Archive for the ‘General Posts’ Category

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


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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)


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


One-Two Punch Scenario


  • 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


  • 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.


  • 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


  • 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.


  • 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


  • 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




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If you follow the blog for technical, tactical, and strategic info, I’m happy to inform you that I’ve finally condensed all of what’s been written here and included much, much, MUCH more into a stand-alone website.

Here it is:  https://rugbyguide.ca/

I still intend to keep the blog, however, and am going to try and add content more often. The new direction I’d like to take will be more on the ‘conversational’ side of the somewhat awkward title I chose so many years ago. I listen to a lot of podcasts, stumble upon great interviews and lectures on youtube, and come across all kinds of other coaching goodies via twitter and am going to share and reflect upon them here.

I hope you find value in this but if you’re purely into rugby-content, do head over to the site!  Thanks for your support!


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I read an insightful article ahead of this weekend’s England v Ireland encounter and wanted to comment on what I feel is a missed opportunity in the England side, but also for a lot of amateur teams still stuck in the past regarding what forwards are meant to do in attack.  From the article:

“FOR ME, THE biggest work-on at the moment – with the tight-five forwards and everyone – is ‘seeing the game.’ It’s all about the decisions people make on the field, under pressure.

“The more you focus on that, the more all the players start ‘seeing it.’”

So said England attacking skills coach Mike Catt of what he’s attempting to achieve with the group of players head coach Stuart Lancaster has identified as good enough to win the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

An intelligent second-five-eighth in his time, Catt wants England to eventually emulate what the All Blacks are doing with their simple, skills-based approach to rugby.
“You look at New Zealand; their tight five can do what their centres do and that’s why everyone else is chasing them,” Catt told Sportsmail. “They have this understanding, an ability to ‘see it’ and make the right decisions at the right time; to do the right things.

“The beauty about what we currently have here is that it’s a young enough team for us to work on developing that.”

There certainly have been signs that Catt’s focused work is bringing about improvements in England’s ability to make more intuitive decisions on the pitch but they remain, for now, a side who rely on a fairly rigid structure in attack.

I’ve been trying the same with the men’s 2nds team I’ve been coaching the last few months.  The message is clear and simple: everyone’s a carrier and everyone’s a decision-maker. Forwards are not just there to crash it up and set up / clear rucks. That sort of thinking is ancient and reduces your team’s potential in attack. Why have just seven or eight players (no. 8s always chosen as players to cross the gain line) when you can have fifteen, and seven more on the bench? Everyone needs to focus on getting through the defensive line or putting someone through the line.

England talk about this a lot, but the bit I’ve bolded is very apparent.  They’re getting forwards into what aren’t ‘pods’ – with a strike runner at the head and two or three ‘support’ players behind (who’re there mostly to ruck or maul). They, as do New Zealand and Australia (probably others) stretch out forwards in what look like mini ‘back lines’ of three our four. The difference between England and New Zealand, however, is what those forwards do with the ball and how they attack.  Currently, in the England team, the guy who gets the ball crashes it up 9.5 times out of 10 (made up stat but seems like pretty much every one, with the odd offload or pass before contact).

All that does is cut off the space that the backs previously had and everyone’s so well drilled in defence these days that they’re not really occupying more defenders to create an over-lap. (This may work at amateur level, but I challenge my players to think on a level that we’re always trying to breach the line, not stretch out phases and hope that the defence eventually collapses in one way or another. Even a few metres gained means the defence has to back up and re-position themselves, which is better than facing defenders who haven’t had to move much at all.)  There are some examples in the article showing England forwards making the extra pass, but I’d argue that the second runner is not really looking to take space, as they still crash it up blindly – and even with a support runner present. The All Blacks and some groups of forwards in the Top 14 are brilliant at moving the ball about in those little units to get beyond the gainline, at least with a half break, not just smash into it and hope to march it back or break a tackle.  I’m a big fan of Lancaster, but I’d like to see England let loose the shackles and make at least one more pass as they’ve got a lot of capable carriers.

For amateur coaches, I challenge you to train and allow your forwards to be more dynamic rugby players – especially if they’re younger and won’t grow into / settle on a position for years to come!  Put all players in realistic situations where they have to work on alignment and scan for, communicate, and exploit opportunities in high-pressure environments.  Below are a couple of scenarios I use before going to a bigger game-like scenario where backs and forwards have to work together in attack.

