Archive for October, 2009

Once again this issue of the ‘big hit’ in rugby union has crept up in conversation, and I wanted to make another case for the benefits of the low and quick tackle over the show-boating dump variety.

One example which creeps up time and again was Gavin Henson’s big hits on Mathew Tait in (I think) the  2005 Six Nations.

Everyone raves that Henson embarrassed Tait, and it looks as such in that young Mathew is picked up and handled like the proverbial rag-doll.  But in the first instance he actually laid the ball back perfectly for his teammates.  Where possession is fundamental to winning rugby, I give Tait the most credit there.

In the second, Henson didn’t dislodge the ball or drive him into touch (the only time I can concede a dump tackle as being effective on its own).  The real reason Wales won possession is they got to the breakdown in numbers and drove the mess (Tait was back on his feet by this time) forward and therefore had rights to the put-in when the ball was deemed unplayable.  Arguably, the ‘steal’ would have been more easily achieved had Henson taken him down quickly with a low tackle, because Wales were there in numbers and quick to pounce and the English support rushing beyond the point of the tackle.

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… it doesn’t have to be.

So this debate is getting good and I’ve been caused to think harder about my stance based on the comment that tackling has become more aggressive than yesteryear.  I’m forced to agree and had this to add about why I don’t believe it needs to be so:

I don’t get why everyone is so hell-bent on making the head-on big hit these days.  I was taught in the 90s by a man who hadn’t played since the late 60s to put a shoulder in the mid section, get your head to the side and pin it to his waist/butt, wrap your arms around his thighs and give a little twist as you let him fall forward so you end up on top and can get up first.  The angle was almost always from the side, destabilising the ball carrier from a relatively easy position rather than trying to impede his forward progress from his opposite direction.

Teams and players seem to want to hit square on these days, hitting low but lifting the leg and driving sideways or backward, or hitting square and high to ‘smother’ any chance of an offload.  It’s all very high and takes more time – in relative terms – if done correctly, longer if not.  More often than not, that the ball carrier still has his/her legs free, the ‘tackle’ becomes an awkward ballroom dance which not resembling any textbook maul and then goes crashing down with a thud into what some referees and nostalgic fans call a ‘muck’ rather than a ruck.  Boring and messy at the best of times, and not ideal for youth given the potential for injury.  I get the impression that all of this has come from Rugby League when Union coaches went looking for ways to tighten up Union defensive practices – the hit, the flat line*, the blitz, the two-man tackle**, etc.  I don’t even buy the theory that tacklers are better able to dominate the contact area with these techniques. (Yet another element blindly borrowed from League without thinking that traditional Union technique has no problems?)  For me, defence is about getting the ball back, not playing more defence.  And I don’t think making a bone crushing hit to dislodge the ball is needed to do so!


Looks exciting, but how effective is it?

In the ‘old’ technique I outline above, the ball carrier falls forward and you’re left lying on his side of what’s soon to become the offside line if rucking support is imminent.  This is where George Smith earned his reputation for stealing the ball.  Second man in gets the ball and it’s much easier to do with the ball carrier lying on your side, rather than having to tip toe over a prone body (i.e. a teammate who’s dumped / smashed the ball carrier backward).  In addition, the ball carrier’s support will have to tip toe over your body to immediately ruck / seal the ball.  Furthermore, we’re all teaching players to aggressively get into a position to lay the ball back, and it’s very hard to do so when the person who tackled you is lying in they way.   So why not use traditional technique?


Low tackle, second man in position to steal.

… oh, and don’t get me started on the common tackle where the person grabs the ball carrier up around the shoulders and drags them backward.  Surely this is a high tackle, often uncalled, but also lends itself to having your opponent fall right on top of you.  Comfy.

