear and immediate opportunity to exploit (overlap, mismatch, poor defender, poor alignment, etc.).
  3. If not, we then play to one of two channels that gives us the best possible chance of breaching the defensive line from a position of strength. BOTH sides of the ruck need to be ready to play:
  • Open Side
  • Short Side

or

  • Split Left
  • Split Right
  1. Whichever channel we choose, the players must then consider the best tactic for the space, their numbers and shape, and the skills those players possess.
  • Go Around – a wide move exploit defenders with evasive running, isolate outside defender, draw defenders in and outflank with passing
  • Go Through – a middle or tight move to exploit defenders with evasive running, exploit space with angled runs, power through defenders
  • Get Behind – is a kick worth it at this stage? If the chances of scoring or retaining possession aren’t high, then rely on one of the first two options and allow players in the next phase to have a go.
  1. Players not involved in that phase need to follow the previous play in case they are needed to support a linebreak. If a new breakdown is formed, they then need to quickly re-align themselves in one of the two new attacking channels, repeating the cycle over again.
  2. As a general rule, when defenders are getting re-organised reasonably quickly, a team should not go more than two phases (three if there’s an opportunity down the short side) in the same direction. The aim is to attack space quickly from a position of strength and before the defence has time to set up. At some point, you will run out of space worth using and waste time getting organised for it, handing the advantage to the opposition.

 

Here are some further examples with some notes on how the first phase created an advantageous opportunity on the second:

 

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As amateur coaches, we typically only get to see our athletes (if they all show up!) twice a week. In Canada, our seasons – especially for school / university coaches – are short. Even if you are blessed with a lot more time than this, we have to do our best to ensure our training sessions are well-planned so the athletes get the most out of them.

My ‘Guiding Principles’ are four things that must be part of every training session and, when I think of the big picture, encapsulate the entire training / playing / social environment of my teams. I do my best – and demand the athletes do their part as well – to ensure we are always having Fun, that the activities are appropriately Challenging, that we are engaging in an Educational pursuit toward building skills and knowledge, and that we are doing so in a Supportive environment that is both positive and constructive.

When looking closely at the specific elements that must be present to ensure the above, I choose / design activities that are:

Focused: There’s no point in keeping athletes in the dark, making them guess the point of an exercise or going into an activity with a vague understanding of what the coach expects. At times, I’ll have an over-all theme for a training session that the athletes can keep in the back of their minds the whole time, but regardless, each exercise I’ve chosen for the session has a clearly-stated set of expectations. At the outset, I’m also happy to field questions and have athletes propose solutions if I’ve presented them with a tactical problem to solve. Too often, coaches can get bogged down in their athletes doing the drill ‘right’ and forget what the aim should be (If your drill is that complicated, the athletes probably aren’t going to be learning any skills they can carry forward anyway!). These expectations challenge athletes to set their own goals and allow them to figure things out for themselves (self-discovery being the most powerful and long-lasting way to learn). This also helps the coach stay on task regarding feedback, which I like to deliver on the fly, reinforcing what contributed to a success and largely ignoring mistakes. I find athletes tend to be their own worst enemies when mistakes are made, so give them breathing room to try again. They can ‘own’ the mistake and re-frame their approach on the next go-around based on the aims of the exercise (also ignoring things that don’t matter). If mistakes have become consistent, then I’ll try and get the athlete to work through what’s going wrong via questions rather than providing answers. This allows them to get a picture of what happened and work out how to improve by visualizing and feeling the correct action before trying again.

Active: When I took a coaching course in Australia, one of the conductors hit me over the head with a hammer, so to speak, when he talked about how sessions typically play out. Up to this point, I definitely had been guilty of wanting to be the ‘sage on the stage’ rather than the ‘guide on the side’ – simply, I talked way too much, wanting to correct / assess every little thing. I, like many coaches, also felt I had to watch and assess every single ‘go’ of a drill, so would have just one set out. This typically results in just a few people doing the thing and the majority of players standing in line waiting their turn. This is not an efficient way to run a training session. If timed out, your athletes could be spending half the session standing still and just half moving! With clear expectations and a familiar set of activities (there’s no need to keep bringing in new drills, in my mind), you can lay out multiple sets of small sided activities and trust the athletes can manage by themselves. You can position yourself in between to keep an eye on two or more and give some specific attention while others carry on.

