Archive for November, 2009

If anyone watched the All Blacks or Wallabies play on the weekend, they probably noticed something markedly different than what took place in most internationals this year – very little kicking, and lots of ball-in-hand running!  It’s still possible, and very rewarding when you try it!

I hope everyone takes a lesson from this, realising that running rugby is indeed possible, and rewarding, under new Law realities.  Rather than play ‘kick and hope’ negative rugby, teams should realise that winning your own ball at a ruck is not an impossibility with the tackler-hands-in clarification so long as ball carriers hold their feet and support is present and tenacious.  What I also noticed was very little of the short pass to a static pod 5m from the last ruck – I hate this ‘tactic.’  I realise it’s meant to move things along and disrupt the defence from the last static ruck, but it rarely serves that purpose.  What the Kiwis and Aussies showed was something I thought we all considered when defences got more organised – you have to get away from the clutter and attack the space out wide.  I felt giddy watching forwards making deft passes and hitting spaces rather than faces out wide – especially from my new hero, Benn Robinson.  Then the rest of the front row set up Pocock’s try playing ‘scrum half’ and ‘fly half’!  I joked that if Giteau got hurt, Deans wouldn’t have to worry as their whole front row had all the skills to replace him.  And I think that’s an important aspect that Australians and New Zealanders haven’t forgot – that rugby is best played when every player has the full range of skills to be a productive member on the field in any situation.

Alas, I don’t think even some of the other top 10 nations, let alone us minnows, can (or at least have the will to) keep up, as their players just don’t have the skills.  This should have alarm bells ringing that we need to focus on creating skilled players, not physically imposing monsters.  Having watched England the last few weeks, the likes of 6’7″ wing Matt Banahan and human cannonball centre Dan Hipkiss have demonstrated that many international backs don’t even have the full range of passing and awareness skills!  That said, I fully believe England has the personnel available to them – the likes of Ben Foden, Mathew Tait, Dominic Waldouck – but Johnno and the lads simply won’t pick them for whatever reason.  As the criticisms have been fast and furioius the past few weeks – on many nations, not just England – I hope change is a comin’ soon.  I think many of the critics, including some of the old guard who are still playing, like Simon Shaw, are right in saying that the modern professional player tends to be a ‘gym monkey’ and not a fully skilled and dynamic ‘rugby player.’  I hope the lessons taught to them by the All Blacks and Wallabies will reverse the paradigm shift from the time when everyone wanted to find their ‘Lomu’ – harking back to an era when the smaller, skilled back was the ideal, but also combining that with a more modern one where even forwards are expected to do the right thing in an attacking situation.  It’ll be interesting to see what the Six Nations adopt in the new year as a result of the lessons the Aussies and Kiwis taught them … and even from the Boks, whose woeful performances were simply a result of their misguided ‘kick everything’ policy.  Hopefully they make the right adjustments for the sake of not only the fan who wants to see an exciting game, but also viewers who (often misguidedly) adopt international / professional styles of play at the amateur level.

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I don’t think we play enough ‘proper’ Touch Rugby here in Canada – already I’ve lost the attention of tight five forwards, but watching Australian front rowers yesterday with better hands and tactical awareness (how good are the ‘Bens’ – Robinson and Alexander?) than your average Canadian fly half only proved how useful it is for EVERYONE to have these skills.

What better way to acquire sublime passing, running (both with and without the ball), and tactical awareness skills than a good old game of Touch?  Now, note above I said ‘proper’ Touch.  What I mean is one of several versions of the game which requires defenders to retreat 5m after making a touch.  Readers in other countries might be thinking, “Yeah, that’s standard, what do you mean?”  Well here in Canada, it’s more common to see defenders standing an arm’s length from the point the touch was made.  As you’d imagine, this means the defenders are well ahead of the offside line once the ball is passed and your average game of Canadian Touch is a series of ‘crash balls’, getting it in the hands of the fast player, or waiting for someone to make a huge mistake on defence.  There’s very little creativity.

I first played the ‘proper’ version when I took up coaching and teaching in England, and it opened my eyes to a whole new rugby world.  I suddenly had more time and space with the ball, and within a few weeks became a relative attacking maestro compared to my old self!  I saw space, I used space, I created space, and I put others into space – all because I had 5m and a few more seconds to recognise it.  Even better, my team mates had time and had the presence of mind to provide me with options.  As the ‘slower’ but ‘smarter’ one on my team, I actually became the regular first receiver – in effect, a 240lb fly half!  What fun it was!

