Archive for January, 2011

The wonderful blokes over at Green and Gold Rugby Blog posted a tribute video to Australia’s legendary George Smith today, and I thought it time to talk about another position – the openside flanker.  Some have said that job of a fetching – someone who goes looking to steal the ball at every opportunity – number 7 is not as it once was just a couple of years ago when the likes of Smith, McCaw, Brussouw were making incredible pilfers at great risk to their bodies.  But I’ve explained in other posts that if tackles are made quickly, so that the tackler can release and grab before attacking support arrives, then steals are still possible under the new interpretations … and George Smith is still proving this despite retiring from the Wallabies and Brumbies lasat years.  Enough of my intro, let’s look at the video …

I’d like to think that any good backrower should have the skills Smith has – the ability to be tenacious on defence, going to great lengths to win the ball back (legally, but sometimes not – Richie McCaw has said that a keen defender needs to always be on that edge to play to the referee’s interpretations – and whistle – so he can steal the ball, or at least disrupt the opposition).  For me, it’s hard to separate Smith and McCaw when it comes to who’s been the greatest ‘openside’ ever, though I want to give it to Smith because he is, as you saw in the video, quite capable of the spectacular.  As such, what I think also separates the openside flanker from the other backrow players is their ability to link with the backs.  It should be noted that these guys are often the fastest and fittest of the forwards because they’re the ones who’re chasing the ball all day, ‘open side’ referring to being on the side where the fly half and the bulk of the backs are aligned.  Using that speed and quickness, and hopefully a sense for space and continuity such that backs possess, a team should be able to count on an openside flanker to be an extra weapon in attack.  That Australia and New Zealand have such wonderful attacks, and a number of flankers which play like this is definitely not a coincidence.

I don’t normally subscribe to there being an ‘ideal’ size for any position, so long as the person in question can get the job done satisfactorily.   That said, many of the great opensides have had the same body type and it bodes well for the job that was asked of them.  They are definitely under 6’2″, but mostly under 6’0″, as the bigger players – think South African backrowers – tend to be straight ahead types, whereas the typical fetching, linking openside is smaller and more agile, better suited for dynamic attacking moves.  (With regard to women, look up: Maggie Alphonsi, Heather Fisher, or Justine Lavea – all have that ‘short and stocky, but fit’ stature as well.)  The smaller stature also means it’s easier for them to work at lower levels, as in the process of jackaling the ball in the tackle, and putting muscle on that kind of frame makes them very hard to move in the ruck.  (Whereas it’s a bit easier to get leverage on a taller player with longer limbs.)

I don’t have to keep talking about Smith as the evidence of his brilliance is in the highlight video.  I still have dreams that he’ll say his retirement was all a ruse and that he’ll be in the Wallaby back row, alongside the brilliant defender David Pocock, for the upcoming World Cup, but I guess I’ll just have to watch more Toulon games until he finally calls it a day.

With regard to selecting your openside, though, it can definitely be a job for that player who’s got a bit of ‘mongrel’ in them, as the Aussies say – that someone who’s more spirited, more aggressive, and more enthusiastic than anyone else.  (It’s often a good job for that little, nuggety tough guy/girl who’s possibly got a Napoleon complex!)  But the two things I’d stress – though it’s good for any player to have – is supreme fitness to always ‘be there’ when it counts, and to have the ability to run and pass the ball with intelligence.  These players can be your extra backs in attack and defence (covering, as many do, for poor defending fly halves), or be the inspirational forward who puts his or her body on the line to win a crucial steal in the tackle contest.

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Trust in your abilities.

Making your tackle is vital to team defence as it means the rest of your team mates can focus on their individual responsibilities. Miss yours and someone has to drop theirs to cover you. I feel that quite often missed tackles are a result of lack of focus. Trust that you know what it takes to make an effective tackle, be determined to win and dominate the tackle contest, and your team mates can rely upon you in unit / team defensive situations.

Trust in the player(s) beside you.

Knowing that the person beside you can and will make her tackle allows you to focus on ‘the next thing.’ Rugby is a dynamic game, and continuity is one of the main aims of a successful attack. If the person beside you has declared responsibility for the ball carrier, and you can trust her to make the tackle, then you can focus on shutting down the attacking side’s continuity potential. This could simply mean getting over top of the tackle to steal / challenge for the ball. Or if an offload is likely, you could step into that passing lane – whilst STILL being lined up with the person you’re responsible for! – and either prevent an offload or even intercept it. Or it might allow you to move more quickly into a post position so that you can disrupt the attack on the next phase. Trust within such close ‘units’ maintains the integrity of our defensive line and allows players not making tackles to do the ‘next best thing’ in shutting down the attacking team.

Trust in your team.

Trust here takes both abstract and literal forms as you maintain a belief in our common goals and cohesion, along with your individual and collective abilities as players. Even where abilities are mixed, you can maintain trust that all can do the basics well – which itself is good enough for success – or that others can be trusted upon to make the ‘big play’ when it matters most (especially as many such players feed off the faith their team mates have in them). That sort of faith and support builds a positive team culture. In general, team trust in defence ensures that we, at all times, maintain unity, focus, and determination to win the ball back as quickly as possible.


In what, more specific ways, is ‘trust’ important in playing defence?

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The other night at training the players were working on changing pace, and I noticed how changing gears for them meant trying to find another higher one after hitting top speed. Others not blessed with pace were left in the wake of those who did. Wondering what they were trying to get out of the self-directed drill, I asked them a question: Is it okay slow down to a jog when you’ve got the ball?

Immediately, a few players said, yes, but I challenged them to tell me why. Sprinting with the ball can allow you to gain the most ground, yes, and we want to play the game at a high tempo to take advantage of opportunities. But there are times when such opportunities aren’t so apparent and you’re staring at a defender who’s got you lined up fairly well, so a change of pace can allow you time to Scan, Plan, and Act. A ball carrier who goes from a run to a jog can…

* Buy time for support to get in position to be an option / provide assistance
* Lull the defender into believing she has an easy tackle, only to have the ball carrier pop/pass to her support sprinting past
* Lull the defender into believing she has an easy tackle, only to have the ball carrier speed up again and/or change direction and run past
* Cause a moment of indecision / overestimation on the part of the defender, to provide the attacker with a chance to ‘do the opposite’ (this is a ‘big concept’ – but in a moment of panic, a defender might predict your move before you’ve made it. At a full sprint it’s hard for you to adjust, so by adjusting your pace a bit, you can take a second to gauge what she is going to do and then quickly alter your approach to beat her. Essentially, this the thinking behind a simple sidestep.)
* (Anything else? Happy to hear your suggestions!)

One of the best at altering pace and reacting to a defender’s cues is New Zealand’s Victoria Grant. Always having the ball in two hands – which, as I’ve said before, causes indecision in defenders as you can pass in any direction easily – she uses a variety of steps and paces to gauge what defenders are doing and then simply take advantage of it.

While not the best example of her ‘slowing down’ at :33 in the following video, you will see that by avoiding the top gear straight run, she’s able to change direction a few times and almost literally turn the Aussie defender inside out. Such moves are simply not possible at full stride.


Edit:  I followed this article up with an explanation of Running Rugby.  Click on the green bit in the last sentence to read about the major asterisk I’ve now placed on THIS article.  Slowing down can lull defenders, but one must have been going fast in the first place!

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