Posts Tagged ‘positions’

I read an insightful article ahead of this weekend’s England v Ireland encounter and wanted to comment on what I feel is a missed opportunity in the England side, but also for a lot of amateur teams still stuck in the past regarding what forwards are meant to do in attack.  From the article:

“FOR ME, THE biggest work-on at the moment – with the tight-five forwards and everyone – is ‘seeing the game.’ It’s all about the decisions people make on the field, under pressure.

“The more you focus on that, the more all the players start ‘seeing it.’”

So said England attacking skills coach Mike Catt of what he’s attempting to achieve with the group of players head coach Stuart Lancaster has identified as good enough to win the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

An intelligent second-five-eighth in his time, Catt wants England to eventually emulate what the All Blacks are doing with their simple, skills-based approach to rugby.
“You look at New Zealand; their tight five can do what their centres do and that’s why everyone else is chasing them,” Catt told Sportsmail. “They have this understanding, an ability to ‘see it’ and make the right decisions at the right time; to do the right things.

“The beauty about what we currently have here is that it’s a young enough team for us to work on developing that.”

There certainly have been signs that Catt’s focused work is bringing about improvements in England’s ability to make more intuitive decisions on the pitch but they remain, for now, a side who rely on a fairly rigid structure in attack.

I’ve been trying the same with the men’s 2nds team I’ve been coaching the last few months.  The message is clear and simple: everyone’s a carrier and everyone’s a decision-maker. Forwards are not just there to crash it up and set up / clear rucks. That sort of thinking is ancient and reduces your team’s potential in attack. Why have just seven or eight players (no. 8s always chosen as players to cross the gain line) when you can have fifteen, and seven more on the bench? Everyone needs to focus on getting through the defensive line or putting someone through the line.

England talk about this a lot, but the bit I’ve bolded is very apparent.  They’re getting forwards into what aren’t ‘pods’ – with a strike runner at the head and two or three ‘support’ players behind (who’re there mostly to ruck or maul). They, as do New Zealand and Australia (probably others) stretch out forwards in what look like mini ‘back lines’ of three our four. The difference between England and New Zealand, however, is what those forwards do with the ball and how they attack.  Currently, in the England team, the guy who gets the ball crashes it up 9.5 times out of 10 (made up stat but seems like pretty much every one, with the odd offload or pass before contact).

All that does is cut off the space that the backs previously had and everyone’s so well drilled in defence these days that they’re not really occupying more defenders to create an over-lap. (This may work at amateur level, but I challenge my players to think on a level that we’re always trying to breach the line, not stretch out phases and hope that the defence eventually collapses in one way or another. Even a few metres gained means the defence has to back up and re-position themselves, which is better than facing defenders who haven’t had to move much at all.)  There are some examples in the article showing England forwards making the extra pass, but I’d argue that the second runner is not really looking to take space, as they still crash it up blindly – and even with a support runner present. The All Blacks and some groups of forwards in the Top 14 are brilliant at moving the ball about in those little units to get beyond the gainline, at least with a half break, not just smash into it and hope to march it back or break a tackle.  I’m a big fan of Lancaster, but I’d like to see England let loose the shackles and make at least one more pass as they’ve got a lot of capable carriers.

For amateur coaches, I challenge you to train and allow your forwards to be more dynamic rugby players – especially if they’re younger and won’t grow into / settle on a position for years to come!  Put all players in realistic situations where they have to work on alignment and scan for, communicate, and exploit opportunities in high-pressure environments.  Below are a couple of scenarios I use before going to a bigger game-like scenario where backs and forwards have to work together in attack.

The first I use with backs and forwards, but can be adapted to just include forwards. The aim is to make that initial break and then support with lines of pursuit that avoids the sweeper(s) – at least a scrum half, if not one other. I like to keep the bags tight so they either have to draw and pass, power step or hammer through and then break out in another gear, fighting through the obstructions to get into good support positions.  With a lot of these activities, I demand players “run in” from the side as if they were arriving to a second or third phase, stressing that creating effective attack starts by getting yourselves into position to exploit / create opportunities – so appropriate width and depth before calling for the ball so attackers can stay straight and have legitimate options left AND right (i.e. players who swing in on an arc invariably angle out, making it easy for defenders to drift).

