Posts Tagged ‘catching’

June is a great month for rugby, with the Northern Hemisphere big-wigs on tour and most other nations taking part in international matches. With our season over, I’ve had a lot of free time to watch plenty of these encounters. The football World Cup is also in full swing and watching both has reminded me of a phrase that gets tossed about a lot by players and coaches in both codes: “We’ve just got to do the basics well.” Often, this refers to passing and in both sports I’ve been both impressed and disappointed by the quality of passing on show.

I won’t talk too much about football, but will say that even the masters of the simple short passing game – the Spanish – looked ‘casual’ at times, as have many other nations, giving up the ball in crucial situations due to lack of focus. I don’t know football as well as I do rugby, but I wonder if an expert would say that the passing there could be more accurate? I know this is certainly the case for rugby, with many passes going straight to the receiver – or worse, toward the head, shoulder, hip or any other spot that isn’t quite ideal. “Straight to the receiver?” you ask. “Isn’t that what I want?” No, not necessarily. If the receiver is static – waiting to kick the ball or maybe standing flat to make an immediate transfer, a pass directly to the receiver’s hands is probably ideal. The rest of the time, however, the passer needs to aim for a spot that’s in front of the receiver’s hands.

I shouldn’t even have to mention that receivers should always have hands out where they want the ball, yet often see ‘receivers’ not giving a target, practically ‘asking’ the passer to put the ball anywhere from above the head to knees. I’d love to commission a study on it, but am willing to bet that pass accuracy increases when hands are up and stretched out to meet the ball. I also think passers have to focus not so much on the receiver, but keep him/her in the peripheral and really focus on a spot just in front of the outstretched hands.  In the photo below, I’d be willing to bet that one or the other hasn’t happened – either the receivers hands were down before the ball was passed or the passer didn’t focus on putting the ball in front so the receiver’s had to adjust. Either way, he’s taking this ball low and has probably had to slow down to catch it. Neither are ideal where the aim should be either to keep moving forward at pace or transfer the ball quickly.

In “getting the basics right”, one can focus on passing quality in training by reminding players to have their hands up and for passers to put the ball in front of the hands, leading the receiver. I think that a pass that’s a tad ‘too far’ in front encourages the receiver to run faster onto a ball. I’ve seen players take such passes and rip through defences either because they sped through a gap or were able to catch and act so quickly that defenders didn’t have time to adjust. Conversely, the body language of someone who’s been given a bad pass tends to do the opposite, empowering defenders to pounce upon the vulnerable receiver who’s lost the initiative. Here is a pass where the receiver’s hands are up and the ball appears to be sufficiently in front such that he won’t have to slow down. I like a pass to be just about shoulder height, making sure I can receive the pass at a level where I can still keep the opposition in my field of view.


Here’s another photo showing how a well-timed pass makes the play possible. If the ball is being aimed at the outer receiver, it’s going for his shoulder and he’s going to get caught in contact. Instead, it’s a hanging pop pass for the inside receiver who is able to run onto the ball and slide behind the defender on the left side of the picture (for a try, if memory serves!).

Too often, I feel, coaches focus on players’ “accuracy” but not specifically enough on “quality” (i.e. happy if they catch, but not focused on where, exactly, the ball is aimed) in unopposed drills where the consequences of poor quality aren’t so apparent. If they’ve had to hop, reach down, reach back, or stutter step to receive a pass cleanly, this isn’t as accurate as the pass should be. This “accuracy” is immediately reduced when pressure is on and a receiver’s ability to act is reduced as a result of a less-than-ideal pass, so why not spend more time practicing passing under game-like pressure situations?