Another important reminder I’ve learned on my coaching journey is that kids have been playing games with logical and fair rules, focusing on developing their skill long before I met them. There’s no harm in giving them free reign once the exercise and objectives have been stated. High tempo, non-static activities with minimal standing around also means we’re tapping into some ‘fun fitness’. I may be biased, having been a chubby prop in my playing days, but I hated when we’d have big fitness elements during our twice-a-week training sessions. I knew I needed to improve upon my fitness for the benefit of the team, but if given a high tempo and challenging game to play, I’d actually give you more effort than if you made me do wind sprints and calisthenics.

Significant: Related to the above, the activities chosen have to be done for a significant amount of time to allow the athletes a chance to have a go at the thing and/or play a different role in the activity several times before moving on to the next. I remember watching a guest session by a former national team player once that had too many activities crammed into it, most involving one grid for a group of 25-odd players. I picked out one friend in the crowd and followed her progress. In about 10 minutes, she’d been on the attacking side (the focus of the drill) 7 times and touched the ball 4 times. She’d had just four chances to practice a skill that was not addressed at any other time in the session. This is not very efficient if the aim is learning new skills. Soccer coaches talk about the number of ‘touches of the ball’ being the most important and I’ve heard this more and more in ice hockey circles, hence their move to smaller sided mini games. Rugby needs to catch onto this as well. Give your athletes the opportunity to have a go at activity as much as possible. I’ve run entire sessions where we just did three related activities, each with a progressively larger scope, over an hour and a half. As former England coach Dave Alred said in a lecture, a typical rugby action only involves about 4-6 people. This range is perfectly-balanced for tactical aspects of the game. Combinations of them can allow you to build continuity over multiple phases – I stress that moving from phase to phase, getting aligned quickly and with purpose is where success starts – or allow you to work on strategic aspects of the game.

Relevant: Another great lesson I learned in Australia, while taking a Level 2 coaching course through the Brumbies at the Institute of Sport, was to plan sessions on current needs and proportionally so.

Addressing a team’s needs seems like a no-brainer, but I have seen teams spend a lot of time on unopposed set-piece moves that never get used in a game because their passing under pressure skills were poor. Fancy angles and clever support lines are useless if the initial passers cannot get their timing correct. Conversely, some players only get to work on angles and support between phases in games because coaches focus too much on narrowly-focused ‘basic skills’. Coaches therefore need to be aware of what their athletes really need. We’ve probably all had groups that also had different needs. Most memorably for me was a team that had national team players, provincial representatives, experienced club players of various abilities and relative newbies in the same squad. Everyone appreciated splitting an activity up into groups with differentiated objectives, one or more with higher ordered demands and another one or two that focused on more basic elements. We’d combine for continuity-building exercises and to gain a clearer sense of abilities / limitations.

I also contend that we should spend more time on the things that happen most often in a game, and for rugby that’s the various aspects of open play. I will certainly not ignore that scrums and lineouts have critical safety elements to them, but especially for teams under-20 I will not spend 45 minutes of every training session working on them when we see just a handful in a game and they are not that crucial to our success. This may be different for, say, an adult team or where your open game is fine and the set piece is leading to a lot of turnovers. You can add to the realism by starting dynamic open play activities with a set piece (or a modified one, like a left 4 vs right 4 of the scrum if you don’t have the numbers). Simply put, it’s important to consider what your team really needs to work on at this point in time to ensure their matches are both fun and reasonably successful. When I think about the big picture, running with and supporting the ball, passing under pressure against several defenders with several teammates in support, and tackling / contesting from phase to phase takes up the majority of my sessions.

