Archive for February, 2010

… try watching a game in fast forward to get a better sense of how your team uses the field.

I do video analysis to collect statistics and gauge how individuals are doing, but last year started picking out clips to analyse with the team rather than boring them with the whole game. In fast forwarding to get to get key moments, from which I hit record on my dvd player, I started to recognise patterns of play more clearly.

I guess having the distracting sound off was one factor, but it would also seem that it prevents me from focusing on all the technical stuff, allowing me to quickly see where all the bodies were moving.  I think this is important to analyse and go over with your team, as having a good ‘flow’ to the game makes supporting the ball easier.

Some things to consider when watching the flow of the game:

  • Does your team even have a pattern to the way they play?  I’m a big fan of going where the useable space is, so don’t like to ‘prescribe’ attacking patterns, per se, but a general guideline – such as keeping one direction until you reach the 5m line, then back to the other 5m line – can help provide structure to teams which aren’t that good at recognising opportunities.  (I would THEN begin to frame how such a strategy tends to move the defence about in predictable patterns, asking my team to look for potential mis-matches.)
  • Are attacking players running away from support?  If you’ve got a slow / unfit / lazy pack, then going wide first might be the wrong option.
  • Conversely, if your pack is very mobile, but you tend to hit it up around the fringes a lot, you might want to move the ball wide earlier.  If fitness is good across the team, then quick ball wide and back again often finds backs running against tight five defenders who can’t keep up.
  • Consider how going ‘with’ or ‘against’ the flow uses and preserves space.  The direction you choose to move the ball should be done with purpose – if not immediately, with subsequent phases in mind.
  • Might it be beneficial to look at the field as a series of channels?  I’ve called it a ‘Blitzkrieg Strategy’ (you fellow history nerds will get what I mean) where we’ll pour a strike unit into a relatively narrow channel.  An ‘attacking diamond’ (ball carrier + left and right supporter, and at least one falling in behind) funnelling down a narrow channel can easily overwhelm two, three, or even-matched defenders with clever angled running and quick passing.  This can be used by forwards or backs, in narrower or wider channels as you see fit.  The idea is to get in behind at least one defender, if not by, and with support runners coming it hard and fast to take offloads, you should be able to compromise (i.e. turn) the entire defensive line… just like Heinz Guderian or Norman Schwartzkopf.

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Planned Set Piece Moves

I’m not a fan of planned set piece moves any more, simply because so many things can go wrong.  However, this move from the All Blacks back in 2000 was a thing of beauty.  More on its limitations afterward …

Planned moves tend to work on a predictable set of reactive movements from the defence.  More so in the last decade, defences have taken on more than what they used to be and they are increasingly more effective at shutting down planned moves.  There are umpteen things which can wreck a planned move – especially if the team using it has never or rarely ran it versus live committed opposition.  Another limitation at the elite level is that you’re unlikely to ever see it again because teams will recognise it and know how to stop it.  At the lower level, your opponents aren’t likely to have access to video or even word of mouth from other league coaches saying ‘watch out for that fancy double switch move’ – but wasting time practising these moves over and over again could be better spent training players to scan for and act upon the multitude of opportunities which present themselves in general or static play.

What I’ve been hearing from more teams over the last few years reminds me of things I’ve read in coaching books from the 70s and earlier.  Attacking players are expected to have a full range of skills and abilities, combine it with knowledge of the game, tendencies, space, etc., and a lot of training on how to recognise and best use these opportunities as they occur.  I’ll write more on this later as I’ve been slowly collecting evidence to back up my stance on the issue of effective attacking, but think it’s worthwhile to first look at the long term limitations of the All Blacks move above – used only one time, highly complicated requiring a lot of practice, and with apparently little means to account for unplanned-for occurrences.

Stay tuned for options on how to attack by the proverbial seat of one’s pants!

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It seems Rugby Canada have embarked on a campaign to get the Minister of Sport on our side with a little email campaign.  Click on the link and send a message!

Support Rugby.ca

Here’s what I wrote, if anyone’s interested, but which I fully believe and outlines one of the many reasons I love this game.

