Archive for the ‘Selection’ Category

There was a great question on The Huddle coaching forum recently asking how willing we are to allow players to swap positions.  The author suggested most responders said they allow changes, but given the questions / answers usually given on the forum, I think most – if not all of them will be coaches of pre-teen athletes.

I’m a bit on the fence on this issue, but because I coach teens and adults.  When I coached U14s, we really didn’t focus too much on positions specification, except at set-piece time.  And even then we’d have kids propping and hooking who’ll probably never do it again in their later years.  I was also trying to get everyone confident with passing, receiving, and spotting opportunities that I’d be happy for most to play the ball as a ‘scrum half’ or ‘fly half’.

With the U16s, however, we typically select players where they’re best suited by size, strength, ability, etc. but I have what I think is a reasonable policy on players swapping positions. I always tell the boys that they can tell us what position they want to play, but they have to prove their ability and / or commit to learning and developing abilities for that position. I’m about player development and fostering a love for the game first, so am all too happy to help a player get more out of the game – but feel that at teenage levels of play they can’t be just gifted such a swap. (If for no other reason, than for safety’s sake!) One great success story was helping a kid who’d been a hooker at U16 with his school become a scrum half and then fly half at U18 with my club team. He asked realising he was proving to be too small for hooker and having a love for open field attacking.  I was more than willing to help (maybe with a bit of frustrated-front-rower, wannabe-halfback mindset myself!), and we spent countless extra hours before and after training working on passing, receiving, positioning, kicking, timing, etc. In addition to doing a great job for my club team, he ended up playing fly half and full back at U21 club and university level as well!

For teens, I don’t think letting them make such drastic positional changes is even good for the fun of it unless they’re willing to be serious about being able to meet the demands of the position. We play so few games at the high school level in Canada as well that to do so would be denying game time to a kid who’s already been playing that position and deserves as much time as possible in it. I wouldn’t therefore want to drop those kids to the bench or move them where they weren’t happy to accommodate another kid who just wanted to try out his position on a whim.  As mentioned earlier, there’s also the safety factor to consider, especially if a smaller or relatively weaker player has a desire to become a forward. I feel that if they truly want to make the swap, they’ll be more than happy to put in the work to make it a reality. Coaches should be willing to support those efforts as our first priority should be to foster a life-long love of the game in our athletes.

If a teenaged (or older) player wants to swap, and is willing to put in the work, this has to be a post-season or early pre-season declaration so we can work toward getting him up to speed.

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Often, it is true that the harder they fall, and quite easily as well.

I was reading a question posed by a coach on a forum asking how can one get a gentle giant to actually use his size rather than what’s currently happening – getting cut down in the tackle quite easily.  There is the perception that bigger = better when it comes to rugby player selection, but of the reasons why this is both true and false, one of the key ‘it depends’ factors is whether or not that player knows how to use his / her size ‘advantage.’

There were times in my playing days when I’d prefer to tackle the player who stood over 6’4″ because his longer legs and torso made for an easier target to hit and fold.  The main danger was the long fending arm, but if I could parry it away, it was easy to throw him off balance, even by grabbing said arm and dragging him in (though the current generation of young players probably never see a baggy long sleeved jersey any more, which made that easier!).  That’s probably the first tip for big players using their size effectively – long arms are great to keep would-be tacklers at bay.  Any player, for that matter, should aim for the shoulder, either to stand the tackler up and keep him / her – literally – at arms length, or even shove the tackler down to the ground if they’ve leaned in too early and not kept balanced.

Another thing to consider is how big players carry themselves forward.  Some I’ve known, and even see in the higher leagues, have trouble getting low and holding that position.  Being ‘low’ lowers the centre of gravity and makes one more stable.  Running into contact whilst standing straight up is an invitation to be dominated.  I see big players get rocked by little ones all the time because they’re running too upright with little forward momentum and making themselves an easy-to-tackle target.

There’s also the classic case of running straight into contact – which big Manu Tuilagi did way too much on his Saxons debut last week. A big side step before, or even just a determined power step into contact might help him avoid the easy tackle.  In the following photo, his body positioning isn’t bad as he’s not going to present an easy target, but he’d have been better off making a late step to get to the outside of one of the defenders.  In this case, he’s at risk of turning the ball over as both tacklers are likely to end up in dominant positions, one ready to jackal for the steal.