*flat line – hate that term, and dislike the practice.  For me, it’s to literal.  Yes, dog-legs in a defensive line make great places to attack, but I’d rather see a staggered line which is able to counterattack and doesn’t offer opportunities to kick behind.  Amateurs especially take this too literally and create, for me, great opportunities to kick over the top.  I stress that the only time I really want to see defenders ‘flat’ is three people in front of the ball.

**two-man tackle – love it, BUT only when the first person goes in low and around the legs and the second goes in high to rip the ball.  Most of the time, I see the League style two-man upper body grope.  They’re not even allowed to strip the ball at this point, and it seems many Union players don’t bother either.  This is the perfect situation to do two things right and get the ball back – low tackle to take away leg drive / power, and a simultaneous attempt to steal the ball often makes them focus on it and not so much a continued leg drive.  Win – win – ball.

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Today I was directed to this article from the Telegraph where the author declares he won’t let his son play rugby because it’s become too dangerous.  I felt compelled to respond.

I don’t want my son to play rugby union – it’s too violent – Mark Reason

American football of the late 1800s and early 1900s was also quite violent, and it was Roosevelt (I believe) who called for padding.  I’m going to assume this was different than the Rugby game as I think blocking and hitting off the ball were legal as they still are in American football.  So I’m not sure that saying rugby was too violent for 19th C Americans when the game they have grown to love was still pretty violent into the 20th C. (and arguably still is … or at least was until the thin leather pads were replaced by plastic midway though.  But even those are problematic, as they hurt more to be hit by in the soft areas than I’m sure the old leather ones would have.)

As for the article.  Sounds a bit alarmist to me.  I’ve been going over old tapes the last week, converting them to dvd, and I noted that more players seemed to be wearing padding whereas you see less now (or at least thinner).  I’d also argue that reckless and dangerous tackles are down, but I’d caution making such statements (like the author has) without any real statistical support.

Stay tuned at this time next year when Mr Reason (ironic name, maybe?) complains about how a few boys on his son’s football team have strained ankle and knee ligaments and how one or two have broken metatarsals.  Then, the following summer, he’ll be talking about other boys with rotator cuff and a variety of impact related injuries as a result of cricket.

Injuries are part of every sport and even going for a bike ride or jog through the park.   I think rugby union does quite well – when the coaching is adequate – to protect its players with Laws and time honoured technique (such as requiring arm tackles, where gridiron and league don’t!).  Better off that if there’s a lesson to be learned – proper technique, not to be too risky, play within the rules/Laws etc. – then they’re better off learned at a young age when the impact is likely to be less and recovery time is quicker.

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I have never been the most confident ‘under the high ball,’ as they say.  In my playing days as a front rower, I was thankful that kicks were rarely put to where I was likely to be, and that drop kick re-starts which come right to you are fairly easy to handle (even easier when the lock standing beside you calls it!).  But during ‘The Kicking Game’ at training – a game I love, I must say – I was prone to dropping a few easy ones, and arguably with less pressure.  Now it’d be easy to say that it was a testament to how I dealt with the pressures of the game – being in ‘the zone’, etc. – more so than in the often casual realm of training, but I think there’s more to it than that.

Coaches tell you catching a ball ‘on the full’ (i.e. out of the air, without touching the ground) is ideal practice, but I think it’s important to stress why this is so before we move on.  As simple as these reasons are, they’re important to state so that we can focus on catching cleanly to prevent potential disaster.  The very shape of the ball means that its bounce is unpredictable at best.  The few seconds, at least, needed to regather it eliminates the potential for a timely counter attack.  Even worse, it could roll in such a way that the opposition regains possession or put you in a position where their chasers can isolate you.

How should one go about catching the ball with confidence then?  I’ll add a list of technical points at the bottom, but I think one key element is the cause of many people’s problems with catching.  My former high school football (gridiron) coach once told me: “You catch with your eyes first.”  My over-active teenage imagination thought about the scene from Necessary Roughness (1991) when the receiver gets the ball stuck in his facemask… but then it made sense – if you don’t watch the ball, how can you expect to catch it?  Sounds simple enough, but anyone who watched the  All Blacks drop a shocking amount of kicks versus the Springboks in the summer (winter for the antipodes) knows that even international quality backs forget to do this at times.

