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Archive for the ‘Tactical’ Category

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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Just last week, I finally figured out this rugby thing.

People who know me well will think that statement ridiculous as they tend to believe I’m the most knowledgeable rugby person they know. After 17 years coaching that’s gone into some 120-odd posts in this blog, I probably do know a fair bit. Over the past year I’ve been thinking a lot about the balance between structure and free play, having started out being overly focused on the former, while moving toward the latter in more recent years – and I think I’ve finally found a perfect mix. Structure gives players a focus and a plan of action they can rely upon. Free play allows athletes a chance to show their skill, both as individuals and combined in pairs, threes, or in larger collaborative units. Both also have their limitations. What I’ve been wrestling with is how to combine the two in an effective way for amateur players that only meet each other twice a week (if everyone shows up!).

Essentially, I want every player not involved in the ruck to get into position quickly to be an attacking threat on the next phase. Attackers establishing good depth and width between each other opens space between defenders. It not only allows you multiple options, but it causes defenders to consider – and hopefully be confused by – multiple threats. Too often we see one single line of backs with no options behind them or a pod of forwards where it’s obvious who’s getting the ball and, from their passive body language and lack of voice, who are only there to ruck after that ball carrier crashes it up. At the highest level, even, you see teams bash it up around the corner for several phases in hopes of wearing down the defence, and nothing more. Even worse, players at all levels can be seen jogging between phases, leaning on rucks, or hanging out behind them, rendering themselves useless for that phase when they could be an attacking threat. As such, defending is relatively easy.

It’s the multiple variables and sources of information that defenders have to sort out that causes hesitation and incorrect decisions. By getting into an ‘dynamic shape’, I want my players to align themselves either in the front line – a line of backs or a short line of forwards – or the support line, tucked in behind, ready to receive an offload at the line or a back door pass to go wide. Some specific tactical examples can be seen in my Two Layers in Attack post. This sort of body language will test the abilities of defenders – especially amateur ones! – to recognise threats, adjust to them, and make the right decision under greater pressure than one-out-pass-and-crash, round-the-corner rugby does.

I’ve been pushing this for my teams for the last couple of years and have especially loved seeing forwards get excited about being instrumental decision makers and distributors. The last team I coached had legitimate distributors at hooker, tight head, and number eight! But while recently watching our highlights from last season, we did look a bit random from phase to phase. Attacks were usually successful because we had such a strong team that won every game by a comfortable margin. It was a bit scary to think that we could have been even better with more structure and focus to our attack.

So what has been my amazing discovery? I used to scoff when I heard professional players from teams I’ve deemed ‘boring’ say things like: “We just need to play in the right parts of the field” and “We’re trying to get the rucks in the right place.” While I still believe those teams are too robotic and could afford to be more ambitious, I’ve taken something from those phrases. We DO want to play in the ‘right parts of the field’ – that is, where the defence isn’t heavily concentrated. And by considering the location of the ruck, and what it affords in terms of available space to the left and right of it, we can make a concerted effort to take advantage of it on the next phase. The revelation: There are only two areas from which we launch our attacks – rucks in the middle of the pitch and rucks near the touchline. I’ve given them two slightly fancier names:

The Big Open – With a ruck in between the touchline and the 15m dashes there is a lot of width to use, with 1 or 2 defenders likely going to cover the short side and three defending the ruck on the open side. Attackers can overload the open side and spread across the field, which opens gaps between defenders. Extras can tuck in behind the front line of attackers, offering an outlet for a back door pass, a target for a late pop pass or offload, or a misdirecting decoy line. You can think of this as one big dynamic unit or two – and even three – separate mini units.

The Split Midfield – With a ruck anywhere in between the two 15m dash lines, there’s a very strong chance that it has drawn a lot of defenders around it (1 or 2 in the tackle, 4-6 more defending the fringes!). Alternatively, it might allow for overlaps or mismatches depending on how defenders have aligned themselves off that ruck. On one hand, too few have ‘folded’ around to the side the attack was headed; on the other, too many have folded over, leaving the other side lightly defended. Anticipating and recognising this can allow a team to have a simple numbers advantage or pick off individuals who are slower or smaller or otherwise disadvantaged.

