Archive for February, 2011

After the opening round of the Six Nations, I felt France impressed me most in their attack and today I read a great assessment of it by former England coach Brian Ashton.  His wise words of wisdom tell the full story, so I won’t bother adding my own in this post.  If you’re keen to learn more from a master of open, running rugby, then check out his blog here: Brian Ashton’s Blog

Here’s what he said about the French performance last weekend:

If England’s was the best victory of the opening round, it was France who delivered the best attacking performance. I assume Andy Robinson is still mightily annoyed at the soft turnovers conceded by his Scotland team, but it was no small thing for them to score three good tries of their own. It was just that Les Bleus operated at a different level when the force was with them. In doing so, they highlighted the great virtues that underpin their way of introducing young players to, and developing their talent for, the sport of rugby union.

Go down the traditional Anglo-Saxon instructional road – set out the cones, the tackle shields, the body suits; repeat the drill-based practice sessions ad nauseam – and you produce players who are strong technically but have little in the way of invention and still less understanding of the flow of the dynamic game. Approach things in the games-based, laissez-faire style favoured by the French and you end up with players with the capacity to adapt to, and exploit, the widest range of situations.

Two elements of the French performance in Paris showed this. Firstly, they showed a precious ability to use turnover ball to immediate advantage. At one point, Scotland had a turnover of their own, but kicked to the French, who showed their gratitude by scoring a try. But how often do we see this in today’s game? All too rarely. Receiving turnover possession in broken field, where the field of play is in chaos, should be the stuff of dreams, but not every one grasps the principles of attack as completely as the French.

Secondly, they demonstrated a high level of understanding of how to create and attack space and keep the ball alive in a variety of channels while changing flow and tempo at will. This goes back to the way the French practise from a very young age, concentrating as they do on the subtlety of their running lines, the weight and length of their passing, the variations in their offloads, the appreciation of when to go tight on the drive, on how to “read” a defence.

The glory of it is that their forwards do all this, as well as their backs. William Servat and Thomas Domingo showed against the Scots that they were proficient in the art (not the science!) of rugby. Not for them the easy option of going to ground as a first option, thereby playing into the hands of the opposition. They did something much more positive, more challenging and, ultimately, more exhilarating.

Brian Ashton; 12 Feb., 2011

Here are highlights of that match.  One thing that I will add is to note how they keep the ball alive and how active and ready the supporting players are!  Okay, one more thing as I re-watch it … note how when the French player grubbered the ball through for Medard’s try, he’d committed the defence.  In stark contrast, the Scotsman who attempted the same didn’t commit anyone and didn’t recognise that the French had any kick option well covered – which, along with their great handling, led to their counter attack try.  I love a risky offload or kick ahead, but they MUST be the intelligent and called-for option, not a “I’ve got no other ideas, so let’s do this and hope” one.

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Photo courtesy of Craig White

Despite our team running in five tries yesterday, I didn’t think our backline clicked as well or as often as I hoped it would.  I put this down to first game after a long break, though I think it’s time I had them take another step in becoming better ‘thinking’ rugby players.  Their alignment wasn’t bad, their determination and ability with ball in hand quite good, but what was off was their timing.  In some cases the outside centre was too deep to be of use and in others the inside centre was too flat to be a useful passing option, and vice versa.  I forgave them because on defence they were great, but also because the former is still young and learning the game and the latter is very new to our team.  Their challenge this week, and for the coming weeks as this awareness won’t come instantly, will be to learn more about each member of their unit as rugby players.

One of the best backlines I’ve ever seen live was the one I played with (as a front row forward) when I was 18 and playing for a local club.  All but one had been playing school rugby together for four years and they were good mates off the field – the outlier being from another school, but who was on the left wing.  They knew each other’s abilities and tendencies to the point that they played off each other intuitively, and rarely needed a planned move to break the gain line or score a try.  So what sort of things did they know about each other that made them so effective?

