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Posts Tagged ‘strategy’

This is a follow-up to the recent post I made that examines a simple attacking structure that I think can work for any team, but is best for one that has some pace on the outside and not a lot of big players to batter the defensive wall. In putting it together, I was reminded of a lecture I attended with former French player and coach Pierre Villepreux. When we think back on it, my buddy John and I do a terrible impression of what we felt was his key message, but it’s stuck: “Why do you want to run into ze wall? Why not go where eet eez easy to play?” And that’s it. Play where there’s more space. The structure discussed in the previous post and expanded upon here hopefully will allow your team to organise themselves each phase to play where it is easier to run, pass, and support on their way to the try line.

To recap, conceptually speaking, the set piece or tackle contest creates either a Big Open side with lots of width or a Split Midfield with defenders having to balance themselves on both sides. In the first case, width either spreads defenders out, allowing room to run through them, or draws them toward the touchline, allowing the attacking team to get around them. In the second case, defenders (especially amateurs) tend to condense themselves around a ruck, stacking as many as 6, 7 or 8 defenders in a very narrow area, allowing space on both sides. This allows an attacking team a better opportunity to take advantage of poor alignment or mismatches.

As mentioned in the previous article, our team focused on playing at least 10m away from every ruck, typically outside the third defender. What I discovered watching our highlights was that a hell of a lot of tries came as a result of attacking in one of the following scenarios:

  1. Open – Attack the Middle

Open - Middle

  1. Open – Go Wide

Open - Wide

  1. Split – Go the Same Way

Split - Same Way

  1. Split – Rewind and Go the Way We Started

Split - Rewind

It was also interesting to note that the most successful passages of play involved an Open move turning into a Split scenario or a Split scenario becoming an Open one. This seems pretty basic to me now, but (and I’ll show an example of this later) attacking close to the previous ruck almost never resulted in significant gains. If I were still working with this team, I’d stress that we really should be attacking on these guidelines all the time to get wide, play in space, and either get through, get around, or get behind defenders. Here are some examples… [Just a note on my titles: the first word indicates where the ruck occurs Split or Open, and the words in brackets indicate where we go next Middle, Same Way, Rewind], and a dash in between this pairing indicates the next phase]

Split (Same Way). This play starts messy (full credit to the uni team competing at the breakdown!), and around 0:32 a forward smartly opts to pick to establish a bit of a platform. From here, we go same way. I love that the hooker steps in at first receiver and not only commits two defenders but times her pass perfectly.

Split (Rewind). I can’t remember how this play started – possibly a penalty that didn’t find touch – but a forward brings us into the midfield. At around 0:10, the ‘Same Way’ option is on with excellent shape, but as I zoom out, we can see that four tight five, the 8 and a winger have noticed that too many defenders have converged on a ruck. They call for a rewind and move the ball for one of my favourite tries of the season!

Split – Open (Wide). Starting from a scrum, we go in one direction with some great hands and create a Big Open opportunity. Three quick passes gets the ball to our dominant winger in space. If any had carried the ball to the line, the defence would have likely stopped them in the midfield. Importantly, they also stayed square when passing which kept the defence also square – rather than step / turn sideways and pass, which would have invited the defence to drift sooner and close off our winger’s space.

Open (Middle) – Split (Same). Starting from the right touchline, we make very good use of a numbers advantage. This is not simply draw and passing to the wing, either, as the centre has a go herself before passing to the fullback for the try. This highlights how multiple attacking threats in a given area causes defenders to hesitate. Attack that hesitation and force them into making poor decisions.

Open (Middle) – Split (Same Way) – Open (Middle). Here’s an example where two phases really manipulate the defence. On the start of the third phase, note how narrow they are and how wide the attackers are. Once again, multiple threats cause indecision and lack of focus such that we don’t even have to go too wide as the no. 8 spots a gap and has a go herself.

Split (Rewind) – Open (Middle) – Open (Wide). Here’s another example where two phases draw the defence over to one side. This team is reasonably well spread out, but a poor first pass halts any thought of going down the middle. Both centres pass quickly to get us out of trouble and the full back does a wonderful job of not just straightening, but she cuts back in slightly before passing. This fixes the chasing defenders in place and provides the winger with plenty of room.

