Posts Tagged ‘tackle contest’

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

First, here’s the incident:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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I don’t know if I’m mis-remembering the ‘good old days’ or if I’m just watching games now with a keener analytical eye, but I’ve been frustrated watching a lot of games on TV lately. Teams go through a large number of predictable phases without displaying much creativity. Credit goes to journalist Murray Kinsella for his excellent articles (Australia’s 1-3-3-1 shape, Crusaders’ 2-4-2 shape) explaining zonal attack systems that explained in detail what I thought I was seeing from a lot of teams. In most professional and national teams, the majority of passes from the scrum half seems to go a forward pod in specific areas doing a limited range of things (sometimes just crashing it up, occasionally ‘tipping on’ a pass to one support runner outside, or pulling a deeper pass to a back who spins it wide).

Whether you call it ‘around the corner rugby’ or refer to them as ‘one-out runners’, it’s a low-risk strategy favoured by a lot of teams and I’m seeing it more at the amateur level. Its aim is to bosh through or into the defence in hopes of getting behind or finding a mis-match on the next phase. It’s purely attritional and at the amateur level it can be successful because defences are nowhere near as drilled as they are at the pro level. If a team has a few big carriers, it can be difficult for weekend warriors to handle such bulls on the charge. Fitness also plays a factor. One-out runners in the 1-3-3-1 shape, especially, aim to occupy defenders in the middle, exposing an opportunity on the wing. Defending requires a high work rate, as you have to be committed to making tackles, contesting or not contesting depending on the situation, and re-aligning elsewhere before the ball comes out.

In the clip below, we see Wales survive a whopping 32 phases from the Irish, who use mostly one-out runners to attack the line. Wales are penalised at the end, but in the follow-up clip, they stop the catch-and-drive from the lineout and, 13 phases later, Ireland are the ones being penalised for going off their feet in the ruck.

Having refereed a high school game recently where defenders were regularly bunched up around the tackle contest and where defenders in wide channels were often caught turned / looking inwards, there are a lot of things to take away in that clip that can help teams with disjointed, passive, and leaky defences.

  1. The Wall. At no point in those four minutes do we see an open channel. There are red jerseys fairly evenly spread across the pitch. A lot of coaches I know will yell ‘flat line’ to their players, but I like the visual of building an unbroken wall across the entire pitch to hold out the attacking hoard.
  2. Re-Alignment. To extend the metaphor, after an attack, we usually have to ‘re-build the wall’ (i.e. re-align). We want to do this as quickly as possible so the attacking team, again, are faced with an unbroken wall across the field offering no clear opportunities. Wales are great at this, getting back on their feet in no time and getting back into the defensive line regardless of their playing position. All defenders, barring maybe the scrum half, wings and full back, share the same responsibilities in the wall.
  3. Patience / Trust. The entire time, we see patient Welsh defenders who do not rush up recklessly. Coming forward to take away space is important, but not if one or two people are ahead of the rest, leaving big gaps for attackers to exploit. Others do not have to come in to finish a tackle, they do not attempt steals where there is no clear opportunity to do so, and players don’t flood in to ruck when the ball is clearly on the Irish side. They trust their team mates to stop the attackers and patiently wait for an opportunity on the next phase, or next phase, or … if the attacking team doesn’t make a mistake, they often get frustrated by this and kick away after running out of ideas, especially if they are driven backwards.
  4. Targeted Tackles. Quite often, the first man in goes for the carrier’s legs. This is not only to get the carrier down, but also to take away any chance of getting on the front foot (i.e. driving the defence back, making re-alignment more difficult) through leg drive. Rarely do we see more than two players contesting a tackle, leaving 13 other men on their feet for the next phase. Recognising that moment when there are a lot of attackers on the ground or out of position can allow a defending unit to swarm a ball carrier in the next phase who lacks support.
  5. Controlled Aggression. Whether coming forward or holding the line, each Welsh defender attempts to dominate the contact situation. Getting the ball carrier down quickly (or catching them in a choke tackle) allows for a better attempt to steal or to get over the ball and counter-ruck. Also important is that at least one player contests the ruck to the edge of legality, knowing the laws and/or listening to the referee. This slows down play enough for team mates to get back into position. The more time you have between getting set and the ball coming out, the more time you have to assess / plan / communicate a tactic that could win a turnover on the next phase.

Finer Points

I ask my team to defend in pairs, at the very least. In a great instructional video (Seriously, watch all of this! It’s full of wonderful stuff about shape, responsibility and re-alignment!) from former Saracens and current England defence coach, Paul Gustard, he declares that everyone is responsible for the ball in defence. This does not mean that everyone clumps around the tackle, exposing the wider channels, but that those in front of the threat are responsible for stopping it and the rest are responsible for re-establishing the integrity of the defensive wall as soon as possible.

In this clip, we see Saracens’ trust, commitment, and controlled aggression in action. The first man goes low to take away the carrier’s ability to drive and chop him down in a hurry. The second man, having played no part in the tackle, is free to go straight for the ball. The Northampton support player unfortunately grabs him around the head, and if the ref didn’t penalise them for not releasing the ball, there certainly would be one for a neck roll. Also take note of how there are two players – one on each side of the ruck – to defend against a pick almost immediately. Both are in a dynamic position ready for whatever comes next.