These can be small-sided, challenging games where as many reps can be achieved but require athletes to focus and be accurate or fail. One that I often use requires four groups of players to cross a reasonably-sized square at the same time, completing a full set of passes before reaching the other side of the square. Each group takes up a side and leaves at about the same time, crisscrossing continuously for set amount of time. The pressure of avoiding a collision or holding/making a pass amongst traffic not only increases focus, but I’ve found also increases accuracy. It sounds silly to say – and maybe it speaks more to how my guys prefer a challenge – but I’ve seen greater accuracy in this sort of game than when players do unopposed passing lines jogging down the length of the pitch. One of the club’s junior coaches has started using it and marvels at how well his boys perform, wanting to keep going beyond the set time, determined not to drop a ball.

As with all of my exercises, I outline the criteria for success at the onset and don’t harp on mistakes. Players should know what to focus on and my voice celebrates their specific successes, allowing players to fine-tune their movement memory: “Perfect follow-through, Matt! Hands pointed to the space in front of Joe’s hands. Well done!”  I avoid negative and unspecific comments, and only add technical advice when it’s obvious they’re missing something: “Turn your shoulders, Matt. Square to the target.” Instead of fussing over how ‘perfect’ a pass looks, I’m instead mostly focused on the quality of the pass – in front of the hands, quickly transferred with no hang time or arc (i.e. quickest possible path), and well-timed such that defenders haven’t time to adjust.

I think I’m justified in not worrying about how tight a spiral is or a push pass floating without a wobble when I watch the All Blacks.  They’re the heralded masters of passing in rugby, showing time and time again over this undefeated year-and-a-half they’ve enjoyed that a well placed pass is all that’s needed to be successful.  In their most recent game against England, you wouldn’t call many of these ‘perfect’ technique, but all (apart from the ‘bounce pass’ to Savea) were well timed and well-placed, putting the receiver either in an ideal spot to move it on or to ensure he could maintain his pace toward the try line.

When scoring is the ultimate goal, and especially for junior players who are still developing, let’s focus more on the outcome and not get too nit-picky about supposed “ideal” details that might only frustrate or confuse players as they’re coming to terms with skill acquisition.

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I examined the specifics of what I think is good, and not so good, about offloading from contact in a previous post, so won’t go into to much detail here on the finer points.  While watching Toulouse v Ospreys yesterday I saw a fantastic offload by French no. 8 Louis Picamoles to Census Johnston resulting in probably the easiest try the massive Samoan has ever scored.

Here’s the clip:

1. Play starts from a lineout in a game where Toulouse pretty much had forward dominance.  As is a common move with teams these days who have a strong pack, Toulouse make a few attempts to exert their dominance.  They start with a catch and drive and use their one re-start opportunity to get the ball to the hooker at the back, then restarting their shove.  As things break down, the hooker breaks off and has a go.  Some might elect to start another maul for an classic pushover, but Tolofua is a massive lad and decides to have a go.  Ospreys defence are up to the task and stop him short of the line.

2. The scrum half, Burgess, moves the ball wide to another powerful runner (they have a few!) Jean Bouilhou.  The width here is key as teams are always more likely to stack their defenders tightly around the fringes of the ruck, and in three-point stances to be able to stop the low pick and drives (see Sona Taumalolo).  Playing to a forward in the wide channels makes it more likely that he’ll be facing a significantly smaller back.  Bouilhou misses an opportunity to do what Picamoles does in a few seconds later if you stop at about 0:15-0:16 in the video.  He has just two defenders in front of him and a team mate.  He cuts back inside, not backing his power and though his team does set up a ruck and retains possession, I’d argue that he could have set up a score in one of two ways.

Simply, he could have attacked the gap between the two defenders, effectively drawing the outer one and passed before contact to the waiting player (possibly the fly half).  That close to the line, it’s incredibly hard to stop anyone who gets low enough, and if it’s Dossain, he’s a powerful player who’d be hard to stop.  In addition, at 0:16 you can see that the man who’d be responsible for defending the potential receiver isn’t squarely aligned with him.  By being a metre or so on his inside, it’d be very hard to effect anything but a side-on tackle, giving the receiver the chance to reach for the line with forward momentum or twist around to score.  Defending players within 5m of the goal line is best done when square-on with the ball carrier, and often higher than I’d usually advocate for a ‘perfect’ tackle, so the defender can: A. Stop his forward momentum, and B. Wrap arms to prevent the offload.

