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A few weeks ago, this video was doing the rounds on my social media feeds with rugby friends all wanting to give it a go. It features one player, harnessed up like a plow horse going after medicine balls in a tractor tire while three friends hold him back with flexible straps.

[link from USA Rugby facebook page]

Sometimes I’m a bit too quick to be negative about such things as my focus is on using activities that look and feel like the real game. That said, when I used to play (American) football in high school, I did have fun with similar activities like ‘The Bear Pit’ – one player surrounded by a dozen team mates, making attempts to smash out of the circle while they’d squeeze together and make it difficult to do so. (I would say, however, that this did mirror the needs of those of use who smashed each other on the line of scrimmage. I’m not so sure that can be said of the above drill… )

In thinking about this video clip over the last couple of weeks, I thought I’d use it instead to offer some advice for coaches when selecting activities to help with the development of amateur players (… remembering that pros have a lot of free time for flashy drills that the rest of us don’t have). Firstly, I do occasionally use things like this, but leave them as an end-of-training ‘treat’ or something to ‘warm up’ with and engage the team through a bit of fun (though not with something this physical, and with more efficient use of personnel, but more on that later). My initial criticism was that this drill seems opposite to the demands of going for a ball or otherwise competing in a ruck – the forces coming from behind in this activity, whereas one has to drive through forward pressure in a game. On the other hand, if I’m fair, it would be great for physical conditioning and emphasise low body position. (An alternative I’ve used is ‘rucking relays’ – teams nominate their toughest to hold a bag against another team and individuals take turns driving him/her back in a race against other team’s ‘champions’.)

To look at the bigger picture of selecting relevant activities, ask yourself some big questions:

  1. Is this relevant to our needs?Too often, people select novel activities that aren’t relevant to immediate needs – running before they can walk. Is it worth working on jackalling technique if your team isn’t getting to the breakdown in time / overcommitting and in poor body position? Are you spending a lot of time on 20m spin passes when 2-5m push passes are going everywhere from head, to shoulder, to knees come game time?
  2. Does the percentage of time spent on this reflect the frequency it occurs in the game? This is a tricky balance that should be reflected in a well-prepared, but also flexible, season plan. When I took a Level 2 course in Australia, I found myself re-thinking the way I plan activities when an instructor said a simple way to make these decisions is look at what you do most on the pitch and divide time spent on those things proportionately. Simply, if 80% of the game is spent on ‘open play’ then maybe most of a training session should be spent on that aspect. Spending 40 minutes of a 90 minute session on something that only happens maybe 5% of a game might not be worth it if you’re not doing so hot in that 80% category. It’s not to say that small things aren’t important, but can they be built into a bigger, all-encompassing activity? Sport science seems to suggest that drills are best for introducing a technique, but I think too many people continue with those drills for an entire season without putting them into game context. There’s also a new trend toward working on ‘micro-skills’ – little techniques that supposedly improve the whole think (like wrist flicks for passing). I suspect, however, that making more realistic passes, over various distances, with defenders forcing those adaptations, would much better serve everyone’s passing abilities. In the case of jackalling drills – as is continually proven by the likes of George Smith and David Pocock – it’s not just their technique in the tackle contest, but their success lies in how they read the emerging information in front of them and assess which way and how is the best to have a go.
  3. What is the ratio of participating players to supporting players?This is one of my major pet peeves in sport coaching. The biggest culprit in rugby, off the top of my head, is the gauntlet passing drill. Eight players standing on cones in pairs down a narrow corridor passing and receiving balls while one player runs in between, catching and transferring. Not only does it lack the context of an opponent, which is a major determining factor on one’s ability to catch and pass, but those eight players are standing still themselves not really working within the context of a game. There are plenty of drills in rugby like this where more people are stood around watching, holding bags, or otherwise not really getting involved in the action. Most look ‘sexy’ and flatter to deceive that they are teaching something, but I often say the ‘sexiest’ drills are the least realistic and least effective ways of acquiring skill in rugby. These weren’t needed by greats of the game prior to the explosion of coaches and fancy drills from about the 1970s onward – which, I seem to recall hearing, everyone adopted because Communist sports teams using such methods dominated for a while (ignoring the fact that they trained and ate better – and, possibly, had other ‘enhancements’ – than your average amateur athlete who also had a job, family, and possibly ate, drank, and smoked too much). If the likes of Barry John and Colin Meads dazzled the world without stepping ladders and up-and-back bag smashing cycles, then why should players of today?