So if you’re not already doing so, I urge all of you to adopt this one simple element.  You might need someone to take a spell at reffing to make sure they’re always getting back 5m – or have someone rotate in every try – and the game will be a lot more interesting.  Below, I’ve listed some variations of Touch which I love, all encompassing the 5m retreat (unless otherwise stated):

Basic Touch

Between 5-8 per side (min-max), allowing for best use of a half field.  You want to maintain enough space between players to allow for attacks to occur.  Too many players on, and there’ll be no room to move.  If space is limited, try sides that rotate in after a try is scored.  I believe the following is a mix of Touch and OzTag, with some of my own wishes thrown in to make it transferrable to contact rugby:

  • 6 touches until the ball is turned over
  • Two-handed touch (emphasising good body positions to transfer into the contact game)
  • Touched player must do a ‘rollball’ (ball on the ground, rolled back with foot) at the point of the touch – what this does is equates the amount of time it takes for the defence to march back 5m, making it a fairer contest.  If a player over-runs that mark, they must get back, again, so as not to punish the defence.
  • If the Dummy Half (i.e. person who plays the ball after the touch) is touched, the ball is automatically turned over.  The DH can take the ball and run, but cannot score.
  • Retreating defender touch counts – prevents attacking players from just ‘picking and going’ down the middle over and over.
  • Rollball is over if ‘sky above’ it, allowing the defence to rush up.  Touched player can hold with foot, but not for too long.
  • **for fun … allow a kick on ‘touches’ 4, 5, and 6.**

Ruck Touch

When we have too many players and don’t want to have a bunch of players sitting off – OR want to work on support and working hard off the ball, Ruck Touch is a great option.  It’s very same to the game above, but instead of a rollball, the touched player hits the ground and practices a text-book placement of the ball.  The different elements, bringing in the ‘ruck’ are as follows:

  • Ball carrier goes to ground and lays the ball back / Defender who makes the touch does one push-up, and must move away from the contact area.
  • The next player to arrive from BOTH sides must also hit the ground in the contact area and do a push-up.  Once on their feet, they are allowed to play the ball …
  • … or the NEXT (i.e. second) player from either side may play the ball (so long as they go through ‘the gate’ – from behind/over the person who laid it back).
  • The players on the ground cannot interfere.  The ball carrier needs to focus on making a long, secure placement, while the touching defender needs to focus on rolling away quickly (I save the jackalling technique for contact drills).
  • For the next players to arrive, it’s in their best interest to get to the break down quickly, and get down-and-up so they can play the ball.  This favours teams who support each other and punishes teams which not only do not support each other, but also whose ball carriers run away from support, or run into double coverage.

Turnover Touch

With sufficient space available, and wanting to put more pressure on your players to perform certain tasks, make it so being touched creates a turnover situation.  This forces players to be more creative, look for space, and make timely, accurate passes.  It’s best used with experienced players, but can provide a steep learning curve for newer ones if you give them enough width to work in and stress patience until they get the hang of it (there’ll be a lot of subsequent turnovers for newbies).  For each of these, the touched team must drop the ball at the point of the touch and immediately retreat 5m.

One-Handed Turnover – The typical version of Touch the world over, I don’t like this so much for players who are focusing on contact rugby as I think the one handed aspect enforces poor defensive positioning.  Players get too high and don’t square up with the ball carrier.  However, with a disciplined group this version can drastically improve quick handling, deception, timing, and the creation/preservation of space given the urgency required.

Two-Handed Turnover – Re-inforcing proper defensive positioning for contact rugby, this version requires more discipline.

Four-Handed Turnover – This version requires two different defenders to make two-handed touches on a ball carrier, emphasising the double tackle and defending as a unit.  For the attacking team, this allows for offloading and working on support lines around the contact area.  With just one two-handed touch, the ball carrier is still free to run (but not score!) and find support runners.  It also encourages attacking players to isolate defenders (i.e. not running into double coverage) and beat them with one-on-one moves, allowing them to realise that getting around/behind defenders creates space for their support runners elsewhere.

… I also would much rather use this instead of standard fitness, and try to end training sessions with about 20 minutes of Touch, especially to apply anything learned earlier in a game situation, working on our Game Sense.

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No quirky titles here, as this is a topic I’m always very serious about.  I’m pretty ‘famous’ as a rare non-drinking rugby guy among my friends and colleagues.  Drinking seemingly always has had a significant role in rugby’s social culture, and I’m not going to preach about the ‘evils of drink’ like some 1920s Temperance lobbyist, but there are some facts which I think athletes need to know to allow themselves the best opportunity to heal themselves and actually gain the best from their workouts (and, yes, the match should be considered a ‘work out’ – you probably do more work in a game than in any gym session).

Now I’m no scientist, so you probably won’t believe me if I started spouting facts, so I’ll let some authoritative websites do my talking for me.  Enjoy!  😉

“Alcohol and Athletes”

“In order to build bigger and stronger muscles, your body needs sleep to repair itself after a workout. Because of alcohol’s effect on sleep, your body is deprived of a chemical called human growth hormone or HGH. HGH is part of the normal muscle building and repair process and the body’s way of telling itself your muscle needs to grow bigger and stronger. Alcohol however can decrease the secretion of HGH by as much as 70%.

When alcohol is in your body, it triggers the production of a substance in your liver that is directly toxic to testosterone. Testosterone is essential for the development and recovery of your muscles. As alcohol is absorbed through your stomach and small intestine and into your cells, it can disrupt the water balance in muscle cells, altering their ability to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is your muscles’ source of energy. ATP provides the fuel necessary for your muscles to contract.

