Archive for December, 2012

I was in a bit of a discussion about passing and fundamental skills last night and stumbled upon a great free resource from All Blacks coach Wayne Smith.  If you click [this link] you’ll find a link to a video from The Rugby Site, where content is generally something you have to pay for.  You still have to sign up before you can access the video, but trust me it’s worth it!

Wayne Smith, image from The Rugby Site

The recent clinic I attended gave us a free membership to The Rugby Site, and on first glance it looks good.  I’ll give it a proper review later, but regarding this video I appreciate hearing – again from an All Black coach! – that there are some very simple elements of the game which they regard as crucial.  It was interesting hear Smith say in the video that when Henry took over the team and brought he and Hansen in they were determined to enhance their players’ fundamental skills.  I think sometimes the temptation is there to try the higher-ordered stuff done by the top teams at our level without ensuring that our kids / amateur adults can adequately perform basic tasks such as passing.

I’ll leave Smith to transfer his knowledge and lessons on passing via the video, but will add a few comments of my own in case some areas are unclear.

1. Passing off the ‘wrong foot’.  What he means is being able to pass, say, to the right with the right foot forward.  To be able to put more power behind a pass, one gets the ‘back foot’ forward – in our case, the left foot – so the hip and torso can rotate into the pass and deliver more power.  With the right foot forward, passing to the right is somewhat inhibited without this rotation, but he focuses on developing the wrists and triceps to account for this.  Focusing on this is important because the pressures of the game often means players need to be able to pass effectively off either foot and in either direction.

2.  I like that he uses progressions, giving the athletes a ‘warm-up’ to the activities later on.  He starts with wrist flicks and focuses then on the ‘punch pass’, emphasising keeping the ball on the hip, snapping the ball out with the triceps and keeping the hands together through the follow-through which, combined, allow the ball to get to the target quickly and accurately.  These are things which can eat up a lot of your practice time, but should be drilled into players’ minds as passing the ball is probably the most common thing done in the game aside from running.  Once these ‘rules’ are established in the players’ minds, they are the sorts of exercises I ask the players to do in their own time, or do it before training starts while the coaches are getting set-up.

3. The use of questioning.  If you check out Lynn Kidman’s Athlete Centred Coaching, Smith features quite heavily as someone who favours genuine learning via ‘teachable moments’ rather than by always ‘coaching’ atheletes with specific directions and solutions.  If you notice during most of his “Whoa, whoa, whoa…” moments, he doesn’t: a) Yell at the kids, b) Tell them what they did wrong, or c) Give them the answer.  Instead, he’s probably let little things go that weren’t seen in the video, giving the boys a chance to try the drill a few times and giving them the benefit of the doubt as mistakes will always happen.  He remains positive by not criticising their decisions or abilities abilities.  Most importantly, and this is where even the nicest of us can miss an opportunity, he gets the boys to come up with their own answers by asking leading questions, like “What was the most difficult thing about that?  Why does that matter?  Where were you going?”  He’ll present some options and let the boys truly learn which is the best option.  Too often, we give them answers and it takes time – if it sinks in at all – for the players to truly understand why that’s the best option or why it’s important.

I’d add that it’s important to stress to your players that they should be aiming for perfection, especially if they’re doing some of these exercises on their own time.  I’ve seen players get it in just a handful of passes with helpful guiding and their own determination to follow guidelines and find what’s comfortable for them.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Partners should challenge themselves with regard to distance, but not stretch beyond a comfortable range until sufficient strength is developed.  Too far away and the passes will be less accurate and lose ideal form.
  • Passes should be flat, with no lob so they’re delivered quickly.  Push passes should not wobble.  Spin passes should have an even rotation and not be tilted upward as such passes tend to carry on flying upward, above the intended target (think of a rifle bullet flying straight flat).
  • The hands of the receiver should be up and out, ready to pass on, but also giving the passer a clear target.
  • Passers who aren’t quite getting the spin pass should be encouraged to alter their hand positioning ever so slightly to find what works best for them (move positioning of hand to middle / rear of the ball, check firmness of grip, use more finger tips than palm, alter positioning of the guide hand, etc.)

