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Archive for October, 2012

A few years ago we were introduced to the “crouch-touch-pause-engage” sequence to bring scrums together largely in an effort to make it safer.  The sequence has synchronised player engagements so they are engaging at the same time.  The touch aspect – which seemed to anger some props I heard from – is meant to establish a safe distance and reduce the amount of collapses.  I seem to recall that aspect also not working so much at first, but I think when refs started reminding players that the touch couldn’t just be a tap on the arm – but must be an extended arm to the shoulder – that has seen (by my observation) fewer scrums that hinge straight down.  Anyone who watches a decent amount of rugby will agree, however, that scrums still collapse and an increasing amount of the running clock is wasted with re-set after re-set.  Like in this match … seriously, don’t waste your time watching the whole thing, but it takes about five minutes to re-start this play!

With the beginning of the northern hemisphere season in late August, we have seen a new scrum cadence – “crouch, touch, set”.  The argument has been that the fourth stage had forwards perched too long causing their muscles to be strained to the limit, which is probably true as front rowers have a lot of weight to hold back for those few seconds.  I think the use of the word ‘set’ has added a new dimension, which some have been demanding be changed for a few years now – that the aggressive hit created by two teams is the main problem.

Just last week, former England hooker, Brian Moore wrote an informative article, again calling for the IRB to take a serious look at how scrums engage.  He’s very passionate about this subject, even calling out officials directly saying that the very notion of the ‘hit’ must be removed, the simple argument being that it’s created a dangerous situation for front rowers that didn’t used to exist.  He’s added, quite correctly, that a ‘hit’ isn’t in the Law book as being part of the scrum engagement, and that such an action is actually contrary to the laws as there is to be no pushing until the ball is in.  His words say it best:

The word hit is not in the law book but is now freely quoted and accepted by referees who allow front rows to engage with as much force as possible and immediately thereafter drive forward as quickly as possible. Not only do they condone this dangerous practice, they have actually invented a new penalty offence, one not in the law book, of ‘not taking the hit’, which actually means penalising one pack for not pushing with enough illegally-early force to counterbalance the other pack’s illegal shove.

Elite referees, including Paddy O’Brien, the then IRB refereeing supremo, didn’t accept the point saying they had too many more important things to worry about to apply the laws as written and that most people were not that concerned anyway. They might now have to reconsider that stance, because recently the IRB published a report on the most detailed examination ever of the scrum, undertaken over three years in South Africa and at Bath University. It isn’t revolutionary in the sense that it contains startling results, indeed it mostly confirmed many things already known by experienced practitioners. The point it that for the first time these things cannot be dismissed as anecdotal or personal, they come from tests carried out at six levels of rugby from international to school.

The conclusions to the report expressly support my above contention that “modern scrumming involves a high initial impact or ‘hit’ on engagement, followed by sustained pushing forces throughout the scrum” — contrary to the law stating pushing should only begin when the ball leaves the scum-half’s hands.

It’s an important first step that this extensive IRB trial has shown that the hit is a major problem.  The report caused quite a stir, including a great article – and string of comments – on several rugby forums.   Many of the old boys reminded us that old scrums didn’t often collapse and as such players got on with the game after an aggressive few seconds of a fairer contest for the ball.  You can see a few scrums in this clip from the 1980s where the forwards sort of morph together quickly and stay upright.

I do think there is an element of danger in the old style with the lack of a coordinated call and the ‘dipping’ action high front rows have to make to get their heads down.  I don’t think anyone’s saying we should go back to that style, but there are some lessons there which Moore continually brings up during broadcasts and online.  His key elements to keeping the scrums up are:  removing the aggressive ‘hit’ by having the scrums remain steady until the ball is fed, making front rowers wear shirts that are loose enough for opponents to grab (many simply collapse because a prop can’t bind on and he hinges downward0, and to ensure that the ball is fed straight down the middle of the tunnel.  Funnily enough, this is the situation at youth level and it allows the better scrum to win the contest.

