Posts Tagged ‘footwork’

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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Some colleagues and I were fortunate enough to have our school pick up the tab to venture to Toronto last night to see former All Blacks coach and recent World Cup winner Graham Henry.

His session was primarily focused on defence, and I can’t say that I learned anything new, but it did feel good to have some of the things I have been teaching (which I learned from the Aussies when coaching down there, to give credit where due) for years affirmed by the lessons he taught.

In particular, he talked about developing a defensive philosophy based upon principles (pressure the opposition, force errors) and achievable, measurable objectives (controlling the gain line, win the contact area; All Blacks aiming for a 90% success rate for tackles).  The defence drills demonstrated didn’t even focus so much on the tackle as they did the little elements that lead up to it: sighting the target shoulder bumping, 1 v 1 tracking and footwork into contact, communication and organisation at the break down… only then getting into actual tackle situations.

Two of the key elements which he kept coming back to were foot placement and body shape.  The closer the lead foot gets to the ball carrier, the easier it is for the tackler to put in a shoulder hit and drive through contact.  (Too far away and the defender is limited to a weaker, less assured ‘arms-only’ tackle.)  He also continued to stress that defenders should have their arms in close and down at their sides – much like Olympic wrestlers – so they can maintain balance into contact, stay dynamic in their approach and be able to adjust to ball carrier sudden movements, and to be able to focus all of their power into dominating the tackle itself (arms out, he said, being less powerful and less stable, making a defender more likely to stand flat footed and get beat).

He also stressed – if possible – to have your games videoed and to spend time analysing your own team.  He kind of threw it out there as a luxury it’d be nice to have, but I’d add that for most of us – if not all – it’s difficult to take a genuine critical look at our teams while the game’s in progress.  I’ve been doing this for years so that I and my fellow coaches can go into future training sessions with a keen sense of what needs to be reinforced and improved upon, rather than relying on memory, highlights / lowlights spurned by emotion, and being able to examine / re-examine things we didn’t even notice!

Over-all, I’d say the message I took away from his defence session and the Q & A round that followed was that even at the top end, there is still a focus on doing the basic things very well.  He even stated that certain players he’s coached recently (and name-dropped one) weren’t actually that good at certain things – such as making proper tackles.  The Q & A session annoyed me a bit – and possibly Henry as well – as quite a few questions were best answered by the persons who asked them.  Henry even hinted as much, kindly trying to answer them, but also throwing the question back to the coach saying that they had to trust their instincts and do what’s right for their particular team. I’ll admit that I might have asked such questions in my early days as a coach, too, but I think even a beginning coach has to trust his or her own instincts and rationale.  I hope those people return to their teams with a greater belief in their abilities and adopt / develop what’s best for their team, not simply copying what they see others do.  He’d actually started the evening by saying as much – that what he was about to discuss were things that worked for him at his level, but that it might not necessarily apply to us.  The key thing for a thoughtful coach attending such clinics is to think realistically and pick and choose what will work for his/her particular level of athletes.

For me, it was that element which made the trip a rewarding one.  Despite not seeing anything new, I was able to take another step in my development as a coach in thinking about the importance I give to certain skills at training.  Seeing the importance Henry placed on tracking prior to contact, before even doing tackling drills, made me think that I need to focus on this more.  I noted that I should expand upon and stress to my boys my feeling that the lion’s share of defensive work is everything that builds up to the tackle, with the actual contact aspect being easier if all the prep work has been done well.

The other rewarding element was that I was able to spend about 15 hours on the drive up and back, at the session itself, and at the pub afterwards talking with my colleagues – from my own school and with others – about our philosophies and ideas.  It’s this sort of sharing of ideas that is almost non-existent here in Canada, and if I were completely honest, I didn’t see many people chatting outside of their groups of friends (ourselves included).  While an opportunity existed, I would also say there was a missed opportunity to foster a greater degree of collegiality by the organisers.  They might have forced us to have little breakout discussion sessions to be able to share our thoughts on Henry’s lessons, how we’d do things, and to learn from each other instead of hoarding our ‘tool box’ to protect our chances of winning whatever (frankly, irrelevant in the grand scheme of things) local titles we’re shooting for.

