Archive for the ‘News / Issues’ Category

Watching some matches over the holidays, I was disappointed with the amount of times players took the ball standing still and passed onto someone else (often in a worse position) without engaging the defence.

When we consider the principles of the game: Go Forward, with Support, to maintain Continuity and Pressure, it baffles me that seasoned professionals ignore this. Even with highly organized and intense defences, there are plenty of examples out there of teams playing flatter, moving before the pass, and having multiple options off the initial receiver, yet many teams are forgetting this.

Here are two videos I made highlighting how static and one-dimensional attack turns over initiative to the defence…

… and one that shows plenty of examples of forwards and backs, and everyone, taking the ball to the line …

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During the Wasps v Leicester Tigers match yesterday, Tigers’ lock Will Spencer was shown a red card for a high tackle that made forceful contact with the head of Wasps’ hooker Tommy Taylor. Without getting into the social media storm about whether or not it should have been (which angered me as, for the sake of player safety and forcing change, it HAS to be nothing but…), I thought I could address those people who questioned what a 6’7″ player (or any player) could do when caught in a position where it’d be very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid delivering a high tackle.

First, here’s the incident:

Firstly, I think it’s important that we stop talking about rugby as being a ‘collision sport’. In some regions / teams, it certainly looks that way with ball carriers running straight into contact and defenders launching themselves into tackles. I recently heard a pro player say it was a ‘game of inches’, which no doubt comes from the NFL and the film Any Given Sunday, but it’s really not. Rugby is a game about possession. It’s really only become a battle of attrition because teams haven’t the ability / skill to evade and cleverly unlock defences and that (frustratingly) the law enforcers allow so many transgressions at the breakdown that it’s not worth contesting much of the time, so they spread their defenders out and offer no clear opportunities for the attack. With referees favouring the attacking side in tackle contests (rucks, mauls), it’s also fairly easy to string 10+ phases together of crash balls where the supporting players immediately seal off.

In addition, rugby league coaches have brought to union the ‘big hit’ and swarming defensive structures that dominate their code. It seems all I hear people talking about when it comes to tackle training is making the dominant hit that drives a ball carrier back. This technique certainly has its positives (get defence on the front foot, knock loose the ball, tackler lands on top so can contest easier, etc.) it doesn’t have to be the only way. When it comes to player safety, it’s been proven that the tackler going high is more likely to suffer a concussion than the carrier and than if using a lower and more passive hit. I have seen people get knocked out from making low tackles, too, but the data from pro rugby shows that high is more risky.

Accidental high tackles are still going to happen, but what needs to change is the mentality that lining a ball carrier up for a crunching tackle is the primary goal. It should be ever-present in the mind of tall players, especially, that a smaller player is going to offer a greater challenge. In the Spencer / Taylor case above, people were (I think deluding themselves by… ) saying that Taylor ‘ducked’ into the tackle. There’s no active ‘ducking’ at all; his change in shape came as a result of his attempt to pass. You can see the same dip in body height in Sapoaga as he passes to Taylor. If you’re still not sold on that, the other way that Taylor’s height changed is upon simply realising he’d been lined up for a big hit by an approaching giant of a lock! These are things that tacklers must be aware of, approaching every situation not as a player-possessed, but as a mindful player who can predict and read a situation and use the best option, even in a split second.

So what could Spencer do? Admittedly, he was committed so it’d have been very difficult to do anything else. He didn’t really ‘launch’ himself, but there is force applied that may not have been necessary. He could have better read the situation and opted for a tackle less-forceful. Below is another, not-dissimilar incident where there wasn’t much time to change but with greater awareness and training, a different outcome should have been possible.

Tu’ungafasi leans into the hit and collides with the Frenchman’s face and his own teammate’s head. Better communication with his teammate and recognition that Cane was already attempting the tackle should have triggered in Tu’ungafasi that he didn’t need to put in a big hit. Trust is so very important on defence this is a great example of where the double hit wasn’t needed; Cane was close enough (and certainly capable enough) to wrap up Grosso, leaving Tu’ugnafasi in an excellent spot to jackal / contest possession. For me, the low passive or low chop tackle is sorely under-used, especially when teams have so many capable jackallers these days. A big hit more often puts the ball back on the attacking team’s side, while a low hit more often has it first presented on the defensive side and with the carrier having to fight through the downed tackler to lay the ball back.

