Archive for July, 2010

When I first started playing rugby in the late 90s the ‘offload’ as a tactical concept wasn’t really common (as far as I can remember).  In just a few years, however, offloading the ball from contact seemed to be all the rage and we all spent quite a bit of time working on taking the tackle and popping the ball off to support.  I think training this is a great way to fulfill one of the key concepts of rugby – going forward – as the play doesn’t ‘die’ at the ruck.  The other benefit is that by avoiding a static tackle contest (full tackle / ruck / maul), the attacking team is faced with an unprepared / disorganised defence and should have an easier time getting past them.  Offloads can be used in several ways:

  • To buy time – picture a somewhat isolated player getting scythed down in a quick tackle, in danger of being jackaled or having a second defender poach the ball.  One team mate is about to arrive, but so are several defending players.  By popping the ball up to this lone supporting player, he might find himself being tackled by this late-arriving group, but those few seconds extra could provide enough time for more team mates to arrive and secure the ball in a ruck – a much better outcome than a turnover from the initial tackle.
  • To get around the defence – in close quarters contact, especially in what we call ‘slow ball’ where the defensive line is organised and waiting, it’s not absolutely essential to get through them.  In such situations, it’s increasingly common these days to find more defenders standing than attackers (a planned strategy I will discuss later) and launching a wide attack could prove risky.  Two players can disrupt the defence as one attacks a gap, drawing two defenders, and offloading to another.  Even if the receiver doesn’t get through the ensuing tackle and ruck is likely to ensue a metre in front of the previous one, forcing the entire defensive line to squeeze and adjust to the breach.  Getting around them, even just as much as a metre, can be enough to disrupt their organisation.  Quick ball from this phase should allow a wide attack to be more successful.
  • To get by the defence – the ultimate goal of an offload is to keep the attack going forward, and while a draw-and-pass situation where the passer remains in the play is ideal, taking a defender out of the play by offloading form a tackle is the next best thing.  In a two-on-one situation – the easiest way to exploit space in rugby, which can take place in even the most limited amount of space – an offload from contact is an efficient way of ensuring go-forward with one less defender to worry about.

The essential elements required to make an effective offload are more about communication and awareness than technique.  Technically speaking, the pass can be made in many ways – with one or two hands, while standing, falling, or on the ground, and always with a soft vertical ‘pop’ to ensure the supporting player can run onto it.  The receiver must be moving forward, preferably fast and powerfully, and take the ball very close to the gain line.  But execution requires more than just fine technique.  The ball carrier and supporting player(s) need to be aware of space created in contact, with a defender removed from the line in the act of tackling.  The best offloads are not so much about the passer finding the receiver, but the receiver finding the passer.  As the tackle is made, a tactically aware receiver will suddenly move inward to take a short pass in the space left open by the defender making the tackle.  In order to make this more efficient, the supporting player needs to communicate not only that he/she is present but also which direction he/she is coming from and at which exact point the pass needs to be made.  In some situations – namely very tight ones – I will even tell the ball carrier to go into contact so that we can set up the offload.  In all, I will say:  “On your [right/left]” to allow them to take the tackle in the right way, and “Pop … NOW!” to let them know what kind of pass I want and when.  Too late in your communication, and you’ll get less than satisfactory technique – if a pass at all.  Ball carriers have too much to think about to be able to plan this most of the time, and they certainly can’t read your mind … no matter how much players appear to attempt telepathy!  Note the potential ease and difficulty of making a successful offload in the following two photographs.  In the first, the Australian lock is turned away from his support and would have to make a trickier pass – if he even got one off at all.  In the second photo, we see a perfect example of a supporting player coming to meet the offload while calling for a timely pass.

Nathan Sharpe is hoping someone will take the offload, though it looks like his best options are on the other side.

Two Tuggeranong players are in perfect positions to accept an offload, and are calling for the pass. The carrier is in a perfect position to oblige.