The following two clips show that playing too close to the ruck didn’t always work for us…

Open (Middle) – Split (Rewind) – Wider?. We sometimes bust through defences with this powerful ball carrier, but in this case the opposition was ready for her.  She did impressively gain ground despite three defenders being ready for her, but an infringement at the breakdown halted play (I’m still not sure what happened). Another positive is that the shape of the players waiting for the next phase is excellent – lots of width and supporting players behind the front line of attackers. Ultimately, we’d have been better off with a late pop to get the ball a bit wider or even a back door pass to get it to the backs.

Around the Corner – Split (Same Way) – Pick and Go. Here’s an example where four around-the-corner phases gained us no territory and did virtually nothing to manipulate the defence. One could argue that it did set up for a return phase, but a couple of long passes could have done the same thing and probably gained more ground. The return phase is a good example of what a Split – Same Way phase can do: when the scrum half has hands on ball, there are seven defenders at the ruck, six more on the far side, a winger who’s turned in and not calling for help (not likely realising that she’s isolated with a former national team winger!). The amount of territory gained means the defence has had to turn and chase back (rather than shift and back pedal slightly like before), causing enough disruption for an easy score. If they’d plugged the gap, many still would have had their backs to the attack when the pass was made and a try could have been scored anywhere.

The end of that previous point brings up something I believe should be our first aim in attack – scan for and seize clear opportunities. As was noted in the previous article, if the ruck is poorly defended then we don’t have to rely on the structure. We just play the opportunity that exists in front of us. Too many defenders converged on the ruck, leaving room for our scrum half to pick and go at the huge gap.

Here’s one more clear opportunity to close off this article. In this turnover situation, the attacking players realise there’s space on the short side so they have a go and score with a quick pass to the fullback (note that it was one of the aforementioned forwards who made the perfect pass!)

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Just last week, I finally figured out this rugby thing.

People who know me well will think that statement ridiculous as they tend to believe I’m the most knowledgeable rugby person they know. After 17 years coaching that’s gone into some 120-odd posts in this blog, I probably do know a fair bit. Over the past year I’ve been thinking a lot about the balance between structure and free play, having started out being overly focused on the former, while moving toward the latter in more recent years – and I think I’ve finally found a perfect mix. Structure gives players a focus and a plan of action they can rely upon. Free play allows athletes a chance to show their skill, both as individuals and combined in pairs, threes, or in larger collaborative units. Both also have their limitations. What I’ve been wrestling with is how to combine the two in an effective way for amateur players that only meet each other twice a week (if everyone shows up!).

Essentially, I want every player not involved in the ruck to get into position quickly to be an attacking threat on the next phase. Attackers establishing good depth and width between each other opens space between defenders. It not only allows you multiple options, but it causes defenders to consider – and hopefully be confused by – multiple threats. Too often we see one single line of backs with no options behind them or a pod of forwards where it’s obvious who’s getting the ball and, from their passive body language and lack of voice, who are only there to ruck after that ball carrier crashes it up. At the highest level, even, you see teams bash it up around the corner for several phases in hopes of wearing down the defence, and nothing more. Even worse, players at all levels can be seen jogging between phases, leaning on rucks, or hanging out behind them, rendering themselves useless for that phase when they could be an attacking threat. As such, defending is relatively easy.

It’s the multiple variables and sources of information that defenders have to sort out that causes hesitation and incorrect decisions. By getting into an ‘dynamic shape’, I want my players to align themselves either in the front line – a line of backs or a short line of forwards – or the support line, tucked in behind, ready to receive an offload at the line or a back door pass to go wide. Some specific tactical examples can be seen in my Two Layers in Attack post. This sort of body language will test the abilities of defenders – especially amateur ones! – to recognise threats, adjust to them, and make the right decision under greater pressure than one-out-pass-and-crash, round-the-corner rugby does.

I’ve been pushing this for my teams for the last couple of years and have especially loved seeing forwards get excited about being instrumental decision makers and distributors. The last team I coached had legitimate distributors at hooker, tight head, and number eight! But while recently watching our highlights from last season, we did look a bit random from phase to phase. Attacks were usually successful because we had such a strong team that won every game by a comfortable margin. It was a bit scary to think that we could have been even better with more structure and focus to our attack.