Again, rugby is a game about possession. When introducing defence to a team, I always ask the question: “What’s the aim of defence?” Often, the answers I receive are: to stop scores, make tackles, etc. but the primary aim of defence is to get the ball back, legally, as soon as possible. So the first step toward changing the culture of the ‘big hit’ (something that’s only a recent trend, despite some saying that red cards reflecting a greater focus on player safety are ‘ruining the game’ … but didn’t we all learn to tackle low when we were young/new?) is making players more aware of their actions, the actions of opponents, the most important aspects of playing defence, and appropriate technical application for the situation at hand. This is the one area in my training sessions that I continue to ‘drill’ – not in long lines, but in pairs or small groups. The aim is to give players as many reps as possible at reading body shapes and getting their own positioning correct, often without full contact, so they can be more aware, safer, and use the best techniques to make not only the situation but also their abilities and body types.


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This is a subject I meant to cover at a later date as I’m still sorting out the best way to word things in a rugby context, so consider this a ‘conversation starter’. I’ve been asked to comment here by a friend who said I should more publicly share some thoughts I posted on facebook in support of this ‘vlog’ post by Stuart Armstrong at The Talent Equation. Stuart works as Head of Coaching for Sport England and as Player Pathways Manager for the English RFU, so he certainly knows his stuff! As such, I’ll let his words do the talking on the issue before I say anything …

If you’re craving more, check out his blog, or his interview on the Perception and Action and Coach Your Best podcasts.

He’s also offered some practical advice in a blog post entitled: The War We Are Fighting with Game Designers … an idea I first encountered from an article entitled Level Best, which examines some of the reasons why kids find video games more engaging than sport. Stuart mentions it in the video as well, but for me, the simple answer is that video games are more fun than the fitness- and drill-heavy training sessions kids are forced to endure before those few minutes at the end (if they’re lucky) when they get to play an actual game.

Why not make all of training game-like?  With the Women’s Premier side I coached last year, I think we maybe dedicated 20 minutes a week to set piece (more to give this week’s lineup a chance to sort some things out before doing it all in a full-on contest for 20-30 minutes against a nearly (if not fully) complete side). Players were welcome to do ‘skill work’ (more on why this is a misnomer later) prior to training, and we didn’t do much in the way of drills at all. Everything else was either a small-sided game or a situational skill development activity (say, two evenly numbered groups arriving at a ruck and playing three phases off it).

Drills really only focus on technique with a bit of pressure and usually a predictable course of action. Those are the good ones. Poor ones have no opposition at all! Research I’ve encountered suggests that good drills are useful for new learners to acquire an effective movement pattern, or to become familiar with the pattern that’s new to the learner. But, as Stuart says, experts suggest these don’t really transfer to the game that effectively. [This post just being a ‘conversation starter’, I won’t go deeply into the research as I’m still learning about it myself, but the Perception and Action podcast is a great gateway to learning about all this stuff!]. I’m still not 100% on a definition for ‘skill’, but my Australian coach educator put it on a higher plane, as a combination of techniques in a dynamic environment.

At the other end of the continuum from drilling technique in isolation is ‘the game’ itself. The game can be a great teacher, but many people can muddle through a game they love for years and never really get better. As Stuart mentions in the video, it also doesn’t necessarily allow for some individuals to get as many touches of the ball as a drill might, so opportunities for learning could be few and far between.

Somewhere in the middle of this we have game-like activities. I think coach Dave Alred is spot on when he said recently that rugby decisions are typically made among a maximum of five people (see this wonderful lecture for that quote and more). In the amount of time an individual has the ball, there are usually not more than that many people who can effectively participate in the action chosen. Those individuals are faced with a similar number of opponents in their field of view. With this in mind, it only makes sense to work in small groups.