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I examined the specifics of what I think is good, and not so good, about offloading from contact in a previous post, so won’t go into to much detail here on the finer points.  While watching Toulouse v Ospreys yesterday I saw a fantastic offload by French no. 8 Louis Picamoles to Census Johnston resulting in probably the easiest try the massive Samoan has ever scored.

Here’s the clip:

1. Play starts from a lineout in a game where Toulouse pretty much had forward dominance.  As is a common move with teams these days who have a strong pack, Toulouse make a few attempts to exert their dominance.  They start with a catch and drive and use their one re-start opportunity to get the ball to the hooker at the back, then restarting their shove.  As things break down, the hooker breaks off and has a go.  Some might elect to start another maul for an classic pushover, but Tolofua is a massive lad and decides to have a go.  Ospreys defence are up to the task and stop him short of the line.

2. The scrum half, Burgess, moves the ball wide to another powerful runner (they have a few!) Jean Bouilhou.  The width here is key as teams are always more likely to stack their defenders tightly around the fringes of the ruck, and in three-point stances to be able to stop the low pick and drives (see Sona Taumalolo).  Playing to a forward in the wide channels makes it more likely that he’ll be facing a significantly smaller back.  Bouilhou misses an opportunity to do what Picamoles does in a few seconds later if you stop at about 0:15-0:16 in the video.  He has just two defenders in front of him and a team mate.  He cuts back inside, not backing his power and though his team does set up a ruck and retains possession, I’d argue that he could have set up a score in one of two ways.

Simply, he could have attacked the gap between the two defenders, effectively drawing the outer one and passed before contact to the waiting player (possibly the fly half).  That close to the line, it’s incredibly hard to stop anyone who gets low enough, and if it’s Dossain, he’s a powerful player who’d be hard to stop.  In addition, at 0:16 you can see that the man who’d be responsible for defending the potential receiver isn’t squarely aligned with him.  By being a metre or so on his inside, it’d be very hard to effect anything but a side-on tackle, giving the receiver the chance to reach for the line with forward momentum or twist around to score.  Defending players within 5m of the goal line is best done when square-on with the ball carrier, and often higher than I’d usually advocate for a ‘perfect’ tackle, so the defender can: A. Stop his forward momentum, and B. Wrap arms to prevent the offload.

The second way Bouilhou might have set up a try for Dossain is performed by Louis Picamoles on the next phase.

3. With the ball bought into contact, we can see the eventual try scorer Johnston parked a significant distance away from the ruck in the lower right part of the screen at about 0:20.  He’s a big man and a quick, flat pass for him to run onto might see him charge over the line.  But as we see Louis Picamoles creep into a closer position at 0:22 we can see that Ospreys defence are already in low positions and that there are four of them on that short side.  Passing only to Johnston, who looks to be standing too high and who probably wouldn’t be charging onto the ball (I’ve seen him play a lot and this is often true with him), might see him smothered by any number of those four waiting defenders.

4. Burgess passes to Picamoles who immediately makes a dart for the space – not any one of the waiting defenders and certainly not square on.  By doing this he forces those present into the side-on / legs tackle which, as noted above, is not idea to stop any player – let alone someone of Picamoles’ bulk – this close to the goal line.  If you stop at 0:25, you will note that he’s managed to drag the defending forward, as well as drag in both the defending scrum half and winger.

5. For many players, this would be the end of the move.  Take the charge with the proverbial ‘blinkers’ on, unaware of where support is, lay the ball back and set up another ruck.  Johnston would have to come in to secure the ball and Ospreys would probably try to slow it down and buy time to re-align their defence as they had so ably on the last phases.  Instead, whether by presence of mind or by Johnston’s call – or both – Picamoles reaches his big hand around the back of the winger and delivers a soft offload to a waiting Johnston who only has to flop over to score.

