Archive for October, 2013

Here’s a game I created that’s become popular with all three teams I’ve coached since I came up with it last year. Rapid Fire Touch is 4-handed – i.e. two different people to stop a ball carrier, after the first two-handed, the ball carrier can still run but can’t score.

  • When scored upon, the defending team leaves the field of play immediately and the attacking team can attack the opposite goal line. All players from that team must cross the goal line before joining their team mates.
  • When touched by two different players, the team in possession leaves the field of play immediately and the defending team all must cross the nearest goal line before attacking in the opposite direction.

  • In both cases, the new team enters the field of play at midfield immediately, matching up and communicating their responsibilities.

This game can be played with 3, 4, or 5 (find this to be the maximum to ensure everyone’s involved) per team. Four-handed touch encourages ball carriers to attack space and create full line-break or half-break scenarios.  It’s main focus is evasive footwork, ball movement and support lines, not to mention communication in both attack and defence. The width of the playing area can vary. Wide encourages support lines and communication as ball carriers are more likely to make breaks or pull defenders well out of position (remembering that two defenders are needed to stop one from scoring). Narrower might be better for advanced players to work on timing of the pass and run and more challenging creation of space / opportunities.  This works really well in a gym for winter training.

Encourage to communicate early, pass to space, take on defenders with evasive footwork and supporting runners to be loud and pick clever pursuit lines. Faster the better as taking away space gives the opposition less time to adjust! Great for developing a fast, open style of play training communication, seeing and taking space, support and fitness as well.


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Here are the things I’ve introduced in the first few weeks, and will continue to address, with my new team:




  • Width opens space between defenders, but one doesn’t want to stretch so far that the player inside cannot complete an accurate pass (accuracy of passing trumps width every time)
  • Depth allows receivers time and space to move the ball on, commit defenders, pick angles or otherwise create opportunities. Too much depth, however, provides an advantage to defending players.  Rule of thumb: deep enough to clearly read the number on team mate’s back.
  • Deeper against defenders ready to pounce; flatter when defenders are disorganised or when acting as a decoy to pop the ball to support runners coming from depth.
  • Layered attack – at least one player tucked in behind a line of attackers – gives outlet and decoy options. Diamond formation gives options left, right, and from behind.


  • Quality of passing determines quality of attack – bad pass screws up timing
  • Aim to exploit opportunities (mismatches, poor alignment, hips turned, etc.)
  • When no opportunities present, must create (ball movement, angles of attack)
  • Creating an opportunity and securing quick ball should provide situations to exploit as above.  (Exploit – Create – Exploit)
  • Hands up and out at shoulder height to receive a pass, outside foot forward opens hips to pass and opens hips in opposite direction to make a pass in one step
  • Follow-through to the target – a step in front of the hands of the receiver – by turning the shoulders and pointing both hands to the target
  • Flat passes put runners into gaps
  • Deep passes give receivers time and space to do as they please
  • Remain square (i.e. facing forward) to fix defenders in place and preserve space outside for support
  • Angles of attack should be sudden, deliberate and sharp
  • Best angles to take are off the shoulder of a committed defender (i.e. the space behind the player inside / outside the next defender in line)


  • Support runners should be coming from depth and time their runs to take advantage of available / created space
  • Communication can come from anyone, but should be specific and early enough so the subject has time to process the information (even better if his name is mentioned, which increases attention)
  • Communication can also be general (“On your left.”), giving the decision maker a clearer sense of the options he has around him
  • Communication coming from outside players relieves pressure on decision makers, especially inexperienced half backs, who have a lot going on in front of them. Players out wide have more time to spot and communicate opportunities.
  • Supporting players should watch for visual cues or “triggers” that can help them with decision making in the absence of communication (i.e. if a ball carrier has it tucked in one hand, he’s likely going to take on the line and not pass before contact, so the support player should ‘funnel’ inward and/or shoot a gap looking for an offload or help him in contact)


