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Posts Tagged ‘strategy’

In the summer, while touring around Germany, I read a book about the history and evolution of American football tactics and formations called Blood, Sweat and Chalk by Tim Layden.

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Years ago, I stumbled upon an article that covered this (which I haven’t been able to find since!) and it made me think about rugby’s evolution and the use of tactics. I do have a great book called Developments in the Field of Play by JJ Stewart, but it seems there was more innovation in the first 100 or so years of rugby than in the last 50, and largely because of law changes, not because coaches dared to be different. At the time of reading these, I didn’t think there was as much creativity in rugby as there could be. In the last couple of years, I think top level rugby has become even less creative and when I again hunted for the article, I stumbled upon Layden’s book. It covers about 100 years of changes from the pre-passing days to the current era. It admits that football has some of the same ‘copycat’ issues that rugby has, especially when an innovation proves successful, but it also suggests that there are still varied approaches and that the ‘old way’ occasionally gets re-used. Rugby doesn’t have such a wide range of historic approaches like football, and I’m not advocating rugby become very rigid like the American game can be, but when was the last time you saw, say, a dribbling rush in a rugby game? Do you even know what a dribbling rush is? (Forwards would kick the ball along the ground to advance it because you can’t be tackled if not carrying it!)

I’ve been thinking of some more creative approaches to playing, inspired by old rugby manuals, and this book has further emboldened me to see how they’d do in today’s game. What follows are my reflections from Layden’s book that might help you also make the game more interesting and rewarding for your players.

“Their work is equal parts science and art – the science of outmaneuvering an opponent like a military field commander and the art of understanding the subtleties of player’s abilities.” (9)

In expanding upon the above quote, Layden adds that while ‘chalk talk’ involves the study of concepts, that “the game isn’t played by concepts; it’s played by human athletes.” (10) This is a great reminder that no matter which point of the spectrum you fall, between ‘just the basics’ and ‘extreme creativity’, you still have to select approaches that suit the players you have, and that can change year to year. Professional teams – and some might say even representative teams (but I’d argue, for junior grades, that’s wrong and inhibits growth) – have the ability to select the athletes that fit the system, but the vast majority of us don’t have that luxury, nor do we have the time to mould raw athletes into a specific system when we can simply select strategy and tactics to suit them.

“Football innovation repeatedly proves itself the product of coincidence, of personalities thrown together and forced to improvise strategy for the sake of survival.” (27)

Layden tells the story about how, possibly, the ‘Wildcat’ formation, which snaps the ball to a non-traditional ‘quarter-back’, was born out of a coach having an incredibly fast receiver who’d played quarterback in junior high. He hadn’t known it was similar to the ‘Single Wing’ formation used decades before that had fallen out of fashion. The ‘unconventional’ approach worked for the boys he had, as it did for the coaches who employed it way back when, showing how working with, not against, constraints can produce something fantastic. He also talks about how good coaches see better roles for players and encourage them to play elsewhere when the stereotypical or traditional (i.e. “I’ve only ever played this position!”) might no longer suit (pp. 54-55). A high school quarterback who was too erratic to deal with defences / system at the next level found a new home and success as a wide receiver. The less-flashy backup ended up being the perfect steady QB to unleash the creative star. I’ve seen this several times in rugby where coaches put their best players at 9 or 10. Instead of putting them in roles where their space is limited, opt for competent ones who can deliver that ball in space. I suspect that’s why rugby League hookers act more like Union scrum halves, allowing all backs to operate in space. One of my teams allowed our incredibly elusive scrum half to do her thing in space with forwards making short passes to her from the breakdown, rather than force her to dig out every ball.

From innovation comes further innovation. Coaches who like the principle behind something new or a certain aspect of a creative approach can either tweak it to suit their own players or dream up something different having been inspired by it. One example given in the book looks at how the tight ‘Wishbone’ formation was altered into the wider ‘Flexbone’ formation (61), one relying on concentrated power with the other more on exploiting space. Football coaches, no matter the formation, always have many options of them. One of my critiques of top flight rugby at the moment is how the rigid systems approach claims to have options, but really the options are very few (and they are rarely ‘opted’ upon). As such defences tend to have an easier job when dealing with forwards, in particular. Pods almost always crash into the line with the first receiver, occasionally play out the back, and rarely ‘tip on’ to a second forward. Rare do we even see some of the intricate running lines and passing options seen in League, which, incidentally is where Union got the idea for dummy runners and second man plays. If every phase – including small groups of forwards – featured players in a dynamic shape, each with the potential to get the ball and do something with it in hand, defenders have a much more difficult task. The hesitation, over/under commitment, reactive rather than proactive decisions imposed upon defences by creative and dynamic attackers gives them the initiative. Doing the same thing everyone else does 75% of the time means you’re only, really, hoping for a rare mistake or to win a boring and exhausting battle of attrition.

Taking a creative approach to play is something many school and club coaches shouldn’t fear doing. What’s to lose if you’re already a team that’s perennially in the bottom half of the table or if jobs / recruitment aren’t affected by results? Hell, your players might actually understand the game better if they’re exploring how to do something different than the rest! To innovate beyond the status quo, you’ve got to know what it is. From the formations examined in the book, it seems that most innovation in football has come from college and even high school programs that took a risk or created a solution to a problem. Don Coryell’s San Diego State team, which couldn’t compete with local rivals to sign the best runners and blockers coming out of high school, revolutionized the passing game because he was able to get decent (possibly small?), underappreciated quarterbacks and receivers from junior colleges. Their success with the throwing game, when most others ran the ball, made me think about how many coaches discourage kicking in rugby. Yes, some players kick when the run option was on, and keeping possession is more likely with safe carrying and efficient ruck. But teams that are known to kick can face reduced pressure if the defence is not sure when the kick will come, some defences do not how to deal with kicks, and others will kick it straight back, allowing for a nice open counter-attack with defenders spread out all over the place.