The first I use with backs and forwards, but can be adapted to just include forwards. The aim is to make that initial break and then support with lines of pursuit that avoids the sweeper(s) – at least a scrum half, if not one other. I like to keep the bags tight so they either have to draw and pass, power step or hammer through and then break out in another gear, fighting through the obstructions to get into good support positions.  With a lot of these activities, I demand players “run in” from the side as if they were arriving to a second or third phase, stressing that creating effective attack starts by getting yourselves into position to exploit / create opportunities – so appropriate width and depth before calling for the ball so attackers can stay straight and have legitimate options left AND right (i.e. players who swing in on an arc invariably angle out, making it easy for defenders to drift).

Shield Wall Breakout

I like this to combine what can become robotic rucking drills, instead giving players a larger contextual sense that the ruck has to be dominant and efficient to provide quick ball for the next phase. I also use this to encourage all players to move the ball from the ruck – note how the tackler rolls away quickly and acts as the half back to get the next phase started (not always realistic, but it certainly encourages tacklers to roll away quickly and get back into the play with urgency!).  That said, the All Blacks are masters at this and it adds to the dynamic of their attack, allowing speedy scrum halves the chance to play in the open field and providing more width. It’s very rare that my team attacks the channel around the ruck, as it’s so heavily defended nowadays, so also reminds everyone that we’re playing from the third defender-out.

Ruck Clean-outs for Second Phase

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This is really a ‘conversational’ post as it’s an edited version of an email I wrote to a coaching colleague about a revelation I had at training last night.  The simple version: games might be better for skill development because there’s a positive pressure to perform (i.e. beating the other team in the game, as opposed to just ‘being good at’ the drill).

I’ve noticed something interesting development of late…

I’ve been having the guys do passing technique practice in lines, working on pushing / spinning the ball across their bodies focusing on form while jogging down the field. Then I put them in a chaotic 8m square where the same groups work on passing, running from one side to the other, with groups on other sides of the square doing the same.  So there’s lots of traffic as they cross back and forth constantly.  The interesting observation:  fewer dropped balls in the chaotic square!  I’ve been reading some stuff on skill development and technique that suggests skill (being the application of techniques, under pressure) is better developed in ‘game-like’ situations, so for rugby not just with opposition but also with more than one variable.  It seems my guys, at least, thrive on the pressure! (I suspect that there’s not a lot of interest in the low-pressure drill – noting that I’m the sort of coach who doesn’t shout at or punish mistakes, asking players to be self-motivated to improve.)

One of the coaches I follow on Twitter asked a while back if perfect technique was necessary?  I’ve started to think that as long as the ball travels efficiently (i.e. not lofted, wasting time) and is on target (i.e. not ‘at’ the player, but in front of his outstretched hands), I’m not sure it matters for most passes. The speed of transfer is more important than whether or not a push pass is wobbly.  Hell, Justin Marshall barely threw a nice looking pass his whole career!  🙂

The other thing that really has struck me, influenced again by my Twitter connections is the use of games. I’ve always liked using games, but have probably had more drills or skill development activities with a game at the end.  Last night I ran a skill development activity – a 5 v 4 (later 5 v 5) scenario where the defence chose obvious patterns and the attack had to read them (starting with backs turned, then coming forward on a cue) and pick the best way to exploit the pattern they saw. They were pretty good at it, but often slower than is ideal.  I suspect that they were really scanning deeply (which is a new challenge to most, especially the forwards, who used to just run blindly forward) and taking time to think and communicate rather than act intuitively.  But when we went to the double-touch game they were much more intense and often exploited poor defence / supported the break more quickly than in the skill dev. activity. Some were even starting to recognise angles and coming out of their ‘swim lanes’ looking for work! I’m beginning to think that the game, with the added pressure / reward of ‘going for the win’ improves their focus and causes them to act much quicker rather than being ponderous (at best) or somewhat apathetic in a drill.

The thing I tweeted about which got quite a few retweets was that I didn’t say much the whole practice, and really left it up to them. I presented a ‘problem’, elicited a few possible solutions from them, made some clarifications to their input to keep the language / concepts simple, and let them figure it out themselves.  I think, most importantly, I told them all of this in the debrief, reminding them that I don’t care about the mistakes made, but was really happy to see so much quality and praised quite a few individuals for the leaps they’d made in their decision-making. Above all, they have fun with games. These are adult men and I still get a few saying “Aww, just one more try!” when I say practice is over!