Realistic: Without delving too much into the science of skill acquisition – as I understand it that is, not being a scientist but having read a LOT about it the last few years – you should strive to select activities and parameters that reflect the game as much as possible. Here in Canada, especially, we have rugby players who haven’t been playing the game for long and who’ve had shorter seasons than, say, Brits or Kiwis. When you consider, then, the amount of times they’ve touched the ball and tested their abilities against determined opposition, we are FAR behind. Coaches can accelerate the learning process afforded by the game and ensure athletes are more familiar with game conditions through the selection and design of realistic activities. When top athletes say the game seems to slow down for them, it typically means they are so familiar with what they’re seeing that they’re better able to understand what’s going on and therefore pick the best action in the moment (this is called perception-action coupling if you want to do more research on it). When we use drills that focus on just a few players in a small box or with no opposition, we are working on a very limited set of conditions. Rugby players are probably faced with more congestion in their visual field than any other invasion game, and having the ability to carry, pass, and kick ahead with 14 team mates in support creates countless variables. I am willing to bet that there are so many one-out crash balls in rugby these days because athletes have been inundated with pre-planned, programmed game plans – likely with passive opposition, if any at all – and a belief that ‘the basics’ must be mastered statically before being put into a game situation. There’s a lot of science that contradicts this (I need to do a post in future highlighting the great professors and experts who are sharing this knowledge on the web!). These athletes have not had the opportunity, or have not been challenged, to assess the typical patterns faced in rugby and work out the timing and coordination necessary to overcome them. We must build this reality into our activities, or accept that you’re basically asking athletes to test themselves on game day! Instead, we should be creating a training environment with such a realistic look, feel, tempo and pressure that game day is comfortable and familiar. This might not be appropriate if your team is merely in it to have fun, but English players under Eddie Jones have stated that game day is actually easier than training sessions!

If we take a typical attack versus defence drill, we can have a look at how realistic it is. Many of them ask players to go around cones, ball in hand, from a line and take on their opponents (usually an imbalanced number) with a large gap between them. Yet another powerful lesson I learned overseas was to consider how realistic this is… players don’t come around the corner like that in a game (and when they do, the latter players are well behind the play and/or have to work much harder to get wide, and their options are limited as a result). Good teams get into a dynamic position quickly and then call for the ball. It’s also not ideal to give the opposition so much time to read and adjust to the play. Being too flat limits ones options, so giving players that flexibility is important because they’ll have it in the game and need to know what the results will be. How flat one starts depends on individual skill and abilities, how the situation has unfolded (are we on the front foot or back foot?), and the space provided (narrow channel vs significant width). So why not build that into an activity? Attack in rugby can essentially come down to creating 2 v 1 situations, yes, but ‘creation’ is the key element there. It’s very rare that we find imbalanced numbers, and when we do it should be an easy thing to exploit given that every player has started out with the 2 v 1 and knows to draw and pass with good timing. Playing with even numbers and certain conditions imposed upon individuals (called the Constraints Based Approach to skill development) presents a more realistic scenario. It not only provides the look and feel of the game, but also allows athletes a better opportunity to learn how to: a) exploit opportunities that occur in the randomness of a game, or b) create them where they do not readily appear.

Here’s an example of one activity I like to use that has a realistic look and feel, providing various scenarios based on the theme of creating line breaks. I like to use shields in this activity to limit full contact and encourage players to fight through the gaps between rather than right at defenders (i.e. the branches of the trees, rather than the more-solid trunks). Free defenders, not holding bags, who can stop the attackers with just a tag encourages attackers to use quick passing before contact once they’ve made a linebreak.

Line Break Scenario - Large Scale

I don’t know if I’m mis-remembering the ‘good old days’ or if I’m just watching games now with a keener analytical eye, but I’ve been frustrated watching a lot of games on TV lately. Teams go through a large number of predictable phases without displaying much creativity. Credit goes to journalist Murray Kinsella for his excellent articles (Australia’s 1-3-3-1 shape, Crusaders’ 2-4-2 shape) explaining zonal attack systems that explained in detail what I thought I was seeing from a lot of teams. In most professional and national teams, the majority of passes from the scrum half seems to go a forward pod in specific areas doing a limited range of things (sometimes just crashing it up, occasionally ‘tipping on’ a pass to one support runner outside, or pulling a deeper pass to a back who spins it wide).