The throwing game in football seems to be en vogue at the moment, and Kurt Warner’s statement on why he likes it also had me thinking about kicking in rugby. “The design of the offense was to continually put pressure on the back end of the defense. It was all about getting chunks of yardage.” (88) Bill Walsh’s use of short passes to expose blitz defences also seemed to have had both a reactionary and exploitative effect. In between going for the big scoring play and grinding teams down through dominance is achieving moderate gains through short plays 4-8 yards at a time. I’m someone who doesn’t put a lot of time into set piece plays and I’m also not in favour of the boring, attritional approach of one-out rugby and pick-and-goes. Like Walsh’s short throws, I challenge my athletes to break the gainline on every single phase – wherever that may be. They can follow a pattern if nothing clear and obvious presents itself, but as soon as possible, they should get back to a state where we’re breaching the gain line and forcing the defence to scramble a few metres back to re-establish their line. This perpetual state of disorder will eventually cause them to give us an easy scoring option, exposing uncovered space, a mismatch or an overlap. One of Coryell’s credos in this sense directly applies to rugby: “Never pass up an open receiver. If he’s there, stop ‘reading’ and throw it to him.” There’s no need to follow the script if something better is immediately apparent. Rugby has even more advantages in football in this regard, because we’re not limited by four downs. Going for short gains works everywhere so long as you win the ball back at the breakdown. In the recent November series, I was disappointed to see the All Blacks not do what they do best until late in the game – get behind the gainline by going wide quickly. Instead, they bashed it up the middle a metre or so at a time, which allowed the well-disciplined Irish defence to reorganize themselves and be ready for the the next one. Ireland may have only allowed a few more metres when the All Blacks went wide, but there’s a big difference in attacking defenders who’ve had to turn and run back and aren’t quite set / focused compared to running against those who’ve only had to take a couple of steps back and to the side, keeping your next wave in their field of vision the whole time. More ambitious moves that keep defenders guessing, giving up several metres at a time, and well-placed and chased kicks can offer the same sort of opportunities to turn pressure into better attacking options.

The other major takeaway I got from the book was related not to on field stuff, but off-field collegiality. There have been some immense rivalries and we’ve seen seemingly hard ass football personalities in the media, but the book suggests that much of the American football world is open to sharing ideas. Thinking back on my 18 years coaching, I can’t remember a time that a coach from another school or club shared what he or she was doing, and admitted to myself that I’ve only been doing it in the last few years. We talk a lot about rugby being this ‘gentleman’s game’ and having some kind of aura of inclusivity, but too often we’re going against that by protecting our own interests and not thinking about the bigger picture.

“Football socializes. Everything belongs to everyone else, especially diagrams on a board or the plays on a film.” (139)

Great coaches know that there’s always room to improve but how can any of us improve if we’re not challenged? I’ve seen programs dominate locally year to year, but then get shocked when they attend a tournament elsewhere? If you care about development and doing well at other levels (not to mention ensuring your players can go anywhere and be successful), then it’s up to us to be more open and share so we can raise our game. Our region challenges others to raise their game, and our province challenges others to match us, making the national team as strong as can be. I believe that’s the main reason New Zealand is so great, but I do wonder if that may wane a bit if the top schools continue to poach talent from the have-nots? I suspect they’ll be okay, though, because All Blacks and great pros continue to emerge from these schools, suggesting that their coaches still know how to develop good players even if they don’t have a wealth of talent at their disposal (especially given that rugby is a late development sport… how many of those school poaches go on to be great players would make for an interesting study!).

In football … “Coaches find each other. They hang out together and eat together and drink beer together… It is their way of finding normalcy. But it’s also a way of staying in the endless loop of innovation. Friends do not hide discovery from each other.” (149) Layden talks about coaches holding clinics for coaches and sharing resources even while they’re still using them. There’s a money-making aspect to it, sure, but there’s also the belief that letting others know what you’re doing will force you to do it better and develop ways to combat the ways your opponents would defeat your strategy and tactics. As suggested by the analogy offered at the start, the shrewd general is aware of how his enemies might defeat what’s made his army successful – the science of battle. He is also astutely aware of the subtle ways that his subordinates and troops on the ground operate, which is the art of leadership. I think the barriers to knowledge sharing and innovation in rugby are breaking down via social media and YouTube. With them, you can learn about a lot about how the top-level approaches rugby, but I think we can do a lot more to both share with the grassroots level and also not be afraid of trying to do something completely different than the pros. Whether or not your innovative approaches become the next big thing in the sport or even over-come the limitations you face, the process of examining deeper demands, needs, and possibilities will help you and your athletes understand the game so much more and allows them to benefit from a richer experience of exploration and discovery.

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[Note: I had two posts on this topic a while ago and after re-visiting, didn’t think they were clear enough or at best had way too much information. They have been removed and this is the – hopefully! – simplified version.]

