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This is the second post related to my quest to simplify what I do at training. If you didn’t see the first post, which has activities for attack, follow THIS LINK.

A re-cap of the areas for improvement and 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

1 v 1

Procedure:

  • Attacker and defender stand face-to-face, retreat to own line and come forward
  • Attacker is passed ball, tries to evade
  • Defender comes forward, tracks, wraps safe and strong; aims to drive back or out
  • If defender cannot, can still ‘win’ by wrapping from behind and pulling back

Adaptations:

  • Closer = more contact
  • Wider = evasion
  • Full Contact = incl. supporters to jackal and ruck

1v1

1 (+?) v 4 Unit Defence

Procedure:

  • 4 defenders and same/fewer attackers start on opposite lines
  • Coach/extra player passes ball to one attacker, and defence comes forward; supporting attackers do a down-up before moving to support
  • Defenders aim to take away space, make a tackle, and win the ball back

Adaptations:

  • Narrower channel for forwards
  • Wider channel for backs
  • If focus is more on defensive pressure and coordination, can remove full contact and go wrap = down
  • Can join two together, playing the ball from one group to the next group

1v4

Multi-Directional Unit Defence

Procedure:

  • Three defenders start in the middle of a large playing area (cone in the middle is their rallying point)
  • Attacking teams on the sides take turns trying to score a try on the other side
  • They must announce themselves before moving forward and must wait until the defending team has returned to the rallying cone in the middle
  • Defenders can stay in for a set number of attacks or aim to hold off a target number

Multi D

Defensive Pressure Game

Procedure:

  • Evenly-matched attackers and defenders face off in a large playing area
  • Attackers start with a tap at centre and have 10 phases to score; the value of the try decreases by one point every phase, starting with 10 points from the onset
  • Defenders touch/wrap to not just stop them, but win points for themselves:
    • ball carrier caught behind gainline (1pt)
    • pressure or create turnover (knock-on, thrown forward, into touch, intercepted – 5pts)
    • try scored (intercept, turnover recovered and scored without being caught – 10 pts)
  • When caught, ball carrier goes to ground and offside line becomes length of their body; defenders can move forward on play of the ball

Def Press

Whole Team Game:

See: Limited Phase Ruck Game in the attacking activities section … can provide various objectives and/or points as per the Defensive Pressure Game above.

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

For Defence activities, click THIS LINK.

First, some design principles …

Areas for Improvement:

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

 

Tool Box Drill

Procedure:

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

Adaptations:

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

Tool Box

4 v 2 / 2 Open Field Attack

Procedure:

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

Adaptations:

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

4v2

One-Two Punch Scenario

Procedure:

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

1 2 Punch

Limited Phase Ruck Game

Procedure:

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

Adaptations:

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

 

Rapid Fire Touch

Procedure:

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

Adaptations:

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

Rapid Fire

Kick and Counter

Procedure:

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

Kick

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A few weeks ago, this video was doing the rounds on my social media feeds with rugby friends all wanting to give it a go. It features one player, harnessed up like a plow horse going after medicine balls in a tractor tire while three friends hold him back with flexible straps.

[link from USA Rugby facebook page]

Sometimes I’m a bit too quick to be negative about such things as my focus is on using activities that look and feel like the real game. That said, when I used to play (American) football in high school, I did have fun with similar activities like ‘The Bear Pit’ – one player surrounded by a dozen team mates, making attempts to smash out of the circle while they’d squeeze together and make it difficult to do so. (I would say, however, that this did mirror the needs of those of use who smashed each other on the line of scrimmage. I’m not so sure that can be said of the above drill… )

In thinking about this video clip over the last couple of weeks, I thought I’d use it instead to offer some advice for coaches when selecting activities to help with the development of amateur players (… remembering that pros have a lot of free time for flashy drills that the rest of us don’t have). Firstly, I do occasionally use things like this, but leave them as an end-of-training ‘treat’ or something to ‘warm up’ with and engage the team through a bit of fun (though not with something this physical, and with more efficient use of personnel, but more on that later). My initial criticism was that this drill seems opposite to the demands of going for a ball or otherwise competing in a ruck – the forces coming from behind in this activity, whereas one has to drive through forward pressure in a game. On the other hand, if I’m fair, it would be great for physical conditioning and emphasise low body position. (An alternative I’ve used is ‘rucking relays’ – teams nominate their toughest to hold a bag against another team and individuals take turns driving him/her back in a race against other team’s ‘champions’.)