The next time you watch a game, note where a receiver’s eyes are directed when he / she drops a pass or a kick.  Very, very often it’s not a case of inability, but that the player’s head is up looking at / thinking of what’s next – or even with their eyes closed!  The best ever tip I read to help maintain focus and attention comes second-hand from Dan Cottrell’s excellent coaching site where he suggests a receiver should try and read the brand name on the ball.  (If you’re still not focusing hard enough because you know the brand name, maybe try reading where it was made or to what PSI to which it should be inflated!)

I think the two key stages in catching the ball occur at what I call the ‘tracking phase’ and the ‘transition phase’.  In the first part, you have to get a sense of where the ball is going to land.  Ideally, you’ll get right under this point, but as this is where I tend to screw up, I have started to ‘err’ on getting a bit ahead of where I ‘think’ it’ll land.  I’ve rationalised that I’d rather overestimate this spot and edge back a bit with the flight of the ball if I have to, rather than underestimate where it’ll land and have to scramble forward at the last split-second, risking a knock on.  If I’m going to drop it, I want to drop it backwards and still have a chance at using possession.  In this phase it’s not only important to keep your eyes on the ball to track its flight, but also to remain on the balls of your feet so you can make little adjustments if need be to ensure you’re right under where the ball will land.  In addition, turning your body sideways puts you in a stronger position should a defender be there as you catch and with your leading arm up slightly its also a position which will force any drops backward rather than forward.

The ‘transition phase’ is possibly where most people have problems when catching kicks.  The actual ‘transition’ is time in which it takes your eyes to move from a point where it’s looking high up in the air to where they’re looking at the ball in your hands.  I’d love for a mathematician to tell me how short this actually is, but let’s just say it’s a fraction of a second.  Attempting to maintain eye contact with the ball during this period is incredibly important.  Aussie Rules coaches eliminate this step altogether by instructing players to catch above their heads with arms extended, and this concept has crept into rugby.  I’m wary of teaching it to players, though, at the risk of exposing their torso to a painful tackle.  (Though lineout jumpers and supported kickoff receivers might benefit from this, and the ‘w-hands’ technique they preach.)  Quickly moving the head downward in this phase is not impossible, but takes discipline.

What can make watching a ball into your hands easier is having team mates communicate important information to you – information which you might be considering when also attempting to concentrate on the high ball.  Having a supporting player say how much time you have, tell you to jump to prevent being tackled (remember: cannot hit someone jumping to catch a kick!), giving you an idea of what move you could make next, or even just saying they’re there to support you, can allow you to relax on those other issues and focus solely on keeping your eyes on the ball.

Some other tips, borrowed from Dan Cottrell’s site:

Tips for core catching skills

It is important to get hold of the ball in a way so that it can be manipulated quickly for the next action by the player, be it contact, offloading, passing or receiving a pass to then kick for touch. These simple tips can help you identify problems and develop drills:

* Keep your eyes on the ball all the time.

* Extend your arms, hands and fingers to receive the ball.

* Use both hands to catch the ball whenever possible.

* Keep the ball off or away from the chest when receiving it. Only bring it to the chest if taking contact.

* Do not expect the ball to go straight to hand. Be flexible enough to adjust (which follows the principle of keeping your eyes on the ball).  Turning sideways (and jumping with front knee up?) can put you in a stronger position to recieve.

* Be prepared to receive a pass at any time. The ball has a nasty habit of leaping around, especially in close quarter situations.

* Take some of the force off the ball by ‘recoiling’ slightly – bend at the knees and/or waist.

Making catching skills even better

* Practise drills where players catch with one hand.

* Practise catching bad passes.

* Practise at pace, under pressure and in all conditions.

Finally, have a look at this video to see some examples of sound catching ability.

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