The second way Bouilhou might have set up a try for Dossain is performed by Louis Picamoles on the next phase.

3. With the ball bought into contact, we can see the eventual try scorer Johnston parked a significant distance away from the ruck in the lower right part of the screen at about 0:20.  He’s a big man and a quick, flat pass for him to run onto might see him charge over the line.  But as we see Louis Picamoles creep into a closer position at 0:22 we can see that Ospreys defence are already in low positions and that there are four of them on that short side.  Passing only to Johnston, who looks to be standing too high and who probably wouldn’t be charging onto the ball (I’ve seen him play a lot and this is often true with him), might see him smothered by any number of those four waiting defenders.

4. Burgess passes to Picamoles who immediately makes a dart for the space – not any one of the waiting defenders and certainly not square on.  By doing this he forces those present into the side-on / legs tackle which, as noted above, is not idea to stop any player – let alone someone of Picamoles’ bulk – this close to the goal line.  If you stop at 0:25, you will note that he’s managed to drag the defending forward, as well as drag in both the defending scrum half and winger.

5. For many players, this would be the end of the move.  Take the charge with the proverbial ‘blinkers’ on, unaware of where support is, lay the ball back and set up another ruck.  Johnston would have to come in to secure the ball and Ospreys would probably try to slow it down and buy time to re-align their defence as they had so ably on the last phases.  Instead, whether by presence of mind or by Johnston’s call – or both – Picamoles reaches his big hand around the back of the winger and delivers a soft offload to a waiting Johnston who only has to flop over to score.

6. Players with big hands, like Sonny Bill Williams, are often seen making such spectacular offloads because they can palm the ball and force it in virtually any direction.  I suspect Picamoles might be just such a player, but on the reverse angle we can see that he’s cradling the ball between his hand and forearm – which even high school girls I’ve coached can manage.  He delicately slides a pop pass to Johnson, who also demonstrates great technique in having both hands up and offering a target.

Picamoles takes out three defenders to offload to Johnston

When I teach this sort of thing to my players, I focus on a few key things that address both going into contact properly as well as thinking about what happens next.  First off, I stress that I ALWAYS want players to dominate the contact area such that they can play the ball as they wish.  NEVER do I want them to simply ‘run into the trunk of the tree’, which gives the defender(s) the advantage.  So, we address the following:

  • Move toward defender’s centre line to ‘fix’ him / her in place
  • Suddenly move away and attack the space (or ‘branches of the tree’ – i.e. arms – if space isn’t big enough to run into)
  • Maintain a powerful running line that preserves space for support players (i.e. running a sharp angle draws in the outer defender and allows the carrier forward momentum; running flat, sideways angle has little to no forward momentum and allows defenders a chance at an easy tackle)
  • Keep the body height low so one is hard to stop, but not so low that one will topple forward if dragged down
  • Keep in mind where supporting players were – is there a chance for an offload should you draw in another defender?  Where would that offload best be made – flat to the side or slightly behind?  [Support players MUST be communicating this, as most ball carriers won’t be able to see where they are / are coming from once in contact… and as with the previous article on offloading, popping the ball to a defender who’s even a metre or more back is counter-productive.  The receiver MUST be at or challenging the gain line!]
  • Keep a solid grip on the ball, and keep arm(s) free on the way down – an added bonus of teaching players to be confident in contact and to fall on their sides.
  • LISTEN and LOOK for the opportunity to make the offload.  Nothing makes me more angry watching games where players offload to unready receivers or to no one in particular.  Offloads are great, but I always stress IF IT’S NOT TRULY ‘ON’ THEN A RUCK IS BETTER, and that includes the offload to a player who’s deep as you’re more likely to set them up to be tackled well behind the ground you just gained.

