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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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This is the first of what will be several posts aimed at the players I’m currently coaching, reminding them of the objectives we worked on at the preceding training session.  I’m hoping to both reinforce learning and provide remedial knowledge to those who had to miss the session.  We’ll be repeating the lessons learned, those will miss will hopefully be familiar with the terms and concepts … if they do their home work!

We haven’t done any proper tackling yet, but have looked at some of the technical elements which are involved in making a proper tackle.  We also talked about the aim of the tackle and defence – to win the ball back – so looked at how to get back to our feet quickly and to get hands on ball legally and safely.  Finally, we looked at defensive shape in small groups and then as a team.  I’ve outlined some basic elements of that below, but will go into greater detail when we talk about rucking.

Preparing for Contact

  • Foot in the ‘hula hoop’ – getting one foot close enough to enter the hypothetical hula hoop at the feet of the ball carrier will get you close enough to make a proper tackle
  • Bending at the knees and dropping one’s butt provides stability and leverage when engaging in contact
  • Engaging with a shoulder stops the ball carrier’s forward momentum and can fold them in half if done in the right spot
  • Wrapping tightly and dominating one’s opponent should see you complete a take down quickly and end up on top, in a better position to steal the ball

Stealing the Ball After Contact(aka ‘poaching’ or ‘jackaling’)

  • Get to your feet as quickly as you can, even pushing off on the tackled player to do so
  • There’s no need to stand up fully erect, as squatting over the ball saves time and ensures you’re strong (low, balanced, shoulders above hips)
  • You must be on your feet and be able to support your own body weight to play the ball, you must also release the tackled player – a brief clap lets the ref know (see video below)
  • Remember the tackler can play the ball from any direction so long as a ruck has not yet formed ; ‘Tackle Assist’ or ‘2nd player in’ must enter through the gate, an area as wide and deep as the players on the ground

Defending, 1o1

  • FOR INDIVIDUALS…
  • Tackles are more easily made when the ball carrier is in front of you
  • Close down the distance between quickly to reduce the ball carrier’s space, time, and options
  • … but shorten strides, adopt a lower, more dynamic stance, and be on the balls of your feet closer to contact so you can adjust to the ball carrier’s attempts to evade you
  • NEVER wait for them to come to you, and NEVER get caught flat footed – both situations give the ball carrier the advantage
  • FOR GROUPS…
  • The group of players in front of the ball must remain flat so as not to provide obvious holes – which can be created by individuals rushing up too soon or lagging behind the rest.
  • Communication early allows everyone to better understand their roles and responsibilities – we will use:
  • “My Tackle” – taking responsibility, letting others know so they can make appropriate decisions
  • “My Steal” – someone immediately beside the declared tackler, indicating support and that he/she will either help complete the tackle or attempt to steal the ball or get stuck into an ensuing ruck / maul
  • Players beside them need to “Squeeze” in to plug holes and mirror the potential ball carriers on BOTH sides of the player about to be tackled.  (We learned that people tend to ‘pinch’ in, providing the attacking team with a hole to exploit, when no one took responsibility by yelling ‘my tackle’!)

Next week we’ll talk more about organisation at the tackle contest (i.e. ruck / maul, though we’ve already covered some of this).  If you want to read more about what we worked on in Tuesday’s session, check out my post here on here:  https://conversationalrugby.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/communication-in-defence/

and on ‘attacking’ on defence and maintaining shape here:  https://conversationalrugby.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/communication-in-defence/

Thursday will be dedicated to attack.

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I video taped the dynamic and conditioned defence attack scenarios from last week’s session and posted them for the athletes to see, with my constructive commentary on the good points and those which could be improved upon.  This week, the final of our ‘attack’ sessions before transitioning into defence, I’m giving the players the opportunity to tie it all together and have a go in more realistic conditions.

As mentioned earlier in this blog, I’m a huge proponent of using video.  We operate in such a dynamic game that even seasoned coaches can’t spot all the subtle elements that lead to succes / failure and it’s helpful to go back and review.  As these last three sessions were building upon one another, I also forgot to stress the finer points of the ‘big concepts’ I kept harping upon – I’d constantly remind them that quality passing was the foundation of effective attack and that preservation of space was key, but probably didn’t stress enough HOW to achieve that – especially as there were some who weren’t at those early sessions.

So I’ll be revisiting those basics at the start, hopefully serving as a reminder as the players head into the final two dynamic scenarios because space still won’t be plentiful, so they’ll have to maximise on the things I’ve taught – timing of the pass / run, straight running lines, sudden and deliberate strike runs, etc. – to get through the toughest defence they’ve seen yet.

TIME OBJECTIVE / ELEMENTS ACTIVITIES
0-10 Mins Re-cap from Last Session:1. Ball carrier must be and remain a threat.2. All must take responsibility for scanning and communicating opps.

3. Execution must be calculated and determined (purpose to lines, 100% commitment).

 

Warm-UpIndividual / Group
10-20 mins Passing Instruction*snap out*turn shoulders

*follow through

 

Triangles / Squares(Advanced: spins from the ground – flat trajectory)
20-40 mins Positioning and Timing*depth (tackle line)*width – purpose (stretch or condense)

*hands at shoulder height and out, hips square, (outside leg up)

*standing vs . running

*fixed and sudden lines

Pressure PassingSH + 1st Rec / 2nd Rec / 3rdRecvs. 1 defender 2m from the ball (realistic gap)

Ball carrier has to sort out own positioning and communication (“standing”, “running” … “ball now!”).

ROOM FOR THREE OR FOUR?

 

40-45 mins Fitness
  1. Burpees, 2. Mountain Climbers, 3. Tuck Jumps, 4. Body Squats

PREPARATION FOR CONTACT

 

50-70 mins Ball Into Contact*fix defender, step away from midline (attack branches of the tree, not trunk)* power step with inside foot, keeping hips square and ball to outside

*fend and short steps to get past tackler

*Screen Pass

Ball in Contact Channels (5 mins each)

  1. Power Steps / Screen Pass
  2. Tackle Busts / Short Passes
  3. Hammer / Latch, and Roll
70-90 mins Dynamic Attack – Bring it all Together!*Recognise opportunities and communicate intentions – exploit the defence*Create opportunities with simple 2-man moves – manipulate the defence

*Follow through with / support intentions, win the tackle contest (can still create space in contact before going to ground!)

*Consider timing

*Be vocal

 

5 (+1) v 3 (+1)Attackers:  Your choice, scan / plan.  Light contact to power step / fend / offload / screen pass is all fine.  Crash balls will be whistled dead.  Advise SH, three up, two behind.Defenders:  With bags, style is your choice.  Play together or be sneaky.  Sweeper can act as a 7, 9 or 15 – no bag.

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