Archive for March, 2010

When 6’5″ and 250lb All Black winger Jonah Lomu broke on the scene back in the mid-1990s, it seemed everyone scrambled to find their own massive winger … Dean Hall for South Africa, a young Pierre Spies was a schoolboy wing until being moved to 8 (which was a reversal of Lomu’s experience), Steve Hanley for England, Big Del and Tuqiri came across from League in Australia … the list goes on …

I’ve been pleased to see that rugby is still a game for all shapes and sizes over the past few weeks as France ran and passed their way to a Six Nations Grand Slam (i.e. defeated all challengers from the UK, Ireland and Italy) with a finely balanced team.  After Aurelien Rougerie injured himself in the match against Scotland, we got to see living proof that there is still room for the little man in rugby with coach Marc Lievremont’s faith in his wingers.  Standing at just 5’9″ and an un-heard of in the modern era 5’5″ respectively, Alexis Palisson and Marc Andreu proved that so long as you can play defence and be a threat in attack, it doesn’t matter how big you are.

I hate to have to resort to using Canterbury/Crusaders as an example, but look at the ‘massive hulks’ that made up their recent assortment of backs: Ellis, Carter, Crotty, Bateman, Slade, Brett, Fotuali’i, Guildford, Payne, Poki.  All but a couple are under 6′ and none are over 200lbs – a vast difference from the bulking back lines we saw in the late 90s and early 00s.  And I don’t have to elaborate on how devastating these guys are with ball in hand and even a tiny bit of space in front of them.  Even a supposed heir to Lomu’s legacy, Ma’a Nonu, has been made to become smaller, fitter, and more agile than when he first broke on the scene. If anything, I think the trend is slowly moving toward smaller backs. (If only I could navigate the All Blacks video site for the clip of their strength and fitness coach talking about the detriment of carrying too much unnecessary weight, commenting on the need for certain players to drop 15kgs of post season weight.)

Critics, like former Irish international Tony Ward, believe that with players getting bigger rugby needs to adopt League’s lesson and remove two players from the field to open up space.  Rather than suggesting dropping players, I think the onus is on the entire rugby community to continue focusing on developing excellence in basic skills and game awareness to make this space available or create it.  There are plenty of teams which show this … again, I have to cite the French and Crusaders/Canterbury (and will go wash myself clean in a minute) … that you don’t need to have teams full of massive blokes to be successful, and that by simply ‘playing rugby’ as it was meant to be played can still allow you to win the day.

Critics could argue tiny Christoph Dominici’s lesson in wing play delivered to Lomu in the epic 1999 World Cup upset as a one-off, but I knew the era was coming to close when the Canuck cheat sheet answer to Lomu, the 6’6″ Justin Mensah-Coker, was taken to school in a Churchill Cup match by comparatively smaller James Simpson-Daniel and Richard Haughton.  If you want more proof, look at the day the day James Simpson-Daniel also proved that big wingers just don’t have the lateral movement to match a speedy little guy?

As have continued to say over recent years:  If you’re good enough, you’re ‘big’ enough.

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I was going through the files I’ve collected recently ensuring that I had all the new things I wanted to try in my mind for the beginning of the Ontario season.  Among them was a different version of Touch which I’m sure I found as part of Dan Cottrell’s Better Rugby Coaching page – a great resource – but I can’t seem to find it there.  (Probably came via his weekly email, expanded from ‘Offload Touch’ on that site.)

Touch of Twos, slightly adapted from the aforementioned article, involves just as the name would suggest.  It’s Touch rugby, and most of the main rules involve ‘two’ of something.  Simply put:

