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Archive for September, 2012

As a visual learner, I’ve always been interested in watching sport and trying new things (as a player) and adding to my knowledge (as a coach) from what I saw on the telly in addition to enjoying the spectacle.  The wonders of the Inter Web have allowed me to expand upon this as I can watch way more sport than I can with even the best cable packages.  Video clips on YouTube are an important learning tool for me as rugby’s a sport that does continue to evolve, both in the way athletes play the game and how coaches direct it.  There isn’t a lot of great coaching material that gets published – compared to my first sports, American football and basketball anyway – and even tv analysis leaves me scratching my head at times as presenters can be full of hot air.  So analysing video myself, looking at cause and effect over and over via the slide bar and watch again button, allow me to pick apart the action myself.

I don’t think it’s a difficult skill to acquire and I’ve proved this by running a classroom session with a high school girls’ team.  I asked them to get into groups based upon unit (front row, second row, back row, half backs, centres, back three) and find a try they liked.  I then asked them to show it to the whole team via the big screen in our computer lab and explain what elements led to the try being scored.  This was the first time I did something like this, previously walking through video clips by myself, and was fully prepared for it to fail.  I tried to boost confidence, esp. with the front rowers who said they just make tackles and ruck and have no idea how tries are created, with a little ‘coaching’.  I said to them that every action on the field should have a reaction from the defence.  If the defence reacts well, then the attack is probably going to be shut down.  If not, the attackers should get through – unless the attackers themselves have botched it somehow.  Little technical and tactical things that we can see – like not being aligned properly, looking up before securing the ball, poor communication leading to two players going after the same ball carrier leaving an attacker free, etc. – are really how tries are scored or not.  These subtleties might not be so obvious when watching a game on tv (not to mention live!) as the action is so quick, angles not ideal, and because there are so many players on the field.  (One reason I’m not such a fan of sevens is that mistakes are more likely and obvious given the extra space, whereas in fifteens attack and defence is more nuanced.)

There are plenty of great accounts on YouTube – with legal uploads too! – that you can observe and analyse to develop your knowledge of the game and to give you an idea of what to work on at practice.  Kids love this stuff as well, and especially for those of us in countries where televised rugby is hard to watch, sending them here is not only a way of getting them more excited about the game, but also to learn what Clive Woodward called the ‘critical non-essentials’ of the game that are hard to train for – like quick lineouts, dummy passes, quick tap penalties, etc.

Let’s look at the Aviva Premiership’s Try of the Week for round one of the new season.

The try scored by Christian Wade is so much more than just his amazing step and speed.

LESSON 1 – Attacking with purpose:  As the announcer says, Quins were probing in attack but Wasps’ aggressive defence stopped them.  Fly half Nick Evans runs sideways allowing centre Eliot Daly to take him down quickly in the tackle.  Running sideways isn’t a complete sin in my book, but you’d better have an exit strategy because tackling someone from the side is much easier than from the front, and Daly dominates the tackle.  One of the Quins backs needed to call for the ball, either wide, or on a switch to straighten up their attack.

LESSON 2 – Dominant tackles and tackle contest:  Poor body positioning from Evans aside, this could have just been a simple tackle that resulted in a ruck.  But Daly tackles him quickly and immediately gets back on his feet to challenge for the ball – nice and legal.  This is not possible with high / slow tackles, as support will be there to secure attacking ball.  In addition to Daly’s dominance and aggression in the tackle contest, he has immediate support from flanker Jonathan Poff.  Note how close together they are, making them stronger in the fight for the ball / counter ruck.  (It does become a bit messy … but the dominance aspect is something refs have to consider these days.  Players go off their feet most times, but the two Wasps players were in dominant positions and the ball was made available so quickly that, like the other few dozen times this happens in a game that doesn’t prevent a fair and reasonable contest, play continues.)

LESSON 3- Quick ball:  It could have ended with a ruck and the scrum half moving to play the ball or a forward to pick and drive around the fringe of that ruck – as I see most teams do.  The next key element before we see Wade’s brilliant feet in action is the lock not opting for the selfish / unthoughtful pick and drive, but the quickest of passes out to the players who had both space and a numbers advantage.  At 0:08, we see #5 Marco Wentzel play the ball in a diving pass to what ends up being four backs against one.

LESSON 4 – Defensive recognition and communication:  Not only was winger George Lowe caught outnumbered, you can see that at 0:07 and 0:08 he’s not even taking notice that there are that many players outside him.  Same goes for scrum half Danny Care, who should know better as an England player, that the tackle was lost and he should be directing traffic to shore up their defence.  Lowe, as the last man in defence on the wing should have let that ruck go and positioned himself to not just cover Wade, but also call for help on the blind side.  Instead he runs in, then has to run back out to cover Wade.  Wentzel’s quick thinking pass sets the Wasps backs off, but better defence might have prevented them from such an easy run.

