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Archive for the ‘Tactical’ Category

In the summer, while touring around Germany, I read a book about the history and evolution of American football tactics and formations called Blood, Sweat and Chalk by Tim Layden.

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Years ago, I stumbled upon an article that covered this (which I haven’t been able to find since!) and it made me think about rugby’s evolution and the use of tactics. I do have a great book called Developments in the Field of Play by JJ Stewart, but it seems there was more innovation in the first 100 or so years of rugby than in the last 50, and largely because of law changes, not because coaches dared to be different. At the time of reading these, I didn’t think there was as much creativity in rugby as there could be. In the last couple of years, I think top level rugby has become even less creative and when I again hunted for the article, I stumbled upon Layden’s book. It covers about 100 years of changes from the pre-passing days to the current era. It admits that football has some of the same ‘copycat’ issues that rugby has, especially when an innovation proves successful, but it also suggests that there are still varied approaches and that the ‘old way’ occasionally gets re-used. Rugby doesn’t have such a wide range of historic approaches like football, and I’m not advocating rugby become very rigid like the American game can be, but when was the last time you saw, say, a dribbling rush in a rugby game? Do you even know what a dribbling rush is? (Forwards would kick the ball along the ground to advance it because you can’t be tackled if not carrying it!)

I’ve been thinking of some more creative approaches to playing, inspired by old rugby manuals, and this book has further emboldened me to see how they’d do in today’s game. What follows are my reflections from Layden’s book that might help you also make the game more interesting and rewarding for your players.

“Their work is equal parts science and art – the science of outmaneuvering an opponent like a military field commander and the art of understanding the subtleties of player’s abilities.” (9)

In expanding upon the above quote, Layden adds that while ‘chalk talk’ involves the study of concepts, that “the game isn’t played by concepts; it’s played by human athletes.” (10) This is a great reminder that no matter which point of the spectrum you fall, between ‘just the basics’ and ‘extreme creativity’, you still have to select approaches that suit the players you have, and that can change year to year. Professional teams – and some might say even representative teams (but I’d argue, for junior grades, that’s wrong and inhibits growth) – have the ability to select the athletes that fit the system, but the vast majority of us don’t have that luxury, nor do we have the time to mould raw athletes into a specific system when we can simply select strategy and tactics to suit them.

“Football innovation repeatedly proves itself the product of coincidence, of personalities thrown together and forced to improvise strategy for the sake of survival.” (27)

Layden tells the story about how, possibly, the ‘Wildcat’ formation, which snaps the ball to a non-traditional ‘quarter-back’, was born out of a coach having an incredibly fast receiver who’d played quarterback in junior high. He hadn’t known it was similar to the ‘Single Wing’ formation used decades before that had fallen out of fashion. The ‘unconventional’ approach worked for the boys he had, as it did for the coaches who employed it way back when, showing how working with, not against, constraints can produce something fantastic. He also talks about how good coaches see better roles for players and encourage them to play elsewhere when the stereotypical or traditional (i.e. “I’ve only ever played this position!”) might no longer suit (pp. 54-55). A high school quarterback who was too erratic to deal with defences / system at the next level found a new home and success as a wide receiver. The less-flashy backup ended up being the perfect steady QB to unleash the creative star. I’ve seen this several times in rugby where coaches put their best players at 9 or 10. Instead of putting them in roles where their space is limited, opt for competent ones who can deliver that ball in space. I suspect that’s why rugby League hookers act more like Union scrum halves, allowing all backs to operate in space. One of my teams allowed our incredibly elusive scrum half to do her thing in space with forwards making short passes to her from the breakdown, rather than force her to dig out every ball.

From innovation comes further innovation. Coaches who like the principle behind something new or a certain aspect of a creative approach can either tweak it to suit their own players or dream up something different having been inspired by it. One example given in the book looks at how the tight ‘Wishbone’ formation was altered into the wider ‘Flexbone’ formation (61), one relying on concentrated power with the other more on exploiting space. Football coaches, no matter the formation, always have many options of them. One of my critiques of top flight rugby at the moment is how the rigid systems approach claims to have options, but really the options are very few (and they are rarely ‘opted’ upon). As such defences tend to have an easier job when dealing with forwards, in particular. Pods almost always crash into the line with the first receiver, occasionally play out the back, and rarely ‘tip on’ to a second forward. Rare do we even see some of the intricate running lines and passing options seen in League, which, incidentally is where Union got the idea for dummy runners and second man plays. If every phase – including small groups of forwards – featured players in a dynamic shape, each with the potential to get the ball and do something with it in hand, defenders have a much more difficult task. The hesitation, over/under commitment, reactive rather than proactive decisions imposed upon defences by creative and dynamic attackers gives them the initiative. Doing the same thing everyone else does 75% of the time means you’re only, really, hoping for a rare mistake or to win a boring and exhausting battle of attrition.