  • The aim is to regain the ball as soon as possible legally. We should be willing to give up certain tackle contests to give us a better shot at the next one.  (Ex. – commit one defender to a lost ruck to maintain pressure, we should have numbers advantage on the next tackle, allowing two defenders to target the ball carrier.)
  • Communicate responsibility early. Call Post, Guard, Ten from inside out, allowing other arriving defenders to take up wider positions.
  • Layered defence prevents kicking options, provide cross-cover, and act as ‘line backers’, directing traffic and calling out threats (full back, scrum half, wings).
  • Whichever side gets set first has the advantage – a high work rate to re-align on defence is the best way to shut down an attacking team’s options / confidence.
  • Trust is crucial to maintain the integrity of the line – i.e. over-committing to the tackle provides opportunities for ball carriers to put support runners into space.
  • Defend together in units of three – player responsible for the ball carrier, with support on his inside and outside to shut down offload options and help in the tackle / jackal situation.
  • Close down space as quickly as possible – taking 51% of the territory gives an advantage of space.
  • Defensive line must advance together. Players shooting up early or hanging back provide easy spaces to attack.
  • Hips determine direction; keep eyes on hips until tackle is completed.
  • Keep moving feet all the way to the tackle, getting one foot in the ‘hoola hoop’ around the feet of the defender to ensure a powerful position.
  • Dominate the tackle. Shoulder on first; head to the side. Wrap tightly and drive (front on or sideways) into the hit to destabilise the ball carrier.
  • Quick take downs provide an opportunity to steal the ball. High, slow tackles allow defensive support to arrive and provide them with offload opportunities.
  • Two immediate passes from a turnover should put us in space
  • Establish a relatively flat arrowhead-shaped line when chasing kicks

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If you want the condensed version on how to play effective defence, remember that the same principles which determine successful attack apply when trying to stop it. Go forward to take away time and space, maintain continuity to ensure gaps – especially interior ones – are plugged, and maintain both physical and vocal support structures to account for rugby’s non-stop, dynamic nature. Build the defensive line close to the tackle contest first. Urge players to work together and communicate in small units. Make sure you have layered defence to account for line breaks and kicks and make sure those players provide direction in close and out wide. High work rate off the ball is vital! The team that is organised first has the advantage when scanning and accounting for threats / opportunities. Nothing is more frustrating for a fly half than facing more defenders set, aligned, and focused than he or she has in support.

While I believe that international and pro level attack structures and tactics shouldn’t necessarily be adopted by amateur, and especially school sides, I feel we can take a lesson from how they play defence. We must strive to win the ball back as soon as possible, but in order to avoid penalties we need to be patient about doing so from a position of dominance and within the laws. Most top teams commit just one or two players to most tackle contests, making an attempt to steal first and then being a nuisance to prevent quick ball. The rest take up positions in the defensive line, often creating the situation described earlier where more defenders are standing than attackers (who’ve likely sent three or four in to secure the ball). This situation should then allow the defensive team the opportunity make an effort to re-gain possession on the next phase. Some of these are: tackling a ball carrier into touch, forcing a mistake, making a double hit and rip, stealing or ‘jackaling’ the ball on the ground or driving over with a well-timed and coordinated counter-ruck. A well-organised and coordinated defence can also win the ball back by passive means, offering no opportunities to the attacking team such that they elect to kick.

Developing your team’s ability to counter-attack effectively, needless to say, must be part of a sound defensive strategy. While I like to mix up the way I train teams in attack, I tend to stick to the above drills and games for defence as I feel more is gained from repetition and familiarity when developing structure and communication. Whatever your numbers, I feel it’s important to have live opposition, reminding players to keep it realistic if there are, say, four attackers against ten defenders in a team defence game. Small sided games can be just as effective, remembering that work around the tackle contest usually involves just a handful of players. Finally, I try and give a lot of feedback in drills, but not a lot in small-sided or team games, urging players to remember the lessons learned in drills and work together to solve problems positively, only stepping in to facilitate understanding if they’re struggling to come to a solution.

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Key Concepts:

  • Defending in units of three provides strength and support
  • Communication provides focus, cohesion and opportunities

Possibly the most crucial element in team defence is support. Defence is much more than individuals making tackles. It must be a coordinated effort that’s focused, determined, and flexible. Three defenders level and coordinated with each other in front of the ball form a perfect unit to stop a strike run, providing greater focus and security for all defenders in the action area. The defender at the centre of this unit has responsibility for the ball carrier but can be assured that the channels inside and outside are protected by supporting defenders in this group of three. These roles are a mixture of zone and man-on-man styles: supporting defenders must maintain appropriate spacing to prevent the ball carrier taking a gap and they must remain square with potential attacking threats who might receive a pass or offload from the ball carrier.

 Fig 1

Figure 1

 Communication and trust play a major role in maintaining the integrity of the line until it’s certain the unit can attempt to regain possession in the tackle contest. Changes can happen in an instant, and a pass prior to contact means a new group of three is formed in front of a new ball carrier.