I think offloads are a great way to deal with tight space, and somewhat reservedly, when players do not have the best timing to create perfect 2 v 1 situations where both attackers remain on their feet.  However, I see many teams at all levels affect the offload too frequently.  The whole purpose of the tactic is to ensure we are moving forward with the ball, yet all too often I see players ‘chuck away’ the ball in contact to a player who is standing still or a few metres behind the play, getting tackled there rather than getting beyond the point of the pass.  At the very least, the team loses ground.  Worse, they are tackled under pressure and risk losing possession.  And even worse, someone gets hurt as a result of such an unexpected ‘hospital’ pass.  This is often the fault of the ball carrier initiating the offload to an unexpecting supporting player – hence the NEED for the support player, who should have a better vision and sense of the potential for a successful offload, to be the one calling for it.  When an offload is carelessly thrown away, as highlighted in the Micky Young video below, a clever defender can step in and intercept the poorly executed offload.

The crucial thing all players must realise is that because no tackle occurs in an offload situation, no offside line is created, and so defenders can steal the ball even while coming from behind.  This happens a lot when the attacker ‘chucks away’ the ball in a panic, when he/she really should have taken the tackle and set up a ruck, which forces all the defenders to come around to get onside.  Even when the offload finds a receiver, having that person under pressure from defenders is less effective than sending two players into a ruck and moving the ball away from that point quickly while defenders are scrambling to get onside and organised.  Below are several examples of good offloads – while falling and from the ground, including both solo and multiple offload efforts.

Finally, there are (at least!) three examples of poor offloads in this video.  See if you can spot them all!  I’d love to hear your comments on why they were poor and/or how they might have been better.

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Doing battle in the front row of the scrum is where I got my start in rugby, and as a big schoolboy limited by a 1m push, I never really had to think about proper technique and form – that is until I started playing men’s rugby.  In my home province I encountered guys who were bigger and stronger, and whilst in the UK, found plenty of guys who knew what they were doing.  They left a lasting impression on me with regard to becoming a better scrummager, not to mention that a few of the latter were actually much smaller than me!  For those serious about being a solid scrummager, becoming more muscular and stronger is an obvious way to be more effective in the front row.  But this sort of development takes a long time, for some longer than others.  This is the reason one finds very few excellent scrummagers at the top level in their early to mid-twenties.   So what is one to do in the short term?  I think forwards can do a few simple things to improve their scrum technique over a relatively short period while they gradually build size and strength (or if they don’t want to put in that kind of time and effort).  Together as a unit, forwards should look to improve their coordination because driving the opposition backwards in a unified effort is much better than eight individuals trying to do their thing on their own.  The first part of this involves binding.  I’ve never thought that ‘special’ binds of one kind or the other made that much difference – locks binding on shorts, shirt, pocket; props on waistband or upper shirt.  What is important is that the complete unit is comfortable and tight (and legal).

What I think is more important in this respect is that whatever the bind, a tight and coordinated effort is required for a scrum to be effective.  Probably the best way of achieving this is through a pack leader.  Some have their preference for which player this should be, but as with choosing a team captain, one needs to consider who has the combination of knowledge, leadership ability and communication skills to ensure the pack is focused and determined on achieving dominance at scrum time.  I used to do this as a tight head prop, the person who engaged slightly ahead of all others.  Other teams use the hooker, because of his role in the strike / contest with the opposing striker, while others have used a particularly vocal and knowledgeable no. 8 or flanker.  Whichever player, this person’s role is to help bring together all eight players so that they can engage as one unit and employ a coordinated effort rather than a divided one.  There are many calls one can use, but one of the best I’ve seen is from the All Blacks (likely their incredibly knowledgeable scrum coach Mike Cron).  Upon the “engage” call, they simply yell – together! – HIT, SQUEEZE … and … GO!  That’s it, short and focused.  The HIT is the point at which they engage with the opposition, trying to rock them back and get position / leverage.  The SQUEEZE demands they pull in their binds for the impending coordinated effort.  And finally, the GO signifies that the ball is in and they are going to push with all their might – TOGETHER.  Some teams utilise a 1, 2, 3, 4 after to get them moving forward so many steps or holding for that count.  With or without, Hit, Squeeze, and Go get all eight players into the right mindset to do a few seconds of hard, coordinated work to secure possession or establish a stable platform from which to defend.