Taking a creative approach to play is something many school and club coaches shouldn’t fear doing. What’s to lose if you’re already a team that’s perennially in the bottom half of the table or if jobs / recruitment aren’t affected by results? Hell, your players might actually understand the game better if they’re exploring how to do something different than the rest! To innovate beyond the status quo, you’ve got to know what it is. From the formations examined in the book, it seems that most innovation in football has come from college and even high school programs that took a risk or created a solution to a problem. Don Coryell’s San Diego State team, which couldn’t compete with local rivals to sign the best runners and blockers coming out of high school, revolutionized the passing game because he was able to get decent (possibly small?), underappreciated quarterbacks and receivers from junior colleges. Their success with the throwing game, when most others ran the ball, made me think about how many coaches discourage kicking in rugby. Yes, some players kick when the run option was on, and keeping possession is more likely with safe carrying and efficient ruck. But teams that are known to kick can face reduced pressure if the defence is not sure when the kick will come, some defences do not how to deal with kicks, and others will kick it straight back, allowing for a nice open counter-attack with defenders spread out all over the place.

The throwing game in football seems to be en vogue at the moment, and Kurt Warner’s statement on why he likes it also had me thinking about kicking in rugby. “The design of the offense was to continually put pressure on the back end of the defense. It was all about getting chunks of yardage.” (88) Bill Walsh’s use of short passes to expose blitz defences also seemed to have had both a reactionary and exploitative effect. In between going for the big scoring play and grinding teams down through dominance is achieving moderate gains through short plays 4-8 yards at a time. I’m someone who doesn’t put a lot of time into set piece plays and I’m also not in favour of the boring, attritional approach of one-out rugby and pick-and-goes. Like Walsh’s short throws, I challenge my athletes to break the gainline on every single phase – wherever that may be. They can follow a pattern if nothing clear and obvious presents itself, but as soon as possible, they should get back to a state where we’re breaching the gain line and forcing the defence to scramble a few metres back to re-establish their line. This perpetual state of disorder will eventually cause them to give us an easy scoring option, exposing uncovered space, a mismatch or an overlap. One of Coryell’s credos in this sense directly applies to rugby: “Never pass up an open receiver. If he’s there, stop ‘reading’ and throw it to him.” There’s no need to follow the script if something better is immediately apparent. Rugby has even more advantages in football in this regard, because we’re not limited by four downs. Going for short gains works everywhere so long as you win the ball back at the breakdown. In the recent November series, I was disappointed to see the All Blacks not do what they do best until late in the game – get behind the gainline by going wide quickly. Instead, they bashed it up the middle a metre or so at a time, which allowed the well-disciplined Irish defence to reorganize themselves and be ready for the the next one. Ireland may have only allowed a few more metres when the All Blacks went wide, but there’s a big difference in attacking defenders who’ve had to turn and run back and aren’t quite set / focused compared to running against those who’ve only had to take a couple of steps back and to the side, keeping your next wave in their field of vision the whole time. More ambitious moves that keep defenders guessing, giving up several metres at a time, and well-placed and chased kicks can offer the same sort of opportunities to turn pressure into better attacking options.

The other major takeaway I got from the book was related not to on field stuff, but off-field collegiality. There have been some immense rivalries and we’ve seen seemingly hard ass football personalities in the media, but the book suggests that much of the American football world is open to sharing ideas. Thinking back on my 18 years coaching, I can’t remember a time that a coach from another school or club shared what he or she was doing, and admitted to myself that I’ve only been doing it in the last few years. We talk a lot about rugby being this ‘gentleman’s game’ and having some kind of aura of inclusivity, but too often we’re going against that by protecting our own interests and not thinking about the bigger picture.

“Football socializes. Everything belongs to everyone else, especially diagrams on a board or the plays on a film.” (139)

Great coaches know that there’s always room to improve but how can any of us improve if we’re not challenged? I’ve seen programs dominate locally year to year, but then get shocked when they attend a tournament elsewhere? If you care about development and doing well at other levels (not to mention ensuring your players can go anywhere and be successful), then it’s up to us to be more open and share so we can raise our game. Our region challenges others to raise their game, and our province challenges others to match us, making the national team as strong as can be. I believe that’s the main reason New Zealand is so great, but I do wonder if that may wane a bit if the top schools continue to poach talent from the have-nots? I suspect they’ll be okay, though, because All Blacks and great pros continue to emerge from these schools, suggesting that their coaches still know how to develop good players even if they don’t have a wealth of talent at their disposal (especially given that rugby is a late development sport… how many of those school poaches go on to be great players would make for an interesting study!).