Damn I love this coaching thing!  🙂

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The following was written by a friend of mine, who spent the summer working for Rugby Canada as an intern. Ryan Surgenor has had overseas experience playing rugby, is studying TV production at college and is a regular colour commentator for Rogers Cable in Ottawa. What he offers are suggestions on what players who aspire to compete at a higher level can do to sell their talents to coaches. As this blog is largely aimed at coaches, I’d say there are some great tips here to support your players’ goals if you have any game film to lend them / skills to help them editing.  These tips would also be useful when putting together clips for your players to analyse.


So you want to make a highlight video?  First you need to decide what is the purpose of your video, whether it is just for entertainment or for coaches to look at. There are a few things you need to include in the video in order to make it effective.

First up is attacking talent. For most coaches this is the first thing they look for in a video of a player. This gives them an idea of your athleticism and what level of athlete you are. Many people make the mistake of just including tries and huge runs. Those two things are definitely a huge part of attacking ability but do not give the coaches a well-rounded perspective on your athletic ability.

Some things to include in the attack category:

·         Offloads: this gives coaches the insight into your ability to control the ball in the tackle. A valuable skill that is really hard to coach.

·         Varied types of passing: Show multiple instances of your ability to change your type of pass given the situation. Gives a good indication of your overall skill level. Typical passes to include:

  • Spin pass
  • Pop pass
  • Pops from the ground
  • Switch passes
  • Touch passes

·         Foot work: As long as the footwork does not have a negative result it is a good addition. Just because you did not score a try does not mean it was not an impressive display. You could have put the defense on the back foot. Or forced a 2 or 3 v 1 tackle situation.

·         Running through gaps: Just like footwork, even if you did not score, it shows your ability to create line breaks.

·         Set up for a big play: if you do have an outstanding play that you are a part of, it is really helpful to provide context to the play. If you score off first phase in a lineout, show your positioning in relation to the ball.  Show how you set yourself in a position to make that big play.

·         Support running: showing that you are able to track a play and provide either offload support or rucking support demonstrates your awareness in the game.

Now that you’ve displayed your power on one side of the ball, now you have a chance to display your talents on defense. An important part of this section is to give the viewer a proper context for your plays. Its all fine and good that you managed to blow out a ruck on defense, but if you also include you getting back into the play after that event. It will increase the impression you leave on the viewer.

Some often forgotten aspects of defensive highlights:

·         What happens after the tackle: showing yourself making a good tackle is key. What comes after the tackle is almost more important. Make sure to show you rolling away after you make the tackle, or even better show you getting to your feet and providing pressure on the defense. Just make sure to pick clips that show off your ability to avoid getting penalties.

·         Defensive rucking: show the strength you have off the ball.  It lets the viewer know that if there is a call to be made for a counter ruck then you are a clear candidate for that call.

·         Include clips of defensive set up: This is a minor inclusion that leaves that extra impression upon an evaluator. Show yourself moving closer to a ruck if you are a forward, or calling the defense out if you are a back. If you are a 9 or 15 try and include audio of you directing people around.

·         Key actions in a turnover: If you were the guy to blow out a ruck, or hold a guy up in a maul be sure to include that. Not only does it give the impression of skill and strength but also knowledge of the game’s laws.

Lastly you should highlight position specific skills. These clips should show your ability to use the skills for certain positions well and with good results. Be careful not to show the same action over and over again. (Unless that skills major aspect is consistency, like kicking or lineout throws).

Of course each position has their specific skills. I will highlight a few for each position to give an idea of what to look for:

·         Tight head prop and Loose head prop

  • Scrummaging against different sized opponents
  • Winning scrums against the head
  • Boosting in the lineout
  • Driving in a maul. (show the impact you have, not the whole drive)
  • Tackles at the side of the ruck

·         Hooker

  • Lineout throws (both consistency and variation is types of throws)
  • Passing from the base of a ruck
  • Controlling the ball at the back of a maul
  • Successful strikes at ball in a scrum.
  • Stolen scrums where you can see your contribution

·         Locks

  • Ball control in the air
  • Blowing out rucks
  • Boosting
  • Speed from scrum to rucks

·         Back row

  • Speed from scrum to ruck
  • Any actions in the lineout
  • Ability to steal ball at the breakdown
  • ALL FORWARDS (editor contribution):  demonstrating ability to carry the ball and retain possession, as well as getting into good supporting positions from phase to phase.  Be careful to highlight carrying clips which have an impact on the play, as some ball-carrying forwards have a tendency to go off on their own or pick and go when there were better options available.