Maybe it’s something I should set up in my area, though I think this blog is a good start!

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As a visual learner, I’ve always been interested in watching sport and trying new things (as a player) and adding to my knowledge (as a coach) from what I saw on the telly in addition to enjoying the spectacle.  The wonders of the Inter Web have allowed me to expand upon this as I can watch way more sport than I can with even the best cable packages.  Video clips on YouTube are an important learning tool for me as rugby’s a sport that does continue to evolve, both in the way athletes play the game and how coaches direct it.  There isn’t a lot of great coaching material that gets published – compared to my first sports, American football and basketball anyway – and even tv analysis leaves me scratching my head at times as presenters can be full of hot air.  So analysing video myself, looking at cause and effect over and over via the slide bar and watch again button, allow me to pick apart the action myself.

I don’t think it’s a difficult skill to acquire and I’ve proved this by running a classroom session with a high school girls’ team.  I asked them to get into groups based upon unit (front row, second row, back row, half backs, centres, back three) and find a try they liked.  I then asked them to show it to the whole team via the big screen in our computer lab and explain what elements led to the try being scored.  This was the first time I did something like this, previously walking through video clips by myself, and was fully prepared for it to fail.  I tried to boost confidence, esp. with the front rowers who said they just make tackles and ruck and have no idea how tries are created, with a little ‘coaching’.  I said to them that every action on the field should have a reaction from the defence.  If the defence reacts well, then the attack is probably going to be shut down.  If not, the attackers should get through – unless the attackers themselves have botched it somehow.  Little technical and tactical things that we can see – like not being aligned properly, looking up before securing the ball, poor communication leading to two players going after the same ball carrier leaving an attacker free, etc. – are really how tries are scored or not.  These subtleties might not be so obvious when watching a game on tv (not to mention live!) as the action is so quick, angles not ideal, and because there are so many players on the field.  (One reason I’m not such a fan of sevens is that mistakes are more likely and obvious given the extra space, whereas in fifteens attack and defence is more nuanced.)

There are plenty of great accounts on YouTube – with legal uploads too! – that you can observe and analyse to develop your knowledge of the game and to give you an idea of what to work on at practice.  Kids love this stuff as well, and especially for those of us in countries where televised rugby is hard to watch, sending them here is not only a way of getting them more excited about the game, but also to learn what Clive Woodward called the ‘critical non-essentials’ of the game that are hard to train for – like quick lineouts, dummy passes, quick tap penalties, etc.

Let’s look at the Aviva Premiership’s Try of the Week for round one of the new season.

The try scored by Christian Wade is so much more than just his amazing step and speed.

LESSON 1 – Attacking with purpose:  As the announcer says, Quins were probing in attack but Wasps’ aggressive defence stopped them.  Fly half Nick Evans runs sideways allowing centre Eliot Daly to take him down quickly in the tackle.  Running sideways isn’t a complete sin in my book, but you’d better have an exit strategy because tackling someone from the side is much easier than from the front, and Daly dominates the tackle.  One of the Quins backs needed to call for the ball, either wide, or on a switch to straighten up their attack.

LESSON 2 – Dominant tackles and tackle contest:  Poor body positioning from Evans aside, this could have just been a simple tackle that resulted in a ruck.  But Daly tackles him quickly and immediately gets back on his feet to challenge for the ball – nice and legal.  This is not possible with high / slow tackles, as support will be there to secure attacking ball.  In addition to Daly’s dominance and aggression in the tackle contest, he has immediate support from flanker Jonathan Poff.  Note how close together they are, making them stronger in the fight for the ball / counter ruck.  (It does become a bit messy … but the dominance aspect is something refs have to consider these days.  Players go off their feet most times, but the two Wasps players were in dominant positions and the ball was made available so quickly that, like the other few dozen times this happens in a game that doesn’t prevent a fair and reasonable contest, play continues.)

LESSON 3- Quick ball:  It could have ended with a ruck and the scrum half moving to play the ball or a forward to pick and drive around the fringe of that ruck – as I see most teams do.  The next key element before we see Wade’s brilliant feet in action is the lock not opting for the selfish / unthoughtful pick and drive, but the quickest of passes out to the players who had both space and a numbers advantage.  At 0:08, we see #5 Marco Wentzel play the ball in a diving pass to what ends up being four backs against one.