The key word Stuart kept saying was ‘context’, and it is everything when developing skill and learning the game. Drills offer high repetitions, but very low context compared to a game – and I think it’s safe to say that rugby players face more contextual interference / visual stimuli in their field of vision than any other athlete (barring maybe a football quarterback, who’s often relying on set patterns of play rather than dynamic decision making). When you think about it, it’s ridiculous to only work on technique in low pressure activities, leaving the high pressure contextual stuff until game day! It’s no wonder rugby teams can look very one-dimensional as soon as the whistle blows.

As indicated by the title of Professor Rob Gray’s podcast, “perception and action” coupling is key to skill acquisition – that is, one has to ‘perceive’ the environment and choose an appropriate ‘action’ that will hopefully lead to a successful outcome. Skill acquisition experts have called these ‘affordances’ (if you want to do more Googling) that invite a response, and they are not just visual, but can also be auditory and mental. Players can recognise cues or anticipate actions based on any number of affordances. By the very nature of drills being low context, in a smaller playing area, with fewer people, it’s not very likely that athletes are able to assess, coordinate, and problem solve in them.

So what do we do instead? Simply, treat elements of the game like dynamic scenarios with a few athletes at a time either rotating through the scenario or having to repeat the process over a number of phases (above, I called them by the hardly-sexy term ‘situational skill development activities’). You probably already do activities like this, but I’d urge you to get out of the habit of calling them ‘drills’. You shouldn’t be ‘drilling’ or prescribing anything into a dynamic situation that can have a few or many possible outcomes. How else will athletes make those decisions in the game (rugby being one of the most continuous, high pressure games with the coach(es) far removed from most athletes)? I like to use these as a build-up to conditioned games that allow units or an entire team to play something almost like the real game, if not exactly that. It’s like allowing squads of soldiers train together and coordinate tactics before coming together as a platoon and going to war.

Scenario-based activities allow for a lot more ‘repetition’ – i.e. many touches of the ball – if you’re willing to let go of control and set up as many of them as you need to keep everyone moving constantly or, at most, having a 1:1 work / rest (and, importantly, observe!) ratio. Here’s where coaches can limit the possibilities:

  • Having just one set up so people are still waiting in line, making the activity over complicated … or too simple! … How often do you get 7v4 or have 20m of space between attack and defence in a real game? Rugby’s more often about working in lanes with not much space in front.
  • Frequently stopping to correct. Mistakes are learning opportunities, so try using feedback on the fly or simply let athletes time to sort out their own ideas before coming to you if they’re really stuck.
  • Focusing too much on the ‘rules’ rather than the learning objectives. Instead, state those learning objectives from the onset and trust that athletes know what’s expected. If they’re struggling to reach 50% success, then a quick chat about what’s not working and what is, with a willingness to alter the playing area / rules to increase success will help. You want athletes to be able to test and understand the consequences of their decisions, so a little bit of both is necessary. Because self-discovery is a powerful way to learn and retain those lessons, it’s also important not to give out too many answers!

As Stuart so rightly points out, this makes training more fun and engaging. Regardless of how well my team did, I was most pleased when people told me how much they enjoyed these activities and how I could see transferable results in game footage, attacking with the same sort of dynamism they showed at training.

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Over the weekend, in a hotly contested Waratahs v Hurricanes match, a ‘Tahs player was binned for a swinging arm that made contact to a player’s head. Notoriously one-eyed announcer Phil Kearns, and many ‘Tahs fans, felt it “harsh”. You can see the clip here: [link] You can hear the captain say he was going for the ball, and I bet he was, but I also think players have to be aware of what their actions could do and be prepared to face the consequences.

Speaking technically, coming in as he did, Potgieter wasn’t as likely to dislodge the ball as he might have if he came from behind and tried to punch the ball forward rather than back into his chest. There’s not a lot of time to adjust in such circumstances, but these are the risks players take.

