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I set myself a challenge this year of keeping the number of activities I use down to a minimum so we’re not wasting time teaching athletes a new one every few sessions. I think these cover all the bases for novice and experienced players and are adaptable enough to include more or less contact, space, players, etc.

For Defence activities, click THIS LINK.

First, some design principles …

Areas for Improvement:

  1. Athlete-Centred
  • Their needs … requires assessment; ask them, but provide options (don’t know?)
  • Their wants … open or from a list of choices
  1. Representative
  • Percentage of action can be a guide.
  • What do they really need now / for the future?
  • MUST look and feel like the real game: starts, boundaries, numbers, variation, equipment, rules. Pressure, timing, realistic information vital to skill development.
  1. Repetition (without ‘repetition’)
  • Balance between ‘getting reps in’ and providing randomized problem solving
  • Activities: static, transition, multi, broken
  1. Constraints-led
  • Providing opportunities to explore, discover, adapt/adopt
  • Constraints are NOT limitations but invitations
  1. Challenge Point
  • Finding optimal ‘learning zone’ (40-60% success?)
  • May need differentiated activities to meet needs of all
  1. Self-Determination, Discovery
  • Discovery is most impactful and robust form of learning
  • Focus on outcomes. Guide more than instruct. There are ‘wrong’ ways, but there are many ‘right’ ways. Clear objectives will keep them focused. Give time and trust them.
  • Question more than tell; questions should not be a guessing game or a regurgitation of cliches; consider Bloom’s taxonomy and don’t be afraid to leave for later
  • Mark Bennett’s “Rule of 3” (individual, peers, coach)
  • James Gee / Amy Price … missions; challenge, clue, cheat, change
  • Early or mid-activity debriefs (teachable moments) more impactful than after-action

 

Tool Box Drill

Procedure:

  • Ruck area with ball straddles 5m line
  • Defenders start at back cones
  • Attackers aim to get over gain line using full ‘tool box’ of options
  • Numbers should be even or +1 attack
  • Teams alternate left/right, each side having different widths

Adaptations:

  • Touch = high pressure, skill, timing
  • Wrap = allow for tight spaces, contact options
  • Defenders can be delayed with a down-up upon arrival if attackers need help

Tool Box

4 v 2 / 2 Open Field Attack

Procedure:

  • 4 attackers start in the middle of a deep and wide playing area
  • 2 defenders wait at each end, moving forward when attackers start in their direction
  • Attackers aim to score as many tries as possible in a set period of time (competing against other groups)

Adaptations:

  • If numbers aren’t balanced, extra attacker first, extra defender next

4v2

One-Two Punch Scenario

Procedure:

  • A group of attackers start with backs to the playing area
  • Defenders align themselves differently each time in the middle of the playing area
  • On scrum half’s call, attackers turn and decide on first phase to either break through on set up next phase
  • Only get two phases, so need to be purposeful
  • Defenders can be a mix of bags (stop attackers by holding forward progression) and those without (stop attackers with touch or wrap)… can be wrap/touch and coloured shirts if not with bags

1 2 Punch

Limited Phase Ruck Game

Procedure:

  • Two evenly-matched teams square off and play touch/wrap for a limited number of phases (3-6 causes teams to be purposeful in their approach, and is common average for amateur teams)
  • Can start from lineout, scrum, or tap penalty; should be refereed to ensure laws followed
  • When contact is made, ball carrier must go to ground. Defender(s) making touch/wrap must also go to ground, but can jackal if no support has arrived once back on feet.
  • Can require one or two attackers to secure ‘ruck’ or allow to make that choice; defenders not involved in the tackle can come through gate to contest possession.

Adaptations:

  • Can alter points system for desired outcomes, alternating teams for a set number of goes (example: tries from kicks worth more)
  • To incorporate offloads into touch game, give carrier one-step/one-second to do so before requiring to go down
  • Can play to ‘super powers’ of various types of player:
        • Power players require a double touch / tap
        • Elusive players get three extra steps if tagged/wrapped from behind
        • Distributors win ‘free phase’ (not counted against limit) if they / player passed to get over the gain line
        • Support players win ‘free phase’ if call for an offload

 

Rapid Fire Touch

Procedure:

  • Two teams (3 or 4) start in the middle of a playing area. Attacking side taps and runs.
  • If defender(s) touch/wrap ball carrier, or attackers knock-on, throw forward or go into touch, defenders take possession and run to nearest goal line (all must cross!). They start attacking immediately.
  • As initial attacking team leaves, the next group waiting at the side enters and act as defenders.

Adaptations:

  • Can make ‘double touch’, meaning that ball carrier tagged by one defender can keep going (but not score) until touched by a second defender

Rapid Fire

Kick and Counter

Procedure:

  • One team starts play by kicking off to the other with a drop kick
  • Teams in possession have 3 seconds to run and pass, but must kick the ball within that time (called out by the referee) or concede a turnover
  • If a player is touched/wrapped by an on-side defender in this time, they also concede a turnover
  • Tries are worth 5 points, penalty / drop kicks at goal (if playing full field) worth 3 points (could even allow penalty goals if playing half-field!)
  • Referee necessary to call time and make sure players are on-side, otherwise abiding by the laws

Kick

 

 

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While watching the recent English women’s premier league match between top two teams Saracens and Harlequins, I got the feeling that there was as much one-out (i.e. scrum half passing to a player who takes the ball into contact) play as there is in the men’s.

Here’s the match:

Below is my analysis. Hopefully it’s easy to understand… each section is a series of phases with the starting time, and 1., 2., 3., etc. indicating the phase. 1P = first pass, 2P = second pass, and so on. O = offload from contact instead of pass. F and B are forwards and backs respectively, and + / – is whether the player ended up in a ruck or passed ahead of or behind the gain line (no symbol, the player pretty much reached the gain line). One could have also added metres gained / lost for each, but I was only really interested in seeing how many one-out phases there were to multi-pass phases.