LESSON 5 – Who takes who?:  Lowe was one of last season’s great young discoveries and is no slouch of a player, but he needed to do two things (or at least have help) and he might have stopped the try.  Firstly, he retreats a bit to ‘jockey’ the two attackers in front of him – a tactic that’s meant to buy time and cause indecision in the ball carrier.  Giving space away is not ideal, but in this case he’s already in trouble so it’s not a bad option to allow coverage to come across.  If communication was better from the cover, he might have been able to step into the initial ball carrier or been able to stay on the outside man and trust that cover would take the ball carrier.  In this situation, I’d coach the second option, as it’d be more difficult for the cross cover to get to the outside and cover the speedy Wade should Lowe take the Wasps player who first gets the ball.  (That’s debatable, though.)

LESSON 6 – Timing:  The initial receiver is Wasps inside centre Andrea Masi.  First off, he does a great job to get back on side into a position of depth that gives him space to not only run when he gets the ball but also time to think about what his options are.  It’s not clear as to whether Wade calls for the pass or Masi sets him up, but either way the timing of it all was excellent.  Masi takes it forward in two hands, which is key because it means Lowe can’t be sure as to whether he’ll crash it up – as inside centres are oft to do – or pass.  If Masi had tucked it away, it’d have been easier for Lowe to commit to him as the pass wouldn’t be as likely.  His forward run also serves to commit Lowe to a certain degree.  If he’d passed immediately, Lowe could have slid off and immediately picked up Wade.

LESSON 7 – Easy space:  I tell me players to seek out ‘easy space’ as much as possible – clear room into which they can run.  Space between defenders is obvious ‘easy space’.  But important ‘easy space’ – especially when facing well organised defenders who aren’t allowing attackers to get into gaps – is also in between ball carrier and defender, i.e. the space in front.  This importantly gives the ball carrier time to create or preserve space for someone else.  And this is what Masi does so well.  Masi, now without the ‘easy space’ in front, having drawn Lowe somewhat, gives a well placed pass to Wade and puts him into ‘easy space’ out wide.  If Masi had selfishly cut into the ‘easy space’ out wide, Lowe would have drifted with him … possibly allowing Wade a switch back, but which would also make it easier for cross cover to take him out.  Instead, he fixes Lowe in his channel, preserves the width for Wade and gives him the opportunity to use it with a well timed pass.

LESSON 8 – Footwork:  Christian Wade is fast, easily one of the fastest in the Premier League.  But it’s not his straight line speed that gets him the try.  George Lowe is also fast and Wade isn’t the largest or most powerful of players so a well timed pursuit might stop him.  Wade brilliantly makes a subtle change of direction to run at Lowe, and then quickly swerves away and beats him to the outside.  Lowe’s reaction shows fear that Wade will beat him on his inside – though I’d say his positioning to stop that was pretty good – and as such he hesitates and nearly stands up.  Wade effectively ‘freezes’ or ‘fixes’ him in place and makes his real move.  If Lowe had backed himself, and committed to the pursuit and tackle, I think he might have at least got a hand to him.  Instead, by being hesitant and falling for the feint side step, he lost his momentum and his ability to close down the space and make a tackle on Wade.
There is is.  A one minute clip that can be broken down into many teachable elements.  Watching game tape can be tedious and boring for the players, esp. at school level where most are out for fun.  The aforementioned high school team interestingly enough all chose to talk about tries that matched how they liked to play on the field.  We never watched our own games, but I’d look for trends in the few that were filmed and by consulting my own notes and we’d work on those elements at practice – both ones that needed reinforcement and those that needed correction.  We did analyse our own game tape when I coached at a university, but there we only addressed major trends.  So I’d pick out two or three things we did well and two or three major things that needed work and we’d break those down as above as a highlight / reminder and make those elements the focus for training the following week.  I think involving the players in the discussion by asking questions rather than giving answers, making the whole process a constructive rather than instructive one, is most important.  The university women demonstrated this in their desire to discuss those few clips and act upon the lessons, commenting that they felt these sessions much more productive than the ones their friends on the football team had to endure where they’d watch the entire game and break down every little element – if they managed to stay awake!

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I was reading discussion topic where a winger said he was being given a shot at fly half, but was asking for advice.  What follows is my response.  Now I think there are different ways to play the position, as hinted at below, but followers of this blog will know that I favour a style of play that is more open and off-the-cuff – but with clear guidelines on what we’re trying to achieve with regards to the first strike in attack and subsequent support.  Anyway, hopefully you can take what you feel will fit your team.  Feel free to leave comments as to how else the position can be played, especially if you have significant experience as a 10!