A lot of have said that penalising players for things like this is “harsh” and “spoils the contest” when a player is sent off. But I say let’s go harsh to get players to be more responsible in contact! If that means players will be binned, or players will pull up and miss a tackle to avoid a potential card, then so be it. Player recklessness, if not willing disregard for the laws, is what spoils a fair and even contest. Since I started rugby, referee leniency, materiality and treating the outcome rather than the act (‘didn’t knock him out, so connecting to the head is no problem’) has caused certain aspects of the game, like the ruck, to be a mess. Players always test the boundaries, and referees let it go because they don’t want to ‘spoil the contest’ and take a lashing from the fans, one or both sides, and the press. Well I contend that players are the ones spoiling the contest in that regard by willingly playing outside of the laws. I ask my players to play tough and to dominate the contact area, but through controlled aggression and within the laws, not to mention the positive spirit of the game where we NEVER go out to hurt the opposition.

I’m not calling for rugby to go the way of basketball, where a slap on the wrist gets you a foul and six means you’re out of the game, or hockey were teams are down a man for short periods all game. Rugby people get uppity stressing that our sport has not just “rules, but “laws”, and lawmakers have done well to clean up the game in the last decade with things like stomping, mountaineering, tip tackles, etc. being all but gone. Just a couple of weeks ago, a World Rugby directive stressed that contact with the head must strictly be policed. If teams don’t adjust and actually play to the laws, then they face the consequences.

To me, any sort of calls for this stuff to be allowed makes those people no better than Rugby League fans who were crying because shoulder charges and head-highs were banned a few years ago. Rugby’s an amazing game without acts that can cause serious injury. Rugby’s under a massive spotlight now, and whether you care or not about seeing it grow, concussions and sub-concussive blows are going to see many players end up like NFL and NHL vets. Whatever steps we can take to make that less likely, the better, I say.

Wanna see some alternative try-saving techniques?

Genuinely attempt to dislodge the ball…

Get under the ball…

I’ll get down now …

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Now that our school year / season is over, I have some time to do some reflection on the highs and where we can go next year.  Throughout the season, I’ve wanted to write something about parental involvement in the youth game and have been slowly pulling stuff together that I hope will be useful to readers of this blog.

I’ve been lucky in my first year at a new school to have a wonderful group of supportive parents who attend not only away games in our city, but some actually decided to take their spring vacation in the same location as our overseas tour!  (I imagine some of you just raised a red flag worrying about interference, spoiling the boys’ fun and chance to get away, but I didn’t see any of that – they were truly fabulous and it was great to hear vocal support for us so far away from home!)  Thinking about how positive and supportive they are kept coming up as I read news stories about parents in other sports / countries assaulting (verbally in most cases, but in one or two physically!) referees or how their verbal ‘support’ was often negative or confusing as they shouted dismay and tactical directions instead of praise.  Our parents are so great about only offering praise (and occasionally calmly asking ‘What was that call?’ to one of the coaches, genuinely wanting to learn more about the game), that we don’t mind them standing behind and with our bench.

Negative attitudes are unfortunately so prevalent that New Zealand rugby and English rugby league have found it necessary to make these two (great in the message they send) videos:

The simple message we coaches need to not only remember, but deliver to all our parents and spectators is:  Sport is for the participants; let them have fun, learn and grow in a positive and supportive environment.  I don’t think I need to go into the sort of abuse that can be heard on sidelines across many youth sports as – unfortunately – we’ve all probably heard it addressed to players from both sides, referees, officials and coaches. It’s completely unnecessary and as so passionately expressed in the videos above (esp. love the rugby league kid!) it embarrasses kids and makes them not want to play the game they love.  How sad is that?

The worst of the negative comments is directed at the players themselves, and though typically not abusive I think even those which fall into the ‘tactical direction’ category are detrimental.  I hope that standers-by are quick to shout down those who’d make a cowardly negative comment to a child or adolescent playing sport, but comments which also annoy me are ones which remind the player he/she’s made a mistake and, more subtly, continually tell them what to do in the game.

