Posts Tagged ‘safety’

During the Wasps v Leicester Tigers match yesterday, Tigers’ lock Will Spencer was shown a red card for a high tackle that made forceful contact with the head of Wasps’ hooker Tommy Taylor. Without getting into the social media storm about whether or not it should have been (which angered me as, for the sake of player safety and forcing change, it HAS to be nothing but…), I thought I could address those people who questioned what a 6’7″ player (or any player) could do when caught in a position where it’d be very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid delivering a high tackle.

First, here’s the incident:

Firstly, I think it’s important that we stop talking about rugby as being a ‘collision sport’. In some regions / teams, it certainly looks that way with ball carriers running straight into contact and defenders launching themselves into tackles. I recently heard a pro player say it was a ‘game of inches’, which no doubt comes from the NFL and the film Any Given Sunday, but it’s really not. Rugby is a game about possession. It’s really only become a battle of attrition because teams haven’t the ability / skill to evade and cleverly unlock defences and that (frustratingly) the law enforcers allow so many transgressions at the breakdown that it’s not worth contesting much of the time, so they spread their defenders out and offer no clear opportunities for the attack. With referees favouring the attacking side in tackle contests (rucks, mauls), it’s also fairly easy to string 10+ phases together of crash balls where the supporting players immediately seal off.

In addition, rugby league coaches have brought to union the ‘big hit’ and swarming defensive structures that dominate their code. It seems all I hear people talking about when it comes to tackle training is making the dominant hit that drives a ball carrier back. This technique certainly has its positives (get defence on the front foot, knock loose the ball, tackler lands on top so can contest easier, etc.) it doesn’t have to be the only way. When it comes to player safety, it’s been proven that the tackler going high is more likely to suffer a concussion than the carrier and than if using a lower and more passive hit. I have seen people get knocked out from making low tackles, too, but the data from pro rugby shows that high is more risky.

Accidental high tackles are still going to happen, but what needs to change is the mentality that lining a ball carrier up for a crunching tackle is the primary goal. It should be ever-present in the mind of tall players, especially, that a smaller player is going to offer a greater challenge. In the Spencer / Taylor case above, people were (I think deluding themselves by… ) saying that Taylor ‘ducked’ into the tackle. There’s no active ‘ducking’ at all; his change in shape came as a result of his attempt to pass. You can see the same dip in body height in Sapoaga as he passes to Taylor. If you’re still not sold on that, the other way that Taylor’s height changed is upon simply realising he’d been lined up for a big hit by an approaching giant of a lock! These are things that tacklers must be aware of, approaching every situation not as a player-possessed, but as a mindful player who can predict and read a situation and use the best option, even in a split second.

So what could Spencer do? Admittedly, he was committed so it’d have been very difficult to do anything else. He didn’t really ‘launch’ himself, but there is force applied that may not have been necessary. He could have better read the situation and opted for a tackle less-forceful. Below is another, not-dissimilar incident where there wasn’t much time to change but with greater awareness and training, a different outcome should have been possible.

Tu’ungafasi leans into the hit and collides with the Frenchman’s face and his own teammate’s head. Better communication with his teammate and recognition that Cane was already attempting the tackle should have triggered in Tu’ungafasi that he didn’t need to put in a big hit. Trust is so very important on defence this is a great example of where the double hit wasn’t needed; Cane was close enough (and certainly capable enough) to wrap up Grosso, leaving Tu’ugnafasi in an excellent spot to jackal / contest possession. For me, the low passive or low chop tackle is sorely under-used, especially when teams have so many capable jackallers these days. A big hit more often puts the ball back on the attacking team’s side, while a low hit more often has it first presented on the defensive side and with the carrier having to fight through the downed tackler to lay the ball back.

Again, rugby is a game about possession. When introducing defence to a team, I always ask the question: “What’s the aim of defence?” Often, the answers I receive are: to stop scores, make tackles, etc. but the primary aim of defence is to get the ball back, legally, as soon as possible. So the first step toward changing the culture of the ‘big hit’ (something that’s only a recent trend, despite some saying that red cards reflecting a greater focus on player safety are ‘ruining the game’ … but didn’t we all learn to tackle low when we were young/new?) is making players more aware of their actions, the actions of opponents, the most important aspects of playing defence, and appropriate technical application for the situation at hand. This is the one area in my training sessions that I continue to ‘drill’ – not in long lines, but in pairs or small groups. The aim is to give players as many reps as possible at reading body shapes and getting their own positioning correct, often without full contact, so they can be more aware, safer, and use the best techniques to make not only the situation but also their abilities and body types.