Shield Wall Breakout

I like this to combine what can become robotic rucking drills, instead giving players a larger contextual sense that the ruck has to be dominant and efficient to provide quick ball for the next phase. I also use this to encourage all players to move the ball from the ruck – note how the tackler rolls away quickly and acts as the half back to get the next phase started (not always realistic, but it certainly encourages tacklers to roll away quickly and get back into the play with urgency!).  That said, the All Blacks are masters at this and it adds to the dynamic of their attack, allowing speedy scrum halves the chance to play in the open field and providing more width. It’s very rare that my team attacks the channel around the ruck, as it’s so heavily defended nowadays, so also reminds everyone that we’re playing from the third defender-out.

Ruck Clean-outs for Second Phase

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There was a great question on The Huddle coaching forum recently asking how willing we are to allow players to swap positions.  The author suggested most responders said they allow changes, but given the questions / answers usually given on the forum, I think most – if not all of them will be coaches of pre-teen athletes.

I’m a bit on the fence on this issue, but because I coach teens and adults.  When I coached U14s, we really didn’t focus too much on positions specification, except at set-piece time.  And even then we’d have kids propping and hooking who’ll probably never do it again in their later years.  I was also trying to get everyone confident with passing, receiving, and spotting opportunities that I’d be happy for most to play the ball as a ‘scrum half’ or ‘fly half’.

With the U16s, however, we typically select players where they’re best suited by size, strength, ability, etc. but I have what I think is a reasonable policy on players swapping positions. I always tell the boys that they can tell us what position they want to play, but they have to prove their ability and / or commit to learning and developing abilities for that position. I’m about player development and fostering a love for the game first, so am all too happy to help a player get more out of the game – but feel that at teenage levels of play they can’t be just gifted such a swap. (If for no other reason, than for safety’s sake!) One great success story was helping a kid who’d been a hooker at U16 with his school become a scrum half and then fly half at U18 with my club team. He asked realising he was proving to be too small for hooker and having a love for open field attacking.  I was more than willing to help (maybe with a bit of frustrated-front-rower, wannabe-halfback mindset myself!), and we spent countless extra hours before and after training working on passing, receiving, positioning, kicking, timing, etc. In addition to doing a great job for my club team, he ended up playing fly half and full back at U21 club and university level as well!

For teens, I don’t think letting them make such drastic positional changes is even good for the fun of it unless they’re willing to be serious about being able to meet the demands of the position. We play so few games at the high school level in Canada as well that to do so would be denying game time to a kid who’s already been playing that position and deserves as much time as possible in it. I wouldn’t therefore want to drop those kids to the bench or move them where they weren’t happy to accommodate another kid who just wanted to try out his position on a whim.  As mentioned earlier, there’s also the safety factor to consider, especially if a smaller or relatively weaker player has a desire to become a forward. I feel that if they truly want to make the swap, they’ll be more than happy to put in the work to make it a reality. Coaches should be willing to support those efforts as our first priority should be to foster a life-long love of the game in our athletes.

If a teenaged (or older) player wants to swap, and is willing to put in the work, this has to be a post-season or early pre-season declaration so we can work toward getting him up to speed.

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England have one of the most dominant scrums going – when refs recognise when the opposition are binding on their arms!  Their destruction of Ireland in the spring was a master-class of dominant straight-ahead scrummaging.

Three of the current set-up offer some great tips here.  Couldn’t put it better myself.  I love how they don’t focus too much on things like binds, as for me effective scrummaging is really about body shape and coordination.

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My apologies to those of you who follow this blog for not making a post in several months!  I’m in the final states of completing a Masters degree and didn’t make much time for blogging in between school work and lots of cycling.  It’s a new year and I’m in a new location, with a new club, so in the spirit of ‘newness’ will be posting – hopefully many – new articles over the coming weeks as we start indoor training.

I want to kick off 2012 with something that would have been more timely posted in October – my thoughts on the Rugby World Cup.  Despite the time lapse, however, I think the following things which struck me can be lessons on how I’ll approach coaching in the new year – affirming some of my beliefs and giving me new things to think about.