Summary First Half:

Pick and Go: 12

Maul: 3

One Out to Forwards: 33

One Out to Backs: 11

Two Passes: 15

Three or More: 14

Summary Second Half:

Pick and Go: 27

Maul: 4

One Out to Forwards: 28

One out to Backs: 6

Two Passes: 15

Three or More: 13

Most pick and goes within 5m of goal. Most 3+ passes to get the ball to the wing, often with first two receivers still behind the gainline. One-out to forwards most often minimal gain in territory, possible with a zero net gain over the course of a match given how many are 1m (or more) losses. One pass to backs usually a kick. Two pass plays are invariably back to forward (straight pass, little line engagement), or forward to forward. Nearly half (11) of three-pass phases were to forwards and out the back to backs.

FIRST HALF

0:42 Quins Scrum 38m from goal

  1. 1P to B+
  2. 1P to F+
  3. 1P to F
  4. 1P to F-
  5. 1P to F
  6. 1P to B-, 2P to F
  7. 1P to B+
  8. 1P to F+, 2O to B+
  9. 1P to F-
  10. 1P to B-, 2P to F-
  11. 1P to F, Defence commits penalty at ruck 24m from goal

3:10 Q Lineout 18m from goal

  1. Maul, peel off to 3m from goal
  2. 1P to F
  3. Pick by F, scores

5:38 Q Receive kickoff

  1. Carries to 65m from goal
  2. 1P to F-
  3. 1P to F-
  4. 1P to F, Defence commits penalty at ruck 65m from goal

6:40 Q Lineout 51m from goal

  1. 1P to B
  2. 1P to B+, 2P to F+, Defence commits penalty 25m from goal

7:50 Q Lineout 18m from goal

  1. Maul, penalty advantage, 1P to B-, grubbers for B to score

9:50 Q Receive kickoff

  1. Carries to 75m from goal
  2. 1P to F
  3. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 3P to B, 4P to B+
  4. 1P to B (penalty advantage, high tackle)
  5. 1P to F+

11:15 Q Lineout 19m from goal

  1. Pass off the top to B, 2P to B-, 3P to B, 4P to B+
  2. 1P to F-
  3. 1P to F
  4. 1P to B-, 2P to F+
  5. 1P to B-, 2P to B+
  6. 1P to F
  7. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 2P to B-
  8. 1P to B, 2O to F
  9. 1P to F, turned over at ruck…

12:34 Saracens steal at ruck 75m from goal

  1. F carries 5m
  2. 1P to B-, 2P to F, knocks on

13:15 Q Scrum 25m from goal

  1. 1P to B-, 2P to B+, turned over at ruck

13:41 S steal at ruck 78m from goal

  1. 1P to F
  2. 1P to B-, 2P to B-, 3P to B+
  3. 1P to F
  4. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 2P to B-, 3P to B+, 4P to B+, knocks on

14:18 Q retrieve loose ball

  1. B carries to 52m from goal
  2. 1P to B-, kicks ahead

14:30 S retrieve ball 60m from goal

  1. B kicks

14:40 Q retrieve ball 55m from goal

  1. B falls on loose ball
  2. 1P to F
  3. 1P to B
  4. 1P to F+
  5. 1P to F, 2P to F+
  6. 1P to B, 2P to B+, 3O to B, 4P to B+, defence knocks into touch

16:00 Q Lineout 28m from goal

  1. F carries to 22m
  2. 1P to F+, defence commits penalty (Saracens yellow card)

16:30 Q Scrum 15m from goal

  1. 1P to B, 2P to B+, 3P to B+, 4P to B+
  2. 1P to F
  3. Pick by F, scores

19:20 Q receive kickoff and kick back to touch

19:45 S Lineout 50m from goal

  1. 1P to B-, 2P to F-, 3P to F-, knock on by defence

20:30 S Scrum 53m from goal, concede penalty

20:45 Q Penalty 45m from goal, tap and run

  1. 1P to B+
  2. 1P to F
  3. 1P to F, 2P to B-, 3P to B, 4P to B+, scores

23:50 S Scrum 30m from goal

  1. 1P to B-, 2P to B, 3P to B-, 4O to B, kick into touch on full

24:45 Q Lineout 60 from goal, overthrown

24:50 S receive overthrown lineout 40m from goal

  1. F carries, 1P to F+, 2O to F+, 3O to F+
  2. 1P to F-, knocks on

25:08 Q retrieve knock-on 88m from goal

  1. 1P to B-, kick to touch

25:55 S Lineout 25m from goal (Saracens yellow card returns)

  1. Throw not straight, turned over

26:40 Q Scrum 76m from goal, defence commits penalty, +10 for backchat

27:39 Q Lineout 40m from goal, throw not straight

28:00 S Scrum 60m from goal

  1. F carries+
  2. 1P to B-, kicks

28:35 Q receive kick 76m from goal

  1. B carries to 59m from goal
  2. 1P to F+
  3. Pick by F+
  4. 1P to F+
  5. Pick by B, 1P to F+, defence commits penalty at ruck

29:20 Q Lineout 22m from goal

  1. Maul+
  2. Knocked on at ruck

30:40 S Scrum 80m from goal

  1. F carries
  2. 1P to B-, 2P to B+
  3. 1P to F
  4. 1P to B-, kick charged down into touch

31:45 S Lineout 95m from goal, overthrown

31:48 Q receive overthrown ball

  1. F tackled
  2. Pick by F+
  3. Pick by F+, held up in goal

32:45 Q Scrum 5m from goal

  1. F carries
  2. 1P to F+
  3. 1P to F
  4. Pick by F
  5. Pick by F
  6. Pick by F+
  7. Pick by F
  8. 1P to B-, 2P to B+, thrown forward

34:38 S Scrum 95m from goal

  1. F carries+
  2. 1P to F+ (penalty advantage at ruck)
  3. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 3P to B, 4P to B+
  4. 1P to F-, 2P to F
  5. 1P to F-, 2P to F, knocks on (back to penalty)

37:00 S Lineout 25m from goal

  1. Pass off top, 1P to B-, 2P to B-, 3P to B+ (ball buried in ruck)

37:25 S Scrum 22m from goal

  1. 1P to B-, 2P to B-, 3P to B+
  2. 1P to F
  3. 1P to F (penalty advantage at ruck)