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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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I had a good question from a coaching colleague today regarding who can do what when attempting to steal the ball at the tackle contest and thought I’d share my reply:

Regarding the contact area, my philosophy these days is to not get bogged down in ‘un-winnable battles’ on the ground (unless the counter-ruck is on) and go for the steal in the next tackle.  If there are no attacking players immediately present to set up a ruck, however, then going for the steal is a MUST in my book…

As for your situation, I think I could put it simply by saying that both defenders HAVE to release.  The person actually going to ground can get up and play the ball from any direction, while the ‘tackle assist’ player must come through the gate.  The tackle assist still has to release the tackled player, be on her feet, which should be supporting her body weight.  Technically, I think she also needs have shoulders above hips, but that one’s not called too strictly by my observation (that said, I ALWAYS teach my players to adhere to “shoulders above hips” because it’s just safer that way, so they’re not exposing neck/back to the player coming to clear out).

Here’s the relevant bit of Law:
(a) When a player tackles an opponent and they both go to ground, the tackler must immediately release the tackled player.
Sanction: Penalty kick
(b) The tackler must immediately get up or move away from the tackled player and from the ball at once.
Sanction: Penalty kick
(c) The tackler must get up before playing the ball and then may play the ball from any direction.
Sanction: Penalty kick


Law 15.6 (c) Players in opposition to the ball carrier who remain on their feet who bring the ball carrier to ground so that the player is tackled must release the ball and the ball carrier. Those players may then play the ball providing they are on their feet and do so from behind the ball and from directly behind the tackled player or a tackler closest to those players’ goal line.
Sanction: Penalty kick

I’ve read a fair bit of debate on the two-man tackle technique, which has come from Rugby League.  If you’re trying to stop the ball close to the try line, first-high / second-low makes sense.  (In League they do this to slow the play down because as soon as a tackle is made the entire defending team, apart from the tacklers, have to retreat 10m.  If they went low and quick, there’s a good chance they’d be caught on the back foot).  In other places in Union, however, I think low and quick by the first into contact is best as such a tackle usually places the ball on OUR side allowing the ‘tackle assist’ player to come in and poach the ball.  I think both have their place – Ireland have been stopping teams in their tracks with the high hit first in the RWC – and their big, aggressive forwards are good at stopping the ensuing drive.  I wonder if high / low, though, reduces the likelihood of a poach because the ‘high’ defender is working against the ‘low’ with regard to bringing the player down and forcing her to release.  That’s just my opinion.  Either way, getting the player down quickly, releasing and getting to one’s feet (or rolling away) and challenging the ball is about dominance.  Nothing frustrates me more than the lazy high challenge – or the ‘ball room dance’ technique, which gives the opposition a chance to form a ruck because the process of going to ground takes longer.  A quick, dominant tackle contest can catch them well out of position and give the defending team the advantage. 

Here’s an example of a drill I use:

… after the technique is sound, I move to providing a support runner or two to increase pressure on the defenders to get the timing right.  When I do that, though, it’s important to have someone ‘reffing’ the situation so cheating isn’t reinforced.  The trick in the whole process is to determine WHEN the tackler touches ball VS. WHEN the ruck forms.  She only has rights to the ball if the ruck hasn’t formed first.  (My favourite drill to practice this is to have one attacker run against four defenders.  Not all are going to get involved in the tackle – two at the most – and the other two can work on getting in position for the next phase and communicating this.)

Love this bit from the Green and Gold Rugby Blog:

“Perhaps the most novel approach so far comes from South Africa, where the Stormers’ players have taken to clapping their hands in an effort to show they have released the tackled player before attempting the steal…weird huh?  If you’re attempting a steal and you know it, clap you’re hands…I can’t see it catching on.” 

[I think it’s a smart idea – takes a split second and makes it obvious to the ref!]

In this clip you can see some examples of how very brief the ‘release’ has to be (though I think the one at :43 is iffy … ref might have got that one wrong).