  1. Quality of each player’s personal skills... meaning how long each player could pass, and the level of accuracy they possessed.  As I say to my players prior to working on spin passing, if you know the player beside you can make a long pass, then you can align yourselves much wider, opening larger gaps between defenders (because most good defenders will line up with you – if not, then you could beat them around the outside!)
  2. Average speed and quickness. Note that speed = straight line sprinting, while quickness = is, generally speaking, agility, lateral movement, and acceleration off the mark.  You might have to lie a little flatter OR start your run earlier to be able to keep up with someone who’s faster than you, or the opposite if you’re faster than the ball carrier.
  3. Preferred means of receiving a pass. This primarily refers to the way fly halves take the ball, but fly halves aren’t always on their feet, ready in the first receiver position.  Who often steps in for them?  How do they like to take a pass – standing flat, big run from deep, little run flat and out, etc?  This knowledge helps the support runners time their run.  Maybe the receiver has a certain physical trigger that will help you start your run, or maybe you have to consider how her tendencies in this area affect timing, so you might have to consider what the previous passer does.  The big one here is running vs standing and flat vs deep.  Each has it’s advantages, and I think the disadvantages of each are accentuated by support players not knowing how to time their runs accordingly.
  4. Tendencies with ball in hand. This is related to the last point, but deals more with what the ball carrier tends to do when they have the ball and are going to keep it for a certain length of time.  For example, when I play touch I often end up as first receiver and I prefer to stand flat and make a sudden move at the inside shoulder of the player outside of me.  I’m deceptively quick so am going for the line break, but if it’s not on I’m hoping (key word!) my support runner realises that I’ve just made him a hole and I’ll look to give him a flat pass into space.  If he’s too deep, then no worries I’ll still give a leading pass and we’ll try an attack somewhere else.  This is why I like having a 12 who can also scan, think and pass in contact rugby as this often happens against congested defences.  If he’s too early then I’ll use him as a decoy and fire a longer, slightly deeper – but still leading pass – to the next person.  As another example, we have a wonderful outside centre who’s both quick and fast and can beat most defenders on her first move.  I’ve been using this an example to get the other backs thinking about how they can run off her.  The winger needs to realise that her defender will often get drawn into this break and needs to be ready to call for a pass before the centre is closed down.  Alternatively, our full back could find an excellent hole in the defending 13’s channel and call for an inside ball as she turns to chase our centre.  It’s these sort of tendencies players need to be aware of so they don’t have to react as much to things as they develop, but can predict what is going to happen based upon prior knowledge.
  5. Agreed-upon method of communication. This goes without saying, and I’ve talked about it a lot in this blog already, but I can’t stress enough that communication not only needs to be present but also must be short (no sentences, just monosyllabic words and small phrases), relevant (not: “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” but “On your left.  Pop… NOW!”) and even to provide advice (“Hold it! GO!” … when someone’s about to pass, but has a huge hole in front of them, or “See [name of someone out wide]” when there’s a clear and imminent opportunity elsewhere.)

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Often, it is true that the harder they fall, and quite easily as well.

I was reading a question posed by a coach on a forum asking how can one get a gentle giant to actually use his size rather than what’s currently happening – getting cut down in the tackle quite easily.  There is the perception that bigger = better when it comes to rugby player selection, but of the reasons why this is both true and false, one of the key ‘it depends’ factors is whether or not that player knows how to use his / her size ‘advantage.’

There were times in my playing days when I’d prefer to tackle the player who stood over 6’4″ because his longer legs and torso made for an easier target to hit and fold.  The main danger was the long fending arm, but if I could parry it away, it was easy to throw him off balance, even by grabbing said arm and dragging him in (though the current generation of young players probably never see a baggy long sleeved jersey any more, which made that easier!).  That’s probably the first tip for big players using their size effectively – long arms are great to keep would-be tacklers at bay.  Any player, for that matter, should aim for the shoulder, either to stand the tackler up and keep him / her – literally – at arms length, or even shove the tackler down to the ground if they’ve leaned in too early and not kept balanced.

Another thing to consider is how big players carry themselves forward.  Some I’ve known, and even see in the higher leagues, have trouble getting low and holding that position.  Being ‘low’ lowers the centre of gravity and makes one more stable.  Running into contact whilst standing straight up is an invitation to be dominated.  I see big players get rocked by little ones all the time because they’re running too upright with little forward momentum and making themselves an easy-to-tackle target.

There’s also the classic case of running straight into contact – which big Manu Tuilagi did way too much on his Saxons debut last week. A big side step before, or even just a determined power step into contact might help him avoid the easy tackle.  In the following photo, his body positioning isn’t bad as he’s not going to present an easy target, but he’d have been better off making a late step to get to the outside of one of the defenders.  In this case, he’s at risk of turning the ball over as both tacklers are likely to end up in dominant positions, one ready to jackal for the steal.

The power step, if you’ve not heard of it, is not as big as a sidestep, but sees the ball carrier attack the ‘branches of the tree’ as it were – stepping away from the midline of a defender and aiming for a shoulder.  The hope is to get the defender fixed to the ground with the straight run, and then forcing him off balance into a more difficult arm tackle.  Done with a low, balanced body position, and a degree of intensity, it’s a perfect way to break a tackle when there’s not much of a gap to run into or at least be able to pop a pass from contact to a supporting player.  Tuilagi could have made a big step toward the outside of one of these defenders to put him off-balance and attempt to break a falling, arms-only tackle.

Where all of this is in place, or is slowly developing for the ineffective big player, working on offloading awareness and ability might be a solution for your team’s sake.  This is especially true for a player whose size is likely to draw a few defenders rather than just one. And as such simple maths dictates that at least one or two team mates should be free somewhere!  A player like New Zealand’s convert from League, Sonny Bill Williams is a master at this – he’s a powerful straight-ahead runner who’ll often draw double or triple coverage.  His acute and perfect offloading ability means he’ll put team mates into space when his presence with the ball has drawn too much attention.  In this photo, he’s not only taken on just the one defender, but has put him off balance with a power step before contact (note how the tackler’s in a poor position and how stable SBW is), and not only is he getting an offload away, but he’s also screening such that the recipient of the pass should have a nice clean hole to run through.