LESSON 4 – Defensive recognition and communication:  Not only was winger George Lowe caught outnumbered, you can see that at 0:07 and 0:08 he’s not even taking notice that there are that many players outside him.  Same goes for scrum half Danny Care, who should know better as an England player, that the tackle was lost and he should be directing traffic to shore up their defence.  Lowe, as the last man in defence on the wing should have let that ruck go and positioned himself to not just cover Wade, but also call for help on the blind side.  Instead he runs in, then has to run back out to cover Wade.  Wentzel’s quick thinking pass sets the Wasps backs off, but better defence might have prevented them from such an easy run.

LESSON 5 – Who takes who?:  Lowe was one of last season’s great young discoveries and is no slouch of a player, but he needed to do two things (or at least have help) and he might have stopped the try.  Firstly, he retreats a bit to ‘jockey’ the two attackers in front of him – a tactic that’s meant to buy time and cause indecision in the ball carrier.  Giving space away is not ideal, but in this case he’s already in trouble so it’s not a bad option to allow coverage to come across.  If communication was better from the cover, he might have been able to step into the initial ball carrier or been able to stay on the outside man and trust that cover would take the ball carrier.  In this situation, I’d coach the second option, as it’d be more difficult for the cross cover to get to the outside and cover the speedy Wade should Lowe take the Wasps player who first gets the ball.  (That’s debatable, though.)

LESSON 6 – Timing:  The initial receiver is Wasps inside centre Andrea Masi.  First off, he does a great job to get back on side into a position of depth that gives him space to not only run when he gets the ball but also time to think about what his options are.  It’s not clear as to whether Wade calls for the pass or Masi sets him up, but either way the timing of it all was excellent.  Masi takes it forward in two hands, which is key because it means Lowe can’t be sure as to whether he’ll crash it up – as inside centres are oft to do – or pass.  If Masi had tucked it away, it’d have been easier for Lowe to commit to him as the pass wouldn’t be as likely.  His forward run also serves to commit Lowe to a certain degree.  If he’d passed immediately, Lowe could have slid off and immediately picked up Wade.

LESSON 7 – Easy space:  I tell me players to seek out ‘easy space’ as much as possible – clear room into which they can run.  Space between defenders is obvious ‘easy space’.  But important ‘easy space’ – especially when facing well organised defenders who aren’t allowing attackers to get into gaps – is also in between ball carrier and defender, i.e. the space in front.  This importantly gives the ball carrier time to create or preserve space for someone else.  And this is what Masi does so well.  Masi, now without the ‘easy space’ in front, having drawn Lowe somewhat, gives a well placed pass to Wade and puts him into ‘easy space’ out wide.  If Masi had selfishly cut into the ‘easy space’ out wide, Lowe would have drifted with him … possibly allowing Wade a switch back, but which would also make it easier for cross cover to take him out.  Instead, he fixes Lowe in his channel, preserves the width for Wade and gives him the opportunity to use it with a well timed pass.

LESSON 8 – Footwork:  Christian Wade is fast, easily one of the fastest in the Premier League.  But it’s not his straight line speed that gets him the try.  George Lowe is also fast and Wade isn’t the largest or most powerful of players so a well timed pursuit might stop him.  Wade brilliantly makes a subtle change of direction to run at Lowe, and then quickly swerves away and beats him to the outside.  Lowe’s reaction shows fear that Wade will beat him on his inside – though I’d say his positioning to stop that was pretty good – and as such he hesitates and nearly stands up.  Wade effectively ‘freezes’ or ‘fixes’ him in place and makes his real move.  If Lowe had backed himself, and committed to the pursuit and tackle, I think he might have at least got a hand to him.  Instead, by being hesitant and falling for the feint side step, he lost his momentum and his ability to close down the space and make a tackle on Wade.
There is is.  A one minute clip that can be broken down into many teachable elements.  Watching game tape can be tedious and boring for the players, esp. at school level where most are out for fun.  The aforementioned high school team interestingly enough all chose to talk about tries that matched how they liked to play on the field.  We never watched our own games, but I’d look for trends in the few that were filmed and by consulting my own notes and we’d work on those elements at practice – both ones that needed reinforcement and those that needed correction.  We did analyse our own game tape when I coached at a university, but there we only addressed major trends.  So I’d pick out two or three things we did well and two or three major things that needed work and we’d break those down as above as a highlight / reminder and make those elements the focus for training the following week.  I think involving the players in the discussion by asking questions rather than giving answers, making the whole process a constructive rather than instructive one, is most important.  The university women demonstrated this in their desire to discuss those few clips and act upon the lessons, commenting that they felt these sessions much more productive than the ones their friends on the football team had to endure where they’d watch the entire game and break down every little element – if they managed to stay awake!