1. New Zealand

I hope some of the bitter sorts who think New Zealand’s win was undeserved, and who unfairly lobbed a lot of criticism at the referee, have had a chance to cool down as I believe they were truly justified as winners.  Not only because they had the players – and back-up players! – to do the job, but because their preparation for the tournament is what – in my opinion – got them there.  I’ve just recently finished reading Clive Woodward’s book, Winning!, on how they won the 2003 Rugby World Cup.  In it, he outlines all the structures put in place in order to instil both a winning culture within the minds of ALL people involved with the team, from coaches, to staff, to players, to the wider training group who didn’t make the cut.  He also underlines the importance of infrastructure in supporting everyone’s needs.  I’ll talk more about this later when I synthesise my notes on the book, but it appeared to me that Graham Henry followed that same sort of mentality.  Clive talks about surrounding himself with the best staff and players and developing a culture of winning, and that is something that was obvious within the All Blacks over the last two years or so.  Assistants Hansen and Smith are top notch, and they all seemed to contribute, even switching roles at one stage.  That, to me, shows a team that is truly functioning within.  They also have maintained pretty much the same core of players for the last few years.  Others have been tried and those players put pressure on the incumbents to do better.  Those who earned their place – like Piri Weepu – were rewarded, though there was immense faith placed in the old guard – like Ali Williams, only recently having come back from his Achilles injuries.  Like England was between 2001-2003, New Zealand have been virtually unstoppable over the last two years, and any bumps along the way only served to teach them lessons and make them stronger.  (Anyone who remembers how they exited RWC 2007 and survived the 2011 final, with many of the same players, can see how they grew.)  The lesson here is that team culture, coaching structure, and total club buy-in is immensely important, and I believe can even elevate teams beyond those who are arguably better on paper. 

2. Half Backs

I’ll write more on this later, but the play of Piri Weepu and Kahn Fotuali’i in particular impressed me as they often played what one pundit called the 9 1/2 position – doing the work of scrum half, but also often finding themselves in the ‘stand off’ position.  What this allowed the All Blacks and Samoans was to have more width, get away from the condensed defence around the rucks, and get their most creative players in more space with more strike options around him.  I’m convinced this comes from Rugby League, which I know Weepu played at school, and assume Fotuali’i has as well.   In that sport, the hooker does most of the passing from the play-the-ball (oddly enough, he wears 9 – coincidental?) and the half back and 5/8 play in wider, often inter-changeable, positions.  More on that in a forthcoming post …

If you want examples of great traditional half back play, however, watch BOTH Japanese 9s (Fumiaki Tanaka and Atsushi Hiwasa), and their partnership with fly half James Arlidge.  To me, they were the best in the tournament – ever-present at the break down, and with speedy, accurate passes.  Some teams, like England and Australia, have great 9s who can make little darting runs, but they were rarely effective doing so as international-level defences are incredibly focused around the ruck.  When they did, it also left a ‘slow ball’ situation at the next break down because their passer was trapped at the bottom of it.  When I talk about the “9 1/2”, I’ll examine how such a team needs forwards to be decision makers and/or passers to make up for that.  The Japanese, however, were always on-hand to make the pass and did so without delay, hitting their forwards on the run, rather than relying on the static pod system a lot of other teams use.  This not only accounted for their relative lack of size, but also kept defences from getting organised, providing Japan with a lot of ‘go-forward’ ball and opportunities to make things happen.  I’ll definitely be focusing on this in the new year, and maybe a combo of both styles if the team is receptive to having the forwards pass more and, essentially, playing with two decision makers in attack.

3. Game Changers

I made a note to discuss ‘game changers’ months ago because CBC radio was doing a series on people who did just that around the time of the Rugby World Cup.  I made a note to discuss both the South Africa / Samoa game and the Ireland / Australia shocker.  Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten much of the specific details of both games, but do remember the important parts.  Simply put, both Samoa and Australia went into half time with a major hurdle to over-come.  Samoa were down 0-13, but were playing well and – as they often do – were intimidating in the loose and had weapons all over the park, in both the forwards and the backs.  Australia were definitely the better team on paper, but the Irish are a clinical and powerful side and were bullying the Aussies, who are more open field flair and less about playing the gritty tight game.  Both teams emerged from the changing rooms at half time with contrasting mentalities from each other.  I’m not sure how much of it was down to coaching decision / in-decision or by the players themselves deciding to step it up / not, but Samoa came out firing and won the second half 5-0, while Australia kept doing the same old thing and ended up scoring no points.  Both teams lost, but one would have expected that from Samoa – who could have won the game, while Australia should have beat the Irish.  The difference was, I think, in the decision to make a tactical change / affirmation / clarification at half on the part of the Samoans.  They identified their strengths versus the areas the South Africans were looking weak (from memory, I think it was the midfield – in particular, they used a simple loop to beat the Fourie’s blitz, and slipped inside him for their try).  They matched their muscle and kept the South Africans on the back foot and denied them possession.  Conversely, again from memory, the Australians kicked away a lot of their possession and continued to try and muscle up to the Irish, getting bullied in the process via their rugby league style defence.  I’m a huge fan of Aussie rugby, and kept wondering why they weren’t trying to play the game wider as a few forays into that territory yielded in positive results – but then they’d go back to kicking away the ball and trying to do slow drives in tight with outmatched forwards.  The lesson is to be analytical during the first half and not to be afraid to make a big change of strategy, tactics, or personnel at half to capitalise on anything learned.