38:?? S Penalty 20m from goal

  1. B taps and runs
  2. Pick by F+
  3. Pick by F+
  4. Pick by F
  5. 1P to F+, scores

SECOND HALF

40:25 Q Scrum 50m from goal

  1. 1P to B-, kicks

41:10 S receives kick 80m from goal

  1. B carries to 76m from goal
  2. 1P to F, 2O to F
  3. 1P to B-, kicks for touch

41:50 Q Lineout 23m from goal

  1. Knocked down, B carries to 26m from goal
  2. Pick by F, defence commits penalty at ruck

42:50 Q Lineout 10m from goal

  1. Maul, collapses 8m from goal
  2. Pick by F+, attack commits penalty at ruck

44:25 S Lineout 27m from goal

  1. Ball brought to ground
  2. 1P to B-, 2P to F, 3O to F+
  3. 1P to B-, 2P to B-, 3P to B
  4. 1P to F+, defence commits penalty at ruck

45:50 S Lineout 7m from goal

  1. F knocks on, Q kicks upfield

46:30 Q Scrum 95m from goal

  1. F carries to 80m from goal
  2. Pick by F+
  3. 1P to F
  4. 1P to F
  5. 1P to F-, attack commits penalty at ruck

48:20 S Lineout 5m from goal

  1. Maul, 1P to B-, 2P to B-, 3P to B-
  2. 1P to F
  3. 1P to F+
  4. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 3P to B
  5. 1P to F
  6. 1P to F
  7. 1P to F, defence commits penalty at ruck

49:40 S penalty 7m from goal

  1. F taps and carries to 2m from goal
  2. Pick by F, scores

51:30 S receives kickoff 80m from goal

  1. B carries to 75m from goal
  2. 1P to F
  3. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 3P to B-, 4P to B+
  4. 1P to F-, 2P to F
  5. 1P to B-, 2P to F-, lost in breakdown

52:18 Q retrieve loose ball 34m from goal

  1. F secures possession, no gain
  2. 1P to F-, 2P to F
  3. 1P to B-, 2P to F+
  4. 1P to F+
  5. 1P to F-
  6. 1P to F
  7. 1P to B, 2O to F+
  8. 1P to B-, 2P to F-
  9. 1P to F
  10. Pick by B+, 2O to F+
  11. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 3P to B-, 4P to B+, 5P to B+
  12. 1P to B-, 2P to F
  13. 1P to F
  14. Pick by B+, defence commits penalty at ruck

56:15 Q receive kickoff 65m from goal

  1. Receiver holding on penalty, backchat moves ball back 10m

57:00 S Lineout 6m from goal

  1. Maul, no gain
  2. 1P to B-, 2P to F-, 3P to B
  3. Pick by F+
  4. Pick by F
  5. Pick by F+, scores

59:45 S receive kickoff 70m from goal

  1. B carries to 65m from goal
  2. 1P to F-
  3. 1P to F
  4. 1P to F+
  5. 1P to B-, 2P to B, 3P to B+
  6. 1P to F-, 2P to F-
  7. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 3P to F-, 4P to F, 5P to B+
  8. 1P to F
  9. 1P to F-, knocks on

61:50 Q Scrum 60m from goal

  1. Pick by F, 1P to B+, lost forward

62:05 S recover loose ball 55m from goal

  1. F carries 15m forward, tackled into touch

62:20 S Scrum 52m from goal

  1. F pick
  2. 1P to F+, defence counter rucks

62:50 Q counter rucks

  1. Pick by F
  2. 1P to B-, kicks

63:08 S receives kick 75m from goal

  1. B carries to 58m from goal, defence commits penalty at ruck

64:00 S Lineout 39m from goal

  1. Pass off the top, 1P to B-, 2P to F-
  2. 1P to B-, 2P to B-, knocks on

65:05 Q Scrum 51m from goal

  1. 1P to B-, 2P to B+, turned over at ruck

65:21 S steal ball at ruck 51m from goal

  1. Pick by F-
  2. 1P to F-
  3. Pick by F
  4. 1P to B-, kicks

66:05 Q recover kick 78m from goal

  1. B carries to 70m from goal
  2. 1P to F
  3. 1P to F-
  4. 1P to F, 2O to F+, lost forward in contact

67:15 S Scrum 35m from goal

  1. Pick by F, 1P to B-, 2P to B-, 3P to B-, 4P to B-, 5P to B+
  2. 1P to B+
  3. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 3P to F-, 4P to F, 5P to B+, defence commits penalty at ruck (yellow card)

68:25 S Scrum 5m from goal

  1. F pick to 1m from goal, penalty advantage
  2. F pick, scores

70:40 S receive kickoff 75m from goal

  1. 1P to F+
  2. 1P to F-, 2P to B-, 3P to B+
  3. 1P to F
  4. 1P to F+, 2P to B+, 3O to F+, 4O to F+, scores

73:45 Q Lineout 20m from goal

  1. Maul, to 7m from goal, defence commits penalty

74:45 Q Lineout 7m from goal

  1. Maul, peel to 2m from goal
  2. Pick by F
  3. Pick by F-
  4. 1P to F-
  5. Pick by F
  6. Pick by F, penalty advantage for offside

79:00 Q Scrum 5m from goal (yellow card returns)

  1. Pick by F-
  2. Pick by F
  3. Pick by F+
  4. Pick by F, penalty advantage for offside
  5. Pick by F-
  6. 1P to B-, grubber, (try disallowed), defence yellow card

80:00 Q Scrum 5m from goal

  1. Pick by F+
  2. Pick By F
  3. Pick by F+, held-up in-goal … game over.

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Recently, I’ve been wondering if we can simplify the way we approach rugby training. I’ve been an advocate of ‘game-based’ activities for many years now, but am concerned that I use too many different games. With the time needed to teach the nuances of each and for players to get used to the rules (not to mention for both of us to actually learn from them), I probably do waste a lot of time when I could simply rely on just a few really good activities. Now I can understand that those who coach in places with long seasons need to have new and engaging content to maintain attention, but here in Canada – at most – the club season runs four or five months. So, can those of us who coach in short seasons focus on just a handful of reliable and multi-faceted activities to train all that rugby demands? I’m beginning to think so, and will re-visit this when I finally nail down what those ‘few’ might be…

Currently, I have several games in mind that are my go-tos for ‘big picture’ concepts. I had to remind myself that I often encounter or support coaches who have athletes that are completely or fairly new to rugby. So what kind of activity can still be opposed, game-like, but still encompass a wide variety of ‘basic’ skills? When I looked at a lot of ‘drills’ I used to run, and considered what’s at the heart of them, I noticed that a lot of small unit activities were pretty much the same. So I’ve decided that most individual and small group attacking and defending skills can be done in something I’m calling the Tool Box Game. Simply, you have a simulated ruck area with a number of balls and ask x number of attackers to play against y number of defenders and different widths on either side so they can explore options under different conditions.