 Fig 2

Figure 2

Using the three-player unit as a concept works with a variety of defensive styles, with the group of three staggered in one direction or the other as they come forward (for in-to-out drift or out-to-in rush styles), or especially with a flat ‘arrow head’ formation. The line doesn’t necessarily have to be absolutely flat, so long as there’s little chance a ball carrier or support runner can slip behind a defender who is too far ahead or behind the others in that unit (see Figure 1, top left). In fact, I stay clear of the word ‘flat’ because in a flat line, if one defender is beaten, it’s also likely that the supporting defenders will be beaten. Supporting defenders coming up fast in a flat line tend to over-run the tackle by a step or two, which is great to prevent or intercept offloads, but it also makes it difficult to track backward if the principle defender missed the tackle. One (in a drift or out-to-in defence) or both supporting defenders (in an arrow head) a step behind the one responsible for the tackle have time to adjust if that tackle isn’t made.

 Frequent and specific communication between defenders in small units enhances focus and aids in creating opportunities to steal the ball. Most teams have calls which launch them forward when the ball emerges from the set piece or tackle contest but communication between small units before and after the ball has been played is more important. Vocal support enhances the physical presence of a player, providing a clear focus for the unit in front of the ball and to build trust. It can even serve to throw off the concentration of attacking players to have defenders shouting out instructions to each other. They should at least be nominating their responsibility so team mates can take care of other threats (ex. “I’ve got first receiver!”, “I’ll take red boots, you take the bearded guy!”, etc.). Other relevant pieces of information allow the unit to be even more effective. An individual can call a double hit to stop a larger player or to strip the ball while the tackler goes low. Someone might recognise a numbers advantage and declare s/he’s shooting up for a blitz or intercept, allowing team mates to adjust to cover the gap that defender leaves. An interior defender can call a push, telling the would-be tackler to slide out to cover an overlap and that the inside gap is protected.

I start by getting players into the habit of adopting the simple act of calling ‘My tackle!’ in small sided games. This allows teammates a number of opportunities to steal from or stop the attacking side, or plan for the next phase. It also enhances determination and accountability on the part of the declared tackler, and establishes vital trust among the supporting defenders. It’s an all-too-common scenario where defenders over-commit to the tackle area – especially after a big line break is stopped – allowing the attacking team the opportunity to go wide on the next phase. Early communication allows arriving players to know the crucial jobs around the ruck are sorted so they can move into the next most important positions. Realistic games with even numbers – or favouring the attacking side – ensure defenders have to be on their toes. With so many visual cues to consider, they may have to be reminded to speak, but drilling communication into your team with standardised phrases will help them establish more effective defensive units. With the ball carrier shut down and the tackle made on their terms, they will have a better chance at stealing the ball or winning the tackle contest.

Physical and vocal support should also come from at least one, if not two more layers of defence behind the ‘front line’. The obvious source of this is the full back, acting as both the last line of defence but also the coordinator of defenders in the outer areas of the field. I tell full backs to shadow the fly half and then stay on the inside of the ball as it is moved, staying deep enough to field kicks without having to turn but ready to come up and work with the wide defenders if needed (I let wings and full backs decide who takes ‘last man’ depending on what’s most comfortable for them). Working in conjunction with the fullback are the wingers, who typically lie deeper than the main defensive line to prevent / field kicks and be in a better position to support the full back for deep kicks (see Figure 1). Wings on the far side of the play should also be ready to cross-cover if a fullback joins the end of the line or has to deal with a line break. They should also be cognizant of wide threats, telling defenders to pull left or right as needed.

DEF - Ruck Defence

The middle layer in this three-layered defensive system is the responsibility of the scrum half who, I feel, is often under-utilised in this role. All scrum halves are used to barking instructions in attack, but it’s not as often that I hear them doing the same in defence. With the full back and wings marshalling defence out wide, the scrum half ensures the A-B-C defenders are in place and focused. They can also call out immediate and emerging threats the same as an NFL linebacker. As with full backs, I advise scrum halves to stay inside the ball and follow it across, staying about 5m behind the defensive line to pick up short kicks or line breaks made by attackers cutting back inside (note the path followed by SH in Figure 1).  Other players can take up this role, especially when there’s a significant over-lap, sweeping or scraping behind the main defensive line when safe to do so. My rule of thumb in these situations is for players in the main line to hold until the ball has moved two attackers away. If the defender inside the one covering the ball carrier leaves, the opportunity to pass or step back inside is there for the attacker. This goes back to the ‘defence in threes’ concept discussed earlier (see Figure 2).

Support Drills

DEF - Jackal Drill

DEF - Coordination

DEF - Cycles

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