So much in rugby depends on assessment, prediction and timing. I think we might have the most difficult task in training skill compared to any invasion game because the space in front of our athletes is so congested, with variables in front multiplied depending on where one’s team mates are. Training within contexts that look and feel like the game allow athletes to adapt more efficiently and select appropriate solutions to the problems they regularly face (i.e. true skill development) than when performed in isolation without any visual / spatial / physical context. Ask yourself, then, when planning a training session if the activities are best preparing the athletes for the demands of the next game.

 

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Over the weekend, in a hotly contested Waratahs v Hurricanes match, a ‘Tahs player was binned for a swinging arm that made contact to a player’s head. Notoriously one-eyed announcer Phil Kearns, and many ‘Tahs fans, felt it “harsh”. You can see the clip here: [link] You can hear the captain say he was going for the ball, and I bet he was, but I also think players have to be aware of what their actions could do and be prepared to face the consequences.

Speaking technically, coming in as he did, Potgieter wasn’t as likely to dislodge the ball as he might have if he came from behind and tried to punch the ball forward rather than back into his chest. There’s not a lot of time to adjust in such circumstances, but these are the risks players take.

A lot of have said that penalising players for things like this is “harsh” and “spoils the contest” when a player is sent off. But I say let’s go harsh to get players to be more responsible in contact! If that means players will be binned, or players will pull up and miss a tackle to avoid a potential card, then so be it. Player recklessness, if not willing disregard for the laws, is what spoils a fair and even contest. Since I started rugby, referee leniency, materiality and treating the outcome rather than the act (‘didn’t knock him out, so connecting to the head is no problem’) has caused certain aspects of the game, like the ruck, to be a mess. Players always test the boundaries, and referees let it go because they don’t want to ‘spoil the contest’ and take a lashing from the fans, one or both sides, and the press. Well I contend that players are the ones spoiling the contest in that regard by willingly playing outside of the laws. I ask my players to play tough and to dominate the contact area, but through controlled aggression and within the laws, not to mention the positive spirit of the game where we NEVER go out to hurt the opposition.

I’m not calling for rugby to go the way of basketball, where a slap on the wrist gets you a foul and six means you’re out of the game, or hockey were teams are down a man for short periods all game. Rugby people get uppity stressing that our sport has not just “rules, but “laws”, and lawmakers have done well to clean up the game in the last decade with things like stomping, mountaineering, tip tackles, etc. being all but gone. Just a couple of weeks ago, a World Rugby directive stressed that contact with the head must strictly be policed. If teams don’t adjust and actually play to the laws, then they face the consequences.

To me, any sort of calls for this stuff to be allowed makes those people no better than Rugby League fans who were crying because shoulder charges and head-highs were banned a few years ago. Rugby’s an amazing game without acts that can cause serious injury. Rugby’s under a massive spotlight now, and whether you care or not about seeing it grow, concussions and sub-concussive blows are going to see many players end up like NFL and NHL vets. Whatever steps we can take to make that less likely, the better, I say.

Wanna see some alternative try-saving techniques?

Genuinely attempt to dislodge the ball…

Get under the ball…


I’ll get down now …

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I read a great article a few months ago examining how video games can teach us lessons about how Generation Y learns and why they find them so engaging. Today, this topic has come up again but this time from the cantankerous old man angle, thinking they’ll be the death of sport. I definitely side with the first article, as it’s apparent that video games do have a hold over a good many kids. Sports are still fun to play, but when you look at the reasons why video games are so engaging, I think there are some stark lessons which should cause us all to think about how we present the whole sporting experience.