Tool Box Game

Above, we see how the left side is narrower than the right, providing different conditions when the attackers go that way. Normal rugby laws apply, especially with defenders staying onside (their side of the coned-off ‘ruck’ area) until the ball is played by the scrum half. I prefer ‘hugby’ (wrapping up safely, but without a completed tackle) over touch because it allows carriers to slip through and even hand-off poor defence (i.e. few defenders can make a tackle only with their out-stretched hands). Various constraints can be employed if attackers are truly struggling to exploit/create space, but they shouldn’t forget that ‘in-contact’ aspects can still be worked on in this game: offloads, screens, mauls. They shouldn’t be the default, however, so constraints on defenders should delay them rather than remove them (in a real game, our athletes are more likely to encounter defenders out of position than significant numbers advantages, so let’s have ours work out ways to take advantage of poor alignment rather than the obvious 4v2 overlap). Some delays I use are placing one or more defenders in ‘arriving’ positions (full back, coming from opposite side of ruck, etc.) or by making them do a down-up or turn their backs before the ball is played so the attackers can start with positions to exploit this.

If there are only four players, maybe the attackers can start play by tossing the ball up in the air a bit? Five works perfectly for a 2v2 game, and I don’t think I’d go much larger than 3v3 (with players positioned as seen above) or 4v4 (having defenders line up 3+1  scrum half or fullback or 2+ sweepers in both SH and FB positions?). This way, the participants can have more goes than if they were waiting in line for their turn. On this, I strongly encourage coaches to not be afraid to have multiple stations set up so athletes can experience maximum repetitions. You don’t have to give them feedback on every go; in fact, it’s better for them to not only keep trying, but also to figure out why things did/did not work, and if not from their own self-assessment, from peer feedback. If they’re truly not getting something or need to work on something they’re not noticing, that’s when a coach can pose a challenge for them to work on at length themselves.

With this self-management aspect in mind, it recently struck me that I could help them by creating a laminated ‘score card’ that allows them to keep track of successes and leave comments. It’s based on a concept I learned at a coaching course many years ago: the Attacking Toolbox. Simply: the full spectrum of options players can make before accepting a tackle and setting a ruck. For detailed description and examples of what those skills would be, look at this section of my website: https://rugbyguide.ca/welcome/attack/attack-individual/

Players can keep their score cards in the ruck area and make notes as they go or after several goes (or they can shout in to a coach or player waiting their turn / injured player looking to stay involved) with white board markers. The coach can collect them afterwards and keep a running tally of what they’re doing well and what areas they might want to improve upon. The content is completely flexible but I think it’s important to remind players of the full spectrum of possibilities (and as much as I’m a fan of kicking, I want ‘running only’ to be the main constraint of this small-sided game). I also think it’s important to score only things that get players over the gain line because that should be our focus in matches. Having run this activity many times, one thing I notice players who lack skill/confidence do is to start deeper and deeper, giving themselves credit for beating defenders but well behind the gain line and being caught by a cover/chasing defender before even getting back to the original gain line. I don’t like to lay down extra cones and say ‘start here’ but that might be needed to ensure players aren’t too deep (though their lack of success might indicate that).Tool Box Score Card Image

 

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In the summer, while touring around Germany, I read a book about the history and evolution of American football tactics and formations called Blood, Sweat and Chalk by Tim Layden.

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Years ago, I stumbled upon an article that covered this (which I haven’t been able to find since!) and it made me think about rugby’s evolution and the use of tactics. I do have a great book called Developments in the Field of Play by JJ Stewart, but it seems there was more innovation in the first 100 or so years of rugby than in the last 50, and largely because of law changes, not because coaches dared to be different. At the time of reading these, I didn’t think there was as much creativity in rugby as there could be. In the last couple of years, I think top level rugby has become even less creative and when I again hunted for the article, I stumbled upon Layden’s book. It covers about 100 years of changes from the pre-passing days to the current era. It admits that football has some of the same ‘copycat’ issues that rugby has, especially when an innovation proves successful, but it also suggests that there are still varied approaches and that the ‘old way’ occasionally gets re-used. Rugby doesn’t have such a wide range of historic approaches like football, and I’m not advocating rugby become very rigid like the American game can be, but when was the last time you saw, say, a dribbling rush in a rugby game? Do you even know what a dribbling rush is? (Forwards would kick the ball along the ground to advance it because you can’t be tackled if not carrying it!)

I’ve been thinking of some more creative approaches to playing, inspired by old rugby manuals, and this book has further emboldened me to see how they’d do in today’s game. What follows are my reflections from Layden’s book that might help you also make the game more interesting and rewarding for your players.

“Their work is equal parts science and art – the science of outmaneuvering an opponent like a military field commander and the art of understanding the subtleties of player’s abilities.” (9)

In expanding upon the above quote, Layden adds that while ‘chalk talk’ involves the study of concepts, that “the game isn’t played by concepts; it’s played by human athletes.” (10) This is a great reminder that no matter which point of the spectrum you fall, between ‘just the basics’ and ‘extreme creativity’, you still have to select approaches that suit the players you have, and that can change year to year. Professional teams – and some might say even representative teams (but I’d argue, for junior grades, that’s wrong and inhibits growth) – have the ability to select the athletes that fit the system, but the vast majority of us don’t have that luxury, nor do we have the time to mould raw athletes into a specific system when we can simply select strategy and tactics to suit them.