To look at the bigger picture of selecting relevant activities, ask yourself some big questions:

  1. Is this relevant to our needs?Too often, people select novel activities that aren’t relevant to immediate needs – running before they can walk. Is it worth working on jackalling technique if your team isn’t getting to the breakdown in time / overcommitting and in poor body position? Are you spending a lot of time on 20m spin passes when 2-5m push passes are going everywhere from head, to shoulder, to knees come game time?
  2. Does the percentage of time spent on this reflect the frequency it occurs in the game? This is a tricky balance that should be reflected in a well-prepared, but also flexible, season plan. When I took a Level 2 course in Australia, I found myself re-thinking the way I plan activities when an instructor said a simple way to make these decisions is look at what you do most on the pitch and divide time spent on those things proportionately. Simply, if 80% of the game is spent on ‘open play’ then maybe most of a training session should be spent on that aspect. Spending 40 minutes of a 90 minute session on something that only happens maybe 5% of a game might not be worth it if you’re not doing so hot in that 80% category. It’s not to say that small things aren’t important, but can they be built into a bigger, all-encompassing activity? Sport science seems to suggest that drills are best for introducing a technique, but I think too many people continue with those drills for an entire season without putting them into game context. There’s also a new trend toward working on ‘micro-skills’ – little techniques that supposedly improve the whole think (like wrist flicks for passing). I suspect, however, that making more realistic passes, over various distances, with defenders forcing those adaptations, would much better serve everyone’s passing abilities. In the case of jackalling drills – as is continually proven by the likes of George Smith and David Pocock – it’s not just their technique in the tackle contest, but their success lies in how they read the emerging information in front of them and assess which way and how is the best to have a go.
  3. What is the ratio of participating players to supporting players?This is one of my major pet peeves in sport coaching. The biggest culprit in rugby, off the top of my head, is the gauntlet passing drill. Eight players standing on cones in pairs down a narrow corridor passing and receiving balls while one player runs in between, catching and transferring. Not only does it lack the context of an opponent, which is a major determining factor on one’s ability to catch and pass, but those eight players are standing still themselves not really working within the context of a game. There are plenty of drills in rugby like this where more people are stood around watching, holding bags, or otherwise not really getting involved in the action. Most look ‘sexy’ and flatter to deceive that they are teaching something, but I often say the ‘sexiest’ drills are the least realistic and least effective ways of acquiring skill in rugby. These weren’t needed by greats of the game prior to the explosion of coaches and fancy drills from about the 1970s onward – which, I seem to recall hearing, everyone adopted because Communist sports teams using such methods dominated for a while (ignoring the fact that they trained and ate better – and, possibly, had other ‘enhancements’ – than your average amateur athlete who also had a job, family, and possibly ate, drank, and smoked too much). If the likes of Barry John and Colin Meads dazzled the world without stepping ladders and up-and-back bag smashing cycles, then why should players of today?

So much in rugby depends on assessment, prediction and timing. I think we might have the most difficult task in training skill compared to any invasion game because the space in front of our athletes is so congested, with variables in front multiplied depending on where one’s team mates are. Training within contexts that look and feel like the game allow athletes to adapt more efficiently and select appropriate solutions to the problems they regularly face (i.e. true skill development) than when performed in isolation without any visual / spatial / physical context. Ask yourself, then, when planning a training session if the activities are best preparing the athletes for the demands of the next game.