Whether you call it ‘around the corner rugby’ or refer to them as ‘one-out runners’, it’s a low-risk strategy favoured by a lot of teams and I’m seeing it more at the amateur level. Its aim is to bosh through or into the defence in hopes of getting behind or finding a mis-match on the next phase. It’s purely attritional and at the amateur level it can be successful because defences are nowhere near as drilled as they are at the pro level. If a team has a few big carriers, it can be difficult for weekend warriors to handle such bulls on the charge. Fitness also plays a factor. One-out runners in the 1-3-3-1 shape, especially, aim to occupy defenders in the middle, exposing an opportunity on the wing. Defending requires a high work rate, as you have to be committed to making tackles, contesting or not contesting depending on the situation, and re-aligning elsewhere before the ball comes out.

In the clip below, we see Wales survive a whopping 32 phases from the Irish, who use mostly one-out runners to attack the line. Wales are penalised at the end, but in the follow-up clip, they stop the catch-and-drive from the lineout and, 13 phases later, Ireland are the ones being penalised for going off their feet in the ruck.

Having refereed a high school game recently where defenders were regularly bunched up around the tackle contest and where defenders in wide channels were often caught turned / looking inwards, there are a lot of things to take away in that clip that can help teams with disjointed, passive, and leaky defences.

  1. The Wall. At no point in those four minutes do we see an open channel. There are red jerseys fairly evenly spread across the pitch. A lot of coaches I know will yell ‘flat line’ to their players, but I like the visual of building an unbroken wall across the entire pitch to hold out the attacking hoard.
  2. Re-Alignment. To extend the metaphor, after an attack, we usually have to ‘re-build the wall’ (i.e. re-align). We want to do this as quickly as possible so the attacking team, again, are faced with an unbroken wall across the field offering no clear opportunities. Wales are great at this, getting back on their feet in no time and getting back into the defensive line regardless of their playing position. All defenders, barring maybe the scrum half, wings and full back, share the same responsibilities in the wall.
  3. Patience / Trust. The entire time, we see patient Welsh defenders who do not rush up recklessly. Coming forward to take away space is important, but not if one or two people are ahead of the rest, leaving big gaps for attackers to exploit. Others do not have to come in to finish a tackle, they do not attempt steals where there is no clear opportunity to do so, and players don’t flood in to ruck when the ball is clearly on the Irish side. They trust their team mates to stop the attackers and patiently wait for an opportunity on the next phase, or next phase, or … if the attacking team doesn’t make a mistake, they often get frustrated by this and kick away after running out of ideas, especially if they are driven backwards.
  4. Targeted Tackles. Quite often, the first man in goes for the carrier’s legs. This is not only to get the carrier down, but also to take away any chance of getting on the front foot (i.e. driving the defence back, making re-alignment more difficult) through leg drive. Rarely do we see more than two players contesting a tackle, leaving 13 other men on their feet for the next phase. Recognising that moment when there are a lot of attackers on the ground or out of position can allow a defending unit to swarm a ball carrier in the next phase who lacks support.
  5. Controlled Aggression. Whether coming forward or holding the line, each Welsh defender attempts to dominate the contact situation. Getting the ball carrier down quickly (or catching them in a choke tackle) allows for a better attempt to steal or to get over the ball and counter-ruck. Also important is that at least one player contests the ruck to the edge of legality, knowing the laws and/or listening to the referee. This slows down play enough for team mates to get back into position. The more time you have between getting set and the ball coming out, the more time you have to assess / plan / communicate a tactic that could win a turnover on the next phase.

Finer Points

I ask my team to defend in pairs, at the very least. In a great instructional video (Seriously, watch all of this! It’s full of wonderful stuff about shape, responsibility and re-alignment!) from former Saracens and current England defence coach, Paul Gustard, he declares that everyone is responsible for the ball in defence. This does not mean that everyone clumps around the tackle, exposing the wider channels, but that those in front of the threat are responsible for stopping it and the rest are responsible for re-establishing the integrity of the defensive wall as soon as possible.