Speeding the recovery of sore muscles and injuries is integral to optimal performance. On occasion when an athlete is injured and can’t perform they may see this as an opportunity to use alcohol. Alcohol is a toxin that travels through your bloodstream to every organ and tissue in your body, causing dehydration and slowing your body’s ability to heal itself.”

  • Consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in one night can affect brain and body activities for up to three days
  • Two consecutive nights of drinking five or more alcoholic beverages can affect brain and body activities for up to five days.
  • Attention span is shorter for periods up to forty-eight hours after drinking.
  • Even small amounts of alcohol BAC of .03 can persist for a substantial period of time after the acute effects of alcohol impairment disappear.

From:  Office of Drug and Alcohol Education – University of Notre Dame


“Alcohol and Australian Sport”

Short-term Effects

• Alcohol causes dehydration — Alcohol is widely reported as causing dehydration. This statement is true to a point, however it is largely dependent on the concentration of the alcoholic drink being consumed. Concentrated drinks such as spirits consumed in small glasses or shots, full-strength beers and wine will result in a net fluid loss. However low-alcohol choices such as mid-strength beers and spirits served in large glasses with a non-alcoholic mixer may actually assist athletes to rehydrate following exercise.
• Binge drinking exacerbates soft tissue injury — Soft tissue injury management requires reducing blood flow to the area in order to contain the injury. Consuming alcohol has the opposite effect.  It increases blood flow to the area, which is likely to extend recovery time following injury.
• Slower decision-making — It becomes fairly obvious that after a few drinks your ability to react and make correct decisions is impaired. This may increase your risk of serious injury from an accident or being involved in a brawl.

… having a night out with friends is a fact of life, but if nothing else you should be smart about having fun.  If you have picked up an injury, it should be avoided for the reasons cited above.  If you absolutely must, keep it to a minimum in the best interests of your own development and health to ensure you recover as best as possible.   Knowing this reality, the Aussies have some great tips on ‘surviving a night out with mates.’

From: Australian Institute of Sport


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If there were ever times in my life when I wished the world would open up and swallow us all, it was those days in PE when the teacher would inform us that we’d be running the beep test.  I’m sure you all know this as a multi-stage fitness test where you run back and forth between two lines 20m apart, having to reach the line before the next beep.  I hated that man’s voice.  It haunted me in my nightmares, and likely it did for others because our PE teachers used to make several copies as originals would always get stolen!  As a new coach, I always avoided this because I sympathetically didn’t want to subject the players to the torture.

In recent discussion with coaching colleagues about its usefulness and limitations, I’ve come to embrace it, but only with an arm around its shoulder, so to speak, and not a full bear hug.  A friend asked if he was wise to do one once a week to see progression, and this is how one coach responded:

“I’m not sure the bleep test is the best mechanism to test whether you are getting fitter if you intend to do it as often as once a week or fortnight. Maybe do it once every 3 or 4 months or even just once per year.”

I agree with that. It’s probably the easiest test you can do – there’s even downloadable mp3s on the net – but you’d want to measure results over a longer period of time.  I’m not an expert in the field, but would imagine that week-to-week you’d be more likely to see skewed results due to ‘good days / bad days’ or other extraneous conditions.  Over a few months, progression should be more obvious… which goes hand-in-hand with what I was saying to someone else about measuring daily weight loss.  Not seeing desired improvements in the short term could possibly lead to frustration, as significant changes aren’t likely to be seen for quite a while.

As a fat front rower, who actually is quite mobile in games and has a surprising turn of pace over 15m, but who dropped out in early stages (I won’t embarrass myself further by saying when), I never felt it gave my assessors an accurate impression of what I was able to do on the field.  Rugby performance, I feel, is impossible to test for outside of the playing field.  The best indicator is how someone performs the roles asked of them on game day – full stop.  However, how do we make selections or gauge this before such an important, and possibly costly, test?  For that reason, I’ve relaxed my hatred for the beep and as mentioned above, I only administer it periodically to ensure that levels are at least being maintained, though hopefully improved.  I feel this should be a relative test for the participant, and not one to be held to a standard – unless someone does really poorly or is regressing because they are not keeping up with required fitness training.

Lack of motivation to perform or succeed in the test is my major issue though, and one I take into account.  Similar to why I won’t go for a jog around the block, but I could play fast tempo Touch or basketball for two hours – I get bored without an enjoyable experience / desired outcome goal.  I imagine this is the reason that I heard (at a Brumbies coaching course) that world class openside flanker George Smith only gets to Stage 8.  Even if he actually is struggling at that point, and not just deciding to quit at the minimum requirement, we all know how he performs on the park and I’d imagine it’s lack of motivation at that point which would make him feel like dropping out.  For that reason, I don’t use it as an absolute test of performance with my players, only a periodic test for relative fitness over a long period.

For those who want their own, there’s a downloadable mp3 version of the test here:  http://coachingrugby.blogspot.com/2007/02/you-love-to-hate-it-beep-test.html

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