If kids are quitting sports in favour of sitting in front of the TV / computer to play games, then it’s our fault as finally something has usurped coaches who make participation boring! I believe even many of those who continue to participate only go to training as it guarantees a chance to play in the actual game. So what can we learn from video games?

They’re more engaging and allow more freedom than your average sport training session, which is full of boring drills and game-play overly influenced by the coach. In video games, trial and error is fine, going completely off-script to explore for ‘Easter eggs’ is encouraged, players are free to learn on their own or collaborate with other players. How often do sports coaches allow failure to go unpunished, allow athletes freedom to discover their own abilities, or work out their own solutions rather than being fed the coach-approved ways to attack and defend? I’ve started likening typical sports training sessions to video game tutorials – you know, that thing at the start of some games where you can learn how to move and play guided by on-screen pop-ups and set scenarios. Who ever does those?!?!

But if game day or playing a game at training is like playing a level in a video game, it’s easy to see why numbers drop when more time is spent doing the ‘tutorial'”.  I recently brainstormed this and its implications for rugby training …

DSC04676.1

The original article, Coaching Edge’s “Level Best” by Crispin Andrews, can be found here:  http://www.sportscoachuk.org/sites/default/files/coaching-edge-level-best-article.pdf

Highly recommended reading!

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I wrote a post on this topic before (found here), but was prompted to revisit this topic in a discussion today and thought I’d add my thoughts here as a reminder that amateur rugby should not be taken too seriously. At the level most of us are at, why not try the unorthodox regularly? It’s not as if coach / player careers hang in the balance. I’ve been reading a lot recently about fostering creativity, and yet most of what I see is pretty orthodox. I’m currently working with an academy side and am getting those familiar looks when someone tries something different, worried that I’m going to shout them down, but the reaction they typically get from me is one of encouragement or, at worst, did you consider the better options first? In such instances, I’ve been throwing more pressure on supporting players, because in high pressure situations ball carriers don’t always have the time to assess all their options (especially Canadians whose experience with the game is quite minimal compared to other countries where guys have been playing for more than a decade once they get to ‘academy’ age). I preach simple rugby, but have no problem with trying the unorthodox under the right conditions.

Early in my coaching career I was in charge of a U18 team (at just 20 years old) and we had some crazy plays that we did up just for fun. We were a high flying team that shocked bigger clubs by playing off the cuff and with a lot of fun. In playoffs, we met one of those who’d been knocked off their perch, but we learned they’d be dressing five provincial players who weren’t in the early encounter. We were down four tries at half and I reminded the guys to just go out there and have fun, play our style and not worry about the opposition. In the second half, our ambition in attack shocked them as it had in the league fixture and while we didn’t score until it was too late, we held them to no scores as we dominated possession and stayed in their territory with ball in hand. It was many years ago, but I’m certain we attempted a few things that we hadn’t before as our entire midfield were fly halves for their respective schools and loved the chip kick.

And speaking of the unorthodox, our try was scored off of one of those ‘silly’ plays. Scrum just outside of the 15m hash on the right, about 30m from goal. We stack most backs on the right side, with the left wing standing almost on the touch line and the full back directly behind the scrum. Ball goes right, fly half puts a huge cross kick toward the posts and about 20m deep. Our full back takes a huge leap and grabs it, draws both their fb and wing and fires a pass to our isolated wing for a try even the other team admitted was fantastic in the post-match get together.

It’s always reminded me that we’re out here to have fun first and while these days I don’t waste a lot of time on set piece moves at training, my players pretty much have the green light to do anything they want so long as their team mates are aware of the decision and that it makes sense given the conditions. I preach simple rugby, but when the simple stuff isn’t helping against a really tough team, then why not pull something out of the bag of tricks? Even just once or twice, and their defensive pressure might relax, not knowing when we’ll try again, and thus allowing us to go back to the simple stuff with defenders who are now second guessing.