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[Diagrams and further discussion to follow… ]

Flat Pass

A pass best made in front of the runner as he/she is about to meet the defensive line.  It is best employed when the receiver is running powerfully toward space / a gap in the line.  Especially useful in the hands of player with great power.

… advantages:

  • Receiver closer to gain line
  • Puts receiver into a gap (if proper running line is chosen)
  • Defenders have little time to react to it

… disadvantages:

  • Defenders closer to passer and receiver
  • Delay and runner runs past or has to reach back / slow down to receive
  • More difficult pass to receive
  • Long, flat passes run the risk of interception
  • Limited chances to pass on if contact occurs, at best, an offload from contact if support is close at hand

Deep Pass

A pass best made in front of a receiver who is a reasonable distance back from the defensive line.  It is best used early from the passer to maintain the gap between receiver and defender(s), to provide the receiver with more space and time to scan / create opportunities.  Especially useful in the hands of a player with great quickness.

… advantages:

  • Gives receiver more time to make a decision
  • Gives receiver more room to use evasive footwork
  • Usually easier to receive
  • Can cause individual defender to ‘panic rush’ out of line, creating opportunities for other attacking players to run off the receiver

… disadvantages:

  • Delayed / slow / arcing pass provides more time for defenders to close down space, and catch receiver well behind gain line and possibly support
  • Delivered to receiver not ready / not quicker or more powerful than defender can also result in a loss in territory or possession
  • Receiver must be someone who can effectively use the space that’s available

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Over my 13 years of coaching rugby I’ve had quite a few moments when I felt like the cartoon character that yelled ‘Eureka!’ and would have a tiny light bulb form above his head.  Some of these might seem quite simple, but bearing in mind I started coaching after just two years of playing, my coaching path has largely been one of self discovery.

Here they are:

1. Watching the Ball – Very early in my career, I realised I could bring stuff from other sports – and have never stopped, should I hear / see something I think I can bring to the rugby pitch.  I was never more than a blocker in football, but I remembered my coach telling the receivers to ‘catch with their eyes’ – meaning, keep your eyes on the ball until it’s secure in their hands.  It’s exactly the same on the rugby field.  When you see a player on tv dropping the ball in the open field, it’s almost guaranteed that his eyes were elsewhere before he secured the ball.

2. Thinking About the Target – My passing got a lot better when it was stated one should think about the target before the pass is made, focusing on that spot during the follow-through.  When I became a Touch player, and got to handle the ball more often, my passing improved – leading the receiver, rather than putting it right to him – as I thought about and focused on where he’d want it.  In addition, making that flick pass in heavy traffic is actually quite easy when one has an end-point for the follow-through in mind even while the ball is in flight!

3. Visualisation – Building on the last point, my goal kicking improved after reading an article by kicking guru Dave Alred, who talked a lot about visualisation.  I’ve since learned this is key to any closed skill – and explained why ski aerialists always did those funny arm swings – as there are things that require not only extreme focus, but sometimes can’t be seen if you’re to perform the skill correctly (i.e. keeping the head down well after the ball has left the tee ensures the body follows through the kick; leaning back to watch the ball fly takes the momentum out of it).

4. Flat, ‘Attacking’ Defence – when I first started playing, I don’t think there was as much focus on a ‘flat line’ defence as there was in the 2000s, after the Wallabies won RWC 1999 with rugby league defensive structures.  The flat line, ‘attacking’ aggressively closes down the space in front of the attacking team and provides them no obvious gaps.  Simple, but effective.

5. Economy of Effort – today I was reminded of lessons learned from heavy defeats suffered as a player, one coming during a 70-or-so to not-much loss to a touring Welsh side.  They continually had several players extra out wide and even then I realised we were committing way too many players to the break down.  If the few who got their first worked their butt off, or declared the contest lost, the rest could take up defensive positions elsewhere.  It’s a tough concept to get across sometimes, but to some players who feel they need to contribute, I say, “Be lazy!  Don’t go to every break down.”  I stress more clearly, though, that you have to have trust that the first few people there will do the work needed of them and that we need to have more players on our feet than they do so we can outnumber them on defence – and try and get the ball back in the next tackle contest.  Defence can be very tiring if players do not conserve their efforts for the winnable battles!