“I’ve been coaching rugby now for 12 years, having played a little bit before taking up the whistle and clip board as it were. I’ve played pretty much every team game there is and have found NO other sport which – with rugby’s diverse range of positions – has a spot on the field for every body type. That sort of acceptance of diversity translates off the field as the sport actively welcomes people from all backgrounds without any sort of nationalism or financial burdens like other sports I won’t mention which are more ‘popular’ in this country. All you need is a pair of cheap boots and a determined mentality to ‘get stuck in’ as they say. This sort of camaraderie and inclusion is as ‘Canadian’ as it gets, and – as it’s done with me – has found countless people employment and friendships abroad because this wonderful sport maintains this ethos of unity wherever it is played. Those of us at the grass roots have been doing our part to promote these things, and we would appreciate your help in growing this wonderful sport!”

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This year the Super 14 has adopted a Law ‘clarification’ of sorts which is bent on eliminating some of the mess which has been occurring at the tackle contest over the last few years.  With more and more defenders going for the steal – the jackal / poach – at the ruck than ever before, Law makers trialled the idea of allowing hands in the ruck to help referees deal with an important issue of timing.  This killed the flow in rugby as turnovers were happening much more often than before or that the wrestle for the ball on the ground slowed play (and players at the lower levels were putting themselves in dangerous positions, in my opinion, without the strength to sustain the eventual clean out).

The Law as it was – and is – requires the player on the ground to immediately release the ball.  The question arrived over how immediate is ‘immediate’ when a defender has hands on ball and when the supporting player forms the ruck, requiring that defender to release.  The solution sounds simple – immediate is immediate – but it didn’t often prove to be that simple.  Traditionalists would have the defender release, while more modern thinkers feel that defender has rights to the ball given that the carrier should have released immediately.  Last year, Law makers made a clarification that the initial tackler could retain rights to contest for the ball even after the ruck was formed.  That has, in many cases, slowed the game down even further as the stagnant ‘hands in’ battle from the failed ELV trial was restored in not as many, but a significant amount of tackle contests.  Super 14 referees for this season have taken that advantage given to the defender and tried to balance it with yet another ‘clarification.’  It forces the tackler to be truly on his feet (while some where half leaning on the tackled player for support) and they must release the tackled player in the process as well.  There really aren’t any differences in this from what had been played traditionally, but many cynics felt that ‘referee interpretation’ and leniency for the sake of preserving the flow of rugby had gone too far.

Watch a match from the 80s compared to the 2007 World Cup, and you’ll see a significantly different game in terms of the ball in contact.  There were far fewer rucks and they were contested by groups of people pushing, not one squatting over the tackled player in an almost un-movable position with the rest forming a defensive wall which often outnumbers attackers left standing on their feet.  (Much of this has come as a result of professionalism making players bigger and stronger, but also shifts in tactics.)  With this new clarification, the first two weeks of the Super 14 have seen an incredible amount of tries.  Many people, however, are critical of this as – I gather – they would rather see that defensive spectacle.

The contentious match was this past weekend’s basketball-like 72-65 score line between the Chiefs of New Zealand and the Lions of South Africa.  Many have voiced their opinions on this match, with a good many in my network lamenting that the quality was horrible as tacklers were missing their duties and that it looked like a glorified game of Touch.  Having watched this match, I will agree that some of the individual tackling was below par for the top competition in rugby.  But I think this new law clarification contributed to it, and positively so.  There were very few SLOW BALL situations – where a defender has got stuck in and slowed down the ball coming out quickly, or even where the attacking team has opted to hit up around the fringes.  All the action has been ball in space, passes before or in contact meaning the defence has little time to get organised.  Quick ball is the Holy Grail of attacking rugby and without tacklers spoiling the tackle contest; both sides had plenty of it.  That transferred into tackle contest situations where the other defenders did not have their usual time to re-organise with no one there to buy them that time, putting a lot of players out of position to defend and tackle as easily as they had before.  (One can also add that the Chiefs are much better than the Lions, hence the early lead, but suffered as a result of playing at altitude and with three players in the sin bin and simply ran out of gas in the last 20 minutes, which allowed the Lions to catch up.)