What really angers me, though, is when teams go for the ‘orthodox’ all the time and either miss clear opportunities or do so in the face of what’s not been working. How often do you see teams slow down a penalty when the quick tap is on?  Another example: a rare shouting moment for me when our team kicked for touch on a penalty, into a stiff breeze (only gained 8m), and when our lineout success rate was 50% at best. We also had dominance with ball in hand. Previous coaches – and some from the national and provincial level! – had drilled into them to do the orthodox. Same goes for kicking from inside 22m. I was pleased to see our club’s U16s yesterday back their superior talent and run one from their own goal line for a wonderful try … yet I seemed to be the only one applauding it with gusto.

Unfortunately, a lot of coaches create an environment that doesn’t allow “50/50” play – and I get that many don’t want players to take silly risks – but they risk establishing a sense of fear in their players that prevents them from playing ambitious rugby. Instead, run scenarios that permit all kinds of possibilities (ex. Run a full team lineout in your 22 and condition the defence to give them a variety of looks) and help players with decision making based upon what they see and what their strengths and limitations are. I’m especially vocal about freedom the ‘green zone’ – which is sometimes, quite bafflingly referred to as the ‘red zone’ by even some pro teams – about 30m from the opposition try line. I pretty much allow any logical move in that area because the rewards outweigh the risks. Throw all the backs into a move, try a massive maul, have a drop at goal when the defence is tight, chip to the corner when we might have a 1 v 1 advantage, etc. etc. I also feel that at various levels of play, it’s easier to defend the orthodox and after a half dozen phases the attacking team is more likely to knock on, infringe at the break down or simply get in each other’s way.

Why not be more ambitious and have fun rather that do the ‘safe’ thing all the time? In future, no one will remember the try that came from 8 pick and goes and a centre crash, but players will still be talking about that huge cross kick or falling no-look offload to a trailing forward into their old age.

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Now that our school year / season is over, I have some time to do some reflection on the highs and where we can go next year.  Throughout the season, I’ve wanted to write something about parental involvement in the youth game and have been slowly pulling stuff together that I hope will be useful to readers of this blog.

I’ve been lucky in my first year at a new school to have a wonderful group of supportive parents who attend not only away games in our city, but some actually decided to take their spring vacation in the same location as our overseas tour!  (I imagine some of you just raised a red flag worrying about interference, spoiling the boys’ fun and chance to get away, but I didn’t see any of that – they were truly fabulous and it was great to hear vocal support for us so far away from home!)  Thinking about how positive and supportive they are kept coming up as I read news stories about parents in other sports / countries assaulting (verbally in most cases, but in one or two physically!) referees or how their verbal ‘support’ was often negative or confusing as they shouted dismay and tactical directions instead of praise.  Our parents are so great about only offering praise (and occasionally calmly asking ‘What was that call?’ to one of the coaches, genuinely wanting to learn more about the game), that we don’t mind them standing behind and with our bench.

Negative attitudes are unfortunately so prevalent that New Zealand rugby and English rugby league have found it necessary to make these two (great in the message they send) videos:

The simple message we coaches need to not only remember, but deliver to all our parents and spectators is:  Sport is for the participants; let them have fun, learn and grow in a positive and supportive environment.  I don’t think I need to go into the sort of abuse that can be heard on sidelines across many youth sports as – unfortunately – we’ve all probably heard it addressed to players from both sides, referees, officials and coaches. It’s completely unnecessary and as so passionately expressed in the videos above (esp. love the rugby league kid!) it embarrasses kids and makes them not want to play the game they love.  How sad is that?

The worst of the negative comments is directed at the players themselves, and though typically not abusive I think even those which fall into the ‘tactical direction’ category are detrimental.  I hope that standers-by are quick to shout down those who’d make a cowardly negative comment to a child or adolescent playing sport, but comments which also annoy me are ones which remind the player he/she’s made a mistake and, more subtly, continually tell them what to do in the game.