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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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The following is an assignment I’ve given to the decision makers on my team…

By looking at the following screen captures from the recent England v Scotland match, take the opportunity to assess what England’s options are and what their best course of action could be.  The ideal situation would see them make a clean break with support on either side, but in analysing options in attack one must also consider the likelihood of the defence shutting it down.  Assuming a team will at least try, if not successfully, to defend well, then you must think ahead one or two phases to use them to manipulate the defence how you wish.

The teams you face play defence ‘reasonably well’ to ‘very good’, presenting a challenge to our attack beyond the first phase.  If you make a clean break, then the rest should be easy if support is there and communication is early and specific.  If we’re forced to play the ball from contact (offload, latch+drive and rip, etc.) or set up a tackle contest (ruck, maul), thus setting up a new phase of attack, then we have to work toward a loose pattern of play which will see us keep the defending team disorganised and under pressure.  A quick scan for opportunities and a snappy call might be the best way to exploit these weaknesses / opportunities, but this relies on great vision and experience from both the decision maker(s) and supporting players.  We will continue to work on this, but the simple and effective way is to have at least a few phases planned out based upon two key questions:  What are we likely to achieve from this attack with the defenders in front of us?  AND What can we do next, considering our support, our strengths, and how the defensive team (likely) reacted to the last attack?   (In doing so, never forget the Five Principles of keeping possession, going forward with support, and maintaining continuity and pressure.)

The Big Questions:

  1. Clean Break: What is the ideal, yet reasonable, “clean break” situation considering who we have in position and how the opposition is currently set up to defend?
  2. Pass From Contact: How will individual defenders react to this move BEFORE we reach the tackle line?  What’s our pre-contact option (if available and logical) and can we keep the attack going by playing the ball from contact?
  3. Into a Tackle Contest: If a tackle contest occurs, where is our support?  How will the defenders adjust to the tackle contest and our developing second phase (assuming we can win the ball efficiently)?  What is the best option for the next phase, with sufficient attackers ready, if we have:

a)      Quick Ball, or…

b)      Slow Ball

  1. Things to consider as opportunities:  Lack of Defenders Present, Defender not square, Defensive Line not flat, Defenders on the back foot, Over-commitment of defenders to an individual, Space behind Defenders.
  2. Things to consider as threats:  Defenders in abundance and ready to rush forward, Defensive patience and ability, Lack of personnel on our part to challenge the defence.

Challenge: For each of the following images, provide an Ideal Clean Break move, a Logical Continuous Option from Contact, and an option (or two) for the Next Phase Move from a Tackle Contest


The purpose of this exercise to to get players thinking about how they would use their abilities, the abilities of their team mates, and the things we are good at to successfully attack a variety of defensive arrangements.  We often do this at training for those more kinaesthetically inclined, but for those who are more visual / analytical, this is the sort of exercise that will get them thinking about attacking opportunities before they step on the pitch.  The hope is that at least some will become accustomed to defensive sets – both good and poor – and use logic and self-knowledge to speed decision making when faced with them in games.

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Photo courtesy of Craig White

Despite our team running in five tries yesterday, I didn’t think our backline clicked as well or as often as I hoped it would.  I put this down to first game after a long break, though I think it’s time I had them take another step in becoming better ‘thinking’ rugby players.  Their alignment wasn’t bad, their determination and ability with ball in hand quite good, but what was off was their timing.  In some cases the outside centre was too deep to be of use and in others the inside centre was too flat to be a useful passing option, and vice versa.  I forgave them because on defence they were great, but also because the former is still young and learning the game and the latter is very new to our team.  Their challenge this week, and for the coming weeks as this awareness won’t come instantly, will be to learn more about each member of their unit as rugby players.