“Football innovation repeatedly proves itself the product of coincidence, of personalities thrown together and forced to improvise strategy for the sake of survival.” (27)

Layden tells the story about how, possibly, the ‘Wildcat’ formation, which snaps the ball to a non-traditional ‘quarter-back’, was born out of a coach having an incredibly fast receiver who’d played quarterback in junior high. He hadn’t known it was similar to the ‘Single Wing’ formation used decades before that had fallen out of fashion. The ‘unconventional’ approach worked for the boys he had, as it did for the coaches who employed it way back when, showing how working with, not against, constraints can produce something fantastic. He also talks about how good coaches see better roles for players and encourage them to play elsewhere when the stereotypical or traditional (i.e. “I’ve only ever played this position!”) might no longer suit (pp. 54-55). A high school quarterback who was too erratic to deal with defences / system at the next level found a new home and success as a wide receiver. The less-flashy backup ended up being the perfect steady QB to unleash the creative star. I’ve seen this several times in rugby where coaches put their best players at 9 or 10. Instead of putting them in roles where their space is limited, opt for competent ones who can deliver that ball in space. I suspect that’s why rugby League hookers act more like Union scrum halves, allowing all backs to operate in space. One of my teams allowed our incredibly elusive scrum half to do her thing in space with forwards making short passes to her from the breakdown, rather than force her to dig out every ball.

From innovation comes further innovation. Coaches who like the principle behind something new or a certain aspect of a creative approach can either tweak it to suit their own players or dream up something different having been inspired by it. One example given in the book looks at how the tight ‘Wishbone’ formation was altered into the wider ‘Flexbone’ formation (61), one relying on concentrated power with the other more on exploiting space. Football coaches, no matter the formation, always have many options of them. One of my critiques of top flight rugby at the moment is how the rigid systems approach claims to have options, but really the options are very few (and they are rarely ‘opted’ upon). As such defences tend to have an easier job when dealing with forwards, in particular. Pods almost always crash into the line with the first receiver, occasionally play out the back, and rarely ‘tip on’ to a second forward. Rare do we even see some of the intricate running lines and passing options seen in League, which, incidentally is where Union got the idea for dummy runners and second man plays. If every phase – including small groups of forwards – featured players in a dynamic shape, each with the potential to get the ball and do something with it in hand, defenders have a much more difficult task. The hesitation, over/under commitment, reactive rather than proactive decisions imposed upon defences by creative and dynamic attackers gives them the initiative. Doing the same thing everyone else does 75% of the time means you’re only, really, hoping for a rare mistake or to win a boring and exhausting battle of attrition.

Taking a creative approach to play is something many school and club coaches shouldn’t fear doing. What’s to lose if you’re already a team that’s perennially in the bottom half of the table or if jobs / recruitment aren’t affected by results? Hell, your players might actually understand the game better if they’re exploring how to do something different than the rest! To innovate beyond the status quo, you’ve got to know what it is. From the formations examined in the book, it seems that most innovation in football has come from college and even high school programs that took a risk or created a solution to a problem. Don Coryell’s San Diego State team, which couldn’t compete with local rivals to sign the best runners and blockers coming out of high school, revolutionized the passing game because he was able to get decent (possibly small?), underappreciated quarterbacks and receivers from junior colleges. Their success with the throwing game, when most others ran the ball, made me think about how many coaches discourage kicking in rugby. Yes, some players kick when the run option was on, and keeping possession is more likely with safe carrying and efficient ruck. But teams that are known to kick can face reduced pressure if the defence is not sure when the kick will come, some defences do not how to deal with kicks, and others will kick it straight back, allowing for a nice open counter-attack with defenders spread out all over the place.

The throwing game in football seems to be en vogue at the moment, and Kurt Warner’s statement on why he likes it also had me thinking about kicking in rugby. “The design of the offense was to continually put pressure on the back end of the defense. It was all about getting chunks of yardage.” (88) Bill Walsh’s use of short passes to expose blitz defences also seemed to have had both a reactionary and exploitative effect. In between going for the big scoring play and grinding teams down through dominance is achieving moderate gains through short plays 4-8 yards at a time. I’m someone who doesn’t put a lot of time into set piece plays and I’m also not in favour of the boring, attritional approach of one-out rugby and pick-and-goes. Like Walsh’s short throws, I challenge my athletes to break the gainline on every single phase – wherever that may be. They can follow a pattern if nothing clear and obvious presents itself, but as soon as possible, they should get back to a state where we’re breaching the gain line and forcing the defence to scramble a few metres back to re-establish their line. This perpetual state of disorder will eventually cause them to give us an easy scoring option, exposing uncovered space, a mismatch or an overlap. One of Coryell’s credos in this sense directly applies to rugby: “Never pass up an open receiver. If he’s there, stop ‘reading’ and throw it to him.” There’s no need to follow the script if something better is immediately apparent. Rugby has even more advantages in football in this regard, because we’re not limited by four downs. Going for short gains works everywhere so long as you win the ball back at the breakdown. In the recent November series, I was disappointed to see the All Blacks not do what they do best until late in the game – get behind the gainline by going wide quickly. Instead, they bashed it up the middle a metre or so at a time, which allowed the well-disciplined Irish defence to reorganize themselves and be ready for the the next one. Ireland may have only allowed a few more metres when the All Blacks went wide, but there’s a big difference in attacking defenders who’ve had to turn and run back and aren’t quite set / focused compared to running against those who’ve only had to take a couple of steps back and to the side, keeping your next wave in their field of vision the whole time. More ambitious moves that keep defenders guessing, giving up several metres at a time, and well-placed and chased kicks can offer the same sort of opportunities to turn pressure into better attacking options.