In the first instance, I think even kids at a young age and new to a sport know what constitutes successful play and what is a ‘mistake’.  I think we all learn from mistakes and it’s through picking one’s self up, moving on, and learning from mistakes that makes us better at something.  To react negatively and remind someone they’ve made a mistake only adds pressure to the voice of doubt that is an athlete’s own worst enemy – his or her own voice.  To varying levels, athletes know other people are watching them and don’t need the added pressure of having someone else fuel feelings of self-doubt.  At the very least, allowing them to move with the game and build a determination to succeed next time needs to occur.  Sometimes I even feel silence is a better reaction than ‘Nice try!’ if the athlete in question’s reaction is along the lines of a dejected “Yeah, right.”  Knowing how to help motivate a player after a mistake / loss depends on a lot of factors and can differ depending on the situation or day (esp. with teens!), but compounding the pain, shame, doubt, etc. with anything less than positive and constructive certainly doesn’t help.  I prefer to have a quiet word with athletes on the touch line in the game, after a game, or before training rather than shouting even positively worded instructions as I don’t want to embarrass them or fuel the self-doubt.  Some older players have told me they are the ‘kick up the backside’ type who want shouted instructions, but I’d still rather have them come over to me so I’m not sending the wrong message, encouraging others to shout out as well.  I don’t believe young athletes are that in-tune with how they learn / are motivated best, however, so have never taken that route with anyone teenaged or younger.

In the second instance, I’m not a fan of parents / supporters / team mates on the side lines offering tactical suggestions to athletes.  I hope that most of it becomes ‘white noise’ for the athletes and they’re able to block it out, but I suspect especially at lower levels of rugby (where pitches are smaller) and other sports where the playing surface is small, that it’s difficult to do so.  There are very few sports out there that I know of where an athlete has time to take regular instruction from an external voice (i.e. not team mates, but from outside the playing enclosure) and focus on doing his or her job.  I should search out studies on this, but I imagine there’s a difference in attention and application of feedback when it comes from team mates versus that which comes from outside of the game.  I’d suspect that our brains would see it more of a distraction than if it was a team mate directing you to get into position for a play.  The worst of it is completely unhelpful – I watched a university-level game last year where a very loud man paced the touchline yelling ‘RUCK!!!’ at virtually every ruck.  I’m certain at that level that the guys knew they had to ruck to win / secure possession.  I also try to stop our players from doing this on the field as the constant white noise of obvious / already communicated information blocks them from focusing on other developments / threats.  One example is the constant yelling of ‘ready, ready, ready / hold, hold, hold’ on defence – once is enough, the rest of the time should be spent on specific communication regarding who has who, their line speed, calling out potential threats.  How are athletes supposed to think about this stuff when people on the sidelines are constantly yelling unhelpful directions at them?  Even as a coach, the only commentary I provide is periodic and very specific to a situation – always focusing on positive / constructive – when I realise that an athlete is really missing an opportunity to learn.  I want my players to learn by playing, and me constantly giving them instructions inhibits their ability to acquire this knowledge themselves – a higher level of thinking which will see the lesson learned stick more so than if they’re told what to do.  I had to laugh but feel for the athletes of one team I witnessed recently as one of the players actually told his coach to ‘Shut up!’ as his useless instructions and rants finally got on his nerves.  I applauded him for speaking up, but unfortunately it only shut the coach up for a few minutes.  (It’s no surprise that, despite their physical ability, they weren’t really talented rugby players, masked by a lot of fancy plays that didn’t work. They’d probably never given the chance to develop their game sense without the coach telling them what to do all the time.)  These sorts of rants to athletes and officials are, frankly, embarrassing for everyone involved.  If coaches and players on the sidelines who know the inner-workings of the team’s strategies and tactics shouldn’t be sending in pointless messages, then parents really shouldn’t be!

Getting back to our great parents, I want to help them become even better supporters next year by running a little “intro to rugby” class for them as some have asked for it, as it’s a game most of this country is still pretty clueless about.  I’d also see such an event an opportunity to translate our values, mission and other sorts of important messages regarding selection, playing time, and a code of conduct we expect from all spectators.