In football … “Coaches find each other. They hang out together and eat together and drink beer together… It is their way of finding normalcy. But it’s also a way of staying in the endless loop of innovation. Friends do not hide discovery from each other.” (149) Layden talks about coaches holding clinics for coaches and sharing resources even while they’re still using them. There’s a money-making aspect to it, sure, but there’s also the belief that letting others know what you’re doing will force you to do it better and develop ways to combat the ways your opponents would defeat your strategy and tactics. As suggested by the analogy offered at the start, the shrewd general is aware of how his enemies might defeat what’s made his army successful – the science of battle. He is also astutely aware of the subtle ways that his subordinates and troops on the ground operate, which is the art of leadership. I think the barriers to knowledge sharing and innovation in rugby are breaking down via social media and YouTube. With them, you can learn about a lot about how the top-level approaches rugby, but I think we can do a lot more to both share with the grassroots level and also not be afraid of trying to do something completely different than the pros. Whether or not your innovative approaches become the next big thing in the sport or even over-come the limitations you face, the process of examining deeper demands, needs, and possibilities will help you and your athletes understand the game so much more and allows them to benefit from a richer experience of exploration and discovery.

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In my first post related to the recent Wasps v Leinster match, I looked at Wasps’ defensive issues around the breakdown. In this post, I will examine some issues they had away from the breakdown that led to Leinster tries. My analysis and tips to avoid the issues will follow each clip.

CLIP 1: Recognition and Changing Tactics

Here we see Leinster make great use of Johnny Sexton’s signature move – the loop. He’s used it countless times for Leinster and Ireland, so right off the bat, Wasps have no excuse for failing to adjust to it.

As the ball is passed, we can see that Wasps are evenly matched with Leinster, each having four players. Sexton has turned his whole body to pass and is already following the ball. This is a clear indication that the loop is a possibility, if not a certainty given the personnel involved. When the clip pauses again, we see that the Leinster forward has passed back inside as soon as he’s received the ball. The Wasps forward mirroring Sexton should be calling for a push here because the loop is now clearly on, but his two teammates have dropped their backsides and frozen on the big forward. He’s completely out of the play now so, instead, they should be pushing beyond him to pick up Sexton wrapping around and the outer threats. The lankier of the two (#6) rushes up but Sexton makes his pass. The bigger defender is too slow to catch up and the winger is left to face a three on one. Before I move on to the next issue, if the player mirroring Sexton had called a push defence, the three players outside him could have stayed connected and contained Leinster toward the touchline.

Wasps’ winger starts jockeying backwards to buy time for support to arrive and his fly half does show up to help. What they fail to do, however, is actually get connected to hold the Leinster attackers there or force them wide with a drift. The winger is still backpedaling while the fly half comes forward, getting himself into no-man’s land. Leinster’s prop makes a great dummy and pass around him to free his teammates. If the fly half had better communicated to the winger, they might have stopped the attack there.

Simply, defenders need to anticipate / recognise attacking threats and communicate options / changes to stop those threats. As soon as they lose their coordination and connection (i.e. keeping shoulders in line with each other to create a defensive wall), attackers can easily pick holes to get around, through or behind them.

CLIP 2: Tactics, Responsibility and Trust

Teams that attack with a conservative one-out, same-way pattern are typically hoping to occupy the defence in an area to create an overlap in another area. By pounding up the middle, they hope to eventually find a moment when they can outflank the opposition out wide. Defenders need to fold around the breakdown quickly, with the outside defenders moving further out to maintain line integrity toward the touchline. Players work quickly and communicate responsibility in transition to ensure gaps are covered. It’s easier for the folding defenders to come around the breakdown to the near side and push teammates out, rather than run behind those defenders and get wide themselves.

Given that the strategy described above is common in rugby, when the clip pauses, the defenders around the ball carrier could have been better at re-aligning themselves. Leinster’s ball carrier isn’t a major threat and is suitably covered by the defender in front of him, but the outer defender (with the scrum cap) needlessly joins the tackle. Instead, he could have stayed out and protected the gap, then slid out as the two other defenders folded around. His act leaves the next phase without someone who could have shored up their line.

The two folding defenders are in a good position and ready to come forward, but the player outside them (third out, with a beard) is both offside and guilty of ruck-inspecting. He hasn’t properly assessed the threat in front of him until the ball is passed. When the clip is paused again, Wasps are in a pretty good position to defend the unit in front of them, but as the play unfolds it’s painfully clear that they are not coordinated with each other. Leinster opt for a dummy runner + pull back play which could have been forced wide if Wasps had started an aggressive drift as soon as the scrum half passed. The defender with the big hair should have pushed out hard on the receiver, with the bearded defender taking the dummy runner and the fly half looking out for the deep option. Instead, the one with the big hair passively holds his gap, the bearded defender gets caught in two minds (focusing on both the passer and the dummy runner, taking neither), and the fly half pinches in on the dummy runner, allowing the deep option to swerve around him into the gap.

