Archive for September, 2011

I had a good question from a coaching colleague today regarding who can do what when attempting to steal the ball at the tackle contest and thought I’d share my reply:

Regarding the contact area, my philosophy these days is to not get bogged down in ‘un-winnable battles’ on the ground (unless the counter-ruck is on) and go for the steal in the next tackle.  If there are no attacking players immediately present to set up a ruck, however, then going for the steal is a MUST in my book…

As for your situation, I think I could put it simply by saying that both defenders HAVE to release.  The person actually going to ground can get up and play the ball from any direction, while the ‘tackle assist’ player must come through the gate.  The tackle assist still has to release the tackled player, be on her feet, which should be supporting her body weight.  Technically, I think she also needs have shoulders above hips, but that one’s not called too strictly by my observation (that said, I ALWAYS teach my players to adhere to “shoulders above hips” because it’s just safer that way, so they’re not exposing neck/back to the player coming to clear out).

Here’s the relevant bit of Law:
(a) When a player tackles an opponent and they both go to ground, the tackler must immediately release the tackled player.
Sanction: Penalty kick
(b) The tackler must immediately get up or move away from the tackled player and from the ball at once.
Sanction: Penalty kick
(c) The tackler must get up before playing the ball and then may play the ball from any direction.
Sanction: Penalty kick


Law 15.6 (c) Players in opposition to the ball carrier who remain on their feet who bring the ball carrier to ground so that the player is tackled must release the ball and the ball carrier. Those players may then play the ball providing they are on their feet and do so from behind the ball and from directly behind the tackled player or a tackler closest to those players’ goal line.
Sanction: Penalty kick

I’ve read a fair bit of debate on the two-man tackle technique, which has come from Rugby League.  If you’re trying to stop the ball close to the try line, first-high / second-low makes sense.  (In League they do this to slow the play down because as soon as a tackle is made the entire defending team, apart from the tacklers, have to retreat 10m.  If they went low and quick, there’s a good chance they’d be caught on the back foot).  In other places in Union, however, I think low and quick by the first into contact is best as such a tackle usually places the ball on OUR side allowing the ‘tackle assist’ player to come in and poach the ball.  I think both have their place – Ireland have been stopping teams in their tracks with the high hit first in the RWC – and their big, aggressive forwards are good at stopping the ensuing drive.  I wonder if high / low, though, reduces the likelihood of a poach because the ‘high’ defender is working against the ‘low’ with regard to bringing the player down and forcing her to release.  That’s just my opinion.  Either way, getting the player down quickly, releasing and getting to one’s feet (or rolling away) and challenging the ball is about dominance.  Nothing frustrates me more than the lazy high challenge – or the ‘ball room dance’ technique, which gives the opposition a chance to form a ruck because the process of going to ground takes longer.  A quick, dominant tackle contest can catch them well out of position and give the defending team the advantage. 

Here’s an example of a drill I use:

… after the technique is sound, I move to providing a support runner or two to increase pressure on the defenders to get the timing right.  When I do that, though, it’s important to have someone ‘reffing’ the situation so cheating isn’t reinforced.  The trick in the whole process is to determine WHEN the tackler touches ball VS. WHEN the ruck forms.  She only has rights to the ball if the ruck hasn’t formed first.  (My favourite drill to practice this is to have one attacker run against four defenders.  Not all are going to get involved in the tackle – two at the most – and the other two can work on getting in position for the next phase and communicating this.)

Love this bit from the Green and Gold Rugby Blog:

“Perhaps the most novel approach so far comes from South Africa, where the Stormers’ players have taken to clapping their hands in an effort to show they have released the tackled player before attempting the steal…weird huh?  If you’re attempting a steal and you know it, clap you’re hands…I can’t see it catching on.” 

[I think it’s a smart idea – takes a split second and makes it obvious to the ref!]

In this clip you can see some examples of how very brief the ‘release’ has to be (though I think the one at :43 is iffy … ref might have got that one wrong).