And some more here, with some clear-cut, and others maybe a bit debatable:

… hopefully you don’t mind a bit of Bon Jovi!   😉

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When coaching our players, especially new ones, to improve their tackling technique I sometimes think a small, but vital step is missed in going through the basics of making an effective rugby tackle.  Most of us get right these points absolutely spot on:

  • approach dynamically; on toes, flexed and ready to react to the ball carrier’s sudden movements
  • keep hands in close and sight the target (i.e. the hip)
  • step in close (*… I’ll come back to this)
  • drop low by bending at the knees, keeping back straight
  • put head to the side, keeping it tight to the ball carrier’s body (usually, the hip / butt – “cheek to cheek” as we often say, ensuring the head is less susceptible to being bounced about – a common cause of tackle-induced concussions!)
  • drive shoulder into ball carrier’s mid-section while wrapping tightly with both arms, preferably around the thighs
  • continue to drive legs while holding on tightly to bring down the ball carrier, preferably landing on top

While forgetting any one or combo of these can result in a poor tackle, I want to focus on one missing element by addressing the case of the little player charged to bring down the bigger player.  In these two clips, we see Eoin Reddan and Peter Stringer faced with having to tackle players much bigger than them.

[Videos have been deleted by the host. 😦  ]

In the first case, Reddan makes his first error by trying to take Tuilagi while flat footed!  This is a crucial mistake in any defensive situation, let alone trying to take on someone practically twice your size, and a prime example of why I always tell my players to “attack on defence, never sit back and wait”.  In in the second case, every time I watch I cannot understand why Stringer comes around to get in front of Roberts when he could have taken him much more easily from behind or the side.  In both cases, the tacklers definitely are too high to take on players with such power and are not moving forward themselves with enough force to equalise, let alone over-power the ball carriers’ forward momentum.  Smaller players can actually benefit from their stature in such situations as they should be able to use correct technique as outlined above to get LEVERAGE on and/or UN-BALANCE the ball carrier.

I would not advise every small player to try this particular tackle, but here’s a perfect example of how, despite being several inches shorter, Bryan Habana uses leverage to dump Mose Tuiali’i.  As per the third item listed above (told you I’d get back to it!) he steps in close in order to do all the other good things.  Not getting close is one of the main reasons players make ineffective ‘arm tackles.’  Following this is another good example of a tackler achieving leverage, this time Benson Stanley ‘attacking’ Vainikolo by stepping into him low and driving high.

A great analogy I’ve heard asks tacklers to imagine a hula hoop being at the feet of the ball carrier.  To get close enough to be effective, tacklers are then asked to get one foot ‘inside the hoop’ while dipping, driving and wrapping.  One school of thought says this foot should be put between the legs of the ball carrier, allowing the tackler to square up to them and drive them back.  I don’t think this is wrong, because it can result in a good drive backwards (see my previous articles on why I’m not the biggest fan of dump tackles), but it’s not necessarily the best advice for a small player – without Habana’s strength – to take on a bigger player.  Instead, players should be taking the first three points in the list more seriously and looking to get a better angle than ‘square on’ to UNBALANCE the ball carrier.

The dynamic and nimble approach allows the tackler to be ready for sudden movements.  Keeping the hands in close and sighting the hip as the target provides focus for the hit.  Stepping in close is again the goal, but the drive should not be straight back, but to the side of the shoulder making the hit.  To me, this is a better tackle because not only will it throw the ball carrier off balance, away from his forward momentum, he won’t necessarily end up in the best position to lay the ball back to his team and there is less likelihood of the tackler being run over.  In fact, the tackler should land on top of the ball carrier and be in a good position to jackal for possession.  Notice in this clip how Contepomi has, first, a good angle on Chabal, and then does even better to recover as the big Frenchman steps inside.  He finishes the tackle by going low and wrapping his legs.  There’s even a tiny hint of a shoulder drive, which is enough, combined with the other elements, to put the bigger man off-balance.

Finally, have a look at this compilation of tackles from the recent women’s World Cup.  Here were have many examples of tacklers knocking the ball carrier off-balance from the side rather than trying to take them square on.  Even in the second last example, Amy Turner shows her incredible strength in dumping the Irish player, but the key elements which knocked the player off her feet was Turner’s ability to go from low to high to gain leverage and following through to drive sideways.  The final example shows an incredible dump tackle by Maggie Alphonsi, and while this does not necessarily support my ‘from the side’ argument, the ball carrier is much bigger so she wraps the legs to take away her power and stability and finishes the hit levering from low to high.

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Today I was involved in a debate over what should happen to Harlequins’ team doctor over the so-called ‘Bloodgate’ scandal where she, on the request of a player (possibly management), made a small cut to a player’s lip so he could make a ‘legal’ substitution.  I won’t get into this issue specifically, but took the stance that a small reprimand should be made, but I didn’t think she should be as harshly penalised as some were demanding.  Why I started this post, though, was because I added that there are plenty more severe examples of players, management, and medical staff who do not take the right actions for athlete welfare all for the sake of ‘the game.’  One of the most serious of these is concussions.