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I’ve started indoor sessions with a local club and will be posting the details of those sessions so the players present (or not) can make greater sense of what we did.  As much as possible, I will try to add some supportive video content and will reflect upon where I’d tweak the session if I ran it again.

Main Outcomes
  • Develop fast-feet, evasive / reactive footwork
  • Understand purpose and key elements of unders / overs running lines (referred to as ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ cuts)
  • Practice timing, angles of runs, accuracy of passing in a dynamic environment
0-10 Mins Quick Introduction…Session Objectives

  • Perfect personal skills to make attack more efficient
    • Basic Pass
    • In front
    • Shoulder height
    • No arc / fast
    • Target up / follow through to target
  • Agility to Beat a Defender / Create Space
  • Basic Running Lines (and communication)
    • Unders
    • Overs
    • (Combos?)
Partner / Tri / Square Passing

  • Grip
  • ‘Snap’ out
  • Follow through to target
  • ‘Spiderman’ or ‘Turn the knob’

10 push, 10 spin (perfect)

(*if time, deck and pass from ground)

10-15 mins Passing in Lines

  • Quality!
  • Transfer in one step
  • Targets up, Follow through to target
Passing in Lines … 3s or 4s

  • Start from the ground, SH follows

Dynamic Recovery (half and jog back)

  • Straight Leg Walk (on toes opp.)
  • High Knee Pull (on toes opp.)
  • Fence Climbers
  • Lunge Walk w. twist
  • Pick Grass
  • Inch Worm
15-30 mins Agility

  • ‘Dynamic’ body position
  • On toes
  • Sudden movements

1. Up and Backpedal, 2. Side stepping, 3. Swerves

30-45 mins Unders and Overs

  • Fix defenders
  • Sudden, angular movement into space
  • Communicate intent: “Unders / overs – NOW!”
  • Unders = late run, flat short pass; wider space between passer and strike runner
  • Overs = early run, slightly deeper, leading wide pass; wider channel between receiver and 2nd receiver
Unders and Overs Stations 

2 v 2 (dummy defenders), started with a SH pass

Advanced:  working on S-lines

45-50 mins Fitness Blast Station 1: Tuck JumpsStation 2: Mountain ClimbersStation 3: BurpeesStation 4: Body Squats
50-65 mins Dynamic Running Lines

  • Depth at which run is started and pass is made (TIMING!)
  • Width in which to strike
  • Calls: Hands, Hold and Go, Unders, Overs, Decoy
3 v 2 (w. bags), allow attackers to get set before SH passes so they can take time to manipulate defenders’ alignment and make the desired unders / overs cut.
65-70 mins Break and De-Brief (Touch introduction)
70-90 mins Touch

  • Hands at the ready
  • Quality passing
  • On toes, ready to change direction
  • Sudden movements
  • Two-handed touch; attacker places ball between legs, defender can ‘mark’ but rest must retreat 5m
  • Ball must be rolled back where touch was made
  • 5th touch = turnover
  • Balls dropped backwards = play on
  • Offloads made within 1 sec. of touch do not count against limited touches; offloads thrown away aimlessly = automatic turnover
  • Restarts and Penalties = 10m retreat and tap kick


Way more people than expected showed up – which was great! – but I felt there was too much standing around at the start.  The agility circuit should have instead been stations so that people were constantly moving instead of waiting in line.  I adjusted this for the next two drills so that there was an advanced group and two novice groups working at their own pace.  I had three team leaders graciously offer to monitor each drill while I floated around and dropped ‘teachable moment’ lessons, and offered quite a lot of feedback to units after they completed.  I don’t think I talked to the group as much as I used to, which is a goal of mine, preferring to allow them greater time participating and opting instead to continually yell the ‘key elements’ as described in the outline above.  With the greater numbers, and wanting to ensure everyone had a solid run-through for each skill component, we didn’t have time for touch … though I doubt it’d work with 40 people in a b-ball gym, even if teams rotated off.  Faced with that again, I think I’ll try and just keep the final skill scenario as dynamic and game-like as possible.