One of the best backlines I’ve ever seen live was the one I played with (as a front row forward) when I was 18 and playing for a local club.  All but one had been playing school rugby together for four years and they were good mates off the field – the outlier being from another school, but who was on the left wing.  They knew each other’s abilities and tendencies to the point that they played off each other intuitively, and rarely needed a planned move to break the gain line or score a try.  So what sort of things did they know about each other that made them so effective?

  1. Quality of each player’s personal skills... meaning how long each player could pass, and the level of accuracy they possessed.  As I say to my players prior to working on spin passing, if you know the player beside you can make a long pass, then you can align yourselves much wider, opening larger gaps between defenders (because most good defenders will line up with you – if not, then you could beat them around the outside!)
  2. Average speed and quickness. Note that speed = straight line sprinting, while quickness = is, generally speaking, agility, lateral movement, and acceleration off the mark.  You might have to lie a little flatter OR start your run earlier to be able to keep up with someone who’s faster than you, or the opposite if you’re faster than the ball carrier.
  3. Preferred means of receiving a pass. This primarily refers to the way fly halves take the ball, but fly halves aren’t always on their feet, ready in the first receiver position.  Who often steps in for them?  How do they like to take a pass – standing flat, big run from deep, little run flat and out, etc?  This knowledge helps the support runners time their run.  Maybe the receiver has a certain physical trigger that will help you start your run, or maybe you have to consider how her tendencies in this area affect timing, so you might have to consider what the previous passer does.  The big one here is running vs standing and flat vs deep.  Each has it’s advantages, and I think the disadvantages of each are accentuated by support players not knowing how to time their runs accordingly.
  4. Tendencies with ball in hand. This is related to the last point, but deals more with what the ball carrier tends to do when they have the ball and are going to keep it for a certain length of time.  For example, when I play touch I often end up as first receiver and I prefer to stand flat and make a sudden move at the inside shoulder of the player outside of me.  I’m deceptively quick so am going for the line break, but if it’s not on I’m hoping (key word!) my support runner realises that I’ve just made him a hole and I’ll look to give him a flat pass into space.  If he’s too deep, then no worries I’ll still give a leading pass and we’ll try an attack somewhere else.  This is why I like having a 12 who can also scan, think and pass in contact rugby as this often happens against congested defences.  If he’s too early then I’ll use him as a decoy and fire a longer, slightly deeper – but still leading pass – to the next person.  As another example, we have a wonderful outside centre who’s both quick and fast and can beat most defenders on her first move.  I’ve been using this an example to get the other backs thinking about how they can run off her.  The winger needs to realise that her defender will often get drawn into this break and needs to be ready to call for a pass before the centre is closed down.  Alternatively, our full back could find an excellent hole in the defending 13’s channel and call for an inside ball as she turns to chase our centre.  It’s these sort of tendencies players need to be aware of so they don’t have to react as much to things as they develop, but can predict what is going to happen based upon prior knowledge.
  5. Agreed-upon method of communication. This goes without saying, and I’ve talked about it a lot in this blog already, but I can’t stress enough that communication not only needs to be present but also must be short (no sentences, just monosyllabic words and small phrases), relevant (not: “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” but “On your left.  Pop… NOW!”) and even to provide advice (“Hold it! GO!” … when someone’s about to pass, but has a huge hole in front of them, or “See [name of someone out wide]” when there’s a clear and imminent opportunity elsewhere.)

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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 wonderful blokes over at Green and Gold Rugby Blog posted a tribute video to Australia’s legendary George Smith today, and I thought it time to talk about another position – the openside flanker.  Some have said that job of a fetching – someone who goes looking to steal the ball at every opportunity – number 7 is not as it once was just a couple of years ago when the likes of Smith, McCaw, Brussouw were making incredible pilfers at great risk to their bodies.  But I’ve explained in other posts that if tackles are made quickly, so that the tackler can release and grab before attacking support arrives, then steals are still possible under the new interpretations … and George Smith is still proving this despite retiring from the Wallabies and Brumbies lasat years.  Enough of my intro, let’s look at the video …