The other major takeaway I got from the book was related not to on field stuff, but off-field collegiality. There have been some immense rivalries and we’ve seen seemingly hard ass football personalities in the media, but the book suggests that much of the American football world is open to sharing ideas. Thinking back on my 18 years coaching, I can’t remember a time that a coach from another school or club shared what he or she was doing, and admitted to myself that I’ve only been doing it in the last few years. We talk a lot about rugby being this ‘gentleman’s game’ and having some kind of aura of inclusivity, but too often we’re going against that by protecting our own interests and not thinking about the bigger picture.

“Football socializes. Everything belongs to everyone else, especially diagrams on a board or the plays on a film.” (139)

Great coaches know that there’s always room to improve but how can any of us improve if we’re not challenged? I’ve seen programs dominate locally year to year, but then get shocked when they attend a tournament elsewhere? If you care about development and doing well at other levels (not to mention ensuring your players can go anywhere and be successful), then it’s up to us to be more open and share so we can raise our game. Our region challenges others to raise their game, and our province challenges others to match us, making the national team as strong as can be. I believe that’s the main reason New Zealand is so great, but I do wonder if that may wane a bit if the top schools continue to poach talent from the have-nots? I suspect they’ll be okay, though, because All Blacks and great pros continue to emerge from these schools, suggesting that their coaches still know how to develop good players even if they don’t have a wealth of talent at their disposal (especially given that rugby is a late development sport… how many of those school poaches go on to be great players would make for an interesting study!).

In football … “Coaches find each other. They hang out together and eat together and drink beer together… It is their way of finding normalcy. But it’s also a way of staying in the endless loop of innovation. Friends do not hide discovery from each other.” (149) Layden talks about coaches holding clinics for coaches and sharing resources even while they’re still using them. There’s a money-making aspect to it, sure, but there’s also the belief that letting others know what you’re doing will force you to do it better and develop ways to combat the ways your opponents would defeat your strategy and tactics. As suggested by the analogy offered at the start, the shrewd general is aware of how his enemies might defeat what’s made his army successful – the science of battle. He is also astutely aware of the subtle ways that his subordinates and troops on the ground operate, which is the art of leadership. I think the barriers to knowledge sharing and innovation in rugby are breaking down via social media and YouTube. With them, you can learn about a lot about how the top-level approaches rugby, but I think we can do a lot more to both share with the grassroots level and also not be afraid of trying to do something completely different than the pros. Whether or not your innovative approaches become the next big thing in the sport or even over-come the limitations you face, the process of examining deeper demands, needs, and possibilities will help you and your athletes understand the game so much more and allows them to benefit from a richer experience of exploration and discovery.

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I’ve been exploring more game-based approaches to coaching the last few years and have shared the ones that have worked well here: rugbyguide.ca 

Inspired by some clever coaches in a network I belong to who use dice and cards to randomise certain aspects of a game, I have come up with one of my own. For the lack of a better term at the moment, I’m calling it ‘Wildcard Touch’.

Two teams square off in a reasonably large playing space (width representative of their game day conditions and the players on-hand, ensuring they can play without defensive pressure being too great). If a ball carrier is caught in possession as per normal Touch rules (or with flags or with a wrap-up, as preferred), the player must set the ball down immediately and the entire team retreats 5m. These turnovers result in a free kick to the opposition. The main object is to find space and not be caught in possession. What we want in this game is players continually looking for and communicating opportunities and doing their best to run, pass to, support those opportunities. We don’t want them blindly taking contact and sitting back watching team mates go solo, hence the tag = turnover rule.

However, each team will have an option that will allow them to explore the conditions in which the tactic might or might not be effective. Before the start of the game, they will pick a card / roll the die and be allowed to use that condition any time they are faced with the automatic turnover scenario. These can be redrawn / rolled after each try scored or kept in place for a significant period of time.

  1. Normal conditions! Sorry, but all you can do is pass, run, support. If you get caught by a two-handed touch, you turn over possession.
  2. Limited Rucks. Ball carrier two-hand tagged by defender goes to ground and long-places the ball. Attacking team can do this three times; fourth time results in a turnover as per normal conditions. (Expansion: ‘four-handed touch’, that is two defenders tagging at the same time, equals automatic turnover… look to take defenders 1v1 and not get caught in potential jackal situations.)
  3. Standing Offload. When tagged, defender has one step / one second to make an offload. It can be a short pass, but can also be thrown or rolled backwards (as sometimes seen in 7s) to explore if / when it’s a useful option. If two defenders tag at the same time, an automatic turnover occurs because an offload is less likely for most players in a double tackle. (Expansion: One player gets nominated a ‘Sonny Bill’ who is allowed to make offloads from double-tag scenarios.)
  4. Maul. Without going too crazy on the force applied to the opposition, this one explores the rarely-used midfield maul from yesteryear. When the ball carrier is tagged, he/she can create a maul with one or two teammates and drive for five steps. They can use the ball at any time during, but MUST use it after five steps. Defenders can stop the maul sooner if they put three players into it (defenders can opt to only commit one defender but he/she MUST NOT pull it down). (Expansion: A defender may come through the middle to rip the ball or prevent it from emerging if done so legally, i.e. with a ‘choke tackle’ wrap up of player and ball.)
  5. Kick. Any kind of kick is allowed and players may continue kicking the ball along the ground to score or re-gather. If re-gathered, that player must find a team mate with a pass / kick. If the player who re-gathers is tagged, a turnover occurs. If the receiver or any other attacking player is tagged, they can restart and repeat the same as in the Ruck condition (three tags, turned over on the fourth). If a defender recovers the kick, regardless of what condition they are playing under, they get a ‘Free Tag’ to restart play. (Expansion: eliminate the defensive team ‘Free Tag’ to explore isolating defenders and the benefits of a good kick-chase.).
  6. Wildcard-Wild Card. …. your choice!

The UK-based coaches who’ve inspired this game give their conditions names of players or teams that typify the style, adding to the fun of it (but it’s not likely my Canadian kids will know them as well as English kids so I haven’t done so above).

