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This is a follow-up to the recent post I made that examines a simple attacking structure that I think can work for any team, but is best for one that has some pace on the outside and not a lot of big players to batter the defensive wall. In putting it together, I was reminded of a lecture I attended with former French player and coach Pierre Villepreux. When we think back on it, my buddy John and I do a terrible impression of what we felt was his key message, but it’s stuck: “Why do you want to run into ze wall? Why not go where eet eez easy to play?” And that’s it. Play where there’s more space. The structure discussed in the previous post and expanded upon here hopefully will allow your team to organise themselves each phase to play where it is easier to run, pass, and support on their way to the try line.

To recap, conceptually speaking, the set piece or tackle contest creates either a Big Open side with lots of width or a Split Midfield with defenders having to balance themselves on both sides. In the first case, width either spreads defenders out, allowing room to run through them, or draws them toward the touchline, allowing the attacking team to get around them. In the second case, defenders (especially amateurs) tend to condense themselves around a ruck, stacking as many as 6, 7 or 8 defenders in a very narrow area, allowing space on both sides. This allows an attacking team a better opportunity to take advantage of poor alignment or mismatches.

As mentioned in the previous article, our team focused on playing at least 10m away from every ruck, typically outside the third defender. What I discovered watching our highlights was that a hell of a lot of tries came as a result of attacking in one of the following scenarios:

  1. Open – Attack the Middle

Open - Middle

  1. Open – Go Wide

Open - Wide

  1. Split – Go the Same Way

Split - Same Way

  1. Split – Rewind and Go the Way We Started

Split - Rewind

It was also interesting to note that the most successful passages of play involved an Open move turning into a Split scenario or a Split scenario becoming an Open one. This seems pretty basic to me now, but (and I’ll show an example of this later) attacking close to the previous ruck almost never resulted in significant gains. If I were still working with this team, I’d stress that we really should be attacking on these guidelines all the time to get wide, play in space, and either get through, get around, or get behind defenders. Here are some examples… [Just a note on my titles: the first word indicates where the ruck occurs Split or Open, and the words in brackets indicate where we go next Middle, Same Way, Rewind], and a dash in between this pairing indicates the next phase]

Split (Same Way). This play starts messy (full credit to the uni team competing at the breakdown!), and around 0:32 a forward smartly opts to pick to establish a bit of a platform. From here, we go same way. I love that the hooker steps in at first receiver and not only commits two defenders but times her pass perfectly.

Split (Rewind). I can’t remember how this play started – possibly a penalty that didn’t find touch – but a forward brings us into the midfield. At around 0:10, the ‘Same Way’ option is on with excellent shape, but as I zoom out, we can see that four tight five, the 8 and a winger have noticed that too many defenders have converged on a ruck. They call for a rewind and move the ball for one of my favourite tries of the season!

Split – Open (Wide). Starting from a scrum, we go in one direction with some great hands and create a Big Open opportunity. Three quick passes gets the ball to our dominant winger in space. If any had carried the ball to the line, the defence would have likely stopped them in the midfield. Importantly, they also stayed square when passing which kept the defence also square – rather than step / turn sideways and pass, which would have invited the defence to drift sooner and close off our winger’s space.

Open (Middle) – Split (Same). Starting from the right touchline, we make very good use of a numbers advantage. This is not simply draw and passing to the wing, either, as the centre has a go herself before passing to the fullback for the try. This highlights how multiple attacking threats in a given area causes defenders to hesitate. Attack that hesitation and force them into making poor decisions.

Open (Middle) – Split (Same Way) – Open (Middle). Here’s an example where two phases really manipulate the defence. On the start of the third phase, note how narrow they are and how wide the attackers are. Once again, multiple threats cause indecision and lack of focus such that we don’t even have to go too wide as the no. 8 spots a gap and has a go herself.

Split (Rewind) – Open (Middle) – Open (Wide). Here’s another example where two phases draw the defence over to one side. This team is reasonably well spread out, but a poor first pass halts any thought of going down the middle. Both centres pass quickly to get us out of trouble and the full back does a wonderful job of not just straightening, but she cuts back in slightly before passing. This fixes the chasing defenders in place and provides the winger with plenty of room.