In this clip, we see Saracens’ trust, commitment, and controlled aggression in action. The first man goes low to take away the carrier’s ability to drive and chop him down in a hurry. The second man, having played no part in the tackle, is free to go straight for the ball. The Northampton support player unfortunately grabs him around the head, and if the ref didn’t penalise them for not releasing the ball, there certainly would be one for a neck roll. Also take note of how there are two players – one on each side of the ruck – to defend against a pick almost immediately. Both are in a dynamic position ready for whatever comes next.

In this next clip we how Saracens have opted for an out-to-in style of defence that forces the ball carrier back towards the ruck where there are bigger men (who, incidentally, are world-renowned for stealing the ball in contact). We see the third man in the first two phases push in slightly to force the ball carrier back toward the ruck. If there was a support runner close at hand, this would likely also cause him to think twice. I’ve heard this called a ‘Jam‘ and I have also seen players intercept the ball off passers who weren’t paying attention to this defender getting between them and the intended receiver. The other thing to note is how fluid defenders are; the fly half comes in to help with the third phase but immediately retreats to a wider position, allowing forwards to take up post defence positions and contest the ball.

To maintain the integrity of the defensive wall, as I said before, defenders must have trust, patience, and move quickly into new positions. Below, Gustard talks about who goes where when re-building the wall. Current practice among most teams I run into is that the post and guard defenders get in place immediately, stay put, and everyone builds off them. He explains why the opposite allows them to keep their wider channels well defended.

As he says, it takes longer for players to go around rather than ‘fold in’ beside the ruck. In this clip, we see a prop and the fly half back out of the post/guard position and call for forwards to fold into the space so they can re-establish width. After three phases, there are no open spaces in the wide channel. Northampton’s one-out phases have had no effect at wearing down or exposing Saracens’ flank.

This is a great way to ensure that forwards and backs are defending in the areas that suit them best. I would say, then, that the only time I’d ask a back to stay in the post position is if there’s an immediate threat of a pick and go or a scrum half snipe. You don’t tend to see this much at the professional level because players contest for the ball in the tackle / ruck so long that there’s time enough to reposition players. That sort of slowing down of the play doesn’t always exist at the amateur level, but in seeing how Saracens and Wales are able to maintain a wall across the entire pitch, these tactics might be things worth developing in your team, especially if you regularly find that you are outflanked by one-out runners and wide attacking plays.

Photo: Eoin Gardiner from Clarinbridge, Ireland, Connacht v Munster 27-12-2010, CC BY 2.0

Last autumn, the Canadian universities’ women’s national championship was hosted in my city and after a few games, I started to notice that a lot of tries were scored from pick and goes. With all games filmed and archived, I went over the ones I’d missed and continued to keep an eye on this trend throughout the remainder of the tournament. After the final – which saw each team score three tries from pick and goes – I tallied up my findings. Of the 72 tries I counted (I missed, at most four, with one game’s footage cut short), a staggering 31 tries were scored from pick and goes! Another 22 were scored as a result of one-out runner off the scrum half or fly half. I found myself frustrated watching it because I’ve coached women for many years and enjoy watching their wide ranging abilities in open play. Most teams in this tournament had the personnel to play wider and more dynamically, but as defences had trouble with the pick and go, I can’t fault them for opting for it under the intense pressure of a national championship. Below, I’ll have a look at ways to tighten up ruck defence and several specific ways of dealing with the pick and go and pick and drive.