Develop a relationship with your 9(s) such that you know their passing capabilities (off both hands!) and don’t stretch it too much. I preach a wide game, but had to keep reminding one FH that if she stood right at the SH’s limit, the pass won’t necessarily be as accurate as it’ll be if you’re one step nearer in a more comfortable range.

Communication between you two is vital and must be short and sharp to speed transfer and processing of information. For example, one simple set of calls we used this past summer “Red” – SH can run the show with the fwds and “Green” – fwds clear the channel and get behind the backs as it’s going to them.  The FH would use two other colours to indicate – passing / running move vs. kicking option.  The other backs were free to call those as well, especially the veteran inside centre, if they saw clear opportunities – which served to take some of the pressure off the young, developing fly half.

Determine how you prefer to take the ball and attack and ensure the 9(s) know it. I’ve coached some FHs who play best running onto the ball from a bit of depth to build up a head of steam and pick their best option – usually taking on the defensive line a bit and either having a go or manipulating defenders with the run and have the supporting players attack the spaces created (like Reds / Wallabies fly half Quade Cooper). Others proved to be best playing nearly standing still and flatter, focusing on getting the ball to our strike runners ASAP and only having a go when defenders peeled off (more like England’s Jonny Wilkinson if you want a reference). Most, however, mixed it up – playing a little deeper from static play to account for organised defenders being in a better position to rush them and gradually getting flatter in open play when they had quick ball and defenders on the back foot.

Play Calling?   I’m not a fan of it because I don’t like wasting a lot of practice time on set moves that rarely get used when we could be constantly fine tuning reading defences and building a dynamic attack.  That said, the team has to train for “heads up rugby” if you’re going to abandon plays. I employed this for the high school team which won a city title in 2010. We had no plays, but focused on attacking space with strike runners and supporting their attacks. Essentially, the FH caught the ball flat and standing and:

  • Hit 12 early to give her time to play as she wished
  • Hit 12 late and at an angle into a gap (could be done with a forward as well, and our forwards would always move in behind 10/12 when the ruck was won – SH would yell “clear” and “sweep” to get them out of the way, and to ‘sweep’ behind the backs)
  • Hit 13 early with a skip or a pass from 10 to 12 to 13 to allow her to use footwork and tempt a defender to rush out of alignment.  Unlike a few teams at the top level these days, I prefer the quick stepping, explosive style of 13 (as opposed to the straight-line, hard running variety).  Give these people the ball with lots of space in front and they tend to make things happen.  On the note about defensive alignment, watch games and see what a deep pass to the outside centre does to the defence – it seems really tricky to cover well even at the top level.  (I should cover this in a future post with video evidence because it’s fascinating to see international quality players put themselves at risk as often as they do!)
  • Hit or 15 / blind wing / forward late through gaps with the centres as decoys.

The FH would have a go when defenders started ignoring her, keying instead on the supposed strike runners. Those players knew enough to attack “spaces rather than faces” when they got the ball and the supporting players ran good support lines and maintained communication.  We also maintained the reminder that attacking one gap can cause defenders to over-commit, opening up space elsewhere, so a strike move was never simple a ‘crash ball’ (a phrase I banned, in fact!).  The reminder included ‘keep the ball in two hands and listen’ because if two or more defenders converged on the strike, a quick pass or two away should see us off to the try line!

Obviously, if we had huge over laps, passing to space was our first option, but when facing reasonably well organised defences, that was it!  Just a few options, with the notion that we were going to take on the defence with determination to get through or around them, and both physical and verbal support.

You have to work on ‘game scenarios’ every training and really guide players through the process of developing a keen sense of alignment, timing, and angles between the entire set of backs + reserves (key, that last bit, as one person not in the know can mess it up).  I’ve posted a few of these ‘games’ – not ‘drills’ as I want them to scan, plan, communicate and act upon and support decisions in a dynamic, not closed environment here:  http://rugbyresources.wikispaces.com/  It’s in this environment the developing fly half can determine what style works best for him / her, and when one style or another is best used, with positive and constructive feedback from coaches and team mates.

If you MUST call plays for whatever reason, I still prefer them to be kept to a simple strike move (an unders / overs line, a miss pass, a loop, an inside pass, etc.) and demand supporting players read the action / reaction of the defence and be ready to call it off or call for another pass if a better opportunity arises. To me, if you’re achieving quick ball with ample support, you shouldn’t need plays as the defence will never get organised and you just have to attack space (or ‘branches of the tree’ – ie. no crashes, always trying to get defenders off balance and get around them) and support the attack.

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