A Simple Structure for Dynamic Play

Structure gives players a focus and a plan of action they can rely upon when defences do not offer easy opportunities to exploit. Heads-up, free play allows athletes a chance to show their skill, both as individuals and combined in pairs, threes, or in larger collaborative units. Both attacking strategies have their limitations, however. Rigidly-structured play can make players to worry too much about their positioning within ‘the plan’, causing them to miss easy opportunities that emerge. Heads-up play can be random and hand initiative to the opposition, especially when individuals go alone or players find themselves not knowing where to be. The obvious solution should be to combine the two strategies.

This simple ‘structure’ is more of a guideline that gives players a clear idea of where to go and what they can do when they get there, but still allows them the freedom to exploit opportunities as they emerge and play to their strengths. Note: everything that follows assumes that every breakdown is well-defended and that there are no immediate opportunities to exploit (overlap, gap, mismatch, etc.). This pattern of play, however, seeks to create such opportunities every single phase, so scanning for them should be the first thing done when a breakdown occurs.

This structure is based on an understanding that each set piece or breakdown has two attacking channels, each with its own possibilities and limitations. A set piece or breakdown outside of the 15m lines has a wide Open Side and a Short Side. Between the two 15m lines, there will be two Split Midfield channels that are obviously not as wide as the Open Side, nor as narrow as the Short Side.

Channels

As a tackle contest emerges and a breakdown is about to form, players not needed there adopt an attacking shape and scan for opportunities in BOTH available channels. The playmakers should be able to attack either side of the breakdown, so it’s important that players work quickly to get re-aligned. The tactic those players choose to go through or around the defence will be based on several important factors:

  • the space available
  • the personnel present and the shape they have adopted
  • the amount of defenders present and their shape

With all of those things considered, the tactic should really choose itself! (If you need to turn a screw at one end of a board and saw a bit off the other end, you wouldn’t choose a wrench and a hammer to do the work.) It’s vital that players train for this under game conditions, understanding how they can best use and create space with any given group of teammates. This will allow them to develop a ‘tactical tool box’ of solutions to familiar problems they will encounter in the game.

We have, then, a structure that allows players to know that they are going to align themselves ‘here’ or ‘there’ at each breakdown. Two other factors help players know where we’re likely to go next. When we’ve assessed that the breakdown is well defended, we want to move away from it quickly and play in space. Thinking about the four different channels that exist, it should also become clear that attacks from a midfield set piece or breakdown typically result in an Open Side / Short Side scenario. Open Side attacks result in a Split Midfield or another Open Side / Short Side, and attacks down the Short Side always result in a large Open Side.

Playmakers or players providing them with tactical feedback can simply call Wide, Middle, Tight, or Short to launch a focused attack from the Open Side. When teams play into the middle of the pitch, they will either go Same Way or Rewind and play in the direction the ball originated. Below is the way this structure can play out, starting from a lineout:

Channel Options 2

Again, this structure is based on moving the ball to space and avoiding congested breakdowns that typically result in little gain / disruption of the defensive line. With that in mind, it also becomes clear that there is no sense running more than two phases in the same direction (unless there is a clear opportunity, of course). There won’t be a reasonable amount of space to achieve those two principle aims. Knowing that we’re only going ‘that way’ once or twice also allows players to conserve energy and set up the next phase quicker. For example, from the scenario above, players who were in the lineout and closest to the touchline might possibly be called upon for a Rewind after the first phase. If not, they would likely be involved in a Middle Left or Wide Left move after the second phase. They wouldn’t go Short Side or Tight as the time needed to get there would allow defenders time to organise themselves. This is very common in rugby – players moving across the pitch to a breakdown and taking time to get set, only to face defenders who are ready and waiting to pounce. Even worse, players who are unsure of what’s going to happen on the next phase move all the way over and end up leaning on rucks or aren’t used at all and have to go back to where they might have stayed. This structure is efficient in its simplicity.

In this video below, you can see how each play essentially provides the team in black with a 1-2 attacking punch. A purposeful and well-supported attacking move manipulates the defence in a certain way. The next phase, also purposeful and well-supported, then exploits that manipulation (more space for talented individual(s), defenders stretched or condensed, individuals out of position, defenders over-committing to one side of the ruck, etc.). Effective attack in just a few phases, and the ability to re-set with another 1-2 punch if that didn’t work, is the beauty of this style of play.

 

 

This strategy typically plays out as follows:

  1. From a set piece (or at a point in open play where we need to re-focus), we choose a move that plays to our strengths.
  2. At the next ruck, and every ruck henceforth, we do a quick scan to see if there is a clear and immediate opportunity to exploit (overlap, mismatch, poor defender, poor alignment, etc.).
  3. If not, we then play to one of two channels that gives us the best possible chance of breaching the defensive line from a position of strength. BOTH sides of the ruck need to be ready to play:
  • Open Side
  • Short Side

or

  • Split Left
  • Split Right
  1. Whichever channel we choose, the players must then consider the best tactic for the space, their numbers and shape, and the skills those players possess.
  • Go Around – a wide move exploit defenders with evasive running, isolate outside defender, draw defenders in and outflank with passing
  • Go Through – a middle or tight move to exploit defenders with evasive running, exploit space with angled runs, power through defenders
  • Get Behind – is a kick worth it at this stage? If the chances of scoring or retaining possession aren’t high, then rely on one of the first two options and allow players in the next phase to have a go.
  1. Players not involved in that phase need to follow the previous play in case they are needed to support a linebreak. If a new breakdown is formed, they then need to quickly re-align themselves in one of the two new attacking channels, repeating the cycle over again.
  2. As a general rule, when defenders are getting re-organised reasonably quickly, a team should not go more than two phases (three if there’s an opportunity down the short side) in the same direction. The aim is to attack space quickly from a position of strength and before the defence has time to set up. At some point, you will run out of space worth using and waste time getting organised for it, handing the advantage to the opposition.