In the first instance, I think even kids at a young age and new to a sport know what constitutes successful play and what is a ‘mistake’.  I think we all learn from mistakes and it’s through picking one’s self up, moving on, and learning from mistakes that makes us better at something.  To react negatively and remind someone they’ve made a mistake only adds pressure to the voice of doubt that is an athlete’s own worst enemy – his or her own voice.  To varying levels, athletes know other people are watching them and don’t need the added pressure of having someone else fuel feelings of self-doubt.  At the very least, allowing them to move with the game and build a determination to succeed next time needs to occur.  Sometimes I even feel silence is a better reaction than ‘Nice try!’ if the athlete in question’s reaction is along the lines of a dejected “Yeah, right.”  Knowing how to help motivate a player after a mistake / loss depends on a lot of factors and can differ depending on the situation or day (esp. with teens!), but compounding the pain, shame, doubt, etc. with anything less than positive and constructive certainly doesn’t help.  I prefer to have a quiet word with athletes on the touch line in the game, after a game, or before training rather than shouting even positively worded instructions as I don’t want to embarrass them or fuel the self-doubt.  Some older players have told me they are the ‘kick up the backside’ type who want shouted instructions, but I’d still rather have them come over to me so I’m not sending the wrong message, encouraging others to shout out as well.  I don’t believe young athletes are that in-tune with how they learn / are motivated best, however, so have never taken that route with anyone teenaged or younger.

In the second instance, I’m not a fan of parents / supporters / team mates on the side lines offering tactical suggestions to athletes.  I hope that most of it becomes ‘white noise’ for the athletes and they’re able to block it out, but I suspect especially at lower levels of rugby (where pitches are smaller) and other sports where the playing surface is small, that it’s difficult to do so.  There are very few sports out there that I know of where an athlete has time to take regular instruction from an external voice (i.e. not team mates, but from outside the playing enclosure) and focus on doing his or her job.  I should search out studies on this, but I imagine there’s a difference in attention and application of feedback when it comes from team mates versus that which comes from outside of the game.  I’d suspect that our brains would see it more of a distraction than if it was a team mate directing you to get into position for a play.  The worst of it is completely unhelpful – I watched a university-level game last year where a very loud man paced the touchline yelling ‘RUCK!!!’ at virtually every ruck.  I’m certain at that level that the guys knew they had to ruck to win / secure possession.  I also try to stop our players from doing this on the field as the constant white noise of obvious / already communicated information blocks them from focusing on other developments / threats.  One example is the constant yelling of ‘ready, ready, ready / hold, hold, hold’ on defence – once is enough, the rest of the time should be spent on specific communication regarding who has who, their line speed, calling out potential threats.  How are athletes supposed to think about this stuff when people on the sidelines are constantly yelling unhelpful directions at them?  Even as a coach, the only commentary I provide is periodic and very specific to a situation – always focusing on positive / constructive – when I realise that an athlete is really missing an opportunity to learn.  I want my players to learn by playing, and me constantly giving them instructions inhibits their ability to acquire this knowledge themselves – a higher level of thinking which will see the lesson learned stick more so than if they’re told what to do.  I had to laugh but feel for the athletes of one team I witnessed recently as one of the players actually told his coach to ‘Shut up!’ as his useless instructions and rants finally got on his nerves.  I applauded him for speaking up, but unfortunately it only shut the coach up for a few minutes.  (It’s no surprise that, despite their physical ability, they weren’t really talented rugby players, masked by a lot of fancy plays that didn’t work. They’d probably never given the chance to develop their game sense without the coach telling them what to do all the time.)  These sorts of rants to athletes and officials are, frankly, embarrassing for everyone involved.  If coaches and players on the sidelines who know the inner-workings of the team’s strategies and tactics shouldn’t be sending in pointless messages, then parents really shouldn’t be!

Getting back to our great parents, I want to help them become even better supporters next year by running a little “intro to rugby” class for them as some have asked for it, as it’s a game most of this country is still pretty clueless about.  I’d also see such an event an opportunity to translate our values, mission and other sorts of important messages regarding selection, playing time, and a code of conduct we expect from all spectators.