The power step, if you’ve not heard of it, is not as big as a sidestep, but sees the ball carrier attack the ‘branches of the tree’ as it were – stepping away from the midline of a defender and aiming for a shoulder.  The hope is to get the defender fixed to the ground with the straight run, and then forcing him off balance into a more difficult arm tackle.  Done with a low, balanced body position, and a degree of intensity, it’s a perfect way to break a tackle when there’s not much of a gap to run into or at least be able to pop a pass from contact to a supporting player.  Tuilagi could have made a big step toward the outside of one of these defenders to put him off-balance and attempt to break a falling, arms-only tackle.

Where all of this is in place, or is slowly developing for the ineffective big player, working on offloading awareness and ability might be a solution for your team’s sake.  This is especially true for a player whose size is likely to draw a few defenders rather than just one. And as such simple maths dictates that at least one or two team mates should be free somewhere!  A player like New Zealand’s convert from League, Sonny Bill Williams is a master at this – he’s a powerful straight-ahead runner who’ll often draw double or triple coverage.  His acute and perfect offloading ability means he’ll put team mates into space when his presence with the ball has drawn too much attention.  In this photo, he’s not only taken on just the one defender, but has put him off balance with a power step before contact (note how the tackler’s in a poor position and how stable SBW is), and not only is he getting an offload away, but he’s also screening such that the recipient of the pass should have a nice clean hole to run through.

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The wonderful blokes over at Green and Gold Rugby Blog posted a tribute video to Australia’s legendary George Smith today, and I thought it time to talk about another position – the openside flanker.  Some have said that job of a fetching – someone who goes looking to steal the ball at every opportunity – number 7 is not as it once was just a couple of years ago when the likes of Smith, McCaw, Brussouw were making incredible pilfers at great risk to their bodies.  But I’ve explained in other posts that if tackles are made quickly, so that the tackler can release and grab before attacking support arrives, then steals are still possible under the new interpretations … and George Smith is still proving this despite retiring from the Wallabies and Brumbies lasat years.  Enough of my intro, let’s look at the video …

I’d like to think that any good backrower should have the skills Smith has – the ability to be tenacious on defence, going to great lengths to win the ball back (legally, but sometimes not – Richie McCaw has said that a keen defender needs to always be on that edge to play to the referee’s interpretations – and whistle – so he can steal the ball, or at least disrupt the opposition).  For me, it’s hard to separate Smith and McCaw when it comes to who’s been the greatest ‘openside’ ever, though I want to give it to Smith because he is, as you saw in the video, quite capable of the spectacular.  As such, what I think also separates the openside flanker from the other backrow players is their ability to link with the backs.  It should be noted that these guys are often the fastest and fittest of the forwards because they’re the ones who’re chasing the ball all day, ‘open side’ referring to being on the side where the fly half and the bulk of the backs are aligned.  Using that speed and quickness, and hopefully a sense for space and continuity such that backs possess, a team should be able to count on an openside flanker to be an extra weapon in attack.  That Australia and New Zealand have such wonderful attacks, and a number of flankers which play like this is definitely not a coincidence.

I don’t normally subscribe to there being an ‘ideal’ size for any position, so long as the person in question can get the job done satisfactorily.   That said, many of the great opensides have had the same body type and it bodes well for the job that was asked of them.  They are definitely under 6’2″, but mostly under 6’0″, as the bigger players – think South African backrowers – tend to be straight ahead types, whereas the typical fetching, linking openside is smaller and more agile, better suited for dynamic attacking moves.  (With regard to women, look up: Maggie Alphonsi, Heather Fisher, or Justine Lavea – all have that ‘short and stocky, but fit’ stature as well.)  The smaller stature also means it’s easier for them to work at lower levels, as in the process of jackaling the ball in the tackle, and putting muscle on that kind of frame makes them very hard to move in the ruck.  (Whereas it’s a bit easier to get leverage on a taller player with longer limbs.)