·         Scrum half

  • Passing from the back of the scrum and rucks
  • Sniping runs from the back of rucks
  • Passing – both consistency and varied types of
  • Long phases of play where you made it to each breakdown
  • Ability to direct forwards during phase play
  • Tracking of line breaks and tactical kicks, sweeping behind the main line in defence
  • Kicks – specifically box kicks and maybe penalties

·         Fly-half

  • Ability to take and create space
  • Ability to manage a team in attack, direction of phase play
  • Kicking (goal, tactical, strategic)
  • Passing ability
  • Defensive ability, including covering back after kicking

·         Centres

  • Ability to take and create space
  • Ability to put supporting players into space
  • Open field tackles and defensive coordination
  • Kick chases

·         Wings

  • Catching high ball, support for full back
  • Footwork and ability to finish moves
  • Tactical kicks when isolated
  • 1 v 1 tackles out wide
  • Chasing kicks

·         Fullback

  • Clearance kicks, tactical kicks
  • Catching under the high ball
  • Wide passes
  • Counter attack
  • Defensive positioning and control of the back three

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I recently saw this great clip featuring French player Francois Trinh-Duc’s doubly-clever move to set up a try for his team mates.  What’s on play here is a sound knowledge of the laws of the game not just by Trinh-Duc, but by his team mates as well.

1. The player in white kicks the ball out ‘on the full’, meaning that the lineout will go to the blue team back from a line where the ball was kicked because the player doing the kicking was in front of his 22m line.  (This also is true if the ball kicked was passed back to a player inside the 22m by someone outside of it.)

2. To ensure this happens, as it’s probably unclear to Trinh-Duc if the ball is truly going to go out, he straddles the touch line BEFORE making his catch.  Simply put, he did not carry or knock the ball out.  By having at least one foot in touch when he caught the ball, he was already out, and as such made the ball that was kicked by his opponent out.

There are a lot of situations like this that can be very confusing even to veterans of the game, largely because we rarely see them.  There’s a great document from Australia that outlines pretty much every possibility, including both feet in, one in and one out, and while jumping in the air.  It can be found by clicking THIS LINK.

3. Knowing that a quick throw is possible before the lineout is set, Trinh-Duc runs forward to where the assistant ref marks the spot that the lineout will occur.  Up until this season, the quick throw could only take place from the spot the ball crossed the touchline or further back toward one’s own goal line.  This year, as can be seen in this video, the quick throw can take place at the ‘line of touch’ – or where the lineout will occur when kicked out on the full.  Explanations and further examples from the IRB Laws site can be found HERE and HERE.

4. He makes a quick throw – which must go 5m – to a team mate, who sets up another for the score.  Trinh-Duc could have taken the quick throw from where the ball went out.  But knowing that it’s now possible to take the throw from where the lineout will occur, he took the opportunity to run it forward and gain some free metres (as well as get behind most of the opposing players who’d chased the kick).  This can be a bit confusing if you’re new to quick throw-ins, but the new Law trial actually makes more sense than the way it was before because the options then were take a quick throw down field or wait and have a proper lineout upfield.  Now players have the option of making a quick throw anywhere from where the lineout should occur all the way back to one’s own goal line.

Courtesy:  irblaws.com

Quick throw can occur anywhere from kicker in blue back to the goal line.

This is entirely possible at any level, but players wanting to make a quick throw must use the same ball and it has to be taken by the person who fetches the ball (not chucked to someone else who takes the quick throw).  Catching the ball cleanly before this happens makes setting up quick throws that much easier.  Hopefully refs at your level are aware of these things as well!

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My apologies to those of you who follow this blog for not making a post in several months!  I’m in the final states of completing a Masters degree and didn’t make much time for blogging in between school work and lots of cycling.  It’s a new year and I’m in a new location, with a new club, so in the spirit of ‘newness’ will be posting – hopefully many – new articles over the coming weeks as we start indoor training.

I want to kick off 2012 with something that would have been more timely posted in October – my thoughts on the Rugby World Cup.  Despite the time lapse, however, I think the following things which struck me can be lessons on how I’ll approach coaching in the new year – affirming some of my beliefs and giving me new things to think about.