I found this brilliant sample code of conduct via Twitter from Head Master Keith Richardson from Wynberg Boys’ High School in South Africa:

Advice To Parents - Keith Richardson

Our parents are pretty good about following all of these, but something like this would be great to send to them at the beginning of the season with an encouragement to come out and support the boys and continue to share our values of fair play and respect with everyone.  It’d also empower the majority to positively deal with any transgression as I think it’s important – as with bullying in schools among kids – to be vocal about standing up to inappropriate behaviour and standing up for others.  I’m still working it in my mind as to how we might do an ‘intro to rugby’ session for our parents next year as it’s still six to eight months away, but I thought it’d be fun – and more likely to increase attendance – if we made it a sort of fun food and trivia night.  Rather than do a boring lecture with video, I think we might try a ‘pub trivia’ sort of scenario where ‘new to the game’ parents are matched up with those who’ve played or know the game (not a guarantee given rugby’s complex laws!!!) and we have some fun learning about the game, complete with video clips to show answers.  It’d also be great bonding if the boys played alongside their parents.  Watch this space for when I finally get this plan drawn up!

To cap this long post off, however, I think it needs to be re-stated that sport at any level offers the participants the opportunity to have fun, bond with friends, develop fitness, movement ability and decision making abilities, not to mention experiencing a range of mental aspects which develops character, resilience and confidence.  To do ANYTHING which inhibits this is to ruin such a wonderful opportunity to develop better human beings.

I might have shared this on the blog before, and forgot to include it into the original draft of this post, but this video sums up what youth sport and parental support for their kids in sport should be about:

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

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

Here’s the article:  [click here]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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While visiting my favourite rugby forum today I was pointed toward an interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker.  Entitled “How David Beats Goliath – How underdogs break the rules” he looks at how an a-typical group of middle school girls went to the national basketball finals on playing defence that was well within the rules, but often not seen as ‘fair play’ at that level.  He presents an interesting case that there are countless episodes in history, as well as sport, in which the underdog has emerged victorious by stretching the accepted rules of the game to focus on particular strengths and hide potentially destructive weaknesses.

The person who posted the article asked if there was anything like the full-court press employed by the girls’ coaches that exists in rugby.  Not only could I think of a few, but it reminded me of times when I’ve acted in much the same way.

I coached high school girls for a season and I – controversially at first – declared that we’d have no plays as I knew from experience (ages ago myself, and seeing people still do it) that teams spend hours on them a week and rarely use them by comparison, and less so use them effectively. I made sure that scrums were safe, and that we had three different jumps in the line out but we put those to bed quite early in the season as well, only ‘practising’ them during team runs for a few mintues at time before moving on.

Instead, we spent the vast majority of our time not even on drills, but on game related scenarios. We played a lot of defence and a lot of open field, dynamic attack scenarios.  Sometimes we’d play full contact, full-field, but often we played touch because our strategy was about playing in space, on our feet, with ball in hand.  Our only real tactics were:

  1. Get the ball away from the ‘muck’ (girls tend to clump around rucks, leaving lots of room on the wing)
  2. Attack spaces, not faces when out wide.
  3. Attack the branches of the tree, not the trunk when in tight.
  4. Support the ball carrier physically and vocally.  (Which allowed everyone to call out attacking opportunities as opposed to dumping all decision making on 9 and 10.)
  5. Our defence was well organised and we opted to steal the ball from the tackle rather than waste energy on rucks already lost.  This usually resulted in us having more defenders standing than attackers, allowing us to double team or attempt intercepts on the next tackle.

We won city the city finals and only lost the regional final, which would have sent us to provincials, because I was forced to play last year’s stand-out no. 8 who’d been out injured most of the previous month and who hadn’t really caught on to the game plan. In hindsight, I should have just stuck a random back in her place as the team would have defended well enough, but it was her constant taking the ball up herself and not getting it to the players in wider positions that killed us and cost us turnovers.  I only blame myself for that as I should have done more to include the injured star in the development of the game plan and to have been more willing to sub her when it was apparent her inclusion was hurting us.