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As someone who’s always trying to perfect his craft, I try and keep abreast of what’s going on and what’s being said in the rugby world.  One great resource where some clever discussion always takes place is the Australian Green and Gold Rugby blog.  They’ve got so big in recent years, that they’ve latched onto some really high profile contributors, one of whom is former Wallabies head coach Bob Dwyer.  Now quite often I think his posts are a bit too … ‘ranty’ … for my tastes, and his recent one is no exception, but I really do think he hammers home an important point about ‘basic skills.’  In it, he essentially states that there is room for every team at every level to dedicate time in every practice to reinforcing basic skills.

He starts by saying how many pre-game and half-time team talks focus on the elimination of mistakes, which on the surface is far too negative an approach in dealing with what should be a very simple problem.  I take issue with this approach as well, especially after having read great books like Rugby Tough, which focuses on rugby-specific mental training.  If one only focuses on the negative aspects of how a situation or skill is being performed, one will approach the next occurrence with the previous poor performance and / or the negative reaction by coach / captain / team mates / self and be just as likely to mess it up again.  Dwyer simply and positively declares that such situations should be addressed not by previous results, but by stressing the proper execution of technique(s) which will allow the player(s) to realise success.  Instead of saying, “We have to stop dropping the ball!” the positive, technical focus should be: “Focus on keeping your hands up and toward the passer to give him a target; Passer focus on the target, following through with the hands.”

The problem, as Dwyer outlines, is two-fold and quite simple, though he rants about it over a few paragraphs in the aforementioned blog post.  Coaches must make time to include basic skills at every training session, and they need to be knowledgeable about all elements which contribute to the successful performance of a skill (and I’d say ones which contribute to poor performance as well).  These days we often here about teams having specialist coaches galore, and even ‘skills’ coaches whose sole job is to work on such things.  For most of us, who coach schools and amateur clubs, that’s not possible, but with a bit of research one can learn everything they know.  I have a massive collection of links above which is a great starting point – especially the Australian and New Zealand-based sites.  Is it any wonder they’re masters of world rugby!?!?  … I’ve actually read complaints in recent years that even in places like England one can find players making the national U20 squad, which one the 6 Nations this year, who lack expertise in some basic skills.

I feel a good coach at any level – and especially the lower levels – should have a firm grasp of how to perform successfully a FULL range of rugby skills.  I knew this from my early days, having been a front row forward who was in sole charge of teams full of talented teenage boys.  I thought: “How can I be the best coach I can be to these boys if I can’t help the backs become better at their craft?”  So I took it upon myself to learn how to do spin passes from the ground, box kicks, kicks for goal, etc. properly and also looked at what caused them to be performed improperly so I could help each position from 1-15 do what they needed to do to the best of their ability.

Now training time is limited and we often want to focus on team play as much as possible, so where do we squeeze in time for personal skills.  With my teams, I stress that instead of mucking about in that half hour before training in which people tend to waste time chit chatting or do things that aren’t quite necessary for their position (and bear in mind, this is coming from a prop who used to kick goals and take kicks for touch, but who practised those skills on his own time).  This can be the best time for players in the same unit to get together and work on those basic skills – both unopposed AND under pressure – which are important to their positions.  But there is also room to work on basic skills in training, and I think they should be implemented as much as possible – the trick is in planning and timing.  I feel that if one can plan a training session down to the minute (being reasonably flexible), one can add 1-2 minutes of basic skills as a warm-up to the unit or team drill.  For example, before running a 3 v 2 drill, have the players work on simple catch and pass lines with proper alignment, body shape, hands up and out, passing the ball out in front with some zip, etc. at a high pace for even just two or three cycles.  This not only provides a chance for the players to hone technique, but also serve the purpose of re-enforcing these important elements before employing them in higher pressure situations.  For those who still don’t think there’s enough time, think about how often those drills get screwed up because of poor focus and technique, and how much time that wastes – especially if the coach decides to take a minute and rant about why things are going wrong halfway through!