I don’t want to mis-represent the realities and severity of concussions, so have added some official documentation below that provides proper answers to the big questions.  I think I can say, however, that a concussion involves trauma to the brain which impairs function either temporarily or over a longer term, caused by either direct or indirect forces (i.e. a blow to the head itself or force elsewhere that causes the head move forward with great force – remember, the brain is essentially floating around in your head and the protective fluid can be displaced in the forces are great enough).  For some, the symptoms and implications might only last a short period and recovery can be speedy, for others they may linger or be the symptom of a more severe injury.  (Again, note the documentation I’ve added for further – and quite excellent – information, but always consult medical expertise in person if you’re involved in such a situation!)

My issue with concussion management in rugby surrounds two areas:  the duty of care of people in dealing with injury, and taking steps to prevent such injuries.

1.  Duty of Care – Everyone involved with a contact sport from player, to management / coaching, to medical staff, to parents / family should take great care to inform themselves about concussion prevention and management.  This is information which really should be passed from the top down, with national unions taking a firm stance on requiring staff to attend courses on rugby safety.  I had to take a SmartRugby course in Australia, which is an annual in-person requirement for all coaches.  One of the best ideas I’ve heard in areas where medical staff aren’t as plentiful, is a concussion management card which can be given to the player / family member / etc. so that proper care might be taken in the crucial monitoring period after a suspected or actual concussion.

Our club also had some strong policies to take extra care, such as having all players take a simple paper test that showed a person’s ability to match letters with corresponding coded symbols.  Upon suspicion of a concussion, the team doctor would re-administer the test to see if the player was able to match their previous results.  This was something that could be done very quickly, on-site to give an idea of how severe the situation might be.  It also adhered to the IRB Medical guideline stating that a player who has suffered a concussion should not return to play for three weeks, and with written declaration from a medical practitioner.  Earlier return is possible when symptom free and with medical permission for adults, but the three-week lay off is mandatory for age-grade players.

It really annoys me to see, even at the highest level, players receiving a severe blow that has them staggering – even out cold! – and making a re-appearance to the field.  No game, no matter the level, is more important than one’s short / long term health and these players need to be taken off immediately.  Even in a case where replacements are no longer allowed, I’d rather us be a player down.  In the aforementioned debate, I brought up an example of an Australian rugby league player who was out before he hit the ground after getting hit in the back of the head with a ball.  I remembered yelling at the tv later on in the match when he actually returned to play!  (Video and evidence of him being back on the field below … and in trying to find it, I found an article where the player talked about his catalogue of injuries and how they’ve impacted his life now that he’s approaching retirement in his early 30s.)

Knocked out in the 51st minute and taken off, but on the receiving end of a penalty-worthy hit in the 76th minute.

2. Concussion Prevention – The other aspect I think coaches need to pay greater attention to is educating players on how to avoid / prevent concussion inducing incidents.  I think the first should occur even before anyone steps on a practice field – protective equipment.  It’s been proven that the lightly padded helmets do little if anything to protect the wearer from concussions.  (Studies can be found here and here. )  While I think they are useful for preventing cuts and small bumps, and for people with long hair to keep it out of the way, I always fear that many wearers feel it makes them impervious to serious injury and as such play with greater intensity than is needed.  I used to play (American) football, and this was definitely the case – I hear the same for ice hockey – the extra padding made you feel that you could put in big and bigger hits.  Rugby padding should not be seen in the same degree, and quite frankly, neither should football / hockey padding as the evidence of concussions there is as prevalent if not more!

Once on the field, coaches should take all the time that is necessary to ensure that all players can be safe on the field – which might even mean more for some athletes, just to be sure.  A small part of me felt bad in the past that I’ve prevented certain players from taking the field until later in the season for safety reasons.  In one case, we even felt someone shouldn’t play the entire season, but were welcomed to continue monitored training with us so that the person could acquire the necessary skills over time.  I’d like to see a study on the frequency of injury compared to time spent training and quality of instruction.  The tackle area is probably the most obvious, and I have posted plenty of topics on how to do it safely (note the tags at the side).  One of my biggest pet peeves in this area are players tackling too high, risking a clash of heads or ‘whip lash’ from not having the head braced against anything – cheek to (ass) ‘cheek’ as we say ensures the head is stable in contact.  The other annoyance I have is seeing players put their head in front of the body of the ball carrier – whether straight on or from the side.  Both are perfect ways to get a concussion, so it’s up to us to ensure players have enough practice in the proper technique to ensure they do not get into these situations.