Before getting too deep into how we’ll create a strategic plan from this, it’s important to remember what we’re trying to do tactically. Our aim in attack is always to:

1. “Go Through Them” – find and exploit gaps or mismatches in size / speed and go straight through the defensive line. Create gaps to exploit with clever angles, timely passing and change of pace.

2. “Go Around Them” – take advantage of the overlap with quick passing and get around their defensive wall. Straight running fixes defenders, preserving space out wide. Swerve runs cause outer defenders to turn in, creating space for team mates outside.

3. “Go Over Them” – use a kick to get the ball back if the full back is missing, winger flat, etc. (and this can include a kick to touch if our lineout has dominance over theirs)

4. “Get Behind Them” – when all doors are closed and the wall is well organised – and we don’t want to kick possession away – an attacker should either get behind the defender making the tackle or shove their defensive line back. In both cases, the defence has to retreat and reorganise and we should be on the ‘front foot’ as a result, with players ready to look for better opportunities on the next phase.

Our structure – that is treating every ruck as creating either a Big Open, with lots of space, or a Split Midfield, with defenders condensed and possibly overloaded on one side – basically gives players an idea of what’s likely to be in front of them and where they should play next. The tactical aims listed above give them a focus on what to do when they get there. They will choose one based on who’s there in support and what the defence is offering. To me, this a perfect mesh of everyone following a plan that gets them into purposeful positions, and being free to use their vision and skills when getting aligned together.

This structure worked for us because of the strengths (and limitations – we weren’t going to bosh over players and didn’t have much of a kicking game) of our players and some truths about the way our opponents defended. We had speedy outside backs, good passing halfbacks and midfielders, some mobile forwards who pass and a few big forwards who pull in defenders. Teams we face had the following tendencies – which I think is true of most amateur teams:

  • Tend to stack two and three defenders tightly on both sides of the ruck, so we tend not to attack that space (unless it’s not actually well defended!)
  • Tend to look inward at the ruck more than in front of them, making outside player susceptible to late changes in alignment, swerves, overs lines, and not calling out overlaps.
  • Tend to have many players who aren’t that fit and/or fast, who consequently get out of position when having to run chase the play across the pitch.

Early on, I realised that if we happened to run a subsequent phase close to the previous one, play really slowed down. We didn’t gain any ground and too many bodies were involved in that area, so urged that we move the ball away well away from every ruck. Once this was in place and because our halfbacks could make long passes, our subsequent attacks tended to happen at least 10m away from the previous ruck. Our wide game obviously led to a lot of tries, but only a year later did I see a pattern in the build-up. Looking at our highlight reel, the trend seemed to be that the next phase from one of the two aforementioned scenarios led to the other scenario on the subsequent phase. So if we started with a Big Open, the next phase would almost always be a Split Midfield because we either tried a move with the midfielders or tried to punch through wider gaps with forwards. Going from touchline to touchline (i.e. Big Open to Big Open) tended to waste time in setting up, giving advantage to the defence, unless the defence was very narrow toward the other touchline and we could get a few long passes away quickly. (What can work better, especially if your passing isn’t great, is a cross-kick in the opposite direction after reaching one touchline… so long as your kicker is good and the opposite winger is paying attention!)

Wide Attack

If we established a Split Midfield, we’d attack wide one side and the next phase would look like a Big Open. Which side we’d chose typically became a ‘Where are we?’ vs ‘Where are they not?’ assessment. Not enough defenders folding = same direction, especially if the ball is played quick. Too many defenders folded around the ruck = rewind in the other direction.

Midfield Attack

So what are the essential elements and training requirements to achieve this?