The other useful way in which players might improve their scrummaging technique in a short period of time is through body shape.  A useful body shape for a forward is with body parts relatively parallel and perpendicular to the ground.  Shins should be just off the ground and parallel to it, thighs should be relatively perpendicular (with a bit of flex back and forward and a narrow angle to aid in driving / resisting), and back should be parallel.  The pelvis should be tilted to allow maximum flexion and shoulder blades should be pinned back to ensure shoulders are high and square.  Head should be neutral with the spine – think “look through your eye brows only” to see your opposition.   All eight players should look like this, with spines in line and backs that slightly incline from no. 8 to front row, indicating that each player has his shoulder firmly planted on the buttocks of the person in front of him.

Low to the ground, feet back far enough to allow body to engage square and parallel without shuffling, shoulder blades pinned back, head in a neutral position (looking through eyebrows).

Note body parts parallel and perpendicular to the ground - esp. the height! Also see note how they are all level and square with each other.

I am of the mind that this is where one’s core strength becomes as, if not more, important as strength required to drive the scrum.  As in the case I mentioned above – I’ve had the weight advantage over players, but their better shape and core strength has won them battles over my ‘advantage.’  I realised that I could no longer rely upon weight and leg strength alone and sought to improve my shape.  Practicing this, I feel, is best done in groups of three.  Two players start on all fours and engage and slowly lift themselves off the ground in a coordinated effort.  I don’t think any pushing back and forth is needed yet (saved for more advanced players comfortable with their shape), with the players focusing only on how maintaining a good position feels.  The crucial third member of the group provides feedback, giving each player suggestions on how they might adjust positioning to achieve perfect form along with commenting on what parts look good.  This last part is very important as, with any closed skill, we have to acquire ‘muscle memory’ to learn good form and this can only be achieved through specific and constructive feed back on the spot.  Watching video of one’s self can help see where problems exist, but timely feedback in the moment can allow the adjustments and muscle memory to take an immediate affect.

When 1 v 1 situations are consistently looking good, forwards can start building “units” that are typical in scrums.  I am not the biggest fan of scrum machines for this – feeling they’re only useful when employing a full pack which doesn’t have enough opposition.  As much as possible, I feel players can learn more from realistic contests and when there aren’t enough for 8 v 8 (and even when there is!) by putting scrum units together.  It’s no surprise that scrums “naturally” wheel clockwise on the tight head.  This is because the opposing loose head and hooker are effectively pushing on him.  As such, it is a great way to employ three players in realistic scrum training – especially when you are limited in players!  Other combinations can be:

  • Front row against another front row
  • Prop and a lock versus a prop with a lock on the opposite side to the other
  • The aforementioned hooker, loose head combo with a lock, versus a tight head, a lock, and a flanker
  • A ‘back five’ – locks and back row – against another (this might be a lot of weight for two locks to handle, however, so take caution)

Controversially, I don’t like spending a lot of time working on scrums at practice because I feel one should work on things proportionate to the time in a match in which they occur (i.e. scrums take up far less time than open field attack and defence, but many clubs will spend 45 mins working on scrums at training!).  But by asking that forwards do these sort of “mini scrums” and other activities in the pre-warm-up / warm-up period (when some are milling about chatting, kicking / passing a ball to no real gain), they can get beneficial personal practice and feedback every session and even before games!

With the above information in mind, it's plain to see which pack is more in-tune with their body positioning and coordination.

Below are some videos featuring Mike Cron and the All Blacks which offer a lot of great advice and practice options for those who want to improve their technique and shape.

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