I’d also add that scrums wheeled more than 45 degrees should be re-set in favour of the feeding team, as they are in U19 Laws for safety reasons, as I suspect that deliberate wheels or whip-arounds are contributing to collapses.  Some – probably the same who didn’t like the ‘touch’ aspect of the new cadence – would argue that it’s one more step toward having Rugby League style lean-on scrums, but I’d counter by saying that the whole point of a scrum is to provide a fair contest for the ball after a technical infringement like a knock-on.  It’s meant to be a means of re-starting, with the advantage going to the stronger team, not the one that’s better at cheating or bashing the living hell out of the other one with a powerful, illegal early drive.  With the amount of skullduggery that goes on in the scrums, and that refs are never fully aware of who’s doing what to whom, games are also being decided on what many refer to as a ‘lottery’ of scrum-infringement penalties (Wasps fans, like myself, are probably still stinging from the opening day loss to Quins after having given up a 78th minute kickable penalty for ‘not taking the hit’).  Removing some of these bits, forcing the fair contest of which is the better scrum under equal conditions, still will allow the better pack of 8 to win, and even allow us to see more wins against the head – which are always thrilling!

I sincerely hope the IRB takes a look at this issue not just to give us back the time wasted on re-sets but also for the safety of players of all ages!

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I’m sure we’ve all seen or had – or often can be! – that coach who declares that certain tactics are not allowed or who chastise players for attempting certain things.  I’ll admit, I’ve done so in the past.  I’d like to think that nowadays, however, I’m a little more open to letting the athletes try what they think is possible, or even encourage and teach them to do things they don’t even think possible.

After years of watching rugby at the international and professional level, and at very good and even not so talented amateur levels, I’ve come to believe that attempting the unorthodox is worth a shot if the situation is right and the players have been well rehearsed.  I think it’s also important to remember that the athletes we’re coaching against are just as inexperienced as ours, and as such, aren’t going to be defending or recognising tactics like pros would.  So what’s stopping us from attempting the ‘unthinkable’?  Let your players have a go!

I would say, however, that one has to first look at what that unorthodox ‘thing’ is.  How likely are your players to use it effectively?  How much time would you need to spend to teach them and develop their confidence in it? Is that time detracting from other, more important, basic skills? Considered carefully, teaching and encouraging your athletes to do all that is possible within the game will allow them to be REAL rugby players who can think and act for themselves.  Restricting them to the orthodox – and worse, scripted plans and defined roles – limits their development.

So here’s a list of things that might be worth ‘having a go’ at.  These aren’t the outlandish kick-pass-inside-your-22 type stuff, but also reflect the conservatism I see way too much of in these parts.

1. Running out of 22 … standard procedure for most teams is to make the safe kick to touch.  I’ve even seen this from teams with poor kickers and lineouts incapable of stealing, simply giving the ball back to their opponents with a great attacking platform.  Why not try and string a few phases together and run it out?  Especially with the opposition waiting for the orthodox kick to touch, the defence might not even expect the run!

2. One phase out and back … I’m seeing this as a planned move more and more, and not just the result of wayward tactics.  Most teams will run their phases all in the same direction, sometimes referring to it as a ‘flow’ pattern – and the theory is sound, as quick ball from subsequent phases will leave the less-fit players straggling on the far side.  But most teams do this, and sometimes defending teams push over quickly to cover the subsequent phases.  The three ‘original’ Super Rugby sides from Australia are great at going one phase out and going back quickly in the opposite direction, especially from a lineout.  In a situation like this, you’re likely to catch unsuspecting tight five forwards defending the channel.  I remember a great one from the Brumbies where they sent only the ‘heavies’ down that channel, with front and second rowers making quick darts forward and with even quicker passing to each other, something like five players touched the ball before a prop – probably noted try scorer Ben Alexander – scored in the corner!  I’ve seen the same from backs moves with one move right, and a quick ‘back three’ move to the left from a midfield scrum.

3. Pass from 8 after a tighthead.  I know quite a few teams where the ONLY move allowed after a steal against the head at the scrum is for the No. 8 to pick and go.  It’s not a bad move, especially if you’ve got a quick 8 as the opportunity is there to catch their back row un-ready to defend.  But it’s also important to remember that the opposition’s backs will be aligned deep, having expected possession, and I’ve seen some great ground made because the 8 fired a quick pass to a flaring scrum half who quickly hit his backs who were already crossing the gainline.