  • Understanding of the plan. We can’t have individuals not getting into an effective position or going solo against our aims. We move away from the last ruck – unless it’s poorly defended and we can gain territory / maintain momentum and continuity – and attack wider spaces.
  • Anticipation. Players have to predict what the defending team will do. Are they a slow team that won’t fold around? Are they worried about the wide side, taking too many from the direction play started? Do they condense around rucks too much or evenly spread the field? Who’s likely to be out of position and be ripe for exploitation?
  • Recognition. Amateur teams tend to be more random in how they defend, so it’s vital that people spot opportunities and feed this information to decision makers. An immediately exploitable – CLEAR – opportunity is better than slavishly sticking to a plan for the sake of it.
  • Work Rate. In order to create dynamic attacking situations with sufficient numbers, we need complete and determined effort at the tackle contest (one or two, max?) to secure the ball. We benefitted from powerful cleanouts and incredibly quick/fit scrum halves who could get to the breakdown quickly – this should be the aim for any team. The other, often ignored, element of work rate is getting re-aligned quicker than the other team. Players shouldn’t be jogging from a previous phase while the ball is in play – they are effectively NOT attacking threats at that point. They should be sprinting into position, using the ruck completion time to catch their breath, not to metion scanning the opposition for attacking options and communicating with team mates regarding relevant info (“Poor tackler in front of me”, “On your left”, etc.). Combined with the other two elements, players can save energy by not running to every ruck when the realise their presence isn’t needed.
  • Ball Movement. As has been mentioned already, we want to get the ball into areas where it’s easier to play. An attacking player with a lot of space in front and options left and right is a very dangerous person (which is why some of the best teams have their most dynamic attacker at outside centre). With the way rucks are typically defended, there is only ‘into contact’ or ‘outside’ options given how condensed the defence is there. Wider spaces allow for effective switches and inside passes.

When you put it all together the most important element in this structured / dynamic attack is trust. Trust that everyone’s on the same page. Trust that people can spot and take advantage of opportunities. Trust that team mates will give their all to secure the ball or get into position. Trust that individuals will move the ball into the most advantageous positions. And, as not all attacks will lead to tries, to trust that we’ll be able to repeat the whole process again with positivity, determination and a unified focus.

It’s also vital that teams train for this as much as possible. When I took my Level 2 certification in Australia, one of the lasting messages of the course was to train proportionately for things as they occur in the game. As such, I tend to spend upwards of half to 80% of a training session on open play. We will work on dynamic unit play in activities that look and feel like the real game – some contact, some non-contact – asking players to get into position and recognise / communicate even before the ball is played. I also can’t stress enough the need for defenders to be present and active – recognition and timing are vital, and this cannot be done unopposed. I don’t like touch for this, given that most players are going to blow through a tackle attempt that involves just a grasp of the shirt. Instead, we use ‘wrap up’ to avoid full contact, or flag belts to get defenders closer and focusing on hips (single flag requires immediate offload or two steps and set a ruck, double flag pull equals tackle), or bags if we want to work on powering through smaller gaps, attacking the ‘branches’ of the tree rather than the ‘trunk’. A lot of work in this smaller area is then applied to the entire width of the field focusing on creating these scenarios from Split Midfields and Big Opens. Where clubs have to share minimal space, I’ve found that this work can be done in 1/3 of a pitch given that we’re aiming to score in between 2 and 4 phases.

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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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Having two layers in attack allows multiple options to use or create space. Referred to as an outlet, a 2nd man play, or a back door option – it gives the attacking team a chance to play both flat and deep runners depending on what the defence offers.

Our typical set-up sees a standard first- and second-receiver staggered as one might see a fly half and inside centre, or two forwards off a ruck. Behind them, ‘C’ can be a support player or a second-receiver if ‘B’s opportunity is shut down. In the diagram below, ‘A’ can pass to ‘B’ running an unders line or ‘C’ running an overs line.