I’m tempted to do a statistical analysis of this to see how many rucks there were, how many of those produced quick / slow ball, and what that did to defensive organisation and positioning. I’m willing to bet that the results would point toward the general stats being very positive compared to the RWC 2007 quarter final between New Zealand and France which produced well over 100 tackle contests (whereas the average two decades ago was around 60).  Rugby is a quest to score more points than the opposition, so I can’t see why critics were unhappy with this match and the high amount of tries scored.  Compare that with last weekend’s 9-0 match between Wasps and Saracens or the 6-3 thriller between Toulon and Toulouse, (both in the northern hemisphere, with a healthy amount of great attacking players, but not using this new tackler clarification) and I know which brand of rugby I’d rather watch.

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The young man touted as a future All Black fly half got a Crude (pardon the pun!) welcome to Super rugby as he lined up against the Blues as a substitute.  Aaron Cruden just turned 21 years old a month ago, so is likely still growing and just started professional rugby so can still add bulk, but he’ll need to grow mentally after this hit from Benson Stanley.

While it still isn’t an example of a dump tackle which provided the defending team with possession, that Stanley dislodged the ball made it more of a possibility than in most other cases.  (If I find a good video of one which yields an immediate turnover, that’ll be my last word!)  It must also be said that Stanley had perfect form in his tackle, without being too high or reckless.  On the point made by the commenter of my initial post on the subject, this is also the sort of hit which can be more psychological than immediate beneficial.  Maybe it’s further proof to my point, however, that the technique isn’t really worth it because my beloved Blues still lost the match and young Cruden will only get more wise from here on in.

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I hope I made a good case of why I’m not the biggest fan of dump, high, and similarly aggressive tackles the last time I wrote about it (here).  And ever since just after kick-off between Scotland and France on Sunday, I’ve been waiting to make this post.  Thanks to the lad(s) at Rugby Dump, I can now do so with video evidence.

I’ll keep this short and sweet, because I think I made my point before about the futility of these types of tackles – in most situations – but have a look at this video and tell me that Aurelien Rougerie shouldn’t have considered a lower, more focused and dominant tackle.

Let’s break down his tackling … (pun intended) …

Tackle #1

  • Comes flying in like a rocket, puts his shoulder square into Kelly Brown’s shoulder
  • Brown, who’s presenting a stable ‘hard shoulder’ stance, is rocked backwards, but lays the ball back well
  • Scotland retain possession, and play on
  • Rougerie’s holding his shoulder in agony
  • … Despite what Jonathan Davies says in the replay, while it’s a ‘great’ hit in terms of the size of the impact, it’s in no way effective as Scotland have maintained possession and France might have to use a valuable replacement inside a minute!
  • … If he’d considered taking him low and jackaled for possession, it’s very likely France could have won the ball or even a penalty as Rougerie had Brown isolated and Scotland on the back foot.  If he’d stayed balanced and taken down Brown quickly – they’re pretty much the same size! – the French lock was next to arrive and would have assisted in winning the ball.

Tackle #2

  • (I won’t comment on “with gay abandon”…) but Davies is right that his head is in the wrong position.  Rougerie is way too high in this challenge again, taking a shoulder to the head area.  This could have been more serious – apparently he’s out for two-three weeks.
  • If he’d have put the shoulder into Beattie’s mid-section, he’d have made a devastating, legal hit.  In both instances, Rougerie’s penalty-level high.
  • You can see him build up his sprint into a BLITZ tackle as the ball’s being moved wide, but he needed to focus on a lower target.  Even good blitz tacklers will either take the man low and get into a position to jackal, or take ‘man-and-ball’ and drive him back to win possession – not by simply trying to hurt the man.
  • … then he ‘soldiers on’ and gets into a scoring position not long after, and drops an easy pass, injured or worrying about being hit as hard has he had just attempted, but most likely both.