6. Players with big hands, like Sonny Bill Williams, are often seen making such spectacular offloads because they can palm the ball and force it in virtually any direction.  I suspect Picamoles might be just such a player, but on the reverse angle we can see that he’s cradling the ball between his hand and forearm – which even high school girls I’ve coached can manage.  He delicately slides a pop pass to Johnson, who also demonstrates great technique in having both hands up and offering a target.

Picamoles takes out three defenders to offload to Johnston

When I teach this sort of thing to my players, I focus on a few key things that address both going into contact properly as well as thinking about what happens next.  First off, I stress that I ALWAYS want players to dominate the contact area such that they can play the ball as they wish.  NEVER do I want them to simply ‘run into the trunk of the tree’, which gives the defender(s) the advantage.  So, we address the following:

  • Move toward defender’s centre line to ‘fix’ him / her in place
  • Suddenly move away and attack the space (or ‘branches of the tree’ – i.e. arms – if space isn’t big enough to run into)
  • Maintain a powerful running line that preserves space for support players (i.e. running a sharp angle draws in the outer defender and allows the carrier forward momentum; running flat, sideways angle has little to no forward momentum and allows defenders a chance at an easy tackle)
  • Keep the body height low so one is hard to stop, but not so low that one will topple forward if dragged down
  • Keep in mind where supporting players were – is there a chance for an offload should you draw in another defender?  Where would that offload best be made – flat to the side or slightly behind?  [Support players MUST be communicating this, as most ball carriers won’t be able to see where they are / are coming from once in contact… and as with the previous article on offloading, popping the ball to a defender who’s even a metre or more back is counter-productive.  The receiver MUST be at or challenging the gain line!]
  • Keep a solid grip on the ball, and keep arm(s) free on the way down – an added bonus of teaching players to be confident in contact and to fall on their sides.
  • LISTEN and LOOK for the opportunity to make the offload.  Nothing makes me more angry watching games where players offload to unready receivers or to no one in particular.  Offloads are great, but I always stress IF IT’S NOT TRULY ‘ON’ THEN A RUCK IS BETTER, and that includes the offload to a player who’s deep as you’re more likely to set them up to be tackled well behind the ground you just gained.

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Some colleagues and I were fortunate enough to have our school pick up the tab to venture to Toronto last night to see former All Blacks coach and recent World Cup winner Graham Henry.

His session was primarily focused on defence, and I can’t say that I learned anything new, but it did feel good to have some of the things I have been teaching (which I learned from the Aussies when coaching down there, to give credit where due) for years affirmed by the lessons he taught.

In particular, he talked about developing a defensive philosophy based upon principles (pressure the opposition, force errors) and achievable, measurable objectives (controlling the gain line, win the contact area; All Blacks aiming for a 90% success rate for tackles).  The defence drills demonstrated didn’t even focus so much on the tackle as they did the little elements that lead up to it: sighting the target shoulder bumping, 1 v 1 tracking and footwork into contact, communication and organisation at the break down… only then getting into actual tackle situations.

Two of the key elements which he kept coming back to were foot placement and body shape.  The closer the lead foot gets to the ball carrier, the easier it is for the tackler to put in a shoulder hit and drive through contact.  (Too far away and the defender is limited to a weaker, less assured ‘arms-only’ tackle.)  He also continued to stress that defenders should have their arms in close and down at their sides – much like Olympic wrestlers – so they can maintain balance into contact, stay dynamic in their approach and be able to adjust to ball carrier sudden movements, and to be able to focus all of their power into dominating the tackle itself (arms out, he said, being less powerful and less stable, making a defender more likely to stand flat footed and get beat).