I love coaching at that level not because I can take advantage of other team’s poor preparation and low level of skill – in fact, now that I’m settled in a new job / city, I aim to help other school coaches in developing their abilities to teach their kids better rugby.  I find girls more receptive to new ideas and are quick to adopt them wholeheartedly.  Even at the university level, I’ve seen women latch onto unorthodox strategy meant to mask their weaknesses and boost their strengths.  I’ve found teenaged boys and men less receptive to new ideas.

I’ve even got more ideas I want to try.  When I go back to the youth level next season, I’m also going to try re-starting attack in open play more like they do in Rugby League – having a forward or two (or all!) act as dummy halves, passing to the scrum half standing close by (because most youth scrum halves can’t throw the long passes) to play to fly half a little wider out.  I feel my rationale is sound for all teams at this level.  With everyone now adopting the tight post / guard defence around the ruck and maul, there’s very little room for a fly half to operate at the length of most scrum halves passes.  With more defenders standing out, rucks are more easily won, allowing one forward to pop the ball out to a slightly-wider scrum half.  The All Blacks do this a fair bit when Piri Weepu is playing 9.

It’s easy to try unorthodox strategies and tactics like that in relatively inexperienced environments. I had the fly half of our team kick a high ball on the first play to see how good their full back was, opening the green light for kicks later if she was obviously weak / team tracked back poorly (though we were great with ball in hand so didn’t often have to use that tactic). I’d also challenge the girls to go for double hits quite regularly; first tackler low to stop forward momentum and the second high to steal the ball.  This was adopted knowing full well that girls tend not to get the ball wide quickly, but also accounting that many of ours weren’t strong individual tacklers.

These tactics can be employed at higher levels as well, with proper training and total buy-in from the players.  Girls can be prone to getting caught up in a static maul, giving a turnover because of poor initial body position in contact and lack of brute strength to ‘rip’ out of a double hit.  Ireland’s men’s team has been quite successful at this over the past year.  So much was the belief in their tactic that they even surprisingly took it to one of the best ‘wide’ teams in the game – Australia.  A conservative approach would have seen the Irish play more man-on-man and not risk putting two or three defenders on a single ball carrier, who’d be more likely than most teams to pass before contact into space.  Australia should have recovered at half time, but opted to kick away possession rather than simply pass before contact and Ireland scored a famous victory.  Australia suffered from the “rush state” that Rick Pitino talks about in the article – they panicked and clearly didn’t think their way out trouble.  It’s a great example of changing the ‘rules’ a bit at the highest level, having total commitment to a plan and playing to strengths.  Bringing in the rush / blitz defence from League is another that reminds me of the full-court press.  Not all can do it, not all want to because the risks can be higher than the rewards, but some – like Wasps and Wales – have won championships on it.

I think the key for any such strategy is the buy-in from the players, and possibly even basing it upon a perception – or myth, even! – that fuses the team together. The girls b-ball coaches in the article seemed to have all the girls on their side because of the respectful way they were treated.  They fully committed to the game plan and seemed to revel that they weren’t like a typical basketball team, being under-sized and under-skilled. Such was the case with the young ladies that I coached, most coming from working class and/or immigrant families, revelling in beating the city’s rich kid schools (I didn’t ever bring that up, but I knew it was on their minds). They also seemed to feel extra special after our first league win, realising that ‘no plays’ didn’t matter.  Having been a London Wasps fan for many years, it seems to be the same for them.  During their glory years, they possessed a unified team culture based upon the perception that they were the underdogs – especially where finances were concerned.  They won several domestic and European titles despite not being rich enough to buy big stars, and instead developed their youth and embraced other team’s misfits and rejects, together buying into a game plan which matched their strengths and masked their weaknesses.

Thinking of the teams I’ve coached over the last 14 years which have been most successful, it was that unified team culture that was the common factor in each.

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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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