I can appreciate that big tackles can be a psychological advantage, but I think the principle aim of playing defence is to win the ball back.  If you take that mentality in your tackles, you effectively work on the second (or first for some) aim of preventing the opposition from scoring.  Flying into opponents “with gay abandon” does not meet this aim, and I think more so, at least subconsciously if not consciously, shows an intent to injure – which has no place in rugby.  (If one needs any proof, note how Rougerie’s reckless attempts actually saw HIM injured!)

If you want to see great video of proper tackling technique, check out this detailed gem from the All Blacks:

And finally, for those of you who love a big hit, here’s a way of doing a Blitz Man-and-Ball to good effect.  White not only wraps up the ball, but drives his man back, with support, and as the ball is tied up wins possession as the team going last ‘forward’ before the stoppage.

Jason White’s Hit on Paul Sackey

I have to first say that the attempt to go low and pop to the feet and jackal before White’s effort was great, especially considering the size of Lesley Vainikolo, though didn’t yield the desired result.  Jason White’s subsequent hit on Paul Sackey took him lower than the shoulders, wrapped up the ball not only to contest but prevent the pass, and in driving him back won possession as the team “last going forward when the ball became unplayable.”  Perfect!

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England have officially stamped their intentions on winning this year’s Women’s Rugby World Cup, which will be a home affair for them, with a complete demolition of Wales 31-0 in yesterday’s Women’s Six Nations opener.  By recent results, the WRWC final should be between them and the New Zealand Black Ferns – barring any disaster within each camp.  Not only the semi finals and final will be a treat, but other exciting competition should come as a result of answering the question: “Who will be the other semi finalists.”  There are definitely a few sub-par teams in the women’s rugby world, as it’s still a growing sport in even many ‘traditional’ rugby countries, and there are two obvious front runners, but the chasing pack of France, Canada, USA, a recent impressive improvement in Australia’s Wallaroos, and Scotland (who defeated France yesterday) should make the 12-team tournament pretty exciting.

Unfortunately, women’s rugby still has many vocal detractors, or at least apathetic types who think it’s a boring game full of lesbians.  I was happy to read some message board posts last autumn as Sky Sports actually showed the England v Black Ferns thriller – won by England for the first time – at Twickenham, with many men saying how much they enjoyed the game, and even saying their ladies were capable of more skill and daring in the modern game than their male counterparts!

As you might have noticed by my CV, I have considerable experience coaching women and I’m glad to read and hear such things as it’s something I’ve been promoting for a while.  The women’s game is fairly new, maybe just three decades or so, and hasn’t really got that popular with women, even, until the last 10 years.  In countries such as mine, the USA, and Australia, where all women’s sports are taken very seriously and do not simply fall into the category of ‘lady-like’ sports such as tennis, field hockey, and netball (not to knock women who play those), there’s been a simple lack of quality coaching to help them improve.  Australia’s recent meteoric rise has been a result of a determined effort to take the program seriously by the ARU and coaches, adding to the enthusiasm players always had.  We’ve still a long way to go in Canada in terms of coach development, but it’s nice to see that at the local level people have increasing access to symposia to help us all keep up to date with recent developments.  (I’ll be attending one such conference next weekend, and will be sure to report on it.)

I enjoy coaching women not only because they tend to listen and appreciate the collaborative aspect of rugby more (with less ego) than men, but because of these things they learning curve can be a lot steeper, allowing me to see the results of instruction and their dedication.  Also, without the drastic differences in size you can find among men, they tend to rely more upon skill than bosh – which, in Canada, means that a women’s game can be a lot more exciting than a men’s contest as you’re not likely to see an endless string of pick-and-goes or one-pass-and-crashes which eventually lead to turnovers.  At the university level, where coaching and commitment is taken very seriously, games are always exciting and lots of tries are usually presented to those few lucky spectators who show up.  Have a look at the excellent running lines and passing ability of outside centre, Emily Scarratt.