Defenders need to be aware of their opponent’s strategy – and most teams have a clear one these days – so they can anticipate patterns and plays, stopping them before they come to fruition. By working hard off the ball to get into position and not over-committing where not needed, defenders can maintain the defensive line across the pitch and have time to plan for the next phase (to act, not just re-act). As the ball is played, defenders need to aggressively move into position to deny the attacking team options, force them to make errors, and/or get into positions where the ball can be won back. If teams passively go about re-aligning and be exclusively reactive rather than proactive, then good teams will be able to attack as they wish without pressure. Finally, taking responsibility, communicating intent, and trusting teammates are essential components of effective team defence.

 

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Upon seeing last night’s massively lopsided Leinster v Wasps score, I assumed the English club was simply outclassed by one of the most dominant franchises in the northern hemisphere that can often boast a starting lineup chock full of Irish internationals. When I saw the extended highlights, however, I couldn’t help but think that Wasps had some simple-to-fix defensive issues that made Leinster’s job easy.

The following clips will show key moments where issues in Wasps’ breakdown defence allowed Leinster to score, with my analysis and tips to avoid such mistakes following each. (Other footage from this match in a follow-up post will look at some open field issues.)

CLIP 1: Defending the Ruck

At around 5 seconds in the clip, we see Wasps #5 in a moment of indecision as to whether he should stay or move to the other side of the ruck. Having moved across from the previous one, it’s important to note that not once has he got his body square and only briefly did he check over his shoulder to see where the threats were. On the reverse angle, we can see that his movement opens at least 5m of space between the ruck and the next Wasps defender. In addition, there were already four Wasps defenders on the short side covering just two or three Leinster players so he wasn’t even needed there.

Ideally, players should take responsibility for their own positioning and assessing the opposing team’s attacking threats. This clip demonstrates that it helps to have the scrum half patrolling just behind the main defensive line, helping to make sure all of the gaps are plugged and the threats accounted for. Whether or not you subscribe to that notion, defenders must endeavour to stay ‘square’ with the opposition (shoulders facing the opposing goal line) so they can see as much as possible. Rather than turning, Wasps’ #5 would have been better side-shuffling into position. It’s also important to organise ruck defence quickly and with purpose; it’s the shortest route for the attacking team to achieve an easy linebreak if not secure.

CLIP 2: Quick Realignment

A defending team should try to avoid giving away large linebreaks. A good mantra for a defensive line is to ‘bend, but don’t break’. When the attacking team gets deep into your territory, it forces defenders to turn and chase backwards. They expend more energy and have to realign without knowing where the attacking team is lining up for the next phase(s) than if they just had to shuffle backwards / sideways a little bit. In the above clip, Leinster get a nice linebreak from a long cut-out pass and score after two more phases. The initial pass and run are probably inevitable but where Wasps fail is in getting to and setting up for the subsequent phases.

In the replay and wide angle, we see that Wasps’ outer defenders tracks well to contain the winger and that there are enough players around the breakdown to prevent a quick pick and go try. Their #1 even does a good job of hustling back into a post position. Not quite so good is #3 immediately resting his hands on his thighs as he gets onside. He’s visibly tired and unready. I bet that if Leinster’s #12 attacked him, he’d not have been able to prevent a try given his body position. Poor readiness is critically demonstrated by both him and the hooker on the next phase, as Leinster’s scrum half is able to dart in himself to score. When he picks, Wasps’ #2 isn’t close enough to the breakdown, nor low enough to prevent the diving score and #3 was in a useless position behind the breakdown.

During phase play, whichever side is aligned and ready first has the initiative. To be fair, this try comes at the end of the first half and the large lads are clearly tired, but this is a time when players have to be especially switched-on mentally. With the big linebreak and five forwards having to get back to defend the next phase(s) just off their goalline, they must realise that their effort and focus is vital. If they work extremely hard for these few seconds – not just to get organised, but also to slow down the phase in contact – their teammates will have time to prepare themselves for the next one. Going for a steal might be risky at this level, given referees’ current tendency to issue cards for red zone infractions and the harm that can come from a penalty or kick to the corner catch-and-drive. But one player being a legal nuisance at the ruck in the corner could have bought the big boys a few precious seconds to get themselves more prepared.