More detail on managing concussions:

Concussion – A presentation by the medical advisor to the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union

Concussion Sideline Management Intervention – a study from New Zealand which shows the results of proper first response management

Injury Management Guidelines – from the New Zealand Rugby Union, including both severe injuries and concussions, as well as return-to-play guidelines

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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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Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with rugby as it is … yet people in positions of power are talking about yet another amendment to a game which is going pretty good as it is.

Today I read that the English RFU is going to trial ‘rolling substitutions’ like they have in Rugby League.  The trial would see teams able to make 12 changes during the course of a game – even allowing substituted players to come back on.  The BBC article states that this idea was brought about as a result of the ‘Bloodgate’ scandal whereby a Harlequins player was substituted due to a non-existent blood injury (with fake blood capsules) so his team could return a specialist kicker who’d been substituted earlier.  I think the simple solution in such cases is to have the ref actually check that there is a cut that needs mending.  … but this case was so high profile, in which the player and the staff responsible were suspended, and the club brought into disrepute, that people would be stupid to try this again.

Such things are probably more likely to be tried at the amateur level, and while incredibly sad on the part of the perpetrators, I think the cheaters would still find means to circumvent any Laws intended to curtail such practices.  As such, I think bringing in rolling subs would have a detrimental effect with regard to the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences.’  We saw this with the ELVs as the ‘cannot pass back into the 22m area and get the lineout up-field’ change – meant to bring about more running rugby – actually saw teams constantly bombarding each other with aimless aerial ping pong so as not to get caught with the ball inside / near their 22.

I was glad to read that my initial thought on the negative result of such a Law amendment was brought up in the article by one of my coaching idols, Wasps and Wales coach Shaun Edwards:

“A prop who wanted to last 60 minutes could not balloon up to 24 stone if only because he would become an absolute liability in open play,” wrote Wasps and Wales coach Shaun Edwards, who is a legend of British rugby league, in his column for The Guardian last year.

“However, if one of the front five has to last only 10 or 20 minutes of explosive action before getting a rest on the bench, then 20 stone is better than 18 and 22 better than 20, and enough time in the gym will certainly shape these new giants.

“If rolling substitutions are to be tested, we have to be very careful. The shape of the game, its core values and the health of those who play it are all at risk.”

With rolling subs, you could have several massive, incredibly intense players going about smashing into people with reckless abandon and then having a seat on the bench for a bit, only to return to do the same later, have a seat at halftime, and do it all again in the second half.  This is the sort of thing that goes on in both League and American Football … where they have such substitution rules.  I won’t go into an argument about how many more collision-related injuries occur in these sports compared to Rugby Union, but I think you can see where I’m going with this.  I think it’s great that some of the best players in the world aren’t much bigger than ordinary people – with incredible fitness, yes – but not the bulk of NFL players, for example.  They’ve got to be able to carry themselves about for upwards of 80 minutes.  And with subs as they are, it becomes liability to be carrying around more weight than your cardiovascular system can handle for that sustained period.

Finally, England coach Martin Johnson makes a comment about addressing the (supposed) up-surge in rugby injuries.  If the stats are truly showing that more injuries are occurring at ALL LEVELs, then I think more has to be looked into with regard to why – not just the amount of time a player gets in one game.  At the professional level, I would argue that they play too many games in one season and that there has been a shift to putting in the ‘big hit’ of late.  I’ve argued at length in his blog that the League style ‘collision’ is almost totally useless in Union, with video evidence to prove it (Rougerie injuring himself vs. Pocock and Smith going low and immediately stealing the ball).  I feel that the ‘big hit’ is not only counter productive with regard to the tactical principle of winning possession, but that its also contrary to the spirit of not only the core values of the game’s moral code.  More so, it seems players are aiming to hurt in the tackle, rather than to impede and re-gain possession.

If the IRB wanted to trial a Law that would reduce the amount of injuries, they might start by requiring tackles to not just be below the shoulders, but below the arm pits.  I would argue that hits at that height are less likely to ‘slip up’ and run into the head area as they do now.  But I think, with success stories like the aforementioned Aussies, and that teams seem to realise that fitness is more worthwhile than bulk (with the end of the ‘Lomu’ area, we’re seeing smaller skilled players running circles around the behemoths) that the rate of injuries will (hopefully) come down.  A stronger focus on coaching proper technique at all levels, especially the impressionable youth stage, will definitely help this cause!