1. New Zealand

I hope some of the bitter sorts who think New Zealand’s win was undeserved, and who unfairly lobbed a lot of criticism at the referee, have had a chance to cool down as I believe they were truly justified as winners.  Not only because they had the players – and back-up players! – to do the job, but because their preparation for the tournament is what – in my opinion – got them there.  I’ve just recently finished reading Clive Woodward’s book, Winning!, on how they won the 2003 Rugby World Cup.  In it, he outlines all the structures put in place in order to instil both a winning culture within the minds of ALL people involved with the team, from coaches, to staff, to players, to the wider training group who didn’t make the cut.  He also underlines the importance of infrastructure in supporting everyone’s needs.  I’ll talk more about this later when I synthesise my notes on the book, but it appeared to me that Graham Henry followed that same sort of mentality.  Clive talks about surrounding himself with the best staff and players and developing a culture of winning, and that is something that was obvious within the All Blacks over the last two years or so.  Assistants Hansen and Smith are top notch, and they all seemed to contribute, even switching roles at one stage.  That, to me, shows a team that is truly functioning within.  They also have maintained pretty much the same core of players for the last few years.  Others have been tried and those players put pressure on the incumbents to do better.  Those who earned their place – like Piri Weepu – were rewarded, though there was immense faith placed in the old guard – like Ali Williams, only recently having come back from his Achilles injuries.  Like England was between 2001-2003, New Zealand have been virtually unstoppable over the last two years, and any bumps along the way only served to teach them lessons and make them stronger.  (Anyone who remembers how they exited RWC 2007 and survived the 2011 final, with many of the same players, can see how they grew.)  The lesson here is that team culture, coaching structure, and total club buy-in is immensely important, and I believe can even elevate teams beyond those who are arguably better on paper. 

2. Half Backs

I’ll write more on this later, but the play of Piri Weepu and Kahn Fotuali’i in particular impressed me as they often played what one pundit called the 9 1/2 position – doing the work of scrum half, but also often finding themselves in the ‘stand off’ position.  What this allowed the All Blacks and Samoans was to have more width, get away from the condensed defence around the rucks, and get their most creative players in more space with more strike options around him.  I’m convinced this comes from Rugby League, which I know Weepu played at school, and assume Fotuali’i has as well.   In that sport, the hooker does most of the passing from the play-the-ball (oddly enough, he wears 9 – coincidental?) and the half back and 5/8 play in wider, often inter-changeable, positions.  More on that in a forthcoming post …

If you want examples of great traditional half back play, however, watch BOTH Japanese 9s (Fumiaki Tanaka and Atsushi Hiwasa), and their partnership with fly half James Arlidge.  To me, they were the best in the tournament – ever-present at the break down, and with speedy, accurate passes.  Some teams, like England and Australia, have great 9s who can make little darting runs, but they were rarely effective doing so as international-level defences are incredibly focused around the ruck.  When they did, it also left a ‘slow ball’ situation at the next break down because their passer was trapped at the bottom of it.  When I talk about the “9 1/2”, I’ll examine how such a team needs forwards to be decision makers and/or passers to make up for that.  The Japanese, however, were always on-hand to make the pass and did so without delay, hitting their forwards on the run, rather than relying on the static pod system a lot of other teams use.  This not only accounted for their relative lack of size, but also kept defences from getting organised, providing Japan with a lot of ‘go-forward’ ball and opportunities to make things happen.  I’ll definitely be focusing on this in the new year, and maybe a combo of both styles if the team is receptive to having the forwards pass more and, essentially, playing with two decision makers in attack.