And some more here, with some clear-cut, and others maybe a bit debatable:

… hopefully you don’t mind a bit of Bon Jovi!   😉

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Here are five more things I learned over the course of my coaching career that just sort of occurred from trial and observation:

1. Ball in two hands.  The first sport I played seriously, and it’s commonplace in that game for ball carriers to ‘tuck it away’ and just run.  In rugby, there are people beside / behind you to pass to in order to keep the play flowing.  Keeping the ball in two hands not only allows you to get the ball away quicker (rather than, first, having to grab it with the second hand – even fractions of a second count!), but it also keeps the defence second guessing.  After watching a lot more rugby, I realised that defenders would hesitate in front of the ball-in-two-hands attacking player, not being absolutely sure of what he was going to do.  Conversely, a player who ‘tucks it away’ isn’t near as likely to get a pass off – unless his name is Sonny Bill Williams! – so defenders are more confident rushing to complete the tackle.

2. Preservation of space.  In football, the ball carrier’s only job was to gain as much territory as possible – essentially by himself, with the help of some planned / spontaneous blocking.  In rugby, it’s not an individual effort and the game is best played if contact can be avoided.  Creation of space through deception, like a switch run, came quickly to me as it reminded me of the running / blocking lines of football, but preservation of space is, I think, unique to the continuity of rugby.  If I can’t immediately get through right here, but there’s lots of space to my left – along with a team mate – I’m better off holding a straight line to keep (or preserve) the defender here and make a timely pass to put into space my team mate over there.  In football, a running back would probably try and turn that corner himself.  A couple of years ago, I was delighted to see footage from an old football game from the leather helmet days in which three passes were made from the line of scrimmage to the wide receiver.  The quarter back passed to running back, who broke the line and passed to a slot back; he drew attention from the defenders and passed to the wide receiver who scored in the corner.  I’d have LOVED to play football in the 1920s or 1930s, especially when the forward pass was relatively new and not widely used.  The opportunities for a tactically minded coach / player must have been limitless!

3. Predictable defending.  This one came quite early.  If I stand in a certain spot, or make a run at a certain angle a good defender is going to mirror that.  If he doesn’t, well then great, I’m gone.  But even if he does, my alignment can provide opportunities for others.  For example, if a player closer to the ball than you has incredible quickness, standing a little wider in alignment will draw the defender wider (a good defender, that is) giving your quick-stepping team mate more room to beat his opponent to the outside.  If the defender doesn’t slide, you have that advantage.  It also doesn’t stop there.  If your team mate makes a ‘half break’ into the space, but draws the attention of your defender, then call for the pass as your man has just created an opportunity for you.  Defenders act and react to attacking players, providing opportunities.  If they don’t, your job is even easier.

4. Diamond support.  Support is one of the principles of the game.  It’s essential for continuity, another principle.  One person in support is good, two great, but three is wonderful.  Instead of shuffling the ball in a draw-and-pass motion, which allowed the defence to close down space, I favour a quick pass to not only get the ball to someone with plenty of space in front of them, but also with plenty of support around them.  From a scrum, one of my most favoured attacks is a strike run via the outside centre – who I like to be not only fast and quick, but also with a keen eye for space and tactical sense to set up his/her team mates if the situation warrants.  Not only does the outside centre channel have lots of space available on the left and right, but there’s also another centre, a winger, and a full back in support – at least!

5. Space behind committed defender.  I’m surprised it took me so long to figure this one out, given the predictable defending and preservation of space aspects came so quickly.  Essentially, the defender committed to either a ball carrier or a support option should be an easy target to attack – not the player him/herself, but the space behind.  Example 1:  Fly half makes a straight run at his opposite number, fixing him in place.  Inside centre makes a sudden angular run at the space behind the defending fly half and calls for a short pass, slipping in behind him.  This is called an Unders Line, I suppose running ‘under’ the defensive coverage.  The opposite, an Overs Line, involves a sudden angular run by the ball carrier, not the support runner.  This is made easier, as mentioned above, when the supporting player has provided enough width for the ball carrier to make such a move.  A good defender should probably stick with his man in this situation and rely upon his inside man to cross cover the sudden line break, allowing the ball carrier a better chance of getting away.  If not, and the outside defender has to step in and help, the ball carrier needs to be wary of his support and get the ball away as he’s just created a two on one.


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The difference between un- and effective drills, in my opinion, is not in how good the drill is but how well it suits the needs of your players and how well it is managed.  Here are some lessons I’ve learned over the years that ensure I have the players’ interests at the forefront.