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When I first started playing rugby in the late 90s the ‘offload’ as a tactical concept wasn’t really common (as far as I can remember).  In just a few years, however, offloading the ball from contact seemed to be all the rage and we all spent quite a bit of time working on taking the tackle and popping the ball off to support.  I think training this is a great way to fulfill one of the key concepts of rugby – going forward – as the play doesn’t ‘die’ at the ruck.  The other benefit is that by avoiding a static tackle contest (full tackle / ruck / maul), the attacking team is faced with an unprepared / disorganised defence and should have an easier time getting past them.  Offloads can be used in several ways:

  • To buy time – picture a somewhat isolated player getting scythed down in a quick tackle, in danger of being jackaled or having a second defender poach the ball.  One team mate is about to arrive, but so are several defending players.  By popping the ball up to this lone supporting player, he might find himself being tackled by this late-arriving group, but those few seconds extra could provide enough time for more team mates to arrive and secure the ball in a ruck – a much better outcome than a turnover from the initial tackle.
  • To get around the defence – in close quarters contact, especially in what we call ‘slow ball’ where the defensive line is organised and waiting, it’s not absolutely essential to get through them.  In such situations, it’s increasingly common these days to find more defenders standing than attackers (a planned strategy I will discuss later) and launching a wide attack could prove risky.  Two players can disrupt the defence as one attacks a gap, drawing two defenders, and offloading to another.  Even if the receiver doesn’t get through the ensuing tackle and ruck is likely to ensue a metre in front of the previous one, forcing the entire defensive line to squeeze and adjust to the breach.  Getting around them, even just as much as a metre, can be enough to disrupt their organisation.  Quick ball from this phase should allow a wide attack to be more successful.
  • To get by the defence – the ultimate goal of an offload is to keep the attack going forward, and while a draw-and-pass situation where the passer remains in the play is ideal, taking a defender out of the play by offloading form a tackle is the next best thing.  In a two-on-one situation – the easiest way to exploit space in rugby, which can take place in even the most limited amount of space – an offload from contact is an efficient way of ensuring go-forward with one less defender to worry about.

The essential elements required to make an effective offload are more about communication and awareness than technique.  Technically speaking, the pass can be made in many ways – with one or two hands, while standing, falling, or on the ground, and always with a soft vertical ‘pop’ to ensure the supporting player can run onto it.  The receiver must be moving forward, preferably fast and powerfully, and take the ball very close to the gain line.  But execution requires more than just fine technique.  The ball carrier and supporting player(s) need to be aware of space created in contact, with a defender removed from the line in the act of tackling.  The best offloads are not so much about the passer finding the receiver, but the receiver finding the passer.  As the tackle is made, a tactically aware receiver will suddenly move inward to take a short pass in the space left open by the defender making the tackle.  In order to make this more efficient, the supporting player needs to communicate not only that he/she is present but also which direction he/she is coming from and at which exact point the pass needs to be made.  In some situations – namely very tight ones – I will even tell the ball carrier to go into contact so that we can set up the offload.  In all, I will say:  “On your [right/left]” to allow them to take the tackle in the right way, and “Pop … NOW!” to let them know what kind of pass I want and when.  Too late in your communication, and you’ll get less than satisfactory technique – if a pass at all.  Ball carriers have too much to think about to be able to plan this most of the time, and they certainly can’t read your mind … no matter how much players appear to attempt telepathy!  Note the potential ease and difficulty of making a successful offload in the following two photographs.  In the first, the Australian lock is turned away from his support and would have to make a trickier pass – if he even got one off at all.  In the second photo, we see a perfect example of a supporting player coming to meet the offload while calling for a timely pass.

Nathan Sharpe is hoping someone will take the offload, though it looks like his best options are on the other side.