So what has been my amazing discovery? I used to scoff when I heard professional players from teams I’ve deemed ‘boring’ say things like: “We just need to play in the right parts of the field” and “We’re trying to get the rucks in the right place.” While I still believe those teams are too robotic and could afford to be more ambitious, I’ve taken something from those phrases. We DO want to play in the ‘right parts of the field’ – that is, where the defence isn’t heavily concentrated. And by considering the location of the ruck, and what it affords in terms of available space to the left and right of it, we can make a concerted effort to take advantage of it on the next phase. The revelation: There are only two areas from which we launch our attacks – rucks in the middle of the pitch and rucks near the touchline. I’ve given them two slightly fancier names:

The Big Open – With a ruck in between the touchline and the 15m dashes there is a lot of width to use, with 1 or 2 defenders likely going to cover the short side and three defending the ruck on the open side. Attackers can overload the open side and spread across the field, which opens gaps between defenders. Extras can tuck in behind the front line of attackers, offering an outlet for a back door pass, a target for a late pop pass or offload, or a misdirecting decoy line. You can think of this as one big dynamic unit or two – and even three – separate mini units.

The Split Midfield – With a ruck anywhere in between the two 15m dash lines, there’s a very strong chance that it has drawn a lot of defenders around it (1 or 2 in the tackle, 4-6 more defending the fringes!). Alternatively, it might allow for overlaps or mismatches depending on how defenders have aligned themselves off that ruck. On one hand, too few have ‘folded’ around to the side the attack was headed; on the other, too many have folded over, leaving the other side lightly defended. Anticipating and recognising this can allow a team to have a simple numbers advantage or pick off individuals who are slower or smaller or otherwise disadvantaged.

Before getting too deep into how we’ll create a strategic plan from this, it’s important to remember what we’re trying to do tactically. Our aim in attack is always to:

1. “Go Through Them” – find and exploit gaps or mismatches in size / speed and go straight through the defensive line. Create gaps to exploit with clever angles, timely passing and change of pace.

2. “Go Around Them” – take advantage of the overlap with quick passing and get around their defensive wall. Straight running fixes defenders, preserving space out wide. Swerve runs cause outer defenders to turn in, creating space for team mates outside.

3. “Go Over Them” – use a kick to get the ball back if the full back is missing, winger flat, etc. (and this can include a kick to touch if our lineout has dominance over theirs)

4. “Get Behind Them” – when all doors are closed and the wall is well organised – and we don’t want to kick possession away – an attacker should either get behind the defender making the tackle or shove their defensive line back. In both cases, the defence has to retreat and reorganise and we should be on the ‘front foot’ as a result, with players ready to look for better opportunities on the next phase.

Our structure – that is treating every ruck as creating either a Big Open, with lots of space, or a Split Midfield, with defenders condensed and possibly overloaded on one side – basically gives players an idea of what’s likely to be in front of them and where they should play next. The tactical aims listed above give them a focus on what to do when they get there. They will choose one based on who’s there in support and what the defence is offering. To me, this a perfect mesh of everyone following a plan that gets them into purposeful positions, and being free to use their vision and skills when getting aligned together.

This structure worked for us because of the strengths (and limitations – we weren’t going to bosh over players and didn’t have much of a kicking game) of our players and some truths about the way our opponents defended. We had speedy outside backs, good passing halfbacks and midfielders, some mobile forwards who pass and a few big forwards who pull in defenders. Teams we face had the following tendencies – which I think is true of most amateur teams:

  • Tend to stack two and three defenders tightly on both sides of the ruck, so we tend not to attack that space (unless it’s not actually well defended!)
  • Tend to look inward at the ruck more than in front of them, making outside player susceptible to late changes in alignment, swerves, overs lines, and not calling out overlaps.
  • Tend to have many players who aren’t that fit and/or fast, who consequently get out of position when having to run chase the play across the pitch.

Early on, I realised that if we happened to run a subsequent phase close to the previous one, play really slowed down. We didn’t gain any ground and too many bodies were involved in that area, so urged that we move the ball away well away from every ruck. Once this was in place and because our halfbacks could make long passes, our subsequent attacks tended to happen at least 10m away from the previous ruck. Our wide game obviously led to a lot of tries, but only a year later did I see a pattern in the build-up. Looking at our highlight reel, the trend seemed to be that the next phase from one of the two aforementioned scenarios led to the other scenario on the subsequent phase. So if we started with a Big Open, the next phase would almost always be a Split Midfield because we either tried a move with the midfielders or tried to punch through wider gaps with forwards. Going from touchline to touchline (i.e. Big Open to Big Open) tended to waste time in setting up, giving advantage to the defence, unless the defence was very narrow toward the other touchline and we could get a few long passes away quickly. (What can work better, especially if your passing isn’t great, is a cross-kick in the opposite direction after reaching one touchline… so long as your kicker is good and the opposite winger is paying attention!)