I’d like to think that any good backrower should have the skills Smith has – the ability to be tenacious on defence, going to great lengths to win the ball back (legally, but sometimes not – Richie McCaw has said that a keen defender needs to always be on that edge to play to the referee’s interpretations – and whistle – so he can steal the ball, or at least disrupt the opposition).  For me, it’s hard to separate Smith and McCaw when it comes to who’s been the greatest ‘openside’ ever, though I want to give it to Smith because he is, as you saw in the video, quite capable of the spectacular.  As such, what I think also separates the openside flanker from the other backrow players is their ability to link with the backs.  It should be noted that these guys are often the fastest and fittest of the forwards because they’re the ones who’re chasing the ball all day, ‘open side’ referring to being on the side where the fly half and the bulk of the backs are aligned.  Using that speed and quickness, and hopefully a sense for space and continuity such that backs possess, a team should be able to count on an openside flanker to be an extra weapon in attack.  That Australia and New Zealand have such wonderful attacks, and a number of flankers which play like this is definitely not a coincidence.

I don’t normally subscribe to there being an ‘ideal’ size for any position, so long as the person in question can get the job done satisfactorily.   That said, many of the great opensides have had the same body type and it bodes well for the job that was asked of them.  They are definitely under 6’2″, but mostly under 6’0″, as the bigger players – think South African backrowers – tend to be straight ahead types, whereas the typical fetching, linking openside is smaller and more agile, better suited for dynamic attacking moves.  (With regard to women, look up: Maggie Alphonsi, Heather Fisher, or Justine Lavea – all have that ‘short and stocky, but fit’ stature as well.)  The smaller stature also means it’s easier for them to work at lower levels, as in the process of jackaling the ball in the tackle, and putting muscle on that kind of frame makes them very hard to move in the ruck.  (Whereas it’s a bit easier to get leverage on a taller player with longer limbs.)

I don’t have to keep talking about Smith as the evidence of his brilliance is in the highlight video.  I still have dreams that he’ll say his retirement was all a ruse and that he’ll be in the Wallaby back row, alongside the brilliant defender David Pocock, for the upcoming World Cup, but I guess I’ll just have to watch more Toulon games until he finally calls it a day.

With regard to selecting your openside, though, it can definitely be a job for that player who’s got a bit of ‘mongrel’ in them, as the Aussies say – that someone who’s more spirited, more aggressive, and more enthusiastic than anyone else.  (It’s often a good job for that little, nuggety tough guy/girl who’s possibly got a Napoleon complex!)  But the two things I’d stress – though it’s good for any player to have – is supreme fitness to always ‘be there’ when it counts, and to have the ability to run and pass the ball with intelligence.  These players can be your extra backs in attack and defence (covering, as many do, for poor defending fly halves), or be the inspirational forward who puts his or her body on the line to win a crucial steal in the tackle contest.

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Doing battle in the front row of the scrum is where I got my start in rugby, and as a big schoolboy limited by a 1m push, I never really had to think about proper technique and form – that is until I started playing men’s rugby.  In my home province I encountered guys who were bigger and stronger, and whilst in the UK, found plenty of guys who knew what they were doing.  They left a lasting impression on me with regard to becoming a better scrummager, not to mention that a few of the latter were actually much smaller than me!  For those serious about being a solid scrummager, becoming more muscular and stronger is an obvious way to be more effective in the front row.  But this sort of development takes a long time, for some longer than others.  This is the reason one finds very few excellent scrummagers at the top level in their early to mid-twenties.   So what is one to do in the short term?  I think forwards can do a few simple things to improve their scrum technique over a relatively short period while they gradually build size and strength (or if they don’t want to put in that kind of time and effort).  Together as a unit, forwards should look to improve their coordination because driving the opposition backwards in a unified effort is much better than eight individuals trying to do their thing on their own.  The first part of this involves binding.  I’ve never thought that ‘special’ binds of one kind or the other made that much difference – locks binding on shorts, shirt, pocket; props on waistband or upper shirt.  What is important is that the complete unit is comfortable and tight (and legal).