 

Here are some further examples with some notes on how the first phase created an advantageous opportunity on the second:

 

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Determined Defence

The primary aim of defence has to be getting the ball back as quickly as possible, as much as possible within the laws of the game. In my book, everyone must have this mindset: being alert, coordinated, determined, committed and acting with controlled aggression. In fact, we are going to ATTACK on defence to deny the opposition time and space, cause confusion and seize the initiative.

Our league has good referees, often ones who don’t allow anyone to play the fine line between legal and illegal play, so I prefer to see the team playing honestly but with a unified urgency to get the ball back. This also means making efficient use of our resources and energy, namely not pouring people into rucks that are already lost. I’m happy for us to submit defeat at this ruck to have extra numbers for the next tackle contest. Attacking teams will typically put two or more into a ruck to secure it. If we have just one person to have a shove and be a nuisance (if they don’t disrupt the ball and give us an immediate opportunity!), this gives us at least one extra defender to go for the ball or a choke in a double hit or act as a planned lone shooter. It’s this sort of thinking that makes defending more than just tackling and preventing points from being scored!

Important Factors in Achieving This:

  • High Work-Rate – As with attack, the team that is set and ready to go first has the initiative. We build the defence from the inside-out, taking care of the fringes of the tackle contest first and then pushing or folding out from there. Wings and full back are especially useful in pulling people out, which leads to the next point …
  • Communication – Constant and specific communication helps us point out threats, declare responsibility (again, from inside-out), make adjustments and even target opportunities. I have no problem with ‘Big Talk’ like “Hold!” and “Up!” as they are great commands to coordinate the defensive line, but the constant bleating of those words not only gets on my nerves, it’s white noise that prevents more relevant communication from occurring as the play unfolds. Kept it short, loud, specific, and ideally attached to a name or at least with some sort of direction/acknowledgement from the people around you.
  • Layered Structure – Generally speaking, the defensive line should be a flat wall that offers no gaps or holes for the attacking team to expose. That means no one up ahead of or behind the rest in the main line. A good attacker will go for the space left open and draw extra defenders, opening new space where they were if she doesn’t get through. That said, a completely flat line is an easy one to kick against or if there’s a breach, it’s more difficult for covering defenders to stop it. So, our defensive line has a few layers to it. The obvious one is the full back who generally shadows the opposition fly half and then tracks the inside of the ball, watching for cut backs but then taking the last attacker if there’s an over-lap out wide. The wings should hang back a few meters to deter / cover wide kicks, coming up into the line when it’s obvious the ball is going to be run. The middle zone between them is covered by the scrum half – who has an important ‘traffic cop-like’ job organising the tackle contest, but then must sweep behind the defensive line, again staying inside the ball, in case of line breaks or short kicks.
  • Hunting Pack Mentality – When the ball comes out of the scrum / lineout / ruck / maul, we have to come forward and take away the space and time the attacking team has. This MUST be coordinated, without the aforementioned shooters / laggers-behind, compromising the integrity of the defensive structure. It must also exhibit the qualities listed in the opening paragraph. We must dominate the contact area to get the ball back by aggressive but legal means. Simple as that. The pack mentality provides focus in that defending is never an individual effort, usually requiring at least three players to contain the ball carrier and her immediate support options.

(Diagrams and further explanation of layers and working as a unit can be found here: Principles of Defence 3 )

  • Footwork – This is the first of two concepts I think a lot of coaches forget, if not actually ignore, when coaching defence. Attacking players should try and avoid being tackled. Despite the tendency of Northern Hemisphere – especially North American! – players to run straight into contact, we have to be ready to adjust to changes in direction so footwork is very important. Closing down the space can involve long strides if need-be, but as a tackler approaches the contact area, steps should become shorter, on the balls of the feet, ready to adjust and make a tackle on her terms.  Which leads to …
  • Tackle Selection – Not everyone can make the full range of legal tackles allowed in rugby, and that’s fine. Footwork becomes even more important for those players to ensure they make the tackle as they would prefer. Hopefully everyone can strive to have as many tackles in their bag of tricks as possible because not every contact situation is the same and some can allow for a better opportunity to dominate the contest. Quick take downs allow the tackler or tackle assist player to have a quicker shot at stealing the ball, especially in the open field. Higher smothering tackles can prevent tries close to the line and allow assisting players to ‘choke’ the ball carrier, holding her up for a scrum turnover. Hammering a ball carrier backwards can have both a psychological effect that uplifts the team, but also gives the tackler the best chance of ending up on top, bouncing to her feet and getting hands on the ball. Blitz tackles can have a similar effect and also sets the tackler up to get or cause an interception as well. Supporting players need to be aware of the body language of each as team mates line up tackles so they can support in the best way (helping out or staying out, mirroring the offload threat or getting ready to pounce in for a steal).