A = passer, B = flat option, C = deep option, S = support player

A = passer, B = flat option, C = deep option, S = support player

This formation is common in Rugby League, with any highlights package showing several examples of it. In the following clip from Japan v Maori All Blacks, you can see the A-B-C formation used in a narrow channel. The runner at ‘B’ cutting in draws one defender out of alignment and the Maori winger has to come in to take care of ‘C’, who passes to his own winger. On the reverse angle you can see clearly how the defenders are turned inward, freeing up just enough space for the wing to race down the touchline.

Here’s another example where Bath use this formation in the midfield, rather than off the first receiver. George Ford could have easily popped the ball to one of the forwards standing close-by, but he played it ‘out the back’ to his full back who sets up the winger for an easy try.

Bath use this move a lot to free up their speedy outside backs, but they have plenty of big runners who hold defenders in the middle because they could just as easily bust through. Everyone must be seen as a potential receiver, and therefore a legitimate ‘threat’ to the defence. A player being ‘a threat’ doesn’t just mean being in position to receive a pass either. Defenders are more likely to be manipulated or exploited when those multiple threats are in motion.

In this try, the inside centre runs an unders line and scores from it because the fly half recognises that the defenders are too focused on the wide and deep options. With each of those players in motion, it becomes really difficult for defenders to adjust. They can’t ignore outside threats and have to trust team mates inside to cover runs against the play and inside passes.

The attacker at ‘B’ doesn’t have to run an unders line either. In this clip, he fades outward suddenly, dragging two defenders and allowing the ‘C’ attacker to run straight through the gap untouched. In the following clip, ‘C’ loops outside of ‘B’.

Finally, it’s important that players around the A-B-C unit get into good support positions to take advantage of the linebreak. They have to look for ‘triggers’ in body language that suggest when to move and where to go. In this clip, the fly half, inside centre and winger create the linebreak, but there would be no try if not for the scrum half and no. 8 funnelling through to keep the move alive.

The A-B-C formation provides a bit of structure with many different options. It’s important for potential receives to be active threats and to communicate their intent. Supporting players must also read body language to adjust their timing and choose appropriate actions. Ultimately, it’s up to decision makers to consider all this information and read the defence to see their reaction, and choose the best option. I can’t stress enough that athletes need to practice this under game-like conditions so they can appropriately attune themselves to the pressure, pace, and congestion they’ll face in a game.

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One of the simplest ways to break the defensive line and/or create space for supporting team mates is to line up in the gap between defenders. It sounds incredibly basic, but it’s not something you see happen very often. Defenders do tend to adjust and get lined up on the player being marked, so it’s a scenario that isn’t necessarily always going to happen. The following clips, however, show that even at the highest level defenders can lose focus on the big picture. Someone I used to coach with referred to this affliction as ‘ruck inspecting’ – defenders’ heads and shoulders turned inwards looking at the ruck, waiting it for it to come out, virtually ignoring the threat in front of them. Even funnier are those who’ve been conditioned to point and say “I’ve got… ” so-and-so while still looking at the ruck!

One solution to this affliction is to condition players outside the Post defender to stand with their inside foot forward. This makes it difficult to turn shoulders and hips toward the ruck. In such a position, they must use their head to scan the field and once the ball emerges their first step is forward. While ‘ruck inspecting’, the usual first-step is one that squares the body, and then the second step gets them going forward slightly. It’s a crucial step-too-many when the aim should be to seize the initiative and catch the attacking team behind the gain line as soon as possible.

The following clips will show examples of attacking players getting aligned in gaps, exposing defenders who haven’t assessed the situation in front of them until it was too late.

In this clip, Northampton had enough defenders in place, but Gordon D’Arcy cleverly got himself into a gap on the outside of the second-last defender. He seizes the gap brilliantly and finds support with an inside pass. The overhead shot shows his alignment even better as he’s on the inside shoulder of the last defender, creating a 2v1 situation that will allow him to slip through the gap if the last defender stays on his man, or pass if the defender pinches in to cover his team mate’s mistake.