I’m fairly close to a few players who’re hoping to pack their bags to be in England this fall, and I’m really looking forward to seeing Canada’s (and Australia’s) potential for success because of that.  The team Canada took to Florida recently seemed to have a good mix of youth, middle-aged players, and seasoned vets.  If you look at any team which has won a rugby world cup, this is a common recipe for success.  This side looks more dynamic and creative than the 2007 team as well.  Whoever wins, it’s going to be one hell of a tournament to watch, and maybe a bit more open than a supposedly ‘inevitable’ England v New Zealand final now that I think about it …

If you want to follow women’s rugby around the globe, look at the excellent Scrum Queens blog.  If you want to follow the Women’s Six Nations even more closely, aside from reports this site is likely to have video highlights when available:  Sportuk.tv.   And finally, with the Women’s Rugby World Cup starting in August and rolling into early September, you can track the build-up here.

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Sydney Morning Herald columnist Greg Growden seems to find ways of stirring rugby controversy every now and then and his latest article is true to form.  The media Down Under have reported in recent times that fans attending matches are down (while ignoring how many are watching at home and via the web in other countries – not that I’d ever do that! 😉 ), which contributed to the debacle that was the ELV trials, and his recent suggestion to make the game more attractive to the masses is to stop the clock every time the ball goes out of play.  I think the rationale is that ‘fans’ want to get their money’s worth and see an actual 80 minutes of match play.

Here’s the article.  Let’s Face It It’s Time to Stop Wasting Time – Gred Growden, SMH

I can’t bear reading it again, as it’s just one more daft idea in the quest to change a game that really doesn’t need changing.  Many in the New World do not know that rugby didn’t even go pro until the early 90s, and since then it has undergone quite a few growing pains in terms of being able to be competitive but not exceed its resources.  In a professional system, players are paid (duh), and money can entice good players to join, which can breed success, which builds a fan base, who provide more money and feed the cycle … yadda, yadda … so at least some sections of people in the ‘new’ professional rugby are concerned with making the game more ‘attractive’ to get more bums in seats, as the phrase goes.

Though I only was introduced to rugby in 1997 (and haven’t looked back at my gridiron / basketball upbringing since), I consider myself a ‘traditionalist’ who after reading the history of a game which, in its organised form, actually PRE-DATES organised soccer (despite what legends would have you believe), loves not only its spirit but also the game it evolved into by the latter part of the 20th century.  Maybe it wasn’t ‘perfect’ but every sport has such issues which are accepted as ‘part of the game.’  Time and time again over recent years people have suggested ways to make it ‘better’ – likely to get those cash-wielding aforementioned bums in seats – and they continually risk alienating those of us who think nothing’s wrong.

In fact, I would really rather NOT see more bums in seats if it means changing the sport I love to something that it’s not.  I fear this suggestion, which will thankfully be ignored, would be another step towards making rugby as boring as the other ‘football’ codes.  Growden cites AFL as an example of how the fans get to see a full period of action because the clock is stopped when the ball is out of play.  This is the same for the NFL.  One of the many things I love about watching rugby is that I can watch a professional match in an hour and a half, and then get on with my day.  For AFL and the NFL/CFL, you have to book off a solid three hours, not only dealing with stoppages in play, but commercial breaks during this period.  (I won’t rant about the audacity of the ‘TV Time Out’!)  I would be willing to bet heaps of money on this creeping into rugby – which is now relatively free of commercials – if stoppages in time were taken.  I certainly don’t want that.  That I can watch two matches in the span taken by one football game, or the pointless pre-match and match play of one soccer game, is one of the many things I love about watching rugby on Saturdays.  Double the pleasure, and not just because our sport is much more enjoyable (quadruple the pleasure?).

I’ve said it before, and I hope I won’t have to say it again now that the ELV period is over, but rugby doesn’t need any more fine tuning.  It’s pretty damn good as it is.  Recently, I was reading that despite the three hours it takes to watch an NFL match, there’s really only about 12 minutes of actual game play!  I video taped our (amateur) matches last season, stopping the recorder for moments when the ball wasn’t in play, and have edited some professional matches as such so our players could analyse them.  This reminded me that rugby, as is, contains between 35-42 minutes of action.  Compared to the NFL’s 11-12 minutes, that’s pretty damn good value for money – if that’s how the big wigs want to look at it – in my books.

How’s about everyone stop making silly suggestions to alter the best sport there is for all types of people and just let us sit back and enjoy it for what it is!

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