3. Game Changers

I made a note to discuss ‘game changers’ months ago because CBC radio was doing a series on people who did just that around the time of the Rugby World Cup.  I made a note to discuss both the South Africa / Samoa game and the Ireland / Australia shocker.  Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten much of the specific details of both games, but do remember the important parts.  Simply put, both Samoa and Australia went into half time with a major hurdle to over-come.  Samoa were down 0-13, but were playing well and – as they often do – were intimidating in the loose and had weapons all over the park, in both the forwards and the backs.  Australia were definitely the better team on paper, but the Irish are a clinical and powerful side and were bullying the Aussies, who are more open field flair and less about playing the gritty tight game.  Both teams emerged from the changing rooms at half time with contrasting mentalities from each other.  I’m not sure how much of it was down to coaching decision / in-decision or by the players themselves deciding to step it up / not, but Samoa came out firing and won the second half 5-0, while Australia kept doing the same old thing and ended up scoring no points.  Both teams lost, but one would have expected that from Samoa – who could have won the game, while Australia should have beat the Irish.  The difference was, I think, in the decision to make a tactical change / affirmation / clarification at half on the part of the Samoans.  They identified their strengths versus the areas the South Africans were looking weak (from memory, I think it was the midfield – in particular, they used a simple loop to beat the Fourie’s blitz, and slipped inside him for their try).  They matched their muscle and kept the South Africans on the back foot and denied them possession.  Conversely, again from memory, the Australians kicked away a lot of their possession and continued to try and muscle up to the Irish, getting bullied in the process via their rugby league style defence.  I’m a huge fan of Aussie rugby, and kept wondering why they weren’t trying to play the game wider as a few forays into that territory yielded in positive results – but then they’d go back to kicking away the ball and trying to do slow drives in tight with outmatched forwards.  The lesson is to be analytical during the first half and not to be afraid to make a big change of strategy, tactics, or personnel at half to capitalise on anything learned.

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The difference between un- and effective drills, in my opinion, is not in how good the drill is but how well it suits the needs of your players and how well it is managed.  Here are some lessons I’ve learned over the years that ensure I have the players’ interests at the forefront.

  1. Provide two or three objectives that should be the focus of the drill. Beginners benefit from a few simple ones, while veterans can still be confused by too many. Where teams have a mixture of experience, give the veterans different, more advanced, objectives to work on.
  2. Address different learning styles: explain technique and drills clearly, point out key aspects in a slow demonstration, and invite kinaesthetic learners to be in that demo group. For complicated open drills and dynamic scenarios, let everyone run through it a couple of times and check understanding before increasing intensity. Ask and field questions. It’ll take time, but save time in the long run.
  3. Balance correction and intensity. Often, specific technical aspects – such as passing – should involve low intensity and much room for correction. Conversely, developing unit skills should be done with moderate to high intensity and with not as much correctly. Team play often involves very little, if any, coach input as team leaders should be given the opportunity to assess and learn from their own actions.
  4. Planned progression can enhance learning and understanding. For example, if you want to work on your back line’s ability to work together in breaching a flat defence, you can start with passing drills to focus on quality, 2 v 1s to work on timing, 3 v 2s to practice unit skills, alignment, timing and communication and then finish off with a full 7 v however many defenders you want. This can take up a large chunk of your practice time, but the links between technique, skill, and game sense are made more clear and players should be able to move from being told what to do, to thinking for themselves and self-correction in a shorter period of time.
  5. There is no shame in going back a step or scrapping a plan altogether. We learn from mistakes, but few of us learn from frustration. If something’s not working, don’t be afraid to admit it and go back a step. Players will respect you more and appreciate the opportunity to realise success before trying to climb the mountain again. It’s always a good idea to leave a “skill” area set up off to the side of a dynamic scenario – if the 7 v 5 game isn’t working for one or two specific reasons, take five minutes to re-focus on those areas, and then get back to the game.

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Over my 13 years of coaching rugby I’ve had quite a few moments when I felt like the cartoon character that yelled ‘Eureka!’ and would have a tiny light bulb form above his head.  Some of these might seem quite simple, but bearing in mind I started coaching after just two years of playing, my coaching path has largely been one of self discovery.

Here they are:

1. Watching the Ball – Very early in my career, I realised I could bring stuff from other sports – and have never stopped, should I hear / see something I think I can bring to the rugby pitch.  I was never more than a blocker in football, but I remembered my coach telling the receivers to ‘catch with their eyes’ – meaning, keep your eyes on the ball until it’s secure in their hands.  It’s exactly the same on the rugby field.  When you see a player on tv dropping the ball in the open field, it’s almost guaranteed that his eyes were elsewhere before he secured the ball.

2. Thinking About the Target – My passing got a lot better when it was stated one should think about the target before the pass is made, focusing on that spot during the follow-through.  When I became a Touch player, and got to handle the ball more often, my passing improved – leading the receiver, rather than putting it right to him – as I thought about and focused on where he’d want it.  In addition, making that flick pass in heavy traffic is actually quite easy when one has an end-point for the follow-through in mind even while the ball is in flight!