The ‘pick and go’ (picking up the ball from the base of a ruck and plunging into the defensive line around the fringes) and the ‘pick and drive’ (similar, but with a second player latching / hammering on and driving the ball carrier through the defensive line) can be difficult to stop. Ball carrier is often so low, he/she is difficult to hold or drive back. The ball is usually tucked into the gut and difficult to dislodge. The laws also tend to favour attacking teams as referees strictly police defenders slowing down play (roll away, release the tackled player, on feet to challenge) and seeing that all body parts of defenders are behind the last foot (including hands if in a three-point stance). In this clip we see the All Blacks power through Australia with relative ease as the Aussies never have time to set up and are standing too high to offer a significant challenge…

It’s certainly not an impossible tactic to stop, however. It is best recognise a team’s potential and desire to use this tactic and stop them as far away from the goal line as possible. It is also important to recognise that this tactic is sometimes used to ‘suck in’ defenders and open space out wide, so it isn’t wise to throw all your players into shoulder-to-shoulder ruck defence. A coordinated and determined effort is needed, and the following should be considered essential regardless of what tactic players choose to combat the pick and go / drive:

Alignment – getting set quick ensures readiness and time to analyse what’s about to happen. Being tight to the ruck and with two players almost shoulder-to-shoulder, there will be no holes to sneak into.

Low Body Position – defenders must get under attackers to prevent them sneaking centimetres and to gain leverage to drive them back.

Proactive / Anticipatory Action – knowing when the ball is out and being first off the line gives defenders the initiative.

Aggressive Challenges – regardless of who is first to align and get off the line, ultimately, the most physically dominant individual(s) will win the contest.

Regaining Possession – getting the ball back as soon as possible should be the principal aim of defence. This can include intercepts/steals or less direct ways of forcing a turnover, such as forcing a knock-on.

Two great clips worth watching to see these things consistently in action are goal line stands made by the All Blacks v France and Saracens v Leicester.

The scrum half’s role is essential here (not to mention the importance of wings and full back communicating needs out wide if the strategy is to draw defenders in) to ensure everyone is in position and focused. Good scrum halves act like NFL middle linebackers, reading what the attacking team is likely to do and feeding this information to teammates in the thick of the action. That information could be:

a) helping organise the side that is most under threat and moving people into position for the next phase

b) assessing the likely tactic and helping those in the front line with the best countermeasure to it

c) leading the call to strike when legal to do so

After building your defensive wall and being ready – both physically and mentally – for the next phase, we can then look at ways to stop the opposition.

Before the ball emerges, you can legally pressure the passer / picker by going through the ruck. Though we occasionally see it on TV, you shouldn’t be allowed to step over bodies on the ground. However, a well-timed drive through an attacking player in the ‘ruck’ can knock him/her backwards into the person about to play the ball. If momentum swings at this point, another defender or two can join in to counter-ruck and secure possession of the ball, as we see here:

The first opportunity you will see during a pick and go is a ball carrier standing tall. If this player’s legs are wrapped, there is no leg drive and the carrier can be driven back or taken down. In this clip, we see the results of stopping leg drive in the first instance and allowing it in the second:

Sometimes the ideal conditions don’t exist, and in the end the most physically dominant will win the contest. We must also remember that the ball needs to touch the ground, so getting body or hands under it can be the last resort. The attacking team will get a scrum, but here we can look to steal or otherwise shut down their attack under less pressure and slightly further away from the goal line.  In this clip, one player aggressively twists a larger one to prevent him from dotting down and two more fly in to get their hands under the ball.

When the situation isn’t so desperate and defenders have lined up quickly, there is time to assess the situation and coordinate a specific tactic. In this clip, the post defender attacks the carrier’s legs and as he’s forced sideways, the second defender drives him back.

In this clip, we see the importance of getting off the line in a hurry. It gives the defenders initiative as the post and guard take down the ball carrier, and allows the third defender to get over the ball and contest possession.

Here we see a pick and drive that’s aiming to punch a hole through the defence. The post defender goes very low and takes out the legs of the ball carrier. Two teammates join in to contest. The defending team is excellent at fanning out and re-positioning themselves immediately to nullify a quick pick option. Note, too, how there are more white jerseys on their feet and in position while their opponents are still on the ground / slowly getting themselves organised.

I’m sure there are other specific ways to target attackers during a pick and go, but as I said before, it all starts with quick alignment and a determined mindset to physically dominate the tackle contest. In my next post, I’ll look at dealing with one-out runners in the same high pressure red zone situation.

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.

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.