 

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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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I don’t have a lot of experience coaching pre-teens, but fully respect those who do as I think it requires a lot more patience than I probably have.  It’s an important time in the development of young players – one not so well developed here in Canada, where most people don’t start until they enter secondary school (Grade 9, typically aged 14).  The one year I did coach a team at this level, I worked with a group of U13s in a full-contact school sevens league.  It was a rewarding experience as the kids were all very eager – as they tend to be at that age – and early-on I learned about some of the differences coaching at this level than at the older teens / adult level where I’ve done most of my coaching.

Today, I discovered this great article by Australia-based coach Scott Allen, who does the wonderful video analysis posts for the Green and Gold Rugby Blog.  Like me, he’s not had a lot of experience at youth level, but I think he outlines some very important things to remember here:  http://www.greenandgoldrugby.com/coaching-teenagers/

For my Canadian followers, I think there are a lot of transferable lessons in the article that can be used for your beginning Grade 9/10 teams.  That said, my season with the U13s reminded me that at the heart of the game at any level is doing the basics very well.  With that in mind, I think we should consider most of what Scott outlines in the article, in addition to some lessons that we DEFINITELY need to adhere to at all levels:

  • Progressing drills to show purpose and allow for them to be practised in game like situations
  • Keeping drills short and sharp so as not to bore athletes, but also to move the focus from in the box, to more challenging activities
  • Being focused on addressing what needs fixing, not over-doing areas that are going well (Fess up: are you one of those coaches who has scrum / lineout sessions every practice despite their success in games?)
  • Being prepared to alter or adapt a drill to address a need or when it’s really not working for your players

One thing I’d add that didn’t feature is that I think pre-teens (and even the early teenage years for boys) is too soon to pigeon hole athletes into a position.  Boys still have a lot of growing to do and it might so happen that the biggest boy in Grade 7 who you play as a lock might have got the tallest he’s going to be, and there aren’t many 5’11” locks even at amateur levels these days.  As with most levels I’ve coached at, the focus shouldn’t be about winning, but fostering a passion for the game and developing your athletes’ abilities as complete rugby players who can pass, catch, run, tackle, contest, communicate, and begin to develop their game sense.  If you’ve got 15 players on the pitch who can do all that as well as the next, then you’re surely going to be successful!

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I just finished reading another excellent analytical article by Scott Allen over at the Green and Gold Rugby blog.  In it he looks at attacking patterns utilized by Wales, the All Blacks and the Wallabies and addresses the strengths and limitations of their various approaches to the game.  It’s a brilliant article, with an accompanying narrated video, and I suggest everyone read / watch it to gain a sense of what people are doing at the top end of the game.

Wallaby Attack Patterns by Scott Allen

Scott also uses quotes from former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones and player David Campese to demonstrate the two extremes with regard to employing attacking patterns.  Jones argues that players need less to think about and so should have drilled into them patterns of play that give them greater focus.  Campese feels that coaches adopting such prescriptive strategies are taking away from players their ability to read and direct a game based upon what they see in front of them.

Allen places these two men at polar opposites of this debate, and I have to say that I lean more toward the Campese side of the argument where amateur rugby is concerned.  I can see the benefit of providing structures that everyone can follow which play to their strengths, establishing consistency and efficient execution in attack.  There are several factors to consider when deciding to adopt structures, but I think the most important are time and commitment.  If you are in a short school / summer season – as we have in Canada – do you have time to implement this plan of attack and have all players on the same page by the team playoffs roll around?  If the strategy is vastly different from what your players are used to, are you going to risk unnecessary confusion – which may result in vital losses and risk your playoff hopes altogether?  Do you even have full commitment to your training sessions such that everyone gets sufficient time to learn and adopt these structures?