Two Tuggeranong players are in perfect positions to accept an offload, and are calling for the pass. The carrier is in a perfect position to oblige.

I think offloads are a great way to deal with tight space, and somewhat reservedly, when players do not have the best timing to create perfect 2 v 1 situations where both attackers remain on their feet.  However, I see many teams at all levels affect the offload too frequently.  The whole purpose of the tactic is to ensure we are moving forward with the ball, yet all too often I see players ‘chuck away’ the ball in contact to a player who is standing still or a few metres behind the play, getting tackled there rather than getting beyond the point of the pass.  At the very least, the team loses ground.  Worse, they are tackled under pressure and risk losing possession.  And even worse, someone gets hurt as a result of such an unexpected ‘hospital’ pass.  This is often the fault of the ball carrier initiating the offload to an unexpecting supporting player – hence the NEED for the support player, who should have a better vision and sense of the potential for a successful offload, to be the one calling for it.  When an offload is carelessly thrown away, as highlighted in the Micky Young video below, a clever defender can step in and intercept the poorly executed offload.

The crucial thing all players must realise is that because no tackle occurs in an offload situation, no offside line is created, and so defenders can steal the ball even while coming from behind.  This happens a lot when the attacker ‘chucks away’ the ball in a panic, when he/she really should have taken the tackle and set up a ruck, which forces all the defenders to come around to get onside.  Even when the offload finds a receiver, having that person under pressure from defenders is less effective than sending two players into a ruck and moving the ball away from that point quickly while defenders are scrambling to get onside and organised.  Below are several examples of good offloads – while falling and from the ground, including both solo and multiple offload efforts.

Finally, there are (at least!) three examples of poor offloads in this video.  See if you can spot them all!  I’d love to hear your comments on why they were poor and/or how they might have been better.

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I said I’d revisit this when I found a good one, psychologically or tactically efficient, and England ended up winning the ball after this safe and legal hit by Josh Lewsey on Mat Rogers in 2002 or 2003.  Hit just below the rib cage, knocking the wind out of him – but not injuring, as he got up and played on – and dislodged the ball forward, which eventually won them the scrum.  (I think the ref stopped the game to ensure Rogers wasn’t dead.  😉 )

If I were to give Rogers a tip, it would be to better use his peripheral vision to see the tackler’s rush coming and to try and take the ball giving a ‘hard side’ – that is, turning his body while taking the ball to absorb the hit.  Not being so flat would have ensured he took the ball deep enough to have time to react to Lewsey’s rush.  Sometimes, though, the timing of the defender is just too good!

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I have never been the most confident ‘under the high ball,’ as they say.  In my playing days as a front rower, I was thankful that kicks were rarely put to where I was likely to be, and that drop kick re-starts which come right to you are fairly easy to handle (even easier when the lock standing beside you calls it!).  But during ‘The Kicking Game’ at training – a game I love, I must say – I was prone to dropping a few easy ones, and arguably with less pressure.  Now it’d be easy to say that it was a testament to how I dealt with the pressures of the game – being in ‘the zone’, etc. – more so than in the often casual realm of training, but I think there’s more to it than that.

Coaches tell you catching a ball ‘on the full’ (i.e. out of the air, without touching the ground) is ideal practice, but I think it’s important to stress why this is so before we move on.  As simple as these reasons are, they’re important to state so that we can focus on catching cleanly to prevent potential disaster.  The very shape of the ball means that its bounce is unpredictable at best.  The few seconds, at least, needed to regather it eliminates the potential for a timely counter attack.  Even worse, it could roll in such a way that the opposition regains possession or put you in a position where their chasers can isolate you.

How should one go about catching the ball with confidence then?  I’ll add a list of technical points at the bottom, but I think one key element is the cause of many people’s problems with catching.  My former high school football (gridiron) coach once told me: “You catch with your eyes first.”  My over-active teenage imagination thought about the scene from Necessary Roughness (1991) when the receiver gets the ball stuck in his facemask… but then it made sense – if you don’t watch the ball, how can you expect to catch it?  Sounds simple enough, but anyone who watched the  All Blacks drop a shocking amount of kicks versus the Springboks in the summer (winter for the antipodes) knows that even international quality backs forget to do this at times.