The following two clips show that playing too close to the ruck didn’t always work for us…

Open (Middle) – Split (Rewind) – Wider?. We sometimes bust through defences with this powerful ball carrier, but in this case the opposition was ready for her.  She did impressively gain ground despite three defenders being ready for her, but an infringement at the breakdown halted play (I’m still not sure what happened). Another positive is that the shape of the players waiting for the next phase is excellent – lots of width and supporting players behind the front line of attackers. Ultimately, we’d have been better off with a late pop to get the ball a bit wider or even a back door pass to get it to the backs.

Around the Corner – Split (Same Way) – Pick and Go. Here’s an example where four around-the-corner phases gained us no territory and did virtually nothing to manipulate the defence. One could argue that it did set up for a return phase, but a couple of long passes could have done the same thing and probably gained more ground. The return phase is a good example of what a Split – Same Way phase can do: when the scrum half has hands on ball, there are seven defenders at the ruck, six more on the far side, a winger who’s turned in and not calling for help (not likely realising that she’s isolated with a former national team winger!). The amount of territory gained means the defence has had to turn and chase back (rather than shift and back pedal slightly like before), causing enough disruption for an easy score. If they’d plugged the gap, many still would have had their backs to the attack when the pass was made and a try could have been scored anywhere.

The end of that previous point brings up something I believe should be our first aim in attack – scan for and seize clear opportunities. As was noted in the previous article, if the ruck is poorly defended then we don’t have to rely on the structure. We just play the opportunity that exists in front of us. Too many defenders converged on the ruck, leaving room for our scrum half to pick and go at the huge gap.

Here’s one more clear opportunity to close off this article. In this turnover situation, the attacking players realise there’s space on the short side so they have a go and score with a quick pass to the fullback (note that it was one of the aforementioned forwards who made the perfect pass!)

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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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Found this great clip from a recent game and shared it with my team, reminding them that it’s not just a great step by Rokoduguni, but he read’s Masi’s body language perfectly as well!

Masi makes the mistake of preparing for the tackle too early, chopping his feet and dropping his butt to take the hit rather than trusting his own ability to continue through and make a more aggressive tackle. He had a good line of pursuit to avoid being stepped on the inside – not to mention having two speedsters like Daly and Varndell there. He’s also a big enough guy to be an imposing figure and make a powerful smothering tackle on the Fijian.

On the reverse angle you can see the opportunity Rokodunguni is presented. Masi begins to slow down quite early – and a tackler doesn’t want to be too fast because a simple sidestep will do the job as the would-be tackler goes past like a missile. He still needed to come forward and remain on the balls of his feet to be able to adjust to the carrier’s changes. Rokodunguni picks the perfect moment to step, just as Masi has dropped his butt and almost gone flat-footed. With his centre of gravity that low, sitting back almost on his heels, it’s not going to be easy – if at all possible – for Masi to change direction.  The Bath winger’s step isn’t even massive and the inward cut probably wasn’t even necessary; he just read Masi’s passive body language and picked the perfect time to change direction.

I don’t really care if defenders go for the big hit or a passive hit – though there are ideal times for each if they are within one’s power/ability. I do, however, maintain that defenders must come forward to deny the ball carrier time and space to think and operate, but to also maintain the initiative and be able to react to sudden changes of direction. It’s a tricky balance that probably differs with each individual, based on their own agility and confidence versus opponents with unique abilities. How fast? When to put on the brakes? How low to get? When?  This tackle tracking and approach situation is something I have my players practising in 1v1s (and 2v2s / 3v3s to work on coordination and communication) every week for a few minutes, often in drill form in a series of small groups to get maximum reps. I don’t even think the tackle aspect is necessary if the final move is a powerful step and shoulder into the midsection/on the hip. Getting into that strong and balanced body position should make the tackle easy.

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I’m a few days away from my first session with a new team and I’ve been watching, listening, reading and writing sports and coaching for a few weeks now in preparation. My next few posts are going to condense and outline some of this – also building upon my many years of experience – as a resource for those athletes who’d like to read my thoughts. Hopefully coaches who read this blog will also take from it what they find useful.

Attacking Focus

1. Play Head’s Up Rugby (Low structure imposed upon, high assessment and coordination demanded of players.)

a) Seize and exploit the ‘easy opportunity’ (ex. over-lap, gap, strong vs weak, fast vs slow, poor alignment, etc.)

b) Create an opportunity by using a simple move (can be simple as a sudden and sharp change of direction that manipulates the defence and allows support players options, or a multi-option snap play like a loop or a blocker line)

Before the defence re-aligns, look for a new ‘exploitable’ opportunity. This is a simple cycle where some players will be better at scanning and seizing but will have options to create opportunities if nothing easier is immediately apparent (not just from their scanning, but also from team mate feedback!). While I will train everyone to enhance their ability to anticipate and recognise patterns and visual cues, players not so aware can always start from b), using the attacking tool box mentioned in my previous post.