In Addition:

1. Turnovers: When turnovers occur, someone needs to have a quick assessment to shout out the best course of action. To doddle or choose the wrong option wastes the opportunity to exploit a team that’s probably lying deep and is certainly disorganised. Typically, two passes away from the contact area will find this space. If someone does have a gap in front of them, support must funnel through and look to move the ball to space quickly. Kicks are usually only a good option if we have a legitimate shot at regaining possession from exposing the lack of covering players from the opposite team (maybe the wing and full back were part of the turnover and we have speedsters in place to chase a well-placed kick).

2. Kick-Chase: When chasing the kick, it’s important to get a group of at least three players in place quickly to either re-gather or contain and hopefully dominate the receiver. The ideal shape they take is not flat, because if one gets beat, they all get beat. If they adopt a ‘flat’ arrowhead shape, with the point taking the ball, then the ‘wingmen’ have time to make an adjustment if this occurs. Also, if the ball is re-gathered by the tip of the arrow, the wingmen are in good positions to support.

 

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I’m a few days away from my first session with a new team and I’ve been watching, listening, reading and writing sports and coaching for a few weeks now in preparation. My next few posts are going to condense and outline some of this – also building upon my many years of experience – as a resource for those athletes who’d like to read my thoughts. Hopefully coaches who read this blog will also take from it what they find useful.

Attacking Focus

1. Play Head’s Up Rugby (Low structure imposed upon, high assessment and coordination demanded of players.)

a) Seize and exploit the ‘easy opportunity’ (ex. over-lap, gap, strong vs weak, fast vs slow, poor alignment, etc.)

b) Create an opportunity by using a simple move (can be simple as a sudden and sharp change of direction that manipulates the defence and allows support players options, or a multi-option snap play like a loop or a blocker line)

Before the defence re-aligns, look for a new ‘exploitable’ opportunity. This is a simple cycle where some players will be better at scanning and seizing but will have options to create opportunities if nothing easier is immediately apparent (not just from their scanning, but also from team mate feedback!). While I will train everyone to enhance their ability to anticipate and recognise patterns and visual cues, players not so aware can always start from b), using the attacking tool box mentioned in my previous post.

2. Maintain a quick tempo and play to our strengths

Playing in a provincial Premier League means we’ll face very strong and well-coached teams. I expect to especially see strong defending teams as those aspects are typically easier to coach (as seen in the recent Women’s Rugby World Cup!) We are lucky to have plenty of options in terms of speed, power, finesse, and game smarts. In conjunction with playing “head’s up” – and sometimes as a default option when there are no easy opportunities / creative efforts are being shut down – we can proactively and patiently string together phases in a logical way. Dominating the contact area to win quick ball, with good coordination and communication, means we should have a lot of people in good positions to keep the tempo up and prevent the defence from getting properly re-aligned. From this situation, defences break down and get us back to the ‘easy opportunity’ situations. For example, consider how even a 3m penetration with quick ball can catch defenders off side or unsure of who they’re supposed to be covering, or how a few phases in one direction with a wide move in the other could find speedy players against unfit ones. Not only do playmakers need to be aware of these possibilities, but all players should be assessing simple things like “Do I need to go in that ruck, or can I stay here and be part of the next phase?” Little ‘rules’ can be devised which fit the players you have – in our case, we’ll have a lot of options as we have a big tight five, mobile back row, intelligent midfielders and speedy outside backs. The trick will be to play to the ‘best’ strength at a given moment – something we will continually work on in game-like practice.

Important Factors in Achieving This:

  • Awareness – at all times – scanning / communicating / listening (playmakers use info to make decisions)
  • Work-rate – whoever is aligned first has the initiative. In contact, the fewer people needed to win a tackle contest, the more people we have for the next phase.
  • Alignment considered – we need more than one ‘layer’ to ensure we can be proactive, but also reactive (i.e. a strike runner can have a go at space, but if the timing is off or the defence adjusts, we need a ‘back door’ outlet to keep the play alive and not resort to something that’ll lead to slow ball). This means more than getting into good positions. It also means that players have to consider their actions. The two most common: forwards jogging to rucks that are already won to stand beside it doing nothing; backs who run up flat when the play has been halted much further inward to then have to back pedal into a good position to receive the ball on the next phase. To maintain a good tempo with sufficient numbers, players need to be efficient in their alignment (it also saves them from wasting energy where they’re not needed). They should also begin to recognise when the defence is on the back foot (allowing us to play flatter and have a quick go at the line) or on the front foot (maybe forcing us to have a plan to cope with defenders ready to pounce).
  • Ball movement – more than just quality and accuracy, timing of the pass is vital to the success of a move. An early pass gives someone else in a better position the time and space to use it. A late pass should be putting someone into a gap. A pass too early, without threatening the defence, can simply allow defenders to push across and cut off our options. A pass too late can be forward, at the wrong target, too hard or otherwise useless. Two quick passes can get us into more space in a hurry. A dummy pass can get us through a gap in that ‘black hole’ area behind a ruck.
  • Thoughtful running lines – straight running fixes defenders in place and preserves space for team mates. Sharp and sudden changes of angle can exploit space and the ‘soft shoulder’ of the next defender in line. Running too early can get you ahead of the play; too late invites the defence to take space away. Remember that a line can be a great decoy, so make sure not to ‘demand’ the ball when you’ve drawn the attention of two or more defenders. Passers also need to consider this and select a better target.
  • Strategic considerations – What’s the score? What part of the field are we in? What are the conditions like? Can we get enough support there? Can they cover kicks? Are they better/worse than us at the scrum or lineouts? Is it wise to have a shot at goal or rely on quick taps? Do we need to get the ball into the hands of our key players more or make a better effort to stay away from a certain player / unit in their team?  … these are all strategic considerations that can enhance or ruin our chances of scoring.
  • Focused roles – more than our individual strengths, consider your best role in attack. Are you a play maker who sees opportunities and passes well off both hands? A power runner who can make holes and drag several defenders in? A speedster who can burn defenders with pace and/or step around them? A strike runner who has a well-timed crack at space in the line? Or an equally-vital support specialist who does more than ‘hit rucks’, recognising when others are about to break the line, getting into good positions to call for and receive a pass?   (Maybe a combo of more than one!)

