Archive for January, 2010

The last post was getting a bit long, and I found these two great photos from my collection, but felt they deserved their own post as this’ll be more about technique and less about issues.

In this first picture, we have a ruck formed.  Assuming the player in white/blue with the head-gear was there first, he has full rights to continue to play the ball under the 2009 clarification.  If the two players in red/white bound on before he played the ball, he obviously should be penalised for handling the ball in the ruck.  I also want to add that the two players in red/white are in a great position to coordinate their drive power.  I never want players to pre-bind with each other as they used to teach in the old days, as it wastes time when they should just get stuck in.  But if the later to arrive can ‘latch’ onto the other, they can increase the power of the drive that’s focused on one point rather than two, if they’d rucked abreast of each other.  As for the defender, his body position is good, but he should really get his butt down to be more powerful, harder to move, and safer (i.e. not exposing his neck and back).   I tried hard to find a great picture of this, but watch any game with George Smith and David Pocock (Australia) or Richie McCaw (New Zealand) and you’ll see it at some point.

This shot was taken just a few seconds later and it appears the player who’d had his hands on the ball has been driven away (or lost his scrum cap) and this new player is indeed handling the ball in the ruck.  Looking at the clarification for 2010 for the Super 14, let’s assume the player in blue/white had arrived first and the three red/white players arrived afterward.  Since the 2009 clarification, I think there have been many such instances where this player would be allowed his right to keep contesting and eventually get the ball.  Many refs have been diligent to the specifics of the Laws  and noticed that despite technically being on his feet, he’s no longer able to support his body weight on them, and should therefore be told to leave the ball alone or be penalised for not complying.

I think this is the key area that many referees have missed, however.  Even the likes of those greats I mentioned in this post and the previous one are guilty of that.  If said player is even flat on his feet, but leaning on a pile of prone bodies, he should not be allowed to contest for the ball.  I hope Super 14 refs pick up on this, and other things ignored such as tacklers not rolling away, which should make the tackle contest cleaner and more fair, thus speeding up the game.  With this much attention to infringements at the tackle contest, and assistant referees now charged with watching for other things, the game should be allowed to be as open as traditionalists and those with a sense of rugby history want it to be.

Read Full Post »

It seems that the never-ending debate over how to referee the tackle contest is taking a new direction for the upcoming Super 14 competition.  SANZAR, the body which governs South Africa, New Zealand, and Australian ‘Super’ rugby, has advised referees to focus more on defending players at the tackle contest for this year’s competition.  Amid several Law changes and re-definitions over the last couple of years, I think they might have finally got it right.

Older players will remember the “good old days” when ‘rucking’ was not just two opposing bodies, bound over the ball in contest for it, but also allowed giving a good ‘shoeing’ to anyone lying on or about the ball who’d interfere with it.  This was rightly removed, in my view, as a little ‘rucking’ which at least left red marks that tight five forwards considered battle scars, often brewed into more dangerous stamping.  I remember being shocked while watching one of my first international matches on tv as an England forward literally braced himself on a pile of Irish bodies while he ‘ran on the spot’ on the back of the player who’d fallen onto the wrong side.  I was even more shocked that the player who’d just been ‘mountaineered’ on got the penalty for diving over the ruck!  While many old boys, especially former front row colleagues, would challenge my manhood for saying so, but I’m glad this element has gone from the game.

But the critics who think that the mess which has become labelled a ‘muck’ rather than a ruck in recent years will become better if ‘proper rucking’ (i.e. with feet on bodies) are misguided at best.  It’s my feeling that international refereeing has become lenient – as is allowed in the Laws, to ensure the game does not become a whistle-fest of penalties – to the point at which players have gone away from the Law Book interpretation of the ruck to make it the mess that it is.  If you watch an old game, you’ll see pretty much every player at the ruck on his feet.  As players realised that being lower made you harder to move, and that there was a split second in which you could get your hands on the ball before the ruck formed, things got messier.  People had to get even lower to dislodge them, and had to hit the ruck with greater force.  All of these things led to players inadvertently (I’ll be nice) going off their feet and creating a pile of bodies, rather than a fair contest for the unobstructed ball on the ground.

Now I don’t mind that the ruck has got lower and a bit messier.  In many ways I’m a rugby traditionalist, but I still think there’s an intense contest at these ‘mucks’ worth watching.  If you watch matches from the 80s and earlier, without having lived and loved playing in those days, you’ll probably think that the game looks a bit ‘messy.’  Changes of possession were more frequent and there is often less ‘flow’ to the game as teams didn’t string many phases together.  I will accept arguments that even today, tries are mostly scored in just a few phases and rarely scored after 5+ phases.  But in the dozen or so matches I’ve watched from the amateur area, teams frustratingly gave up possession in try-scoring areas more frequently than modern teams, who would have secured it and moved on.