I don’t have to keep talking about Smith as the evidence of his brilliance is in the highlight video.  I still have dreams that he’ll say his retirement was all a ruse and that he’ll be in the Wallaby back row, alongside the brilliant defender David Pocock, for the upcoming World Cup, but I guess I’ll just have to watch more Toulon games until he finally calls it a day.

With regard to selecting your openside, though, it can definitely be a job for that player who’s got a bit of ‘mongrel’ in them, as the Aussies say – that someone who’s more spirited, more aggressive, and more enthusiastic than anyone else.  (It’s often a good job for that little, nuggety tough guy/girl who’s possibly got a Napoleon complex!)  But the two things I’d stress – though it’s good for any player to have – is supreme fitness to always ‘be there’ when it counts, and to have the ability to run and pass the ball with intelligence.  These players can be your extra backs in attack and defence (covering, as many do, for poor defending fly halves), or be the inspirational forward who puts his or her body on the line to win a crucial steal in the tackle contest.

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The Modern Winger

I’m told that in rugby’s “good old days” wingers suffered two dangers based being stood way out near the touch line.  The first was suffering the wrath of forwards should he be too big headed about the tries he scored, having only been able to do so because of the hard work of those who play in the middle of the park.  The other was freezing to death from lack of action should those players decide to knock him down a peg by not sending the ball his way.

Modern wingers are now part of what must be a ‘Back Three’ unit and as such, must not only have a similar skill set to full backs, but must also be more involved and aware of the ‘big picture’ of both attack and defence.  No longer are the wings just those two fast players you stick out wide, hoping they can beat the other lonely fast people who share the same lonely outside channel.  As full backs are continually popping into the action, the opposite winger has to come across and cover their absence in the event of a turnover and/or kick back.  This requires the Back Three unit to be in constant communication with each other and to have an awareness of and trust in each other’s abilities.

Their speed and fitness should be used to good effect in defence to enact ‘cross cover’ defence against wide breaks.  The on-side wing and full back usher the attack to the touchline, and the off-side wing slides into the middle, but also must be prepared to push all the way across to the other side of the field should the attacking team get around the initial coverage.  In such a situation, the on-side wing might have to slide back to the middle of the field in case the ball comes back across!  This is just one example of why this group of players must communicate with each other.  Wings should also be key organisers of wide defence in calling for support to shore up the midfield while marking the outermost attacker.

One of the most effective units this season has been the Northampton trio of full back Ben Foden and wings Bruce Reihana and Chris Ashton.  All three are exciting and very efficient, but it is Ashton I have been most impressed with – and would call the best right winger in the game at the moment.  It’s not just that the 23 year old rugby league convert has an incredible try scoring rate, with 15 tries in 18 games (over 20 in all competitions), and having broken the old Nat One record scoring 39 in his first season in Union.  Ashton’s brilliance is in how he goes looking for those tries, the mark of an incredibly useful winger.  Similar to the way Kiwi Doug Howlett was in his prime, Ashton will regularly ‘come off his wing’ to assist in the attack elsewhere.  It is this desire to get involved that sees him pop up and score tries in many areas.  If one looks at the following video clips, his name is almost always heard in each try as either scorer or creator and not always from the typical winger’s channel.

If we had the benefit of seeing the whole field in each of these occasions Ashton was ‘out of position’, I am sure you would see how other people would be in position to cover potential turnover kick backs.  However, I feel there are times when the threat to the opposition is very high and the risk of conceding is very low – when attacking inside the 22m area.  Wingers should take advantage of what I call ‘shadow support’ – positioning themselves behind the fly half to pop into the attacking line suddenly, having used the players in front as a visual screen.  Inside / outside passes from the fly half, or moving wider to be the strike runner with the centres acting as decoys are moves often used at the top level, and should be more effective at the amateur level!  (Click here and here and here for examples.)   In such ‘risky’ cases, I don’t mind seeing everyone get involved as the likelihood of a turnover being costly in terms of points is very low.  My favourite example of the winger making such a calculated move is in the second video’s final try – you can see Ashton jogging all the way from the far right to join a deep break on the left.  I don’t even think he was calling for a pass to get the hat trick, but had arms outstretched to celebrate what he thought was going to be Reihana’s try!  On top of all of his good work on and off the ball, Ashton has boosted his try tally by picking such low risk, high reward battles and should be a model for both left and right wingers.