He also stressed – if possible – to have your games videoed and to spend time analysing your own team.  He kind of threw it out there as a luxury it’d be nice to have, but I’d add that for most of us – if not all – it’s difficult to take a genuine critical look at our teams while the game’s in progress.  I’ve been doing this for years so that I and my fellow coaches can go into future training sessions with a keen sense of what needs to be reinforced and improved upon, rather than relying on memory, highlights / lowlights spurned by emotion, and being able to examine / re-examine things we didn’t even notice!

Over-all, I’d say the message I took away from his defence session and the Q & A round that followed was that even at the top end, there is still a focus on doing the basic things very well.  He even stated that certain players he’s coached recently (and name-dropped one) weren’t actually that good at certain things – such as making proper tackles.  The Q & A session annoyed me a bit – and possibly Henry as well – as quite a few questions were best answered by the persons who asked them.  Henry even hinted as much, kindly trying to answer them, but also throwing the question back to the coach saying that they had to trust their instincts and do what’s right for their particular team. I’ll admit that I might have asked such questions in my early days as a coach, too, but I think even a beginning coach has to trust his or her own instincts and rationale.  I hope those people return to their teams with a greater belief in their abilities and adopt / develop what’s best for their team, not simply copying what they see others do.  He’d actually started the evening by saying as much – that what he was about to discuss were things that worked for him at his level, but that it might not necessarily apply to us.  The key thing for a thoughtful coach attending such clinics is to think realistically and pick and choose what will work for his/her particular level of athletes.

For me, it was that element which made the trip a rewarding one.  Despite not seeing anything new, I was able to take another step in my development as a coach in thinking about the importance I give to certain skills at training.  Seeing the importance Henry placed on tracking prior to contact, before even doing tackling drills, made me think that I need to focus on this more.  I noted that I should expand upon and stress to my boys my feeling that the lion’s share of defensive work is everything that builds up to the tackle, with the actual contact aspect being easier if all the prep work has been done well.

The other rewarding element was that I was able to spend about 15 hours on the drive up and back, at the session itself, and at the pub afterwards talking with my colleagues – from my own school and with others – about our philosophies and ideas.  It’s this sort of sharing of ideas that is almost non-existent here in Canada, and if I were completely honest, I didn’t see many people chatting outside of their groups of friends (ourselves included).  While an opportunity existed, I would also say there was a missed opportunity to foster a greater degree of collegiality by the organisers.  They might have forced us to have little breakout discussion sessions to be able to share our thoughts on Henry’s lessons, how we’d do things, and to learn from each other instead of hoarding our ‘tool box’ to protect our chances of winning whatever (frankly, irrelevant in the grand scheme of things) local titles we’re shooting for.

Maybe it’s something I should set up in my area, though I think this blog is a good start!

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England legend Will Greenwood’s article in the Telegraph today highlights quite a few of the ‘myths’ which surround the greatness of the All Blacks.  All told, I think he gets each spot on.  There are elements at which they excel brilliantly, and some which they are no better at than any other nation, and which can even be a weak point if opponents have the ability to target it.

For me, the brilliance of the All Blacks can be summed up by great ball handling (by everyone), simplicity and focus in attack, support for the ball carrier, and efficiency at the break down. What that means? Everyone in your team needs to be able to pass, know the importance of space, be determined to take the ball into contact with aim to maintain continuity, and when the ball is in contact to regain / retain it with ruthless determination and minimal commitment so there are still plenty of attackers on their feet for the next move. Simples.

Here’s the article:  [click here]

When I watch New Zealand secondary school rugby I get the impression that it’s not just the All Blacks who play like this, but that their brand of rugby is a New Zealand institution at all levels.  When I lived there, I only got the opportunity to attend one coaching clinic but it appeared that the ‘magic’ which contributes to the myth is really a determination to provide every player with a full set of skills and a keen sense for how the game can be played.  The focus on providing skills for all in a ‘total rugby’ framework and encourage players to use their instincts and have fun.  That should be the model for all of us!

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