I found this brilliant sample code of conduct via Twitter from Head Master Keith Richardson from Wynberg Boys’ High School in South Africa:

Advice To Parents - Keith Richardson

Our parents are pretty good about following all of these, but something like this would be great to send to them at the beginning of the season with an encouragement to come out and support the boys and continue to share our values of fair play and respect with everyone.  It’d also empower the majority to positively deal with any transgression as I think it’s important – as with bullying in schools among kids – to be vocal about standing up to inappropriate behaviour and standing up for others.  I’m still working it in my mind as to how we might do an ‘intro to rugby’ session for our parents next year as it’s still six to eight months away, but I thought it’d be fun – and more likely to increase attendance – if we made it a sort of fun food and trivia night.  Rather than do a boring lecture with video, I think we might try a ‘pub trivia’ sort of scenario where ‘new to the game’ parents are matched up with those who’ve played or know the game (not a guarantee given rugby’s complex laws!!!) and we have some fun learning about the game, complete with video clips to show answers.  It’d also be great bonding if the boys played alongside their parents.  Watch this space for when I finally get this plan drawn up!

To cap this long post off, however, I think it needs to be re-stated that sport at any level offers the participants the opportunity to have fun, bond with friends, develop fitness, movement ability and decision making abilities, not to mention experiencing a range of mental aspects which develops character, resilience and confidence.  To do ANYTHING which inhibits this is to ruin such a wonderful opportunity to develop better human beings.

I might have shared this on the blog before, and forgot to include it into the original draft of this post, but this video sums up what youth sport and parental support for their kids in sport should be about:

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A few years ago we were introduced to the “crouch-touch-pause-engage” sequence to bring scrums together largely in an effort to make it safer.  The sequence has synchronised player engagements so they are engaging at the same time.  The touch aspect – which seemed to anger some props I heard from – is meant to establish a safe distance and reduce the amount of collapses.  I seem to recall that aspect also not working so much at first, but I think when refs started reminding players that the touch couldn’t just be a tap on the arm – but must be an extended arm to the shoulder – that has seen (by my observation) fewer scrums that hinge straight down.  Anyone who watches a decent amount of rugby will agree, however, that scrums still collapse and an increasing amount of the running clock is wasted with re-set after re-set.  Like in this match … seriously, don’t waste your time watching the whole thing, but it takes about five minutes to re-start this play!

With the beginning of the northern hemisphere season in late August, we have seen a new scrum cadence – “crouch, touch, set”.  The argument has been that the fourth stage had forwards perched too long causing their muscles to be strained to the limit, which is probably true as front rowers have a lot of weight to hold back for those few seconds.  I think the use of the word ‘set’ has added a new dimension, which some have been demanding be changed for a few years now – that the aggressive hit created by two teams is the main problem.

Just last week, former England hooker, Brian Moore wrote an informative article, again calling for the IRB to take a serious look at how scrums engage.  He’s very passionate about this subject, even calling out officials directly saying that the very notion of the ‘hit’ must be removed, the simple argument being that it’s created a dangerous situation for front rowers that didn’t used to exist.  He’s added, quite correctly, that a ‘hit’ isn’t in the Law book as being part of the scrum engagement, and that such an action is actually contrary to the laws as there is to be no pushing until the ball is in.  His words say it best:

The word hit is not in the law book but is now freely quoted and accepted by referees who allow front rows to engage with as much force as possible and immediately thereafter drive forward as quickly as possible. Not only do they condone this dangerous practice, they have actually invented a new penalty offence, one not in the law book, of ‘not taking the hit’, which actually means penalising one pack for not pushing with enough illegally-early force to counterbalance the other pack’s illegal shove.

Elite referees, including Paddy O’Brien, the then IRB refereeing supremo, didn’t accept the point saying they had too many more important things to worry about to apply the laws as written and that most people were not that concerned anyway. They might now have to reconsider that stance, because recently the IRB published a report on the most detailed examination ever of the scrum, undertaken over three years in South Africa and at Bath University. It isn’t revolutionary in the sense that it contains startling results, indeed it mostly confirmed many things already known by experienced practitioners. The point it that for the first time these things cannot be dismissed as anecdotal or personal, they come from tests carried out at six levels of rugby from international to school.