You can add more conditions, but I think the main objective of the game still has to be ‘find space’ and, when you’re facing a tackle situation, be deliberate about the option taken to avoid the potential loss of continuity and possession. For example, I originally allowed six rucks in Condition 2, but scaled that back to three to add pressure and discourage blind crashes that amount to nothing. For the kicking condition, I added the one pass element because in a real game, a player who regathers a kick and is caught without support is more likely to turn over the ball and shouldn’t get a free phase out of it. I would also avoid negative constraints or arbitrary elements that aren’t representative (like two passes before scoring a try). Conditions and constraints must serve as a means to explore options rather than punish or discourage from doing the obvious… Why should you have to pass to a teammate when you’ve a clear run to the goal line? Using that two-pass condition as a further example of ‘rules’ that can be arbitrary, it’s often that two players standing side-by-side will do an unnecessary pass they’d never do in a real game to meet the condition, gaming the coach’s true intention.

Games like this are also a great opportunity to have the athletes come up with their own ideas and develop self-organising skills through the process and by exploring options as they see fit rather than have the coach dictate conditions to them.

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Professional teams use systems, patterns and sequences, largely, because today’s defences tend to offer no easy attacking opportunities. Their well-drilled ‘basics’ and way the game is refereed tends to favour the attacking team, so they can get away with stringing together a couple dozen phases or more of smashing into the defensive line, patiently waiting for their opponents to make a defensive error or give away a penalty. (Frankly, I am increasingly getting bored with it.)

At the amateur level, however, defences are not so well drilled and on pretty much every phase there are opportunities to exploit. I also believe it’s up to those of us who work with kids and teens to foster their understanding of the game and to help them become skilfully adaptable. Even if they do not go any higher or do graduate into a coach-led, rigidly-structured system, the beauty of rugby – I think – is in how skilful players coordinate themselves to overcome the chaos of it. Amid this potential chaos, to provide the players with some guidance, I try and keep things simple and focus more on principles and guidelines, not rules. These help players follow a general course of action and suggests where to go in a given moment. Once that decision is made, they rely on their understanding of tactical elements (depth, width, angles, timing) and execute skilfully to create a linebreak or get beyond the gain line.

I have covered building an attacking strategy on the principles of play before, but have more recently developed some ideas on strategic guidelines as an alternative to rigid game plans, patterns, sequences and systems. The following are not rules players must follow, but options that allow them to discover workable solutions on their own, anticipating and acting upon their environment, and demonstrating or developing their adaptability through various skills. This is central to my coaching philosophy because I want the players I work with to be able to play successful and attractive rugby without me telling them what to do. I am happiest to hear when they go on to play for someone else and are just as aware, adaptable, and analytic as when I was working with them.

Strategic guidelines serve several purposes for any level of athlete:

  1. Provide focus and clarifies objectives
  2. Provide a limited number of options for a recognised scenario
  3. Provide a ‘fall back’ option under extreme pressure, when obvious options aren’t apparent

Generally speaking, I ask the players to consider the following, from a state whereby defenders are disorganised to one where they are more organised.

Strategic objectives when space is available:

  • Go Through (gaps between defenders)
  • Go Around (space out wide, or around the wall of defenders ahead of the rest)
  • Get Behind (by kicking, in between or behind those responsible for coverage)

Strategic objectives when space isn’t so apparent:

  • Shift the defence (move their concentration to one side, or establish a breakdown and beat them around the corner)
  • Drive them back (move back far enough that they have to reorganise, even better if they have to turn to get back onisde)
  • Chase and pressure (kick may go to waiting opponents, but the chase puts them under immense pressure, forcing them to return possession to us with defenders scattered or through a set piece)

Which path the players take is up to them based upon who they have and what they see in a given moment. Players that recognise opportunities must communicate this information to the decision makers quickly and clearly so they can consider / act upon it. It goes without saying that it’s vital for them to train under realistic conditions so they can recognise opportunities and test out solutions. It’s impossible to do this in drills and only randomly done in large, open games without constraints. Otherwise, you are treating game day as a training exercise.

When deciding upon which is the best, the most essential question is: Where is it easy to play? (i.e. Where are we most likely to achieve a linebreak with the least amount of effort / risk?)

Some specific questions for players to consider are:

Who are our best available strike weapons and are they in a good position at the moment? Is there a more efficient option to take right now that either buys them time or sets them up on a later phase?

Where is the space? Who is best placed to run into it? (Ball carrier to run into or is a pass to someone else better?) Where will the defence be by the time the ball gets there?

Where are there mismatches we can exploit? Quick player vs slow player? Big player vs smaller player? Have we discovered any consistently poor defenders / tacklers? Is someone well out of position and/or carrying an injury? (not to further injure that person, but someone carrying a limp and too prideful to sub off is going to be easy to run around)

A clear linebreak is an invitation for support to funnel through quickly and communicate with the ball carrier as to where continuity can be maintained.

Where clear opportunities for a linebreak do not exist, players can rely upon some universal aspects of rugby to re-establish a state of disorganisation where they are more likely to occur.

Shifting: If we move over there, they will follow us over there. If they are not there quick enough, we can beat them around the corner. If they do get there at about the same time, we might have dragged them away from and created space where we started.

Essential elements:

  • Considered width and speed / accuracy of passing to get it there (does not require a first receiver to be wide so long as the passes are accurate).
  • Quick and efficient recycle so next phase is starting while opposition are moving into place / just getting set.
  • A significant portion of your team ready to exploit the space available / created. If everyone flows to the action area and some have to withdraw and re-align themselves, this will give the opposition time to set up themselves.

Driving Back: Where defences are well-disciplined, we want to march them back and re-establish a scenario in which we can look for ‘easy’ opportunities. The more we move them back, the more disorganised they will be / the more time they will need to get organised. (Ideal: defenders turn and have to run back to get onside. Less efficient: If they only have to take a step back and shuffle. Not ideal: They are making tackles behind the gain line.)

Essential elements:

  • Running onto the pass to catch defenders on / close to the offside line and having momentum to change direction suddenly / power step / power into opposition.
  • Close support to bind on and drive through contact / receive offload / clear out ruck.
  • Quick recycle and transfer of the ball, hopefully to exploit a disorganised state, or to continue building momentum as per the previous phase.