  • Touches are made with two hands, below the ribs.  This reinforces a good tackling position for players.  (Someone should referee to ensure this is adhered to – shouting ‘play on, high tackle’ if not done properly.  I always like the players to take turns at this, so they can become more aware of the principles of the game, their team mates, and have an appreciation for referees.)
  • A touched player has two seconds after being touched to make an offload to a team mate.  This should get them not only thinking about the offload from contact, but also being more aware of how their actions can make offloads more or less likely, and how to utilise supporting players.
  • That offload can only be made in a two metre radius around the touched player.  This requires supporting players to come toward the touched player in close support, giving them a sense of what I call the ‘inevitability of contact.’  While I don’t think contact should be inevitable in proper rugby union, it does happen regularly and supporting players need to be more aware of when their team mate is about to meet it.  Often the most vulnerable space in such a situation is behind the defender fixed on the ball carrier, so support runners should collapse inward to take advantage of this.  If the offload isn’t on then the supporting player is in a great position to make a quick play of the ball.  In the context of the contact game, these ‘primary support’ players to the left and right of the ball carrier need to remember this as well, at least to make a timely clean-out at the ruck.
  • If the offload is made, the two players involved in the touch – ball carrier / touching defender – must drop and give two push-ups before continuing with the play.  I believe the original rule called for the two players to stand on the spot until one or two pass(es) were made, but I felt this was better to mimic the effort made in being part of a tackle contest.  These players would have to make a determined effort to get back into position as someone would in the contact game after a tackle / tackle contest.  Advantage would go to those who do this most quickly – fitness coming into play.
  • If the offload ISN’T made, then the same thing would occur at the mark where the touch was made.  The tackled player would lay the ball back and do two push-ups, with the defender doing the same – facing the opposition goal line.  Each of their feet would signify the offside line for the other players.  This provides a reasonable gap not found in typical Canadian versions of Touch, but exaggerated somewhat (compared to the offside line created at a ruck in rugby union) in FIT and OzTag styles, which require a 5m retreat by defenders after every touch.
  • The next player to arrive from the attacking team has rights to the ball, while defensive players must wait until the ball is played to advance.  If for some reason, an attacking player doesn’t arrive, the defending team can advance after their ‘touching’ player has finished doing two push-ups.
  • Rather than having a finite amount of touches after which the ball is turned over, I recommend letting the proper Laws of rugby union dictate this, from the list of normal infractions.  One would hope that teams would not choose endless pick-and-goes given that this would create a congestion of players having to do push-ups.  Instead, players should be looking to play the ball BEFORE contact, or at least FROM contact – using the 2 sec. / 2m offload rule.  As with rugby union, after that first contact (or two) without an offload to maintain momentum, attacking teams should look to move the ball well away (two passes!) away from the ‘tackle contest’ to play in more space.
  • With regard to space and numbers, I think any version of touch is best played with a good balance between players and the width of the field space available.  As we want to use Touch of Twos to become better Union players, consider the spacing between players on a normal pitch and adjust accordingly (4-6m between each if standing abreast – max 10-12 on a normal sized pitch).  If there are too many, I reduce numbers, create a third team and play ‘winner stays’ after each try or 3 mins without.
  • If you have 7 or more per side, why not try mini, non-pushing scrums and lineouts?  It will allow the players to deal with the spaces each creates as well as work on supporting from those positions.
  • (As kicking is part of the contact game, I would be willing to allow a limited number of attempts.  Maybe a finite number per game, to be used only in times of emergency / opportunity?)

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Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with rugby as it is … yet people in positions of power are talking about yet another amendment to a game which is going pretty good as it is.

Today I read that the English RFU is going to trial ‘rolling substitutions’ like they have in Rugby League.  The trial would see teams able to make 12 changes during the course of a game – even allowing substituted players to come back on.  The BBC article states that this idea was brought about as a result of the ‘Bloodgate’ scandal whereby a Harlequins player was substituted due to a non-existent blood injury (with fake blood capsules) so his team could return a specialist kicker who’d been substituted earlier.  I think the simple solution in such cases is to have the ref actually check that there is a cut that needs mending.  … but this case was so high profile, in which the player and the staff responsible were suspended, and the club brought into disrepute, that people would be stupid to try this again.

Such things are probably more likely to be tried at the amateur level, and while incredibly sad on the part of the perpetrators, I think the cheaters would still find means to circumvent any Laws intended to curtail such practices.  As such, I think bringing in rolling subs would have a detrimental effect with regard to the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences.’  We saw this with the ELVs as the ‘cannot pass back into the 22m area and get the lineout up-field’ change – meant to bring about more running rugby – actually saw teams constantly bombarding each other with aimless aerial ping pong so as not to get caught with the ball inside / near their 22.

I was glad to read that my initial thought on the negative result of such a Law amendment was brought up in the article by one of my coaching idols, Wasps and Wales coach Shaun Edwards:

“A prop who wanted to last 60 minutes could not balloon up to 24 stone if only because he would become an absolute liability in open play,” wrote Wasps and Wales coach Shaun Edwards, who is a legend of British rugby league, in his column for The Guardian last year.

“However, if one of the front five has to last only 10 or 20 minutes of explosive action before getting a rest on the bench, then 20 stone is better than 18 and 22 better than 20, and enough time in the gym will certainly shape these new giants.

“If rolling substitutions are to be tested, we have to be very careful. The shape of the game, its core values and the health of those who play it are all at risk.”