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‘Running Rugby’ has become a bit of buzz phrase in recent years to describe a certain brand of rugby that supposedly only a few teams play.  This reminds me of edu-babble or other jargon that really tries to make something old sound new and exciting.  Surely rugby players weren’t jogging back in the old days!

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about ‘taking it easy‘ in attack, and I hope for those of you who read it, the message wasn’t that rugby should be played at a slower pace.  If I could put that whole article into one sentence, I’d say that there are fractions of a second in games when slowing down can allow players the opportunity to read what’s going on in front of them and turn on the jets with a clearer decision.  This week I send our team a cool compilation of Welsh tries from the last 40 years …

… lots of great examples of ‘running rugby’ in that video, and as it covered four decades, it’s probably safe to say that having a go at the defence at high speed is not something new.  I think this video must have inspired my coaching partner, Bill, a man who lived through each of those eras and who has nothing but praise for the Welsh game, despite being English.  He gave our team a straight-talk explanation of ‘running rugby’ at our last session that, I think, really inspired some players to finally have a go at the line.

His key points (paraphrased – I should have recorded it!) were this:

  • If the space is there, run forward into it with determination.
  • Don’t pass for the sake of passing, pass because someone else has more space in front of them than you do
  • …. in both cases, we want to go forward – the basic principle of the game – not sideways, thereby nullifying supporting players’ opportunities.
  • Support runners need to actually support, and that means sprinting into position to be a passing option for the ball carrier, not standing back admiring the ball carrier’s break.

To me, he added that he’d rather lose a game by a close score if both teams played with intensity and many tries were scored.  We both agreed that low-scoring games which seem to crawl along aimlessly are not fun for spectators or players, but we continue to see games like that because teams lack the creativity, belief in their abilities, faith in each other’s abilities, and/or passion.  Any one or combination of those, I feel, contributes to boring, ineffective rugby.

But we all run when playing rugby, right?  I think there’s a difference in what everyone aims to do and what good teams actually do with regard to running the ball.  Maybe it’s worth a comparison:

  1. Effective teams run forward at spaces.  Ineffective teams run forward aimlessly.
  2. Effective players run with the ball in two hands, knowing that the pass should always be ‘on.’  Ineffective players will tuck the ball away selfishly and go on their own.
  3. Effective players will run at space knowing that if they cannot make a clean break, they will likely have drawn more than one defender, ensuring that one team mate, somewhere is unmarked and therefore must not ‘die’ with the ball.  Ineffective players have no conciousness of the consequences of their actions.

I think those are three key things about running rugby that are simple enough for small children, but which are often forgotten by adults at the highest level.  Rugby is easier when there is time and space to scan, think, and act upon a plan of attack. I suggested in the earlier article, that taking a second to downshift gears can allow an attacker more time to scan, but it’s important to note that (s)he doesn’t want to lose the advantage of initiative. Today, I watched a poor Welsh team with no initiative go – surprise, surprise – nowhere in attack.  I don’t think slowing down is a sin, but one should have been having a crack at the defence before trying to lull them into a false sense of security.  Now I also think it’s risky to run at a team at breakneck pace, especially if the support isn’t there and the ball carriers aren’t that confident in their own abilities, but what impressed me most about our team this week was their confidence with ball in hand.  They took the ball to the line fast and with determination, support in position and with great communication.  While the pace meant they had little time themselves to change the plan, this was also true for the defence – again, time and space making rugby easier, but this time on the other side of the ball.  They took that away from the defence, and with initiative and support on their side, sudden changes in movement or ball carrier meant the time-starved defenders would always be one step behind them.

That’s running rugby in its purest form.


Edit:  I don’t normally do addendums to posts, but I just wrote something on a forum about the ineffectiveness of Welsh centre James Hook yesterday and thought it applied here to further explain my point about running ‘at’ the defence:

“He needs to be reigned in a bit and told to focus on attacking with determination and just let things happen.  It seemed like he was always trying to do something too special or as if he was taking time to ‘plan’ and as a result it always so slow to develop, ending up coming to nought.  For me, the best attackers take it forward with more pace than Hook did and then perform ‘the magic’ more instinctively, as defenders panic and make their decision, and less … as if it were ‘let’s take a second and see how this plays out’ (can’t think of a word at the moment), which allows defenders time and doesn’t really put them under pressure.

It’s what we were working on in our own training this week.  Take the defenders on at pace and they have to commit to something – an individual, a certain body position, up out of the line, etc. – and then you can act as a result of what he or they chose to do.  At times, Hook – and Wales – took the ball forward with no real purpose such that England didn’t have to ‘commit’ defensively, just hold their shape and defend easily.”

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