Unders and Overs Lines in a Game

Luke McAllister (NZ 12) runs an unders line off Dan Carter (NZ 10), and Jerry Collins runs an overs line off Luke McAllister.

Beating a Man 1 on 1 with Jeff Wilson, legendary All Black

Deadly Sidesteps of Danie Gerber

John Bentley’s Triple Swerve (first is text-book)

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Here are five more things I learned over the course of my coaching career that just sort of occurred from trial and observation:

1. Ball in two hands.  The first sport I played seriously, and it’s commonplace in that game for ball carriers to ‘tuck it away’ and just run.  In rugby, there are people beside / behind you to pass to in order to keep the play flowing.  Keeping the ball in two hands not only allows you to get the ball away quicker (rather than, first, having to grab it with the second hand – even fractions of a second count!), but it also keeps the defence second guessing.  After watching a lot more rugby, I realised that defenders would hesitate in front of the ball-in-two-hands attacking player, not being absolutely sure of what he was going to do.  Conversely, a player who ‘tucks it away’ isn’t near as likely to get a pass off – unless his name is Sonny Bill Williams! – so defenders are more confident rushing to complete the tackle.

2. Preservation of space.  In football, the ball carrier’s only job was to gain as much territory as possible – essentially by himself, with the help of some planned / spontaneous blocking.  In rugby, it’s not an individual effort and the game is best played if contact can be avoided.  Creation of space through deception, like a switch run, came quickly to me as it reminded me of the running / blocking lines of football, but preservation of space is, I think, unique to the continuity of rugby.  If I can’t immediately get through right here, but there’s lots of space to my left – along with a team mate – I’m better off holding a straight line to keep (or preserve) the defender here and make a timely pass to put into space my team mate over there.  In football, a running back would probably try and turn that corner himself.  A couple of years ago, I was delighted to see footage from an old football game from the leather helmet days in which three passes were made from the line of scrimmage to the wide receiver.  The quarter back passed to running back, who broke the line and passed to a slot back; he drew attention from the defenders and passed to the wide receiver who scored in the corner.  I’d have LOVED to play football in the 1920s or 1930s, especially when the forward pass was relatively new and not widely used.  The opportunities for a tactically minded coach / player must have been limitless!

3. Predictable defending.  This one came quite early.  If I stand in a certain spot, or make a run at a certain angle a good defender is going to mirror that.  If he doesn’t, well then great, I’m gone.  But even if he does, my alignment can provide opportunities for others.  For example, if a player closer to the ball than you has incredible quickness, standing a little wider in alignment will draw the defender wider (a good defender, that is) giving your quick-stepping team mate more room to beat his opponent to the outside.  If the defender doesn’t slide, you have that advantage.  It also doesn’t stop there.  If your team mate makes a ‘half break’ into the space, but draws the attention of your defender, then call for the pass as your man has just created an opportunity for you.  Defenders act and react to attacking players, providing opportunities.  If they don’t, your job is even easier.

4. Diamond support.  Support is one of the principles of the game.  It’s essential for continuity, another principle.  One person in support is good, two great, but three is wonderful.  Instead of shuffling the ball in a draw-and-pass motion, which allowed the defence to close down space, I favour a quick pass to not only get the ball to someone with plenty of space in front of them, but also with plenty of support around them.  From a scrum, one of my most favoured attacks is a strike run via the outside centre – who I like to be not only fast and quick, but also with a keen eye for space and tactical sense to set up his/her team mates if the situation warrants.  Not only does the outside centre channel have lots of space available on the left and right, but there’s also another centre, a winger, and a full back in support – at least!