With rolling subs, you could have several massive, incredibly intense players going about smashing into people with reckless abandon and then having a seat on the bench for a bit, only to return to do the same later, have a seat at halftime, and do it all again in the second half.  This is the sort of thing that goes on in both League and American Football … where they have such substitution rules.  I won’t go into an argument about how many more collision-related injuries occur in these sports compared to Rugby Union, but I think you can see where I’m going with this.  I think it’s great that some of the best players in the world aren’t much bigger than ordinary people – with incredible fitness, yes – but not the bulk of NFL players, for example.  They’ve got to be able to carry themselves about for upwards of 80 minutes.  And with subs as they are, it becomes liability to be carrying around more weight than your cardiovascular system can handle for that sustained period.

Finally, England coach Martin Johnson makes a comment about addressing the (supposed) up-surge in rugby injuries.  If the stats are truly showing that more injuries are occurring at ALL LEVELs, then I think more has to be looked into with regard to why – not just the amount of time a player gets in one game.  At the professional level, I would argue that they play too many games in one season and that there has been a shift to putting in the ‘big hit’ of late.  I’ve argued at length in his blog that the League style ‘collision’ is almost totally useless in Union, with video evidence to prove it (Rougerie injuring himself vs. Pocock and Smith going low and immediately stealing the ball).  I feel that the ‘big hit’ is not only counter productive with regard to the tactical principle of winning possession, but that its also contrary to the spirit of not only the core values of the game’s moral code.  More so, it seems players are aiming to hurt in the tackle, rather than to impede and re-gain possession.

If the IRB wanted to trial a Law that would reduce the amount of injuries, they might start by requiring tackles to not just be below the shoulders, but below the arm pits.  I would argue that hits at that height are less likely to ‘slip up’ and run into the head area as they do now.  But I think, with success stories like the aforementioned Aussies, and that teams seem to realise that fitness is more worthwhile than bulk (with the end of the ‘Lomu’ area, we’re seeing smaller skilled players running circles around the behemoths) that the rate of injuries will (hopefully) come down.  A stronger focus on coaching proper technique at all levels, especially the impressionable youth stage, will definitely help this cause!

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A Gentleman’s Game

The old (tired) adage about rugby states that it’s a “barbarian’s game played by gentlemen.”  Since learning the history about the game’s Public (i.e. independent) school roots, and how most if not all schools adopted it to instil desirable virtues into the minds of young men, I really think it’s a ‘gentleman’s game played by gentlemen.’  Incidents such as this are always great to see as they existed in the past, still do at the lower level in the minds of traditional rugby referees, and hopefully they will never cease.

BBC Sport – Scarlets lock penalised for ‘shouting’

(If you can’t see the video, an Ulster wing was steadying himself to make a clearing kick to touch when a lock began charging him, shouting at the top of his lungs to throw him off.  The assistant referee cited him for ungentlemanly conduct, and instead of a Scarlets lineout down field, Ulster got the penalty.  Let that be a lesson to you kids, be imposing and aggressive but don’t “shout nasty things.”)

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No, I don’t either!  But this post is dedicated to my first coach, Jim, who was the catalyst for my rugby obsession and who probably does remember some of these things.  For the rest of you, I think they’re interesting to note in light of how much the game has changed over the decades…

Taken from:  “Cornerposting, and other ancient aspects of the game,” a discussion topic on the Planet Rugby Forum.

  • The defensive number 8 pulled his head out of the scrum, and ran directly towards the open side cornerpost.
  • The tight forwards on the attacking side ran directly towards the goal-posts, in position for a centre kick.
  • A good forward pack stuck together, you could “throw a blanket over them”.
  • A forward would never, ever, get caught up in an attacking backline movement, or risk being labelled a “seagull”.
  • We stayed on the field at half-time, and sucked oranges.
  • Tries were 3 points and then 4 points, before increasing to 5 points
  • Tries were originally nil points. They merely gave the scoring team a place kick at goal. That’s why it is called a try.
  • Leather balls which doubled in weight when it rained.  Only the French had the ‘cool’ adidas balls, and only the French used spin passes.

  • No one, especially not a back, wore a scrum cap. (Disputed as other posters found evidence of people wearing leather headgear which which really only covered the ears, dating back to the 1920s.)
  • Jockstraps (athletic supports) also. Shoulder pads, if you could get away with it.
  • Hipswing passes.
  • Kicking directly to touch….from anywhere.
  • Scores like 0-0 and 3-3 in Internationals.
  • The Times rugby scores still described a converted try as a “goal”, worth five points. An unconverted try was shown as a “try”, worth three points.
  • The blind-side winger threw the ball into the lineout, usually lobbing it in like a hand grenade
  • There used to be no gaps in the lineouts and and no lifters.  Jumpers used to jump across the lineout, using elbows and fists where appropriate, and the ball was generally slapped back.  The opensides always stood at the back of the lineout with their hands on their hips.