  1. Provide two or three objectives that should be the focus of the drill. Beginners benefit from a few simple ones, while veterans can still be confused by too many. Where teams have a mixture of experience, give the veterans different, more advanced, objectives to work on.
  2. Address different learning styles: explain technique and drills clearly, point out key aspects in a slow demonstration, and invite kinaesthetic learners to be in that demo group. For complicated open drills and dynamic scenarios, let everyone run through it a couple of times and check understanding before increasing intensity. Ask and field questions. It’ll take time, but save time in the long run.
  3. Balance correction and intensity. Often, specific technical aspects – such as passing – should involve low intensity and much room for correction. Conversely, developing unit skills should be done with moderate to high intensity and with not as much correctly. Team play often involves very little, if any, coach input as team leaders should be given the opportunity to assess and learn from their own actions.
  4. Planned progression can enhance learning and understanding. For example, if you want to work on your back line’s ability to work together in breaching a flat defence, you can start with passing drills to focus on quality, 2 v 1s to work on timing, 3 v 2s to practice unit skills, alignment, timing and communication and then finish off with a full 7 v however many defenders you want. This can take up a large chunk of your practice time, but the links between technique, skill, and game sense are made more clear and players should be able to move from being told what to do, to thinking for themselves and self-correction in a shorter period of time.
  5. There is no shame in going back a step or scrapping a plan altogether. We learn from mistakes, but few of us learn from frustration. If something’s not working, don’t be afraid to admit it and go back a step. Players will respect you more and appreciate the opportunity to realise success before trying to climb the mountain again. It’s always a good idea to leave a “skill” area set up off to the side of a dynamic scenario – if the 7 v 5 game isn’t working for one or two specific reasons, take five minutes to re-focus on those areas, and then get back to the game.

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Over my 13 years of coaching rugby I’ve had quite a few moments when I felt like the cartoon character that yelled ‘Eureka!’ and would have a tiny light bulb form above his head.  Some of these might seem quite simple, but bearing in mind I started coaching after just two years of playing, my coaching path has largely been one of self discovery.

Here they are:

1. Watching the Ball – Very early in my career, I realised I could bring stuff from other sports – and have never stopped, should I hear / see something I think I can bring to the rugby pitch.  I was never more than a blocker in football, but I remembered my coach telling the receivers to ‘catch with their eyes’ – meaning, keep your eyes on the ball until it’s secure in their hands.  It’s exactly the same on the rugby field.  When you see a player on tv dropping the ball in the open field, it’s almost guaranteed that his eyes were elsewhere before he secured the ball.

2. Thinking About the Target – My passing got a lot better when it was stated one should think about the target before the pass is made, focusing on that spot during the follow-through.  When I became a Touch player, and got to handle the ball more often, my passing improved – leading the receiver, rather than putting it right to him – as I thought about and focused on where he’d want it.  In addition, making that flick pass in heavy traffic is actually quite easy when one has an end-point for the follow-through in mind even while the ball is in flight!

3. Visualisation – Building on the last point, my goal kicking improved after reading an article by kicking guru Dave Alred, who talked a lot about visualisation.  I’ve since learned this is key to any closed skill – and explained why ski aerialists always did those funny arm swings – as there are things that require not only extreme focus, but sometimes can’t be seen if you’re to perform the skill correctly (i.e. keeping the head down well after the ball has left the tee ensures the body follows through the kick; leaning back to watch the ball fly takes the momentum out of it).

4. Flat, ‘Attacking’ Defence – when I first started playing, I don’t think there was as much focus on a ‘flat line’ defence as there was in the 2000s, after the Wallabies won RWC 1999 with rugby league defensive structures.  The flat line, ‘attacking’ aggressively closes down the space in front of the attacking team and provides them no obvious gaps.  Simple, but effective.

5. Economy of Effort – today I was reminded of lessons learned from heavy defeats suffered as a player, one coming during a 70-or-so to not-much loss to a touring Welsh side.  They continually had several players extra out wide and even then I realised we were committing way too many players to the break down.  If the few who got their first worked their butt off, or declared the contest lost, the rest could take up defensive positions elsewhere.  It’s a tough concept to get across sometimes, but to some players who feel they need to contribute, I say, “Be lazy!  Don’t go to every break down.”  I stress more clearly, though, that you have to have trust that the first few people there will do the work needed of them and that we need to have more players on our feet than they do so we can outnumber them on defence – and try and get the ball back in the next tackle contest.  Defence can be very tiring if players do not conserve their efforts for the winnable battles!

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