5. Space behind committed defender.  I’m surprised it took me so long to figure this one out, given the predictable defending and preservation of space aspects came so quickly.  Essentially, the defender committed to either a ball carrier or a support option should be an easy target to attack – not the player him/herself, but the space behind.  Example 1:  Fly half makes a straight run at his opposite number, fixing him in place.  Inside centre makes a sudden angular run at the space behind the defending fly half and calls for a short pass, slipping in behind him.  This is called an Unders Line, I suppose running ‘under’ the defensive coverage.  The opposite, an Overs Line, involves a sudden angular run by the ball carrier, not the support runner.  This is made easier, as mentioned above, when the supporting player has provided enough width for the ball carrier to make such a move.  A good defender should probably stick with his man in this situation and rely upon his inside man to cross cover the sudden line break, allowing the ball carrier a better chance of getting away.  If not, and the outside defender has to step in and help, the ball carrier needs to be wary of his support and get the ball away as he’s just created a two on one.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The other night at training the players were working on changing pace, and I noticed how changing gears for them meant trying to find another higher one after hitting top speed. Others not blessed with pace were left in the wake of those who did. Wondering what they were trying to get out of the self-directed drill, I asked them a question: Is it okay slow down to a jog when you’ve got the ball?

Immediately, a few players said, yes, but I challenged them to tell me why. Sprinting with the ball can allow you to gain the most ground, yes, and we want to play the game at a high tempo to take advantage of opportunities. But there are times when such opportunities aren’t so apparent and you’re staring at a defender who’s got you lined up fairly well, so a change of pace can allow you time to Scan, Plan, and Act. A ball carrier who goes from a run to a jog can…

* Buy time for support to get in position to be an option / provide assistance
* Lull the defender into believing she has an easy tackle, only to have the ball carrier pop/pass to her support sprinting past
* Lull the defender into believing she has an easy tackle, only to have the ball carrier speed up again and/or change direction and run past
* Cause a moment of indecision / overestimation on the part of the defender, to provide the attacker with a chance to ‘do the opposite’ (this is a ‘big concept’ – but in a moment of panic, a defender might predict your move before you’ve made it. At a full sprint it’s hard for you to adjust, so by adjusting your pace a bit, you can take a second to gauge what she is going to do and then quickly alter your approach to beat her. Essentially, this the thinking behind a simple sidestep.)
* (Anything else? Happy to hear your suggestions!)

One of the best at altering pace and reacting to a defender’s cues is New Zealand’s Victoria Grant. Always having the ball in two hands – which, as I’ve said before, causes indecision in defenders as you can pass in any direction easily – she uses a variety of steps and paces to gauge what defenders are doing and then simply take advantage of it.

While not the best example of her ‘slowing down’ at :33 in the following video, you will see that by avoiding the top gear straight run, she’s able to change direction a few times and almost literally turn the Aussie defender inside out. Such moves are simply not possible at full stride.


Edit:  I followed this article up with an explanation of Running Rugby.  Click on the green bit in the last sentence to read about the major asterisk I’ve now placed on THIS article.  Slowing down can lull defenders, but one must have been going fast in the first place!

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I just fielded an email from one of my players asking about my comments directed at the entire team with regard to choosing better support lines.  She’s on the smaller side, but is extremely quick, and mentioned that she didn’t think she was very good at taking a determined angle of support.  I realised that I needed to be more clear in expectations for individuals, so wrote this rather lengthy response.  (I’ll follow up with my thoughts on taking straight powerful lines, for bigger backs, soon!) …

I’m not so sure if taking early and direct running angles is really for you, given your size but also your outstanding quickness and acceleration.  Players like Shane Williams, Maxime Medard, Cory Jane, James O’Connor are all top international wings / full backs who are on the smaller side, and you’d never see them taking those direct lines.  Look out for their quick feet and ability to squeeze through small gaps – esp. Williams and O’Connor.

What might help you in support situations is backing your quickness to try slipping through smaller gaps than you’d normally take.  Watch this Shane Williams compilation video:

In this highlights video, I think two things stand out as ‘trends’ of his brilliance.