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

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

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The young man touted as a future All Black fly half got a Crude (pardon the pun!) welcome to Super rugby as he lined up against the Blues as a substitute.  Aaron Cruden just turned 21 years old a month ago, so is likely still growing and just started professional rugby so can still add bulk, but he’ll need to grow mentally after this hit from Benson Stanley.

While it still isn’t an example of a dump tackle which provided the defending team with possession, that Stanley dislodged the ball made it more of a possibility than in most other cases.  (If I find a good video of one which yields an immediate turnover, that’ll be my last word!)  It must also be said that Stanley had perfect form in his tackle, without being too high or reckless.  On the point made by the commenter of my initial post on the subject, this is also the sort of hit which can be more psychological than immediate beneficial.  Maybe it’s further proof to my point, however, that the technique isn’t really worth it because my beloved Blues still lost the match and young Cruden will only get more wise from here on in.

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I hope I made a good case of why I’m not the biggest fan of dump, high, and similarly aggressive tackles the last time I wrote about it (here).  And ever since just after kick-off between Scotland and France on Sunday, I’ve been waiting to make this post.  Thanks to the lad(s) at Rugby Dump, I can now do so with video evidence.

I’ll keep this short and sweet, because I think I made my point before about the futility of these types of tackles – in most situations – but have a look at this video and tell me that Aurelien Rougerie shouldn’t have considered a lower, more focused and dominant tackle.

Let’s break down his tackling … (pun intended) …

Tackle #1

  • Comes flying in like a rocket, puts his shoulder square into Kelly Brown’s shoulder
  • Brown, who’s presenting a stable ‘hard shoulder’ stance, is rocked backwards, but lays the ball back well
  • Scotland retain possession, and play on
  • Rougerie’s holding his shoulder in agony
  • … Despite what Jonathan Davies says in the replay, while it’s a ‘great’ hit in terms of the size of the impact, it’s in no way effective as Scotland have maintained possession and France might have to use a valuable replacement inside a minute!
  • … If he’d considered taking him low and jackaled for possession, it’s very likely France could have won the ball or even a penalty as Rougerie had Brown isolated and Scotland on the back foot.  If he’d stayed balanced and taken down Brown quickly – they’re pretty much the same size! – the French lock was next to arrive and would have assisted in winning the ball.

Tackle #2

  • (I won’t comment on “with gay abandon”…) but Davies is right that his head is in the wrong position.  Rougerie is way too high in this challenge again, taking a shoulder to the head area.  This could have been more serious – apparently he’s out for two-three weeks.
  • If he’d have put the shoulder into Beattie’s mid-section, he’d have made a devastating, legal hit.  In both instances, Rougerie’s penalty-level high.
  • You can see him build up his sprint into a BLITZ tackle as the ball’s being moved wide, but he needed to focus on a lower target.  Even good blitz tacklers will either take the man low and get into a position to jackal, or take ‘man-and-ball’ and drive him back to win possession – not by simply trying to hurt the man.
  • … then he ‘soldiers on’ and gets into a scoring position not long after, and drops an easy pass, injured or worrying about being hit as hard has he had just attempted, but most likely both.

I can appreciate that big tackles can be a psychological advantage, but I think the principle aim of playing defence is to win the ball back.  If you take that mentality in your tackles, you effectively work on the second (or first for some) aim of preventing the opposition from scoring.  Flying into opponents “with gay abandon” does not meet this aim, and I think more so, at least subconsciously if not consciously, shows an intent to injure – which has no place in rugby.  (If one needs any proof, note how Rougerie’s reckless attempts actually saw HIM injured!)

If you want to see great video of proper tackling technique, check out this detailed gem from the All Blacks:

And finally, for those of you who love a big hit, here’s a way of doing a Blitz Man-and-Ball to good effect.  White not only wraps up the ball, but drives his man back, with support, and as the ball is tied up wins possession as the team going last ‘forward’ before the stoppage.

Jason White’s Hit on Paul Sackey

I have to first say that the attempt to go low and pop to the feet and jackal before White’s effort was great, especially considering the size of Lesley Vainikolo, though didn’t yield the desired result.  Jason White’s subsequent hit on Paul Sackey took him lower than the shoulders, wrapped up the ball not only to contest but prevent the pass, and in driving him back won possession as the team “last going forward when the ball became unplayable.”  Perfect!

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