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Continuing on from my last post on the joys of seeing small wingers given their chance, I would like to talk about another position which has again become as dynamic as it once was thanks to some ‘little guys’ – that of Inside Centre.  I don’t know where the 6’4″ 220+ lb centre came from, but like one of the factors behind the big winger, I suspect Rugby League influenced this trend as well.  Who needs creativity when you can simply run over the small back in front of you, and why wait until the ball gets to the wing when you can do it from the first fly half pass?  I think the South Pacific was the worst for this – virtually the only spot outside of the North of England where League is actually popular – but the South Africans have had these as well.  These are countries, though, where they do grow their boys bigger than most and surely there were many school coaches who thought about sticking a big lug in the 12 jersey to run over the typically smaller boys in front of him.  This does nothing for their development, though, and many players have made it to the professional level on this reputation only to be ‘found out’ once they get there – 6’4″ 245lb (now ex-) Scotland centre Rob Dewey comes to mind.

There are a few big inside centres who have displayed an impressive range of skills – like one of my favs, former England international and World Cup winner Will Greenwood, and South African danger man Jean de Villiers.  And while their skill and awareness is as apparent as their size, both these men are hardly beefy centres.  They are quite lanky and as such have an excellent range of movement.  They, like most of the smaller centres these days, have the ability to provide a dynamic attacking threat in a multitude of ways.  I think this is especially useful given that defences are so well organised these days that ‘bashing’ centres offer nothing in the way of attack apart from someone to (attempt to) punch a big hole in the defensive line.  This tactic rarely works at any level given that defences are often most organised in that channel. Bashing into the line often results in a scramble on the ground just to retain possession and tends to yield slow ball at best.

I would prefer to see an inside centre step his/her way around the defence or make a timely pass to the other backs for them to do so.  This should be considered a position with a great potential for launching a dynamic attack when one considered that the inside centre can have up to six (fly half, scrum half, open side flank, full back, outside centre, blind wing) support runners in range of a single pass.  Looking around the professional and international rugby world, I’m glad to see more players in the 12 jersey who do this well.  Unfortunately, we still see a lot of ‘Bashers’ in Canadian rugby who hinder our ability to attack out wide.  We should look to the Kiwi philosophy and these players as a model for future development in our young backs.

I started focusing on this a few years ago in two ways.  For one, I banned the 10/12 switch back inside.  Even worse than seeing a 12 run straight into his opposite number, this ‘play’ sees the inside centre running into the Post, Guard, Ball ruck defence unit, often with no gain in ground and the ball under threat.  Proponents argue that it sets the next phase, from which the other backs can attack, but rarely does it remove any defenders from in front of them and causes the forwards to have to do more work to secure the ball that should have been used more wisely in the first place.  My second step toward conversion was adopting the Kiwi name for this position – the 2nd5/8th.

If you watch enough rugby from New Zealand, you’ll have probably heard this name before and been at least slightly confused.  To give you yet another rugby history lesson, the Kiwis were the first to believe that the ‘stand off half’ – the player who regularly received the ball from the ‘half back’ (scrum half) – should run the ball occasionally and often rather than simply move it to the ‘three quarter backs’ (centres and wings).  Do you see a trend growing here?  This became a specialist position, rather than simply the first of the backs to get there, and the Kiwis wanted to give it a name.  Simply put, they figured that with a half back, a full back, and a three-quarter line in between them, the player between that group of backs and the half back should also have a fractioned name.  So what comes between 1/2 and 3/4s?  Why if you round up the common denominators, it’s 5/8, of course!  The Aussies still use this term in both Union and League for what the rest of us call ‘fly half’.