What I think is more important in this respect is that whatever the bind, a tight and coordinated effort is required for a scrum to be effective.  Probably the best way of achieving this is through a pack leader.  Some have their preference for which player this should be, but as with choosing a team captain, one needs to consider who has the combination of knowledge, leadership ability and communication skills to ensure the pack is focused and determined on achieving dominance at scrum time.  I used to do this as a tight head prop, the person who engaged slightly ahead of all others.  Other teams use the hooker, because of his role in the strike / contest with the opposing striker, while others have used a particularly vocal and knowledgeable no. 8 or flanker.  Whichever player, this person’s role is to help bring together all eight players so that they can engage as one unit and employ a coordinated effort rather than a divided one.  There are many calls one can use, but one of the best I’ve seen is from the All Blacks (likely their incredibly knowledgeable scrum coach Mike Cron).  Upon the “engage” call, they simply yell – together! – HIT, SQUEEZE … and … GO!  That’s it, short and focused.  The HIT is the point at which they engage with the opposition, trying to rock them back and get position / leverage.  The SQUEEZE demands they pull in their binds for the impending coordinated effort.  And finally, the GO signifies that the ball is in and they are going to push with all their might – TOGETHER.  Some teams utilise a 1, 2, 3, 4 after to get them moving forward so many steps or holding for that count.  With or without, Hit, Squeeze, and Go get all eight players into the right mindset to do a few seconds of hard, coordinated work to secure possession or establish a stable platform from which to defend.

The other useful way in which players might improve their scrummaging technique in a short period of time is through body shape.  A useful body shape for a forward is with body parts relatively parallel and perpendicular to the ground.  Shins should be just off the ground and parallel to it, thighs should be relatively perpendicular (with a bit of flex back and forward and a narrow angle to aid in driving / resisting), and back should be parallel.  The pelvis should be tilted to allow maximum flexion and shoulder blades should be pinned back to ensure shoulders are high and square.  Head should be neutral with the spine – think “look through your eye brows only” to see your opposition.   All eight players should look like this, with spines in line and backs that slightly incline from no. 8 to front row, indicating that each player has his shoulder firmly planted on the buttocks of the person in front of him.

Low to the ground, feet back far enough to allow body to engage square and parallel without shuffling, shoulder blades pinned back, head in a neutral position (looking through eyebrows).

Note body parts parallel and perpendicular to the ground - esp. the height! Also see note how they are all level and square with each other.

I am of the mind that this is where one’s core strength becomes as, if not more, important as strength required to drive the scrum.  As in the case I mentioned above – I’ve had the weight advantage over players, but their better shape and core strength has won them battles over my ‘advantage.’  I realised that I could no longer rely upon weight and leg strength alone and sought to improve my shape.  Practicing this, I feel, is best done in groups of three.  Two players start on all fours and engage and slowly lift themselves off the ground in a coordinated effort.  I don’t think any pushing back and forth is needed yet (saved for more advanced players comfortable with their shape), with the players focusing only on how maintaining a good position feels.  The crucial third member of the group provides feedback, giving each player suggestions on how they might adjust positioning to achieve perfect form along with commenting on what parts look good.  This last part is very important as, with any closed skill, we have to acquire ‘muscle memory’ to learn good form and this can only be achieved through specific and constructive feed back on the spot.  Watching video of one’s self can help see where problems exist, but timely feedback in the moment can allow the adjustments and muscle memory to take an immediate affect.

When 1 v 1 situations are consistently looking good, forwards can start building “units” that are typical in scrums.  I am not the biggest fan of scrum machines for this – feeling they’re only useful when employing a full pack which doesn’t have enough opposition.  As much as possible, I feel players can learn more from realistic contests and when there aren’t enough for 8 v 8 (and even when there is!) by putting scrum units together.  It’s no surprise that scrums “naturally” wheel clockwise on the tight head.  This is because the opposing loose head and hooker are effectively pushing on him.  As such, it is a great way to employ three players in realistic scrum training – especially when you are limited in players!  Other combinations can be:

  • Front row against another front row
  • Prop and a lock versus a prop with a lock on the opposite side to the other
  • The aforementioned hooker, loose head combo with a lock, versus a tight head, a lock, and a flanker
  • A ‘back five’ – locks and back row – against another (this might be a lot of weight for two locks to handle, however, so take caution)

Controversially, I don’t like spending a lot of time working on scrums at practice because I feel one should work on things proportionate to the time in a match in which they occur (i.e. scrums take up far less time than open field attack and defence, but many clubs will spend 45 mins working on scrums at training!).  But by asking that forwards do these sort of “mini scrums” and other activities in the pre-warm-up / warm-up period (when some are milling about chatting, kicking / passing a ball to no real gain), they can get beneficial personal practice and feedback every session and even before games!

With the above information in mind, it's plain to see which pack is more in-tune with their body positioning and coordination.

Below are some videos featuring Mike Cron and the All Blacks which offer a lot of great advice and practice options for those who want to improve their technique and shape.

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