The next time you watch a game, note where a receiver’s eyes are directed when he / she drops a pass or a kick.  Very, very often it’s not a case of inability, but that the player’s head is up looking at / thinking of what’s next – or even with their eyes closed!  The best ever tip I read to help maintain focus and attention comes second-hand from Dan Cottrell’s excellent coaching site where he suggests a receiver should try and read the brand name on the ball.  (If you’re still not focusing hard enough because you know the brand name, maybe try reading where it was made or to what PSI to which it should be inflated!)

I think the two key stages in catching the ball occur at what I call the ‘tracking phase’ and the ‘transition phase’.  In the first part, you have to get a sense of where the ball is going to land.  Ideally, you’ll get right under this point, but as this is where I tend to screw up, I have started to ‘err’ on getting a bit ahead of where I ‘think’ it’ll land.  I’ve rationalised that I’d rather overestimate this spot and edge back a bit with the flight of the ball if I have to, rather than underestimate where it’ll land and have to scramble forward at the last split-second, risking a knock on.  If I’m going to drop it, I want to drop it backwards and still have a chance at using possession.  In this phase it’s not only important to keep your eyes on the ball to track its flight, but also to remain on the balls of your feet so you can make little adjustments if need be to ensure you’re right under where the ball will land.  In addition, turning your body sideways puts you in a stronger position should a defender be there as you catch and with your leading arm up slightly its also a position which will force any drops backward rather than forward.

The ‘transition phase’ is possibly where most people have problems when catching kicks.  The actual ‘transition’ is time in which it takes your eyes to move from a point where it’s looking high up in the air to where they’re looking at the ball in your hands.  I’d love for a mathematician to tell me how short this actually is, but let’s just say it’s a fraction of a second.  Attempting to maintain eye contact with the ball during this period is incredibly important.  Aussie Rules coaches eliminate this step altogether by instructing players to catch above their heads with arms extended, and this concept has crept into rugby.  I’m wary of teaching it to players, though, at the risk of exposing their torso to a painful tackle.  (Though lineout jumpers and supported kickoff receivers might benefit from this, and the ‘w-hands’ technique they preach.)  Quickly moving the head downward in this phase is not impossible, but takes discipline.

What can make watching a ball into your hands easier is having team mates communicate important information to you – information which you might be considering when also attempting to concentrate on the high ball.  Having a supporting player say how much time you have, tell you to jump to prevent being tackled (remember: cannot hit someone jumping to catch a kick!), giving you an idea of what move you could make next, or even just saying they’re there to support you, can allow you to relax on those other issues and focus solely on keeping your eyes on the ball.

Some other tips, borrowed from Dan Cottrell’s site:

Tips for core catching skills

It is important to get hold of the ball in a way so that it can be manipulated quickly for the next action by the player, be it contact, offloading, passing or receiving a pass to then kick for touch. These simple tips can help you identify problems and develop drills:

* Keep your eyes on the ball all the time.

* Extend your arms, hands and fingers to receive the ball.

* Use both hands to catch the ball whenever possible.

* Keep the ball off or away from the chest when receiving it. Only bring it to the chest if taking contact.

* Do not expect the ball to go straight to hand. Be flexible enough to adjust (which follows the principle of keeping your eyes on the ball).  Turning sideways (and jumping with front knee up?) can put you in a stronger position to recieve.

* Be prepared to receive a pass at any time. The ball has a nasty habit of leaping around, especially in close quarter situations.

* Take some of the force off the ball by ‘recoiling’ slightly – bend at the knees and/or waist.

Making catching skills even better

* Practise drills where players catch with one hand.

* Practise catching bad passes.

* Practise at pace, under pressure and in all conditions.

Finally, have a look at this video to see some examples of sound catching ability.

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