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There’s a North American sports cliché that sometimes gets bandied about in rugby circles as well that defence wins championships. While it’s true that league and World Cup finals tend to be low-scoring affairs, I believe that this is as much – if not more so – about teams playing low-risk rugby and opting to play the territory game with the boot as it is about the two best defensive teams being locked in an unforgiving stalemate. Mine is a simple philosophy that maintaining possession and executing a determined, coordinated attack wins games. If we keep the ball and score more points, we win. Simple as that. I spend a lot of time teaching players how to attack using the principles of going forward with determination and intelligence, maintaining continuity and support through effort and communication off the ball, and keeping the pressure on the defensive team such that they aren’t able to get organised and focused on stopping us. If defence truly does win championships in rugby, it’s not just about defending one’s goal line, successful teams use those same four principles against the attacking side to win possession back from them.

 Going Forward

 Key Concepts:

  • Deny time and space
  • Make contact on our terms
  • Keep attackers in front

 In attack, going forward gives us the initiative and ability to determine play on our terms. The same is true in defence: we deny the opposition time and space to attack by taking it away. I challenge players to ‘attack’ on defence; never sit back and wait, as the team in possession will step around and/or pick their gaps. It’s also poor tackling technique to sit on one’s heels and simply take the hit, and that’s if the ball carrier doesn’t simple step around the frozen defender. I hear a lot of coaches at various levels these days yell “Line speed!” to their teams – urging them to come up quickly. I’m of the mind that this speed can be varied depending on the situation, but generally speaking quicker is better so long as the group in front of the ball is coordinated. I’m avoiding the word ‘flat’ here as I don’t believe it has to be rigidly so as long as the unit in front of the ball is relatively level and aren’t offering gaps that can be exploited. If an individual or unit comes up too fast, a clever distributor can fire a long pass behind or over the line to a well-timed strike runner, or kick behind them. Too slow, however, and the attacking unit will have plenty of space and time to dictate play on their terms. I urge teams to ‘attack’ on defence, coming forward quickly, but ensuring there are no individuals lagging behind or shooting up early (unless we have a numerical advantage and can pull off a spot tackle or interception). Lastly, coming forward in defence offers a better chance of keeping the attackers in front. Having to turn or chase to make a tackle isn’t as ideal as squaring up and completing a dominant tackle that gives us a better chance to steal the ball.

Drills:

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I’m sure we’ve all seen or had – or often can be! – that coach who declares that certain tactics are not allowed or who chastise players for attempting certain things.  I’ll admit, I’ve done so in the past.  I’d like to think that nowadays, however, I’m a little more open to letting the athletes try what they think is possible, or even encourage and teach them to do things they don’t even think possible.

After years of watching rugby at the international and professional level, and at very good and even not so talented amateur levels, I’ve come to believe that attempting the unorthodox is worth a shot if the situation is right and the players have been well rehearsed.  I think it’s also important to remember that the athletes we’re coaching against are just as inexperienced as ours, and as such, aren’t going to be defending or recognising tactics like pros would.  So what’s stopping us from attempting the ‘unthinkable’?  Let your players have a go!

I would say, however, that one has to first look at what that unorthodox ‘thing’ is.  How likely are your players to use it effectively?  How much time would you need to spend to teach them and develop their confidence in it? Is that time detracting from other, more important, basic skills? Considered carefully, teaching and encouraging your athletes to do all that is possible within the game will allow them to be REAL rugby players who can think and act for themselves.  Restricting them to the orthodox – and worse, scripted plans and defined roles – limits their development.

So here’s a list of things that might be worth ‘having a go’ at.  These aren’t the outlandish kick-pass-inside-your-22 type stuff, but also reflect the conservatism I see way too much of in these parts.

1. Running out of 22 … standard procedure for most teams is to make the safe kick to touch.  I’ve even seen this from teams with poor kickers and lineouts incapable of stealing, simply giving the ball back to their opponents with a great attacking platform.  Why not try and string a few phases together and run it out?  Especially with the opposition waiting for the orthodox kick to touch, the defence might not even expect the run!

2. One phase out and back … I’m seeing this as a planned move more and more, and not just the result of wayward tactics.  Most teams will run their phases all in the same direction, sometimes referring to it as a ‘flow’ pattern – and the theory is sound, as quick ball from subsequent phases will leave the less-fit players straggling on the far side.  But most teams do this, and sometimes defending teams push over quickly to cover the subsequent phases.  The three ‘original’ Super Rugby sides from Australia are great at going one phase out and going back quickly in the opposite direction, especially from a lineout.  In a situation like this, you’re likely to catch unsuspecting tight five forwards defending the channel.  I remember a great one from the Brumbies where they sent only the ‘heavies’ down that channel, with front and second rowers making quick darts forward and with even quicker passing to each other, something like five players touched the ball before a prop – probably noted try scorer Ben Alexander – scored in the corner!  I’ve seen the same from backs moves with one move right, and a quick ‘back three’ move to the left from a midfield scrum.