The conclusions to the report expressly support my above contention that “modern scrumming involves a high initial impact or ‘hit’ on engagement, followed by sustained pushing forces throughout the scrum” — contrary to the law stating pushing should only begin when the ball leaves the scum-half’s hands.

It’s an important first step that this extensive IRB trial has shown that the hit is a major problem.  The report caused quite a stir, including a great article – and string of comments – on several rugby forums.   Many of the old boys reminded us that old scrums didn’t often collapse and as such players got on with the game after an aggressive few seconds of a fairer contest for the ball.  You can see a few scrums in this clip from the 1980s where the forwards sort of morph together quickly and stay upright.

I do think there is an element of danger in the old style with the lack of a coordinated call and the ‘dipping’ action high front rows have to make to get their heads down.  I don’t think anyone’s saying we should go back to that style, but there are some lessons there which Moore continually brings up during broadcasts and online.  His key elements to keeping the scrums up are:  removing the aggressive ‘hit’ by having the scrums remain steady until the ball is fed, making front rowers wear shirts that are loose enough for opponents to grab (many simply collapse because a prop can’t bind on and he hinges downward0, and to ensure that the ball is fed straight down the middle of the tunnel.  Funnily enough, this is the situation at youth level and it allows the better scrum to win the contest.

I’d also add that scrums wheeled more than 45 degrees should be re-set in favour of the feeding team, as they are in U19 Laws for safety reasons, as I suspect that deliberate wheels or whip-arounds are contributing to collapses.  Some – probably the same who didn’t like the ‘touch’ aspect of the new cadence – would argue that it’s one more step toward having Rugby League style lean-on scrums, but I’d counter by saying that the whole point of a scrum is to provide a fair contest for the ball after a technical infringement like a knock-on.  It’s meant to be a means of re-starting, with the advantage going to the stronger team, not the one that’s better at cheating or bashing the living hell out of the other one with a powerful, illegal early drive.  With the amount of skullduggery that goes on in the scrums, and that refs are never fully aware of who’s doing what to whom, games are also being decided on what many refer to as a ‘lottery’ of scrum-infringement penalties (Wasps fans, like myself, are probably still stinging from the opening day loss to Quins after having given up a 78th minute kickable penalty for ‘not taking the hit’).  Removing some of these bits, forcing the fair contest of which is the better scrum under equal conditions, still will allow the better pack of 8 to win, and even allow us to see more wins against the head – which are always thrilling!

I sincerely hope the IRB takes a look at this issue not just to give us back the time wasted on re-sets but also for the safety of players of all ages!

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By the end of the week, I’ll have been involved in three rather large sevens tournaments for Middle School (approx. 11-14 year old) students on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.  Sevens is relatively new to schools rugby around here, but with it’s recent admission to the Summer Olympics in 2016, I gather that the time was right to make the switch.  Some conversations I’ve had over the past few days, and going back to the start of the season, has altered my thinking somewhat with regard to how sevens can possibly take rugby one more step forward in this country.

I’m still a bit sceptical and worried that a full change could come because I fear the shortened code could take over university and even high school rugby, which would be a shame, because I still believe fifteens should be the main focus for our country.  It will always be the high profile sport and we should aim to remain part of that club even though Canada’s relative competitive status has slipped in the last decade and a half since professionalism was made official.  But as a development vehicle – a way to introduce rugby to youngsters and smaller schools / communities – sevens is the PERFECT way to grow the game.