CLIP 3: Defensive Scanning

Here again, we see Wasps’ #5 being passive at the breakdown. While his hands do appear to be off his thighs, he appears to be flat-footed with legs together – which is NOT the stance to adopt whether one is going to come off the line and ‘attack’ on defence or prepare to take someone in a low, submissive tackle. He’s also committing the critical sin of ‘ruck inspecting’ – i.e. looking only at the breakdown and not scanning for threats in front of him. It also appears the teammate outside him is also guilty of this. Both notice too late that a Leinster forward is charging right at them (and kudos to him, as he’s likely spotted that they weren’t focusing on him and called for the pass!). As a result, he and the scrum half achieve a massive linebreak because the Wasps defenders were not scanning the pitch for threats, let alone communicating responsibility to teammates in the immediate vicinity. This ‘little talk’ between defenders helps them stay organised and focused.

Leinster end up scoring from some brilliant passing, but again we see poor breakdown organisation from Wasps. After the tackle, Wasps have three defenders on the short side – both centres and a wing. I suspect that the one with the scrum cap realises this leaves a lot of forwards on the openside to prevent a possible all-in, wide attack and he pushes his centre partner over. The flanker who allowed the linebreak just gets back onside, having fell during the last play, and the wing is left to defend three players so shoots up to kill the play with the first receiver. Wasps’ flanker doesn’t attempt to stop the attack until the Leinster duo have crossed the gainline and by then it’s too late.

Simply, this is another example of why focus, scanning, and a ready-to-act body shape is vital in defence, at every phase. With a lot of teams adopting conservative approaches to attack (made easier by refereeing that favours attack over defence), stringing together many simple phases, it’s important that players do not lose focus. There will be many breakdowns that aren’t worth contesting, but each should invite defenders to scan for another attempt to disrupt the attack and get the ball back (the prime directive of defence!). If players fall into a lull of going through the motions, getting onside and merely setting the line, then they invite shrewd attackers to pick on the ones who aren’t ready to stop them.

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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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I don’t know if I’m mis-remembering the ‘good old days’ or if I’m just watching games now with a keener analytical eye, but I’ve been frustrated watching a lot of games on TV lately. Teams go through a large number of predictable phases without displaying much creativity. Credit goes to journalist Murray Kinsella for his excellent articles (Australia’s 1-3-3-1 shape, Crusaders’ 2-4-2 shape) explaining zonal attack systems that explained in detail what I thought I was seeing from a lot of teams. In most professional and national teams, the majority of passes from the scrum half seems to go a forward pod in specific areas doing a limited range of things (sometimes just crashing it up, occasionally ‘tipping on’ a pass to one support runner outside, or pulling a deeper pass to a back who spins it wide).

Whether you call it ‘around the corner rugby’ or refer to them as ‘one-out runners’, it’s a low-risk strategy favoured by a lot of teams and I’m seeing it more at the amateur level. Its aim is to bosh through or into the defence in hopes of getting behind or finding a mis-match on the next phase. It’s purely attritional and at the amateur level it can be successful because defences are nowhere near as drilled as they are at the pro level. If a team has a few big carriers, it can be difficult for weekend warriors to handle such bulls on the charge. Fitness also plays a factor. One-out runners in the 1-3-3-1 shape, especially, aim to occupy defenders in the middle, exposing an opportunity on the wing. Defending requires a high work rate, as you have to be committed to making tackles, contesting or not contesting depending on the situation, and re-aligning elsewhere before the ball comes out.

In the clip below, we see Wales survive a whopping 32 phases from the Irish, who use mostly one-out runners to attack the line. Wales are penalised at the end, but in the follow-up clip, they stop the catch-and-drive from the lineout and, 13 phases later, Ireland are the ones being penalised for going off their feet in the ruck.

Having refereed a high school game recently where defenders were regularly bunched up around the tackle contest and where defenders in wide channels were often caught turned / looking inwards, there are a lot of things to take away in that clip that can help teams with disjointed, passive, and leaky defences.