In order to clean things up, and rather than going down the ELV trial route of allowing hands in rucks at any time, the IRB made a ‘clarification’ to existing Law last year.  The debate over the contest as it has evolved, with bodies lower and often unable to roll away, thought to make things easier to referee by providing advantage to the defender at the breakdown where getting hands on ball is concerned.  A ruck is formed when those two opposing bodies meet (really: bind, but that rarely happens) and it used to be that if the defender was there first and had touched the ball, he’d have to let go as the ruck was formed.  I think the “hands allowed” trial came as a result of the question over at which point is it a ruck or a penalty for not releasing, and the compromising clarification stated that the defender who’d legally got hands on ball was entitled to try and bring it back if the ruck THEN forms.  Sensible compromise, it would seem.

The other lingering problem has been the other players at the tackle contest, and how that player with hands on ball is actually poised.  Players who deliberately lie about the tackle contest make it harder for the attacking team to get that oh-so-valuable quick ball to continue play.  Having to tip toe around sprawled legs, arms, and torsos means a scrum half wastes a vital few seconds to get to the ball.  There’s also an issue referees have to monitor more clearly, and that is the poaching / jackaling defender actually being in a legal position.  While I stress to my young players that I really don’t want to see their head below their hips, refs never call this at the highest level, so I’ll leave that be.  The other main point is that many poachers / jackalers (McCaw, Smith, Pocock, Brussow) aren’t always “on their feet” as the Law requires, with toes touching ground but leaning on a pile of bodies.  This is not contesting the ball on one’s feet as they’d fall over without the aid of the prone bodies.

It seems SANZAR has realised these provide an unfair advantage to defending teams and have declared refs will be cracking down on such things this season.  I’ve heard the pre-season trials have gone well.  Unlike some of the ELVs which have led to boring, negative, overly cautious play, I think this determined focus to adhere to proper Law and not be so forgiving should clean things up at the tackle contest, make it more fair, and make the game more of an open spectacle to watch.  We’ll see over the coming weeks, I suppose!

Read Full Post »

Bill McLaren: Legendary Commentator, 1923-2010

If you were fortunate enough to listen to a BBC rugby broadcast any time from the late 1950s to the early 2000s, you’ve likely heard the voice of Bill McLaren.  His unmistakable Borders accent has been rightly honoured as ‘The Voice of Rugby’ and if you grew up listening to him – as I did during my rather ‘late’ introduction to rugby in my teenage years, during the late 1990s – you could consider yourself lucky to have heard a living legend.  The only misfortune I feel is that I never got to hear him over more live matches than I already have, and especially during those wonderful days when Wales were exciting enough to challenge Bill’s simile-laden and metaphorical descriptions.

No announcer I know took as much effort to know the game.  He was almost capped by Scotland after the war, missing out due to a bout with TB, but showed the kind of determination one needs to become an international player in providing insightful commentary.  The first time I really took notice of his persona was upon hearing that he took the effort to get to know players and coaches, talking to them before games so that he could provide us unenlightened viewers with as much ‘inside’ knowledge as possible.  That sort of dedication to the game not only enhanced his incredibly well-suited voice, but also made us feel like we, too, were part of the global rugby fraternity – and,  now that I think of it, we really were.  I haven’t had the pleasure myself, but older friends have said that rugby players of the amateur era were generally approachable and would even sit down for a beer or two, and Bill embodied this tight-knit rugby community over his many years of service.  Honoured several times already, many are calling for him to be knighted – an honour he should have received while living.

If you’ve not heard of him until now, don’t fret.  Here are two wonderful tributes to one of the sweetest voices to have ever called a game in any sport.   Bill, you’ll be missed severely by several generations of rugby fans!  Rest in peace.

Obituary of a Legend

The Voice of Rugby

Read Full Post »

A variety of folk ‘ball’ games have existed for centuries, despite the myth of William Webb Ellis picking up a ‘soccer’ ball and running with it.  The Football Association was born in 1863 with a group of London clubs which merged to adopt a universal set of rules.  Prior to that point, virtually every school had its own set of rules which were continued by local clubs of ‘old boys.’  These clubs favoured a game which did not employ the full-body tackle, but maintained a kicking tactic once called ‘hacking’ which gradually died out of both sports over the years.  Following the FA’s lead the Rugby Football Association organised English clubs which played something more akin to ‘The Rugby Game’ – a game with many differences than what we know as Rugby Union – but still one where the ball was carried, rather than kicked along.  From that period, the two codes continued to diverge and have become two completely different games.  (For more information on Union’s evolution, consult J.J. Stewart’s excellent and informative book: Rugby – Developments in the Field of Play – ask me to borrow it if we’re close!)

A recent article in the Guardian highlighted a few key elements in what football fans thought was changing their game – and not for the better in their opinion.

Article: Is Television Holding Back Football’s Evolution?

It allowed a rugby-loving colleague and I to realise that rugby is completely opposite to football even in this perceived change.  What follows are excerpts from the article, the opinion from the colleague, my thoughts, another excerpt from the article and my final thoughts.  This is probably one of the least absolute lessons I’ve posted on this blog, but wanted to throw it out there for discussion.