I’d say that school and university teams here have a better opportunity to fully adopt structured play given that they tend to train most weekdays, if not every.  Students do have other commitments, however, and I’m always worried that if a few people miss out on key sessions that they could be the proverbial monkeywrench in the otherwise well-oiled machine.  This is definitely an issue with club rugby as only once in my 14 years have I ever coached a club side that could consistently have its starting XV show up to important pre-game team-focused practices (needless to say, they were the most successful club side I’ve coached!) .  In my opinion, it can be a colossal waste of effort and time to be too rigid with one’s attacking structures only to have them disrupted or not adhered to by the players who aren’t familiar with it (which I feel was a factor leading to one of my most disappointing losses, something I should have taking greater care to correct).  One can send out a ‘play book’ electronically, but most athletes tend to be kinaesthetic learners and as such need to run through new things several times physically.

So what is there to do?  I discussed a very simple strategy of Playing to the Principles of the game in a previous article.  Simply put, if you players know how to attack space, call for and pass the ball, how to support each other in the loose and retain possession, you can play effective rugby!  These are things that can be worked on by any number of players and which even high level professionals continue to work on and develop, in both basic technique and highly dynamic situations.  For me, the vast majority of a training session consists of developing tools, vision, understanding, and communication when employing those basic techniques and tactics and adhering to a simple set of principles.

Reaching a point where everyone can be comfortable playing what some call “heads up” rugby can take a while, however.  It can depend as much on the coach’s ability to transfer knowledge and facilitate understanding as it does players’ abilities to adopt and employ it.  I continually work at it, and aim to get my team to a point where our plan of attack includes little structure and a lot of freedom.  Early in the season, or especially with a newer group of players, it’s probably safer to flip that with lots of structure and not much freedom.  I’d challenge coaches though to move away from that as soon as possible, removing the scaffolding little by little and constantly challenging ALL players (not just decision makers) to read and understand the realities of the game such that they can make decisions on their own.

For example:  Using a wide-wide, pattern from a lineout should allow an attacking team to run against slower / unfit forwards when they get to the other side of the pitch and reverse the direction, if played quickly.  BUT … sometimes teams know this a limitation for them so the tight five players will immediately push themselves wide to cover the initial wide attack threat and give their backs a chance to flip around for the reverse phases.  This can leave a gaping hole or opportunity to catch defenders in poor positions in the channel where the lineout took place.  Teams at the levels I’ve coached at rarely try scan the field for such opportunities, following fairly predictable patterns of play or having random goes at the defence with no clear purpose whatsoever.  In the above situation, a fast and powerful forward or flighty wing / scrum half could really cause havoc down that narrow ‘lineout’ channel if allowed to chance it and have a go.

I think, as I often say in this blog, the key is to actually PLAY RUGBY at training.  Give your players the chance to see these things unfold in a game situation before they actually have to play a game.  If you don’t have the numbers to run relatively even numbers against one another, then create conditioned scenarios that mimic real aspects of the game or use tackle bags, etc. as stand-ins.  (When I coached a team that only had about 10 ever shot to training, we used bags as post-guard defence dummies around theoretical rucks.  These became no-go areas in training and it resulted in us playing a much wider game which played to our smaller, faster attributes.  You could flip that if you have a forward dominant team, focusing on breaching the narrow channel quickly and spinning wide only when they’ve disrupted the defensive line.)  Let your players know that you will ask them what they saw in front of then and that you’ll ask them to justify their decisions.  Importantly, this must be done in an environment where they will not be criticised but supported or sympathetically guided in their decision making and explanations for their actions.  Try not to give answers, but work through the ‘teachable moment’ with Socratic questioning.

The worst aspect of rigid patterns is watching a game and seeing players plug away at what they were told to do, missing clear and easy opportunities to gain ground or score.  I’d also hope that turning over initiative to the players makes the game more fun for them, giving them a sense that they really did create opportunities rather than have the coach on the sidelines tell them what to do.  For players who are striving for higher levels of play, this is the sort of development they need most – going beyond the basics and leaving the script aside to truly understand the game that’s being played in front of them, developing rugby smarts and tactical awareness regardless of position.

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