1. Note how many of the players he beats are big, slow forwards (or much larger backs without his lateral quickness).  It’s not that he’s beating them only because they’re not as quick him, but he realises their very presence in the backline makes it worth having a go against the space around them.  There are a couple of occasions where you’d think they’d want to keep passing the ball to use an over-lap or get into more space, but you can almost see him perk up realising ‘Fat, slow player in front of me.  Gonna have a go!’  I think for any quick footed player facing such a player should be seen as an opportunity regardless of what the intended move would be.  I encourage players to not rely on set moves, but scan for attacking opportunities in the way of obvious space or exploitable weaknesses in the defence (players out of position or alignment, players found to be weak defenders, etc.).  Set moves should be the fall back when none of these opportunities exist and the defence is quite organised and disciplined. Williams is very astute at spotting the former.

2. The other is the sudden change of direction – and not for the sake of it – but when specifically when the defender is ‘fixed’ or over-committed.  Two sins often committed even at the highest level when playing defence are to sit on one’s heels to accept a supposed tackle, and to over run the attacker when cover defending.  In the first instance, players feel a tackle will be imminent, so sit back and crouch to accept the impact when really they should continue to move forward – ‘attack on defence!’, as I say – and be on the balls of their feet to be ready for any sudden changes.  In the second, there’s nothing worse than getting beat on the inside as it’s usually impossible to recover from this error and catch the attacker.  Players must ‘track’ an attacking player by looking at the inside hip – which not only indicates direction but is also the target for the shoulder in a proper tackle.  The ‘tracking line’ to take is one that constantly adjusts as one moves forward and shifts to make sure that attacker can’t step inside but also so they can’t get room on the outside.  … and I think Williams is recognising when the defenders haven’t got him properly lined up and/or that he can use his quickness to off-set their tracking / pursuit lines and side step to wrong-foot them and get by.

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While coaching a women’s club team in the summer, I tried to incorporate as much footwork as possible.  I feel basic techniques are often ignored as coaches try to implement complicated moves and systems (my beef with these in a later post), but without them they haven’t the ability to execute these designs.  While everyone seems to know what a sidestep is – though not all are truly adept at it – I’m often met with a mass of blank stares when I ask someone to demonstrate a ‘swerve.’  If you look at old rugby texts from yesteryear, this is often heralded as the ‘only’ move as it seems players back then more often sought to run away from their opponents rather than into them – imagine!

As an example, I’ve provided some clips.  Josh Lewsey subtly rounds the Scottish full back with one to score at the 1:08 mark.  There’s a more obvious one, going inside this time, at 2:04 where he swerves inside TWO French defenders.

The best example, coupled with a fabulous floating dummy pass, is ‘little’ James Simpson-Daniel’s rounding of the massive Jonah Lomu while

Essentially, a swerve is a preservation of space with a straight run, followed by a sudden burst to the outside (much wider than a side step!) to get away from the defender, and then turning up field. This ‘burst’ must be done suddenly and not on a slant or the defender can simply ‘push’ across and bisect the angle.  Being a quick bugger helps, but even we ‘slower’ types can pull this off if you really ‘sell’ your defender into thinking the straight run ahead is going to lead to contact.  Then, as you see the defender sink onto her heels, you make your burst outside in almost the shape of a ‘J’ lying on its side.  (I’ve even pulled this off jogging at someone slowly, making them think the ‘big guy’ was just going to trundle into contact, and then sprinting away to the side and upfield as you get away from their channel!)

In addition, these clips show wonderful ball handling and straight running to ‘fix’ defenders / preserve the outside space.  The two ‘lines’ taken most by Canadian wingers, especially, and players in general is a diagonal run to the outside or the sadly more-common step back inside into contact.  Whether to simply run away from the tackler or to ensure the tackle is made closer to support, I think both options are negative.  To use the ‘p-word’ again, the initial forward run leading into a swerve preserves all that space to the outside, whereas the diagonal run eats it all up and allows the defender better access to you.  A proper swerve will see you suddenly run into a whole new channel, keeping as far away from the defender as possible without going backwards (often this is directly sideways!), with the important bit being to straighten up to start gaining ground as soon as possible.  Give it a try!

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