Following the success of this style of play with the 1905 All Blacks ‘Invincible’ side, they had another player with this attacking prowess and similar range of skills, so began calling him the 2nd 5/8th (or ‘second five’ for short), and the names stuck as has their attacking philosophy for the most part.  Several current Kiwi fly halves have got their start in the 12 jersey, or regularly swap between 10 and 12 as they see the positions as being similar.  Dan Carter, Stephen Brett, Luke McAlister, Daniel Bowden, Isaia Toeava, Stephen Donald.  Others who play there had / have had to develop their passing and kicking skills to account for better organised and committed defenders in the last decade – Aaron Mauger, Ma’a Nonu, Callum Bruce, Sam Tuitupou, Benson Stanley, etc.  This has put the Kiwis ahead of the game, so to speak, in proving that a bashing 12 isn’t as useful as one who can run, pass, kick and still make his tackles.  England tried playing Charlie Hodgson and Jonny Wilkinson in a ‘two fly half’ system once, but I think gave up on it too soon before giving them a fair chance to establish a partnership.  Currently, Australia are showing how well it can work when they play mixtures of Matt Giteau, Berrick Barnes, Quade Cooper, and James O’Connor together (not to mention other dynamic Aussie 12 options like Christian Lealiifano, Kurtley Beale and Anthony Faingaa).

In short, if you consider a fly half your best attacking weapon, then what’s the harm of having two of them in the 10 and 12 jerseys?  Working together, they can be even more of a threat to the defence and a benefit to team mates in providing them with attacking opportunities.

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When 6’5″ and 250lb All Black winger Jonah Lomu broke on the scene back in the mid-1990s, it seemed everyone scrambled to find their own massive winger … Dean Hall for South Africa, a young Pierre Spies was a schoolboy wing until being moved to 8 (which was a reversal of Lomu’s experience), Steve Hanley for England, Big Del and Tuqiri came across from League in Australia … the list goes on …

I’ve been pleased to see that rugby is still a game for all shapes and sizes over the past few weeks as France ran and passed their way to a Six Nations Grand Slam (i.e. defeated all challengers from the UK, Ireland and Italy) with a finely balanced team.  After Aurelien Rougerie injured himself in the match against Scotland, we got to see living proof that there is still room for the little man in rugby with coach Marc Lievremont’s faith in his wingers.  Standing at just 5’9″ and an un-heard of in the modern era 5’5″ respectively, Alexis Palisson and Marc Andreu proved that so long as you can play defence and be a threat in attack, it doesn’t matter how big you are.

I hate to have to resort to using Canterbury/Crusaders as an example, but look at the ‘massive hulks’ that made up their recent assortment of backs: Ellis, Carter, Crotty, Bateman, Slade, Brett, Fotuali’i, Guildford, Payne, Poki.  All but a couple are under 6′ and none are over 200lbs – a vast difference from the bulking back lines we saw in the late 90s and early 00s.  And I don’t have to elaborate on how devastating these guys are with ball in hand and even a tiny bit of space in front of them.  Even a supposed heir to Lomu’s legacy, Ma’a Nonu, has been made to become smaller, fitter, and more agile than when he first broke on the scene. If anything, I think the trend is slowly moving toward smaller backs. (If only I could navigate the All Blacks video site for the clip of their strength and fitness coach talking about the detriment of carrying too much unnecessary weight, commenting on the need for certain players to drop 15kgs of post season weight.)

Critics, like former Irish international Tony Ward, believe that with players getting bigger rugby needs to adopt League’s lesson and remove two players from the field to open up space.  Rather than suggesting dropping players, I think the onus is on the entire rugby community to continue focusing on developing excellence in basic skills and game awareness to make this space available or create it.  There are plenty of teams which show this … again, I have to cite the French and Crusaders/Canterbury (and will go wash myself clean in a minute) … that you don’t need to have teams full of massive blokes to be successful, and that by simply ‘playing rugby’ as it was meant to be played can still allow you to win the day.

Critics could argue tiny Christoph Dominici’s lesson in wing play delivered to Lomu in the epic 1999 World Cup upset as a one-off, but I knew the era was coming to close when the Canuck cheat sheet answer to Lomu, the 6’6″ Justin Mensah-Coker, was taken to school in a Churchill Cup match by comparatively smaller James Simpson-Daniel and Richard Haughton.  If you want more proof, look at the day the day James Simpson-Daniel also proved that big wingers just don’t have the lateral movement to match a speedy little guy?

As have continued to say over recent years:  If you’re good enough, you’re ‘big’ enough.

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