Here’s another showing a player getting a pass into a gap and, though caught, setting up a team mate who also reads the play and times his run perfectly. The creator of this clip does a great job of noting the purpose and shape of the Waratahs’ attack, and I’d add that Beale’s ability to align himself in – and attack – the gap flat is as important as Foley’s ability to get him the ball. Too often, receivers sit back waiting for a pass when the defence isn’t aligned properly and/or not paying attention to the potential threats in front of them. Getting the ball deeper and without a plan allows the defence time to adjust. As the video’s creator so correctly indicates, the defence has a lot of threats to consider but they needed to trust the guys on the inside more and focus on their own responsibilities. Foley’s straight and fast run from a relatively flat position holds his man in place and draws the attention of others. Beale’s flatness and Foley’s near-perfect pass doesn’t give the Reds’ defenders any time to adjust once the point of attack has been changed. If they’d have been more attentive, Beale might have run straight into a dominant tackle, but he’s a master at spotting and exposing defensive errors.

This clip finishes with a perfect strike by Quade Cooper, but off the lineout Ben Tapuai does a great job of running a line that fixes his defender and then steps into the gap to get well over the gain line. This is another basic principle of alignment and attack that must be part of every player’s ‘tool box’. Too often, slow or slanted runs are used that play right into the hands of the defence. Here, Tapuai is deliberate in his approach and explosive in his change of direction. Several direct and powerful phases ensue that gets the Lions defenders focused on tight play off the dangerous scrum half Will Genia and the Reds’ capable forward pack. This is where a fly half like Cooper is at his most deadly. Too many defenders are worried about Genia and the forwards. Cooper patiently waits for them to manipulate and draw the attention of the defence before calling his own number. At about 45:15, you can see him shift to his left and get into a massive gap before getting the ball. The defender on his inside is still looking at the ruck when the ball is passed and finds he’s lost his man. He panics, running to where he he should have been, allowing the light-footed Cooper to step him and score untouched – the ball fake holding the other inside defender brilliantly.

In this clip, we see the same sort of scenario – defenders not properly assessing / aligning with the attacking team – but instead of the receiver having a go, he realises he’s drawn their attention and finds an un-marked supporting runner with a pass. Again, the opportunity comes after a few phases and when defenders are overly-focused on what’s happening around the ruck and not getting properly aligned. The overhead shot shows it even better as Canada has five defenders on the blind side and Piri Weepu at 1st5 is lined up in between two defenders with men on his inside. As he gets the ball, both are not in a good position to defend and both have a go at him, leaving the inside channel completely un-marked. Different than our previous examples, Weepu doesn’t have the clear gap once he gets the ball, but by drawing the attention of panicked defenders, he skilfully puts a team mate into created space.

This is a very simple way of reading and exposing defensive mistakes even before the ball is played. The first visual cue is spotting a defender whose shoulders and hips are turned inwards, looking more at the ruck than what’s in front of them. By lining up in the gap, the attacking player either has a clear door to run through or – and this is the second visual cue – can take advantage of of the defence reacts to the sudden realisation that they’re not properly aligned. If the outside defender stays on his man, his inside shoulder is vulnerable. If he pinches in, a pass to the next player outside is on, and his line can be tight if that pinching defender turns inward. If the poorly aligned defender sprints to get across, then maybe he’s vulnerable to an inward sidestep a la Quade Cooper, or a pass to a supporting runner as in the Weepu to Vito pass versus Canada.

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In recent years, I’ve been avoiding the use of set plays as I’ve too often found that players rely on them too much and end up missing easier opportunities. They also require a lot of rehearsal, which can be a huge waste of time given how infrequently they’re used or when you opt not to use them because the opposition has figured them out. So I’d been putting players in situations and games that forced them to be creative and to consider how best to support the ball carrier/passer. This has been quite successful with teens as most I’ve worked with have a creative spark – and what teen doesn’t like to show off, really? The past two years, however, I’ve been working with men’s sides and have found this more difficult as many are set in their traditional ways. So I’ve been working with them on what I call their personal and team “tool box” – skills and tactics they can use for given situations, the same way a builder picks a certain tool for a specific (or general) job.  [Surely we’ve all used a flat screw driver to open a paint can!]