3. Visualisation – Building on the last point, my goal kicking improved after reading an article by kicking guru Dave Alred, who talked a lot about visualisation.  I’ve since learned this is key to any closed skill – and explained why ski aerialists always did those funny arm swings – as there are things that require not only extreme focus, but sometimes can’t be seen if you’re to perform the skill correctly (i.e. keeping the head down well after the ball has left the tee ensures the body follows through the kick; leaning back to watch the ball fly takes the momentum out of it).

4. Flat, ‘Attacking’ Defence – when I first started playing, I don’t think there was as much focus on a ‘flat line’ defence as there was in the 2000s, after the Wallabies won RWC 1999 with rugby league defensive structures.  The flat line, ‘attacking’ aggressively closes down the space in front of the attacking team and provides them no obvious gaps.  Simple, but effective.

5. Economy of Effort – today I was reminded of lessons learned from heavy defeats suffered as a player, one coming during a 70-or-so to not-much loss to a touring Welsh side.  They continually had several players extra out wide and even then I realised we were committing way too many players to the break down.  If the few who got their first worked their butt off, or declared the contest lost, the rest could take up defensive positions elsewhere.  It’s a tough concept to get across sometimes, but to some players who feel they need to contribute, I say, “Be lazy!  Don’t go to every break down.”  I stress more clearly, though, that you have to have trust that the first few people there will do the work needed of them and that we need to have more players on our feet than they do so we can outnumber them on defence – and try and get the ball back in the next tackle contest.  Defence can be very tiring if players do not conserve their efforts for the winnable battles!

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If you’ve not bookmarked Rugby Dump, click the link and do so now!  It’s a great site which features highlights from around the rugby world every few days, and I’m glad to see one sub-set – on the history of rugby – finally be completed recently.  In particular, I wanted to post the last two segments which feature England under Clive Woodward (coach from 1997-2004).  I’ll write about him later, as I’ve just started his autobiography, but having witnessed his rough early days to the wonderfully constructed World Cup winning team of 2003, it was hard not to support them as they were so clinical.  If you didn’t get a chance to see them, there are some great clips below.

It’s been a while since I watched England footage from this era, and especially when I compare it to lacklustre England teams of late, I’d forgotten how exciting they can be!  The stereotype was that they traditionally trampled the ball forward a few metres at a time via the forwards and relied heavily on the boot of ace kicker Jonny Wilkinson.  I think, however, these highlights will show some things they were also wonderful at what legendary Loughborough coach Jim Greenwood called ‘Total Rugby’.  [His two books a MUST for any coach, and someone that Woodward credits for opening his eyes to a better, more dynamic style of rugby.]

Things to watch for in these clips:

1. Forwards carrying powerfully, with support.  Ball being moved away from the tackle contest (ruck / maul) QUICKLY, before defenders have time to re-align.  Forwards also getting involved in the back line, effectively passing rather than ‘dying’ with the ball in contact when there’s space and men to spare.

2. Balls being passed just before or from contact – to someone who’s almost definitely calling for it (not thrown away in hopes someone will be there), maintaining the continuity which NEVER ALLOWS the defence to get organised.  These runners are also taking the offloads very close to the line and running through spaces at pace.

3. Passes being put IN FRONT of runners so they do not have to adjust their speed.  Wilkinson’s famous for his boot, but he has a lovely long pass, as does Greenwood, Catt and Healey. EARLY / DEEP PASSES allow the speedsters time and space to take any line they choose and LATE / FLAT put people through the gaps.

4. Support runners hitting the line at pace, with PERFECT TIMING.  Support runners also ALTER ANGLE OF RUNNING to take advantage of defenders out of position or not focused on what’s going on around them.  (This one isn’t as obvious to someone who’s never considered how running angles work before, so have a look at any of their tries which seems to come from a change of angle, rewind and assess:  a) Which defender should have picked up that player? and b) Where were their eyes and hips facing?  It’s often that they’re looking inward, at where the ball came from, and not forward, in alignment and in communication with their team mates, focused on the threats in front of them and trusting their team mates close to the ball.)  These are great opportunities to take advantage of Unders / Overs lines and tell the ball carrier you’re doing so, thus making his/her job of distribution easier!

Jonny’s still a great fly half, but that team benefited from having quite a few intelligent, tactically minded players around him who made the entire team smarter and more aware.  If you didn’t get to see them the first time around, I hope you enjoy watching them as much as I did – and do again!

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