3. Pass from 8 after a tighthead.  I know quite a few teams where the ONLY move allowed after a steal against the head at the scrum is for the No. 8 to pick and go.  It’s not a bad move, especially if you’ve got a quick 8 as the opportunity is there to catch their back row un-ready to defend.  But it’s also important to remember that the opposition’s backs will be aligned deep, having expected possession, and I’ve seen some great ground made because the 8 fired a quick pass to a flaring scrum half who quickly hit his backs who were already crossing the gainline.

4. 2 man lineout, w. ‘rec’ jumping.  I’ve often wondered why teams that are out jumped and outmuscled in the lineouts still persist with the 7-man formation.  Even worse are the teams that fall into this category AND persist with the first jumper option.  Why not make the target and spot of the jump less obvious by having just two or three boosters and the ‘receiver’ (usually the scrum half) do the jumping in?  She/he can then tap down to the hooker coming in for quick option, or the scrum half rushing in from 10m back once the lineout is deemed over.  One doesn’t even have to go to the player jumping in.  She/he can dummy the jump to get the other team’s pod in the air, and the ball can be tossed to anyone else!

5. Penalty kick for touch.  Gaining territory from a penalty kick to touch is probably the most common option taken when a team doesn’t have a legitimate shot at goal.  The most perplexing cases of this orthodox tactic are when the team a) doesn’t have anyone who can kick for distance or safely to touch and/or b) when their lineout throwing / jumping doesn’t assure possession.  I remember one case where I wished I’d broke my personal directive not to give instructions from the touchline as I realised my team was kicking for touch into a stiff wind on a day when our lineout wasn’t going well.  I shouted to them in frustration afterwards to “THINK! … Run it next time!” after our kicker only made 10m downfield and we lost the lineout.  Tapping and running should be the safest option if support is present and the ball carrier doesn’t just crash into waiting defenders.  Scrums are a great way of bringing in all the forwards and opening space between the backs.  Even having a speculative shot at goal isn’t so bad if one considers that most teams will kick the ball back – for a line out, or with a 22m drop – if the attempt is unsuccessful!

6. Not offloading.  Sounds silly, doesn’t it?  What’s more silly?  Offloading to players who aren’t expecting the ball.  Offloading to players who are so far back that they now get hit well behind the point the offload was made.  Making a speculative ‘Hail Mary’ offload to no one when the player could have simply taken the ball strong into contact and set up a ruck or maul.  Sadly, I’m seeing more and more of these – encouraged by coaches and even in modified games of touch – than doing the classic ruck / maul, which forces all defenders to get back onside.  Few players at the amateur level seem to know that there is no offside when a tackle isn’t made – i.e. from almost all offloads – so poorly thought-out attempts should be easy intercepts.

7. Forwards passing.  Why some coaches still ban forwards from passing the ball is, to me, not just limiting the team’s potential to establish ‘quick ball’ attack, but also limits the development of players.  Skills for all.  Trust them to make passes.  Teach your play makers to help them with when is best to secure it and when it’d help to pass it.  Watch the All Blacks – their forwards pass all the time.  It’s one of their unheralded elements of their success, in my opinion.

8. Forwards in the back line.  See above.  I always give my forwards this thought:  Do you just want to jog from ruck to ruck all day or would you like to get the ball and run over some tiny [insert other derogatory adjectives] back in open space?  Never had someone say they preferred the first option.

9. Kickoff to the backs.  The gap usually defended by just the two centres in a standard ‘exploded scrum’ kick off formation is one of the least exploited gaps in the game.  If you’ve got aggressive centres who are good in the air / good defenders, than why not?  Plan for it.  Make the kick low and shallow to put that one up-front centre under pressure.  Make sure there are a few quick forwards hanging around the kicker who can fill in behind ‘just in case’.  Or if your kicker can pick his/her spots, aim for the player who looks the weakest under high kicks!

10. Lots of kicking.  I criticise too much kicking as a fan of rugby – especially when teams like the Wallabies do it as they’re better with ball in hand than trying to play the territorial game and winning the ball back with their (usually weaker) forwards.  But at our level, if your running game is suffering, why not mix up your attack with a few planned or calculated kicks?  If teams always expect you to run, they’ll align themselves for it and possibly give you opportunities to put them under pressure with kicks – if not give you actual opportunities to re-gain possession.  It’s also very likely that teams aren’t the best at defending or supporting defenders of kicks.  Full backs are often too deep, too shallow, or to central and not tracking across field.  Wingers are often up flat, giving space behind them.  Even fewer teams employ a ‘sweeper’ in defence – usually the scrum half – who can deal with grubbers through the defensive line or chips over top.
… maybe next time, I’ll suggest ways that your players could try the ‘ludicrous’ like Carlos Spencer or Quade Cooper!  🙂

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I just finished reading another excellent analytical article by Scott Allen over at the Green and Gold Rugby blog.  In it he looks at attacking patterns utilized by Wales, the All Blacks and the Wallabies and addresses the strengths and limitations of their various approaches to the game.  It’s a brilliant article, with an accompanying narrated video, and I suggest everyone read / watch it to gain a sense of what people are doing at the top end of the game.