Another big part of developing analytical and clever decision makers is to put them in typical game-like scenarios and have them assess the visual cues that often appear. This means doing more than 2v1s because, while it’s essentially what breaking down defences comes to, there are so many variables in a line of defenders, that players have to consider a fuller range of options and possibilities.

We always try and attack the ‘easy opportunity’ – things like mismatches in size, speed, or ability, poor alignment, obvious gaps, etc.  Again, for teens this is often simple enough, because in our league there are always ‘exploitable opportunities’ like this. The men, however, are generally more organised, especially as defence is such a major (and easy) focus these days.  So our scenarios therefore have focused on defensive styles and how to beat them based on the inherent limitations or opportunities in their structure (see below). In order to speed up the process of picking the right tool for the task at hand, we brainstormed ideas on how to beat each style and focused on just a few that fell within the team’s knowledge and abilities and which matched our preferred style of play.

Below, and in subsequent posts, I’ll outline some of the ‘tools’ we use for different styles of defence, starting with the classic drift defence.

Drift Defence Characteristics:

  • Defenders align on the inside shoulder and push out
  • Usually space in front on the outside – a tactic used when defending teams out-numbered – with last man hanging back to invite the ball to go wide so they can reduce width and push toward the sideline
  • Susceptible to cut backs on the ‘soft shoulder’ (i.e. inside shoulder, especially if the push becomes lateral)
  • Help from the inside defender is vital to cover the ‘soft shoulder’

Exposing a Drift Defence:

Attacking the Soft Shoulder

As defenders push out, it’s difficult to adjust to someone changing directions against the flow of the push. This is a classic ‘attacking the branches of the tree, rather than the trunk’ moment. A tight line on the inside shoulder might just catch an arm. Too close to the inside defender, and the ball carrier might be caught. If the inside defender is a bit lazy, then there’s a huge opportunity.

DRIFT - Cut Back

Inside Ball to Support Runner

The trick here is that there has to be a reasonable gap between defenders. Again, aided by a lazy inside defender, but not impossible if the timing of the support run and pass is good. The support runner might also expose a different gap than noted below if the inside defender pushes too early onto the receiver, leaving an even bigger gap. If the defenders are disciplined, though, it’s really the space behind the ball carrier’s defender that needs to be attacked.

DRIFT - Inside Ball

Pass Wide and Flat

As noted, drift defences tend to hang back on the outside hoping to force the attacking team toward or even into touch, often accommodating for a lack of numbers out wide. So a simple solution is to get the ball there as quickly as possible. The key element is to get the ball there quickly and relatively flat. If the pass is loopy and deep, the drift pushes out and comes up. Where it’s quick hands or a long and flat miss pass, the flatness of the strike runner will expose the space before the defenders have time to cover it. Drift defences are trying to buy time, so take it away. On the flip side, if the pass is a early, the attackers can preserve width the defenders are trying to close down by straightening up.

DRIFT - Wide

Looping Run

The looping run can be effective if the player looping around is actually quick and if the passer picks a line that effectively blocks the drifting defender. Timing is key here, as if the passer pops to the looping player too soon, s/he’ll likely get tackled from the side by the drifting defender. That said, if the passer recognises this happening, the passer can dummy, hold and go using the looper as a decoy. This situation is made easier for the looping runner if the third attacker moves wide, drawing the third defender. This would present one of those either/or situations that should be win-win … third defender stays on third attacker, and looper has a gap; third defender steps in on looper and s/he passes to the third attacker who should have a massive gap.

DRIFT - Loop

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