“It’s the same with football. The game has become more intense than it needs to be. In South America we have the concept of the ‘pause’ in football, the moment of reflection which foreshadows an attack. It’s built into the game, like music, which also needs pauses, drops in intensity. The problem is that this doesn’t work in the language of television. A moment of low intensity in a televised football game is seen by some as time to change channels. So the game is getting quicker and quicker because television demands it.”
Some of this can be seen in rugby, where we have teams that are quick-thinking taking the ball out of the ruck for example, but what good rugby teams are able to do is be quick but still have a good strategy on how to go forward and it’s too fast for the defense to react and the defense accordingly makes mistakes. One thing about “a pause” as a strategic device is that while it may help the offense figure out where to go, it also helps the defense get back in shape and fill any holes that may have shown up in the interim.

That’s a really good comparison I hadn’t considered. I’ve long been a proponent of quick rucks and want to tear my hair out watching ‘slow ball.’ There’s even been recent stats showing that tries tend to come rarely after three phases – reminding me of how endless pick-and-goes tend to lead to turnovers rather than scoring chances (ABs v France, Can v Fiji at the 2007 RWC).

The pause in football (soccer) allows time to think – but in rugby this is great for defenders, allowing them time to get organised.  This does not help attackers who have to contend with it defenders who’ve had time to reform their structure and scan for / communicate threats.  Eliminating that ‘pause’ as much as possible, therefore, provides the attacking team with the advantage.

It should be easier in rugby to play quickly and off the cuff, as the depth of support isn’t usually far behind.  Having sound technical ability and a keen sense of how space can be used, preserved and created will aid this seemingly risky strategy.

I like this bit as well:

The danger of the clip
Ask pretty much anybody to describe England’s third goal against Holland in Euro 96, and they will speak of Teddy Sheringham dummying to shoot, then opening his body and laying the ball off for Alan Shearer to smash a controlled slice past Edwin van der Sar and into the top corner. Which is fine, in as much as Sheringham’s lay-off demonstrated a fine awareness of his surroundings, great unselfishness and a deft touch, but the move began far earlier, and was glorious in its entirety.
Tony Adams won possession, anticipating and intercepting after Ronald de Boer had miscontrolled a Michael Reiziger clearance. He strode forward, before letting Paul Gascoigne take over 10 yards inside the Dutch half. He switched the ball left for Darren Anderton, and then received the return just in from the left touchline. As Clarence Seedorf closed him down, he rolled the ball back with the sole of his boot, creating room for a jabbed ball inside to Steve McManaman, who played an exquisite chipped return, arcing the ball over Reiziger and into Gascoigne’s path as he made a forward charge. Gascoigne showed great strength to hold off Aron Winter, barrelling into the box and drawing Danny Blind before stabbing the ball back with the outside of his right foot to Sheringham, who sensed Johan De Kock closing in and pushed the ball right to Shearer.
The point is that every bit of the move was brilliant, and McManaman’s chip to Gascoigne was a technically harder thing to do and displayed greater vision and imagination even than Sheringham’s lay-off. But it is forgotten because of television’s habit of focusing on the money shot. That is natural and understandable – the point of a highlight, after all, is to take only a few seconds – but the build-up, whether it includes a Valdanista pause or not, is vital, otherwise you end up in Charles Reep territory, focusing only on end results and not the processes by which they are achieved.

With the absence of any proper rugby channel here, I watch a lot of clips, and love to use them in my coaching practice as kids/youth are very visual.  But in these clips, found on YouTube and Rugby Dump, nicked from official highlights packages from the networks, I rarely find something of value that I can use to teach the game beyond one good step or pass where there’s more to rugby than that – MUCH more.  I am forever trying to focus on process over outcome – if we perfect the techniques and tactics then the outcomes will come.  Without realising the importance of the build-up, we bang our heads against the door only hoping someone will open it for us rather than considering all possible ‘entrances’ (to continue the metaphor) to the goal line that we might find for ourselves.

Those players I know who talk about watching Shane Williams or Jonah Lomu clips talk more about the finishing move than the build up.  This reminds me of the ‘tries of year’ nominated by the IRB.  They nominated a mixture of both individual and team tries, but I seemed to be rare among general rugby (i.e. non-coaching) friends in preferring the team tries over the individual ones.  The best ‘clips’ to be found on the net are ones taken from the extended highlights (which, in the case of the HEC Special is nothing like it used to be) or taken straight from full matches with several angles while the tee is being brought to the kicker and while the teams form up for the re-start.  I’ve started uploading some as I get them, but the bulk of those available on the net lack a sense of build-up which allows the novice player to gain a better sense of ‘what else’ is needed to set up a try.

I wonder if this is affecting youth rugby as well?  It saddens me to hear that many kids in countries where they can get rugby on tv, they don’t bother to watch it, let alone go down to the local club and and learn something by watching the older guys play, as it was in the pre-internet and tv days.  I keep trying to put this across to my kids, and provide them with all the web links I can to matches and useful clips.  How can you expect to achieve new things in the game if you have no sense of how they can be effective?

Maybe it’s no wonder rugby has gotten stodgy over the last decade in some respects?

Read Full Post »