  1. The Wall. At no point in those four minutes do we see an open channel. There are red jerseys fairly evenly spread across the pitch. A lot of coaches I know will yell ‘flat line’ to their players, but I like the visual of building an unbroken wall across the entire pitch to hold out the attacking hoard.
  2. Re-Alignment. To extend the metaphor, after an attack, we usually have to ‘re-build the wall’ (i.e. re-align). We want to do this as quickly as possible so the attacking team, again, are faced with an unbroken wall across the field offering no clear opportunities. Wales are great at this, getting back on their feet in no time and getting back into the defensive line regardless of their playing position. All defenders, barring maybe the scrum half, wings and full back, share the same responsibilities in the wall.
  3. Patience / Trust. The entire time, we see patient Welsh defenders who do not rush up recklessly. Coming forward to take away space is important, but not if one or two people are ahead of the rest, leaving big gaps for attackers to exploit. Others do not have to come in to finish a tackle, they do not attempt steals where there is no clear opportunity to do so, and players don’t flood in to ruck when the ball is clearly on the Irish side. They trust their team mates to stop the attackers and patiently wait for an opportunity on the next phase, or next phase, or … if the attacking team doesn’t make a mistake, they often get frustrated by this and kick away after running out of ideas, especially if they are driven backwards.
  4. Targeted Tackles. Quite often, the first man in goes for the carrier’s legs. This is not only to get the carrier down, but also to take away any chance of getting on the front foot (i.e. driving the defence back, making re-alignment more difficult) through leg drive. Rarely do we see more than two players contesting a tackle, leaving 13 other men on their feet for the next phase. Recognising that moment when there are a lot of attackers on the ground or out of position can allow a defending unit to swarm a ball carrier in the next phase who lacks support.
  5. Controlled Aggression. Whether coming forward or holding the line, each Welsh defender attempts to dominate the contact situation. Getting the ball carrier down quickly (or catching them in a choke tackle) allows for a better attempt to steal or to get over the ball and counter-ruck. Also important is that at least one player contests the ruck to the edge of legality, knowing the laws and/or listening to the referee. This slows down play enough for team mates to get back into position. The more time you have between getting set and the ball coming out, the more time you have to assess / plan / communicate a tactic that could win a turnover on the next phase.

Finer Points

I ask my team to defend in pairs, at the very least. In a great instructional video (Seriously, watch all of this! It’s full of wonderful stuff about shape, responsibility and re-alignment!) from former Saracens and current England defence coach, Paul Gustard, he declares that everyone is responsible for the ball in defence. This does not mean that everyone clumps around the tackle, exposing the wider channels, but that those in front of the threat are responsible for stopping it and the rest are responsible for re-establishing the integrity of the defensive wall as soon as possible.

In this clip, we see Saracens’ trust, commitment, and controlled aggression in action. The first man goes low to take away the carrier’s ability to drive and chop him down in a hurry. The second man, having played no part in the tackle, is free to go straight for the ball. The Northampton support player unfortunately grabs him around the head, and if the ref didn’t penalise them for not releasing the ball, there certainly would be one for a neck roll. Also take note of how there are two players – one on each side of the ruck – to defend against a pick almost immediately. Both are in a dynamic position ready for whatever comes next.

In this next clip we how Saracens have opted for an out-to-in style of defence that forces the ball carrier back towards the ruck where there are bigger men (who, incidentally, are world-renowned for stealing the ball in contact). We see the third man in the first two phases push in slightly to force the ball carrier back toward the ruck. If there was a support runner close at hand, this would likely also cause him to think twice. I’ve heard this called a ‘Jam‘ and I have also seen players intercept the ball off passers who weren’t paying attention to this defender getting between them and the intended receiver. The other thing to note is how fluid defenders are; the fly half comes in to help with the third phase but immediately retreats to a wider position, allowing forwards to take up post defence positions and contest the ball.

To maintain the integrity of the defensive wall, as I said before, defenders must have trust, patience, and move quickly into new positions. Below, Gustard talks about who goes where when re-building the wall. Current practice among most teams I run into is that the post and guard defenders get in place immediately, stay put, and everyone builds off them. He explains why the opposite allows them to keep their wider channels well defended.

As he says, it takes longer for players to go around rather than ‘fold in’ beside the ruck. In this clip, we see a prop and the fly half back out of the post/guard position and call for forwards to fold into the space so they can re-establish width. After three phases, there are no open spaces in the wide channel. Northampton’s one-out phases have had no effect at wearing down or exposing Saracens’ flank.

This is a great way to ensure that forwards and backs are defending in the areas that suit them best. I would say, then, that the only time I’d ask a back to stay in the post position is if there’s an immediate threat of a pick and go or a scrum half snipe. You don’t tend to see this much at the professional level because players contest for the ball in the tackle / ruck so long that there’s time enough to reposition players. That sort of slowing down of the play doesn’t always exist at the amateur level, but in seeing how Saracens and Wales are able to maintain a wall across the entire pitch, these tactics might be things worth developing in your team, especially if you regularly find that you are outflanked by one-out runners and wide attacking plays.