2. Maintain a quick tempo and play to our strengths

Playing in a provincial Premier League means we’ll face very strong and well-coached teams. I expect to especially see strong defending teams as those aspects are typically easier to coach (as seen in the recent Women’s Rugby World Cup!) We are lucky to have plenty of options in terms of speed, power, finesse, and game smarts. In conjunction with playing “head’s up” – and sometimes as a default option when there are no easy opportunities / creative efforts are being shut down – we can proactively and patiently string together phases in a logical way. Dominating the contact area to win quick ball, with good coordination and communication, means we should have a lot of people in good positions to keep the tempo up and prevent the defence from getting properly re-aligned. From this situation, defences break down and get us back to the ‘easy opportunity’ situations. For example, consider how even a 3m penetration with quick ball can catch defenders off side or unsure of who they’re supposed to be covering, or how a few phases in one direction with a wide move in the other could find speedy players against unfit ones. Not only do playmakers need to be aware of these possibilities, but all players should be assessing simple things like “Do I need to go in that ruck, or can I stay here and be part of the next phase?” Little ‘rules’ can be devised which fit the players you have – in our case, we’ll have a lot of options as we have a big tight five, mobile back row, intelligent midfielders and speedy outside backs. The trick will be to play to the ‘best’ strength at a given moment – something we will continually work on in game-like practice.

Important Factors in Achieving This:

  • Awareness – at all times – scanning / communicating / listening (playmakers use info to make decisions)
  • Work-rate – whoever is aligned first has the initiative. In contact, the fewer people needed to win a tackle contest, the more people we have for the next phase.
  • Alignment considered – we need more than one ‘layer’ to ensure we can be proactive, but also reactive (i.e. a strike runner can have a go at space, but if the timing is off or the defence adjusts, we need a ‘back door’ outlet to keep the play alive and not resort to something that’ll lead to slow ball). This means more than getting into good positions. It also means that players have to consider their actions. The two most common: forwards jogging to rucks that are already won to stand beside it doing nothing; backs who run up flat when the play has been halted much further inward to then have to back pedal into a good position to receive the ball on the next phase. To maintain a good tempo with sufficient numbers, players need to be efficient in their alignment (it also saves them from wasting energy where they’re not needed). They should also begin to recognise when the defence is on the back foot (allowing us to play flatter and have a quick go at the line) or on the front foot (maybe forcing us to have a plan to cope with defenders ready to pounce).
  • Ball movement – more than just quality and accuracy, timing of the pass is vital to the success of a move. An early pass gives someone else in a better position the time and space to use it. A late pass should be putting someone into a gap. A pass too early, without threatening the defence, can simply allow defenders to push across and cut off our options. A pass too late can be forward, at the wrong target, too hard or otherwise useless. Two quick passes can get us into more space in a hurry. A dummy pass can get us through a gap in that ‘black hole’ area behind a ruck.
  • Thoughtful running lines – straight running fixes defenders in place and preserves space for team mates. Sharp and sudden changes of angle can exploit space and the ‘soft shoulder’ of the next defender in line. Running too early can get you ahead of the play; too late invites the defence to take space away. Remember that a line can be a great decoy, so make sure not to ‘demand’ the ball when you’ve drawn the attention of two or more defenders. Passers also need to consider this and select a better target.
  • Strategic considerations – What’s the score? What part of the field are we in? What are the conditions like? Can we get enough support there? Can they cover kicks? Are they better/worse than us at the scrum or lineouts? Is it wise to have a shot at goal or rely on quick taps? Do we need to get the ball into the hands of our key players more or make a better effort to stay away from a certain player / unit in their team?  … these are all strategic considerations that can enhance or ruin our chances of scoring.
  • Focused roles – more than our individual strengths, consider your best role in attack. Are you a play maker who sees opportunities and passes well off both hands? A power runner who can make holes and drag several defenders in? A speedster who can burn defenders with pace and/or step around them? A strike runner who has a well-timed crack at space in the line? Or an equally-vital support specialist who does more than ‘hit rucks’, recognising when others are about to break the line, getting into good positions to call for and receive a pass?   (Maybe a combo of more than one!)

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