One complaint I heard was that there’s no room for the bigger kids.  As a former front rower, I can sympathise and this is part of the worry I have if sevens were to take over high school sports.  At the moment, high school rugby still has room for chubby kids, but with our short seasons and lack of support / funds (at public schools) to field more than one team per sport, that’d be the end of rugby for them, I’m sure.  But at the Middle School level, the pitches are smaller and the physical / fitness abilities of all students is not yet so pronounced, giving the slow, chubby kid a better chance.  As one coach – surely a PE teacher! – said, it’s also an early enough stage to suggest to those kids that it’s time to take one’s fitness / nutrition / health more seriously and get in shape for sevens and eventually senior fifteens rugby.  If sevens had been around when I was in elementary school, I probably would have ended up the centre I’ve always wanted to be!  (We only had the very pedestrian baseball when I was a boy.)

The other negative comment was how it limited one coach’s preference to play a forwards’ game.  The cynic in me immediately shot back saying that’s a major problem with Canadian rugby now that we need to over-come – too forwards-oriented, without the basic skills and vision across all players to compete with other nations.  There’s no hiding in sevens.  Everyone’s got to tackle and ruck.  Everyone’s got to pass and run the ball in space.  But I do think there’s an opportunity on the smaller fields to play such a game, if one so desired.  … but I still have to think ‘why’???  Rugby’s such an amazing game to watch when people are running in space and the ball is being tossed about.  Even for those who like the biffo, there are still individual battles to be fought and even the close-quarter, up-the-guts battles should teams spread themselves too thinly on defence and allow a couple of the bigger lads to have an old fashioned Northern Hemisphere style rumble.  In short, smaller field sevens for middle school aged kids is perfect to practice any style of rugby in a microcosm. In this microcosm, fewer players means getting involved to a greater degree in both attack and defence, allowing kids a greater opportunity to become better at both!

What I also like about how Middle School rugby is run on Vancouver Island has to do with the spirit of the game, encouraging more kids to play.  First off, girls are allowed.  Despite contact, it’s not a big issue for pre- / early- teens whose growth spurts are all over the place (often in favour of girls until about 13/14!), so why not?  Girls that start that young, in my experience as a women’s coach, are always great later in life.  Related to that, playing levels are weight-graded so that the bigger kids cannot dominate and smaller kids are not on the receiving end.  Some might argue that this is bad for the big kid who has to play up a grade (in some cases where a Gr. 8 is too heavy and hasn’t a connection to a high school to play with Gr. 9s) or cannot, but I don’t think it’s as a cruel thing as some would make it out to be.  In some cases these players still play alongside their team mates, but with a yellow bib indicating they are ‘touch only’ players.  Either way, it forces the ‘big’ kids to use not their bulk and power, but actually focus on the skills and vision all the other kids have to acquire and develop.  We’ve all probably seen kids like this before – ones who dominate because of size at a lower level who have wasted years not acquiring any abilities because they didn’t need to and end up being poor teenage / adult players.  With weight grading, a level playing field is presented that’s good for all.

The final spirit-of-the-game bonus of adopting sevens relates to the growth of rugby on the whole and accessibility.  Instead of having to field a full side of 15 (or 11 as some do on the mainland), sevens allows schools with just 10 interested / able kids – and even less in some cases! – to field teams.  While maybe only one or two might end up sticking with rugby into their teenage years, there’s nothing wrong with growing the game one or two players at a time!  In such cases, sevens allows even the one kid who’s really interested in the game has a better chance of playing as it’s not so hard to get those few kids together, even if the others aren’t that into the sport.  When trying to get a full fifteen together, for a brand of rugby that requires more subs given the extra time and contact, many schools simply wouldn’t be able to adopt rugby at all.  For those schools which do have quite a lot of interest, sevens allows them to field two or even three sides, so that every kid gets a chance at significant game time.  By grouping together A, B (and C!) teams, kids at various levels of ability also get the opportunity to enjoy the game with less likelihood of getting smashed or utterly dominating – ensuring that each gets a fair chance to work on skills and truly enjoy the experience.

In conclusion, I think adopting sevens rugby (contact OR touch) is a great way to grow the game at the crucial grass roots level in Canada, and especially for the pre-teen age group.  I hope this recent increase in awareness and a move to include more kids continues to grow so that we can show that this is truly a wonderful sport for all.

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