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Photo: Eoin Gardiner from Clarinbridge, Ireland, Connacht v Munster 27-12-2010, CC BY 2.0

Last autumn, the Canadian universities’ women’s national championship was hosted in my city and after a few games, I started to notice that a lot of tries were scored from pick and goes. With all games filmed and archived, I went over the ones I’d missed and continued to keep an eye on this trend throughout the remainder of the tournament. After the final – which saw each team score three tries from pick and goes – I tallied up my findings. Of the 72 tries I counted (I missed, at most four, with one game’s footage cut short), a staggering 31 tries were scored from pick and goes! Another 22 were scored as a result of one-out runner off the scrum half or fly half. I found myself frustrated watching it because I’ve coached women for many years and enjoy watching their wide ranging abilities in open play. Most teams in this tournament had the personnel to play wider and more dynamically, but as defences had trouble with the pick and go, I can’t fault them for opting for it under the intense pressure of a national championship. Below, I’ll have a look at ways to tighten up ruck defence and several specific ways of dealing with the pick and go and pick and drive.

The ‘pick and go’ (picking up the ball from the base of a ruck and plunging into the defensive line around the fringes) and the ‘pick and drive’ (similar, but with a second player latching / hammering on and driving the ball carrier through the defensive line) can be difficult to stop. Ball carrier is often so low, he/she is difficult to hold or drive back. The ball is usually tucked into the gut and difficult to dislodge. The laws also tend to favour attacking teams as referees strictly police defenders slowing down play (roll away, release the tackled player, on feet to challenge) and seeing that all body parts of defenders are behind the last foot (including hands if in a three-point stance). In this clip we see the All Blacks power through Australia with relative ease as the Aussies never have time to set up and are standing too high to offer a significant challenge…

It’s certainly not an impossible tactic to stop, however. It is best recognise a team’s potential and desire to use this tactic and stop them as far away from the goal line as possible. It is also important to recognise that this tactic is sometimes used to ‘suck in’ defenders and open space out wide, so it isn’t wise to throw all your players into shoulder-to-shoulder ruck defence. A coordinated and determined effort is needed, and the following should be considered essential regardless of what tactic players choose to combat the pick and go / drive:

Alignment – getting set quick ensures readiness and time to analyse what’s about to happen. Being tight to the ruck and with two players almost shoulder-to-shoulder, there will be no holes to sneak into.

Low Body Position – defenders must get under attackers to prevent them sneaking centimetres and to gain leverage to drive them back.

Proactive / Anticipatory Action – knowing when the ball is out and being first off the line gives defenders the initiative.

Aggressive Challenges – regardless of who is first to align and get off the line, ultimately, the most physically dominant individual(s) will win the contest.

Regaining Possession – getting the ball back as soon as possible should be the principal aim of defence. This can include intercepts/steals or less direct ways of forcing a turnover, such as forcing a knock-on.

Two great clips worth watching to see these things consistently in action are goal line stands made by the All Blacks v France and Saracens v Leicester.

The scrum half’s role is essential here (not to mention the importance of wings and full back communicating needs out wide if the strategy is to draw defenders in) to ensure everyone is in position and focused. Good scrum halves act like NFL middle linebackers, reading what the attacking team is likely to do and feeding this information to teammates in the thick of the action. That information could be:

a) helping organise the side that is most under threat and moving people into position for the next phase

b) assessing the likely tactic and helping those in the front line with the best countermeasure to it

c) leading the call to strike when legal to do so

After building your defensive wall and being ready – both physically and mentally – for the next phase, we can then look at ways to stop the opposition.

Before the ball emerges, you can legally pressure the passer / picker by going through the ruck. Though we occasionally see it on TV, you shouldn’t be allowed to step over bodies on the ground. However, a well-timed drive through an attacking player in the ‘ruck’ can knock him/her backwards into the person about to play the ball. If momentum swings at this point, another defender or two can join in to counter-ruck and secure possession of the ball, as we see here:

The first opportunity you will see during a pick and go is a ball carrier standing tall. If this player’s legs are wrapped, there is no leg drive and the carrier can be driven back or taken down. In this clip, we see the results of stopping leg drive in the first instance and allowing it in the second:

Sometimes the ideal conditions don’t exist, and in the end the most physically dominant will win the contest. We must also remember that the ball needs to touch the ground, so getting body or hands under it can be the last resort. The attacking team will get a scrum, but here we can look to steal or otherwise shut down their attack under less pressure and slightly further away from the goal line.  In this clip, one player aggressively twists a larger one to prevent him from dotting down and two more fly in to get their hands under the ball.

When the situation isn’t so desperate and defenders have lined up quickly, there is time to assess the situation and coordinate a specific tactic. In this clip, the post defender attacks the carrier’s legs and as he’s forced sideways, the second defender drives him back.

In this clip, we see the importance of getting off the line in a hurry. It gives the defenders initiative as the post and guard take down the ball carrier, and allows the third defender to get over the ball and contest possession.