Wallaby Attack Patterns by Scott Allen

Scott also uses quotes from former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones and player David Campese to demonstrate the two extremes with regard to employing attacking patterns.  Jones argues that players need less to think about and so should have drilled into them patterns of play that give them greater focus.  Campese feels that coaches adopting such prescriptive strategies are taking away from players their ability to read and direct a game based upon what they see in front of them.

Allen places these two men at polar opposites of this debate, and I have to say that I lean more toward the Campese side of the argument where amateur rugby is concerned.  I can see the benefit of providing structures that everyone can follow which play to their strengths, establishing consistency and efficient execution in attack.  There are several factors to consider when deciding to adopt structures, but I think the most important are time and commitment.  If you are in a short school / summer season – as we have in Canada – do you have time to implement this plan of attack and have all players on the same page by the team playoffs roll around?  If the strategy is vastly different from what your players are used to, are you going to risk unnecessary confusion – which may result in vital losses and risk your playoff hopes altogether?  Do you even have full commitment to your training sessions such that everyone gets sufficient time to learn and adopt these structures?

I’d say that school and university teams here have a better opportunity to fully adopt structured play given that they tend to train most weekdays, if not every.  Students do have other commitments, however, and I’m always worried that if a few people miss out on key sessions that they could be the proverbial monkeywrench in the otherwise well-oiled machine.  This is definitely an issue with club rugby as only once in my 14 years have I ever coached a club side that could consistently have its starting XV show up to important pre-game team-focused practices (needless to say, they were the most successful club side I’ve coached!) .  In my opinion, it can be a colossal waste of effort and time to be too rigid with one’s attacking structures only to have them disrupted or not adhered to by the players who aren’t familiar with it (which I feel was a factor leading to one of my most disappointing losses, something I should have taking greater care to correct).  One can send out a ‘play book’ electronically, but most athletes tend to be kinaesthetic learners and as such need to run through new things several times physically.

So what is there to do?  I discussed a very simple strategy of Playing to the Principles of the game in a previous article.  Simply put, if you players know how to attack space, call for and pass the ball, how to support each other in the loose and retain possession, you can play effective rugby!  These are things that can be worked on by any number of players and which even high level professionals continue to work on and develop, in both basic technique and highly dynamic situations.  For me, the vast majority of a training session consists of developing tools, vision, understanding, and communication when employing those basic techniques and tactics and adhering to a simple set of principles.

Reaching a point where everyone can be comfortable playing what some call “heads up” rugby can take a while, however.  It can depend as much on the coach’s ability to transfer knowledge and facilitate understanding as it does players’ abilities to adopt and employ it.  I continually work at it, and aim to get my team to a point where our plan of attack includes little structure and a lot of freedom.  Early in the season, or especially with a newer group of players, it’s probably safer to flip that with lots of structure and not much freedom.  I’d challenge coaches though to move away from that as soon as possible, removing the scaffolding little by little and constantly challenging ALL players (not just decision makers) to read and understand the realities of the game such that they can make decisions on their own.

For example:  Using a wide-wide, pattern from a lineout should allow an attacking team to run against slower / unfit forwards when they get to the other side of the pitch and reverse the direction, if played quickly.  BUT … sometimes teams know this a limitation for them so the tight five players will immediately push themselves wide to cover the initial wide attack threat and give their backs a chance to flip around for the reverse phases.  This can leave a gaping hole or opportunity to catch defenders in poor positions in the channel where the lineout took place.  Teams at the levels I’ve coached at rarely try scan the field for such opportunities, following fairly predictable patterns of play or having random goes at the defence with no clear purpose whatsoever.  In the above situation, a fast and powerful forward or flighty wing / scrum half could really cause havoc down that narrow ‘lineout’ channel if allowed to chance it and have a go.

I think, as I often say in this blog, the key is to actually PLAY RUGBY at training.  Give your players the chance to see these things unfold in a game situation before they actually have to play a game.  If you don’t have the numbers to run relatively even numbers against one another, then create conditioned scenarios that mimic real aspects of the game or use tackle bags, etc. as stand-ins.  (When I coached a team that only had about 10 ever shot to training, we used bags as post-guard defence dummies around theoretical rucks.  These became no-go areas in training and it resulted in us playing a much wider game which played to our smaller, faster attributes.  You could flip that if you have a forward dominant team, focusing on breaching the narrow channel quickly and spinning wide only when they’ve disrupted the defensive line.)  Let your players know that you will ask them what they saw in front of then and that you’ll ask them to justify their decisions.  Importantly, this must be done in an environment where they will not be criticised but supported or sympathetically guided in their decision making and explanations for their actions.  Try not to give answers, but work through the ‘teachable moment’ with Socratic questioning.

The worst aspect of rigid patterns is watching a game and seeing players plug away at what they were told to do, missing clear and easy opportunities to gain ground or score.  I’d also hope that turning over initiative to the players makes the game more fun for them, giving them a sense that they really did create opportunities rather than have the coach on the sidelines tell them what to do.  For players who are striving for higher levels of play, this is the sort of development they need most – going beyond the basics and leaving the script aside to truly understand the game that’s being played in front of them, developing rugby smarts and tactical awareness regardless of position.

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