Wide Attack

If we established a Split Midfield, we’d attack wide one side and the next phase would look like a Big Open. Which side we’d chose typically became a ‘Where are we?’ vs ‘Where are they not?’ assessment. Not enough defenders folding = same direction, especially if the ball is played quick. Too many defenders folded around the ruck = rewind in the other direction.

Midfield Attack

So what are the essential elements and training requirements to achieve this?

  • Understanding of the plan. We can’t have individuals not getting into an effective position or going solo against our aims. We move away from the last ruck – unless it’s poorly defended and we can gain territory / maintain momentum and continuity – and attack wider spaces.
  • Anticipation. Players have to predict what the defending team will do. Are they a slow team that won’t fold around? Are they worried about the wide side, taking too many from the direction play started? Do they condense around rucks too much or evenly spread the field? Who’s likely to be out of position and be ripe for exploitation?
  • Recognition. Amateur teams tend to be more random in how they defend, so it’s vital that people spot opportunities and feed this information to decision makers. An immediately exploitable – CLEAR – opportunity is better than slavishly sticking to a plan for the sake of it.
  • Work Rate. In order to create dynamic attacking situations with sufficient numbers, we need complete and determined effort at the tackle contest (one or two, max?) to secure the ball. We benefitted from powerful cleanouts and incredibly quick/fit scrum halves who could get to the breakdown quickly – this should be the aim for any team. The other, often ignored, element of work rate is getting re-aligned quicker than the other team. Players shouldn’t be jogging from a previous phase while the ball is in play – they are effectively NOT attacking threats at that point. They should be sprinting into position, using the ruck completion time to catch their breath, not to metion scanning the opposition for attacking options and communicating with team mates regarding relevant info (“Poor tackler in front of me”, “On your left”, etc.). Combined with the other two elements, players can save energy by not running to every ruck when the realise their presence isn’t needed.
  • Ball Movement. As has been mentioned already, we want to get the ball into areas where it’s easier to play. An attacking player with a lot of space in front and options left and right is a very dangerous person (which is why some of the best teams have their most dynamic attacker at outside centre). With the way rucks are typically defended, there is only ‘into contact’ or ‘outside’ options given how condensed the defence is there. Wider spaces allow for effective switches and inside passes.

When you put it all together the most important element in this structured / dynamic attack is trust. Trust that everyone’s on the same page. Trust that people can spot and take advantage of opportunities. Trust that team mates will give their all to secure the ball or get into position. Trust that individuals will move the ball into the most advantageous positions. And, as not all attacks will lead to tries, to trust that we’ll be able to repeat the whole process again with positivity, determination and a unified focus.

It’s also vital that teams train for this as much as possible. When I took my Level 2 certification in Australia, one of the lasting messages of the course was to train proportionately for things as they occur in the game. As such, I tend to spend upwards of half to 80% of a training session on open play. We will work on dynamic unit play in activities that look and feel like the real game – some contact, some non-contact – asking players to get into position and recognise / communicate even before the ball is played. I also can’t stress enough the need for defenders to be present and active – recognition and timing are vital, and this cannot be done unopposed. I don’t like touch for this, given that most players are going to blow through a tackle attempt that involves just a grasp of the shirt. Instead, we use ‘wrap up’ to avoid full contact, or flag belts to get defenders closer and focusing on hips (single flag requires immediate offload or two steps and set a ruck, double flag pull equals tackle), or bags if we want to work on powering through smaller gaps, attacking the ‘branches’ of the tree rather than the ‘trunk’. A lot of work in this smaller area is then applied to the entire width of the field focusing on creating these scenarios from Split Midfields and Big Opens. Where clubs have to share minimal space, I’ve found that this work can be done in 1/3 of a pitch given that we’re aiming to score in between 2 and 4 phases.

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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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