Here we see a pick and drive that’s aiming to punch a hole through the defence. The post defender goes very low and takes out the legs of the ball carrier. Two teammates join in to contest. The defending team is excellent at fanning out and re-positioning themselves immediately to nullify a quick pick option. Note, too, how there are more white jerseys on their feet and in position while their opponents are still on the ground / slowly getting themselves organised.

I’m sure there are other specific ways to target attackers during a pick and go, but as I said before, it all starts with quick alignment and a determined mindset to physically dominate the tackle contest. In my next post, I’ll look at dealing with one-out runners in the same high pressure red zone situation.

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A very good tip for attacking players is that “the hips don’t lie” – if a player’s hips are facing a certain direction he/she is vulnerable on the opposite shoulder. Some people call that the ‘soft shoulder’ because it’s going to take that person more time to turn and defend someone on that side, and any contact they make is likely to be soft. Very often, if the attacking player times it right, that person won’t even get turned at all and the attacker will slip by or behind.

Now it’s not my intention to steal this photo, but it shows a perfect example of someone whose hips are turned allowing an attacking player to get behind him.  (It comes from the magnificent analysis work rugby journalist Murray Kinsella does over at the42.ie, specifically this article: click here. Definitely check out his work, which seems to come out about once a week during the rugby season!)

Here, the Australian player (in yellow) is completely exposed on his right side and a simple pass by the Irish player should see his team mate gone!

While it’s true that the hips very rarely do “lie”, and that this should be a basic visual cue your players look for in attack, I also think the eyes can often give you the same sort of information. A good defender will keep hips square with the goal line, and his body aligned with the player he/she’s covering. Players should not get fixed on that person, and scan with the upper body, turning shoulders or just head to assess threats / opportunities and communicate with team mates. (Fighter pilots have a great acronym for this: the OODA loop, developed by military strategist John Boyd, which demands they constantly observe, orient, decide, act so they avoid getting ‘target fixation’ and miss the threat that could kill them.)

But something great attacking players do is draw attention to themselves. Genuine threats with ball in hand make more than just the defender in front take notice, and that extra attention should be seen as a golden opportunity for supporting players to strike. England’s Danny Cipriani explains a bit of that in the clip below, and I love that he goes against the old adage of “running straight”, demonstrably making a sideways run to draw yet another defender’s attention and free up space for someone else.

I contend that any player can be such a threat, so long as they get the ball with enough space to make a sudden threatening move that makes defenders pause and take notice. (Needless to say, keeping the ball in two hands means that player can pass in a split second.) Often, playing too close to the line makes the defence’s work easier because there’s no time for them to consider what else is going on. With enough time between the last phase and taking the ball to the line, defenders can get caught ball-watching. It’s this visual cue that should sound alarm bells to both the ball carrier and support runners that there is a defender (at least!) who’s overly focused on the ball and not paying attention to what’s going on in front.

In this highlight reel from Rugby League, there are two great examples of attackers taking advantage of defenders ball watching and not paying attention to what’s going on in front of them.

Starting at 0:16 and moving to 0:18 you can see how all the defenders have their hips square and their line is flat, but all eyes are on the ball carrier. The next defender out hasn’t noticed that his man is halfway outside him heading for the gap! The ball carrier’s pass is inch-perfect, putting his team mate away for a try.

The second example starts at 2:17. The first receiver has the ball with plenty of space and he starts running sideways. The defenders are pretty much in line with hips square, but yet again all eyes are on the ball carrier. This is the sort of player who is incredibly quick, so people are fixated on what he might do. Defenders should, of course, respect such players, but need to focus on the threats in front of them and trust their team mates inside to make the tackle / call for help and the sweeper (scrum half, full back for us in Union) to get this player if he breaks the line. Instead, they all get caught ball watching and – even worse than the previous example! – the defender who lets the try scorer through really should have had him in his field of vision. It goes to show how fixated on the ball he was that he didn’t see a free running receiver right in front of him!

I like using conditioned small-sided games to practice this. Attackers are given free reign to attack a realistically wide space, but defenders (either by coach’s call or on their own) either align or move in a certain way that would be considered ‘bad defence’. The challenge is for attacking players to spot and exploit bad defence, and not just by putting all the onus on the ball carrier, but by calling out opportunities as soon as they are spotted. These clips show that even at the highest level poor defence happens, and players need to know what that looks like from regular practice. Going back to the fighter pilot example, going back as far as WWII, air crews – and naval personnel for that matter – were trained to recognise the enemy by the shape of their equipment and patterns they employed. Becoming familiar with defenders’ vulnerable shapes and patterns similarly provides rugby players with an edge in attack.

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