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[Note: I had two posts on this topic a while ago and after re-visiting, didn’t think they were clear enough or at best had way too much information. They have been removed and this is the – hopefully! – simplified version.]

A Simple Structure for Dynamic Play

Structure gives players a focus and a plan of action they can rely upon when defences do not offer easy opportunities to exploit. Heads-up, free play allows athletes a chance to show their skill, both as individuals and combined in pairs, threes, or in larger collaborative units. Both attacking strategies have their limitations, however. Rigidly-structured play can make players to worry too much about their positioning within ‘the plan’, causing them to miss easy opportunities that emerge. Heads-up play can be random and hand initiative to the opposition, especially when individuals go alone or players find themselves not knowing where to be. The obvious solution should be to combine the two strategies.

This simple ‘structure’ is more of a guideline that gives players a clear idea of where to go and what they can do when they get there, but still allows them the freedom to exploit opportunities as they emerge and play to their strengths. Note: everything that follows assumes that every breakdown is well-defended and that there are no immediate opportunities to exploit (overlap, gap, mismatch, etc.). This pattern of play, however, seeks to create such opportunities every single phase, so scanning for them should be the first thing done when a breakdown occurs.

This structure is based on an understanding that each set piece or breakdown has two attacking channels, each with its own possibilities and limitations. A set piece or breakdown outside of the 15m lines has a wide Open Side and a Short Side. Between the two 15m lines, there will be two Split Midfield channels that are obviously not as wide as the Open Side, nor as narrow as the Short Side.

Channels

As a tackle contest emerges and a breakdown is about to form, players not needed there adopt an attacking shape and scan for opportunities in BOTH available channels. The playmakers should be able to attack either side of the breakdown, so it’s important that players work quickly to get re-aligned. The tactic those players choose to go through or around the defence will be based on several important factors:

  • the space available
  • the personnel present and the shape they have adopted
  • the amount of defenders present and their shape

With all of those things considered, the tactic should really choose itself! (If you need to turn a screw at one end of a board and saw a bit off the other end, you wouldn’t choose a wrench and a hammer to do the work.) It’s vital that players train for this under game conditions, understanding how they can best use and create space with any given group of teammates. This will allow them to develop a ‘tactical tool box’ of solutions to familiar problems they will encounter in the game.

We have, then, a structure that allows players to know that they are going to align themselves ‘here’ or ‘there’ at each breakdown. Two other factors help players know where we’re likely to go next. When we’ve assessed that the breakdown is well defended, we want to move away from it quickly and play in space. Thinking about the four different channels that exist, it should also become clear that attacks from a midfield set piece or breakdown typically result in an Open Side / Short Side scenario. Open Side attacks result in a Split Midfield or another Open Side / Short Side, and attacks down the Short Side always result in a large Open Side.

Playmakers or players providing them with tactical feedback can simply call Wide, Middle, Tight, or Short to launch a focused attack from the Open Side. When teams play into the middle of the pitch, they will either go Same Way or Rewind and play in the direction the ball originated. Below is the way this structure can play out, starting from a lineout:

Channel Options 2

Again, this structure is based on moving the ball to space and avoiding congested breakdowns that typically result in little gain / disruption of the defensive line. With that in mind, it also becomes clear that there is no sense running more than two phases in the same direction (unless there is a clear opportunity, of course). There won’t be a reasonable amount of space to achieve those two principle aims. Knowing that we’re only going ‘that way’ once or twice also allows players to conserve energy and set up the next phase quicker. For example, from the scenario above, players who were in the lineout and closest to the touchline might possibly be called upon for a Rewind after the first phase. If not, they would likely be involved in a Middle Left or Wide Left move after the second phase. They wouldn’t go Short Side or Tight as the time needed to get there would allow defenders time to organise themselves. This is very common in rugby – players moving across the pitch to a breakdown and taking time to get set, only to face defenders who are ready and waiting to pounce. Even worse, players who are unsure of what’s going to happen on the next phase move all the way over and end up leaning on rucks or aren’t used at all and have to go back to where they might have stayed. This structure is efficient in its simplicity.

In this video below, you can see how each play essentially provides the team in black with a 1-2 attacking punch. A purposeful and well-supported attacking move manipulates the defence in a certain way. The next phase, also purposeful and well-supported, then exploits that manipulation (more space for talented individual(s), defenders stretched or condensed, individuals out of position, defenders over-committing to one side of the ruck, etc.). Effective attack in just a few phases, and the ability to re-set with another 1-2 punch if that didn’t work, is the beauty of this style of play.

 

 

This strategy typically plays out as follows:

  1. From a set piece (or at a point in open play where we need to re-focus), we choose a move that plays to our strengths.
  2. At the next ruck, and every ruck henceforth, we do a quick scan to see if there is a clear and immediate opportunity to exploit (overlap, mismatch, poor defender, poor alignment, etc.).
  3. If not, we then play to one of two channels that gives us the best possible chance of breaching the defensive line from a position of strength. BOTH sides of the ruck need to be ready to play:
  • Open Side
  • Short Side

or

  • Split Left
  • Split Right
  1. Whichever channel we choose, the players must then consider the best tactic for the space, their numbers and shape, and the skills those players possess.
  • Go Around – a wide move exploit defenders with evasive running, isolate outside defender, draw defenders in and outflank with passing
  • Go Through – a middle or tight move to exploit defenders with evasive running, exploit space with angled runs, power through defenders
  • Get Behind – is a kick worth it at this stage? If the chances of scoring or retaining possession aren’t high, then rely on one of the first two options and allow players in the next phase to have a go.
  1. Players not involved in that phase need to follow the previous play in case they are needed to support a linebreak. If a new breakdown is formed, they then need to quickly re-align themselves in one of the two new attacking channels, repeating the cycle over again.
  2. As a general rule, when defenders are getting re-organised reasonably quickly, a team should not go more than two phases (three if there’s an opportunity down the short side) in the same direction. The aim is to attack space quickly from a position of strength and before the defence has time to set up. At some point, you will run out of space worth using and waste time getting organised for it, handing the advantage to the opposition.

 

Here are some further examples with some notes on how the first phase created an advantageous opportunity on the second:

 

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