4. 2 man lineout, w. ‘rec’ jumping.  I’ve often wondered why teams that are out jumped and outmuscled in the lineouts still persist with the 7-man formation.  Even worse are the teams that fall into this category AND persist with the first jumper option.  Why not make the target and spot of the jump less obvious by having just two or three boosters and the ‘receiver’ (usually the scrum half) do the jumping in?  She/he can then tap down to the hooker coming in for quick option, or the scrum half rushing in from 10m back once the lineout is deemed over.  One doesn’t even have to go to the player jumping in.  She/he can dummy the jump to get the other team’s pod in the air, and the ball can be tossed to anyone else!

5. Penalty kick for touch.  Gaining territory from a penalty kick to touch is probably the most common option taken when a team doesn’t have a legitimate shot at goal.  The most perplexing cases of this orthodox tactic are when the team a) doesn’t have anyone who can kick for distance or safely to touch and/or b) when their lineout throwing / jumping doesn’t assure possession.  I remember one case where I wished I’d broke my personal directive not to give instructions from the touchline as I realised my team was kicking for touch into a stiff wind on a day when our lineout wasn’t going well.  I shouted to them in frustration afterwards to “THINK! … Run it next time!” after our kicker only made 10m downfield and we lost the lineout.  Tapping and running should be the safest option if support is present and the ball carrier doesn’t just crash into waiting defenders.  Scrums are a great way of bringing in all the forwards and opening space between the backs.  Even having a speculative shot at goal isn’t so bad if one considers that most teams will kick the ball back – for a line out, or with a 22m drop – if the attempt is unsuccessful!

6. Not offloading.  Sounds silly, doesn’t it?  What’s more silly?  Offloading to players who aren’t expecting the ball.  Offloading to players who are so far back that they now get hit well behind the point the offload was made.  Making a speculative ‘Hail Mary’ offload to no one when the player could have simply taken the ball strong into contact and set up a ruck or maul.  Sadly, I’m seeing more and more of these – encouraged by coaches and even in modified games of touch – than doing the classic ruck / maul, which forces all defenders to get back onside.  Few players at the amateur level seem to know that there is no offside when a tackle isn’t made – i.e. from almost all offloads – so poorly thought-out attempts should be easy intercepts.

7. Forwards passing.  Why some coaches still ban forwards from passing the ball is, to me, not just limiting the team’s potential to establish ‘quick ball’ attack, but also limits the development of players.  Skills for all.  Trust them to make passes.  Teach your play makers to help them with when is best to secure it and when it’d help to pass it.  Watch the All Blacks – their forwards pass all the time.  It’s one of their unheralded elements of their success, in my opinion.

8. Forwards in the back line.  See above.  I always give my forwards this thought:  Do you just want to jog from ruck to ruck all day or would you like to get the ball and run over some tiny [insert other derogatory adjectives] back in open space?  Never had someone say they preferred the first option.

9. Kickoff to the backs.  The gap usually defended by just the two centres in a standard ‘exploded scrum’ kick off formation is one of the least exploited gaps in the game.  If you’ve got aggressive centres who are good in the air / good defenders, than why not?  Plan for it.  Make the kick low and shallow to put that one up-front centre under pressure.  Make sure there are a few quick forwards hanging around the kicker who can fill in behind ‘just in case’.  Or if your kicker can pick his/her spots, aim for the player who looks the weakest under high kicks!

10. Lots of kicking.  I criticise too much kicking as a fan of rugby – especially when teams like the Wallabies do it as they’re better with ball in hand than trying to play the territorial game and winning the ball back with their (usually weaker) forwards.  But at our level, if your running game is suffering, why not mix up your attack with a few planned or calculated kicks?  If teams always expect you to run, they’ll align themselves for it and possibly give you opportunities to put them under pressure with kicks – if not give you actual opportunities to re-gain possession.  It’s also very likely that teams aren’t the best at defending or supporting defenders of kicks.  Full backs are often too deep, too shallow, or to central and not tracking across field.  Wingers are often up flat, giving space behind them.  Even fewer teams employ a ‘sweeper’ in defence – usually the scrum half – who can deal with grubbers through the defensive line or chips over top.
… maybe next time, I’ll suggest ways that your players could try the ‘ludicrous’ like Carlos Spencer or Quade Cooper!  🙂

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