  • Boots that covered your ankles and had toe-caps.  You laced your boots three times round the outside to keep them on.
  • You could take a mark from a kick anywhere on the field, and have the free kick, but had to call “Mark!” at the same time as making an actual mark in the ground with your heel.
  • 2-3-2 scrums with ‘wing forwards’ that hung off the side, a precursor to the flanker of today, which were called a ‘wing forward’ until not too long ago.
  • The lock was the man in the middle of the back row (3-2-3 scrum), now referred to as No. 8 in a 3-4-1 scrum.
  • Front rows binding, crouching and engaging all in one fluid movement (yet, still managing to stay up), often before the backrow has bound on.
  • Every player between the scrum half and full back were ‘wing three quarters,’ until (I think) the Kiwis created a set person to take the ball from the SH, creating the 5/8 position still used in New Zealand and Australia (what fraction comes between 1/2 and 3/4? … 5/8ths!).  The Kiwis use 1st and 2nd 5/8s for Fly Half and Inside Centre, because their ‘2nd5’ tended to be more of a distributor / kicker rather than an attacking wing three quarter (Typified in the modern era by the likes of Aaron Mauger, Luke McAlister, and during Dan Carter’s early career.)
  • Substitutes were ONLY used in the event of injury.
  • Until 1954 you had to play the ball with a foot after a tackle.  Even when the ball was visible just inside a “loose scrum” or ruck the scrumhalf had to “hook” it out with his foot before he was allowed to pick it up.
  • Loose scrummages and set scrummages. No “rucks”. And a maul was a specialised struggle for the ball in in-goal.
  • Rucking, as in using the boot to create quick ball. Or to boot the s*&% out of the opposition if they were slowing it down.

  • International players would meet up on Saturday morning the day of the match.
  • Australian teams were numbered the opposite to today, the front row were 15, 14, 13, through to the fullback who was 1.  (Rugby League is still like this.)  Several UK clubs wore letters on the backs of their jerseys until the late 90s.  Shirts didn’t have sponsors on them because rugby didn’t turn pro until 26 August, 1995.
  • Touring teams provided one of their players to officiate as a touch judge – even in internationals.  And they wore their blazers whilst patrolling the touch line.  Tours could often last half a year, involve travelling across the world by boat, and feature dozens of matches between not just international and provincial sides, but also clubs. (One famous one being Swansea RFC over the All Blacks 11-3 on Saturday 28 September, 1935.)
  • Hakas were nothing like what they are today, and looked more like pat-a-cake!

  • Trainer’s role largely being restricted to applying the ‘magic sponge’ to an injury.
  • Crowds invading the pitch after big wins.  (You’d get arrested now … thank you very much football hooligans!)
  • Diving scrum half passes.

  • A simple scissors move bamboozling defences.
  • Making your own tee from the turf – four nice big heels, or later a bucket of sand for the kicker.  (Andre Pretorius only recently stopped doing this, I’m told.)  Place kicks was taken from a straight run-up and kicked with the toes.

  • Tackles executed by grabbing a player by the collar and whiplashing him to the ground was common practice.

There are some more cool history tidbits here:  Rugby Pioneers Blog and the Wiki History of Rugby Union.  If you want a nice quick read as well, look out for 60 Years of International Rugby by Peter Bills or  J.J. Stewart’s rare Rugby – Developments in the Field of Play (or borrow it from me!).

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I said I’d revisit this when I found a good one, psychologically or tactically efficient, and England ended up winning the ball after this safe and legal hit by Josh Lewsey on Mat Rogers in 2002 or 2003.  Hit just below the rib cage, knocking the wind out of him – but not injuring, as he got up and played on – and dislodged the ball forward, which eventually won them the scrum.  (I think the ref stopped the game to ensure Rogers wasn’t dead.  😉 )

If I were to give Rogers a tip, it would be to better use his peripheral vision to see the tackler’s rush coming and to try and take the ball giving a ‘hard side’ – that is, turning his body while taking the ball to absorb the hit.  Not being so flat would have ensured he took the ball deep enough to have time to react to Lewsey’s rush.  Sometimes, though, the timing of the defender is just too good!

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