In this next clip we how Saracens have opted for an out-to-in style of defence that forces the ball carrier back towards the ruck where there are bigger men (who, incidentally, are world-renowned for stealing the ball in contact). We see the third man in the first two phases push in slightly to force the ball carrier back toward the ruck. If there was a support runner close at hand, this would likely also cause him to think twice. I’ve heard this called a ‘Jam‘ and I have also seen players intercept the ball off passers who weren’t paying attention to this defender getting between them and the intended receiver. The other thing to note is how fluid defenders are; the fly half comes in to help with the third phase but immediately retreats to a wider position, allowing forwards to take up post defence positions and contest the ball.

To maintain the integrity of the defensive wall, as I said before, defenders must have trust, patience, and move quickly into new positions. Below, Gustard talks about who goes where when re-building the wall. Current practice among most teams I run into is that the post and guard defenders get in place immediately, stay put, and everyone builds off them. He explains why the opposite allows them to keep their wider channels well defended.

As he says, it takes longer for players to go around rather than ‘fold in’ beside the ruck. In this clip, we see a prop and the fly half back out of the post/guard position and call for forwards to fold into the space so they can re-establish width. After three phases, there are no open spaces in the wide channel. Northampton’s one-out phases have had no effect at wearing down or exposing Saracens’ flank.

This is a great way to ensure that forwards and backs are defending in the areas that suit them best. I would say, then, that the only time I’d ask a back to stay in the post position is if there’s an immediate threat of a pick and go or a scrum half snipe. You don’t tend to see this much at the professional level because players contest for the ball in the tackle / ruck so long that there’s time enough to reposition players. That sort of slowing down of the play doesn’t always exist at the amateur level, but in seeing how Saracens and Wales are able to maintain a wall across the entire pitch, these tactics might be things worth developing in your team, especially if you regularly find that you are outflanked by one-out runners and wide attacking plays.

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

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

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

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

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

Wanna see some alternative try-saving techniques?

Genuinely attempt to dislodge the ball…

Get under the ball…

I’ll get down now …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shield Wall Breakout

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

Ruck Clean-outs for Second Phase

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 Key Concepts:

  • Quick re-alignment
  • High work rate off the ball
  • Build from the inside-out
  • Communicate responsibility early

 Hopefully, establishing continuity in defence is not something that has to be sustained for a long period. Remember, the aim is to get the ball back as soon as possible. The defending team can initiate pressure on an attacking team with aggressive ‘go-forward’ but current law interpretations favour the attacking side at the tackle contest. Defenders must therefore establish continuity – re-building their defensive line as quickly as possible – to halt the attacking side’s momentum (i.e. their own continuity!) and find their chance to force a turnover. Two simple words provide all the focus needed in establishing continuity: Work Rate! The defending team must work harder off the ball than the attacking team to present them with an unbroken and layered defensive line. This will allow them a better chance at stealing the ball, forcing a mistake or causing the attacking team to kick possession away.

 Several factors dictate that building the defensive line from the inside-out is the best course of action. Quite simply, the touch line acts as the ever-present ’16th defender’ and it takes time to move the ball away from the tackle contest, so there’s more time to adjust out wide. Most importantly, though, we want to deny the attacking team the ability to simply pick and go or snipe around the fringes of the tackle contest. Significant gains in ground here cause confusion as there isn’t as much time to react as when the ball is moved wide. Offsides are also likely when the attacking team’s continuity is consistent and the rate of recycling possession high. Defenders panic and get drawn in, both physically and with their attention (i.e. ‘ruck inspecting’ – looking inward and not at what’s going on in front), creating opportunities out wide for subsequent phases. As such, defending players should shore up the gaps around a tackle contest and then adjust to what’s going on elsewhere. A typical ruck defence structure, including second and third layers of defence, looks like this:

DEF - Ruck Defence

The space around the tackle contest is protected by A and B defenders – As tight to both sides to defend the seam and Bs within arm’s reach. The C defender marks the obvious first receiver, completing a strong defensive unit of three that covers the space between the two half backs. Typically, A pressures the person who plays the ball, C marks the first receiver, and B forms the link between the two, acting as a guard against the offload, inside passes, or cut backs.

It’s important that these defenders form up on-side quickly, communicating their responsibilities loudly so that everyone else can follow suit and nominate their responsibilities out wide. Continuity is established through speed of communication and each individual working hard to get into position before the attackers can move the ball. To build the defensive line quickly, wider defenders have to trust that the interior ones are in position and have the emerging threats in front of them covered. Without communication and trust, defenders can focus too much on the tackle contest area – bunched up around it, or with heads / bodies turned inward, ignoring threats out wide. They might also mistakenly assume the fringes are covered, focusing on what’s in front of them, but leaving easily exploitable gaps inside where line breaks can be more difficult to contain. The beauty of establishing continuity using A-B-C to build the defensive line is that it can be communicated clearly and quickly. The logical sequence reduces confusion over terminology for individual roles (compared to: post, pillar, guard, body guard, lead, action, etc.) and that means this information is processed quickly by team mates who can take up the next logical position in the line. It also highlights that whatever defensive strategy you want to employ, three players form a nice support unit that can stop most strikes and win the ball back in the tackle contest.

Continuity Games

DEF - Ruck Scramble

DEF - Defence Stations

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I examined the specifics of what I think is good, and not so good, about offloading from contact in a previous post, so won’t go into to much detail here on the finer points.  While watching Toulouse v Ospreys yesterday I saw a fantastic offload by French no. 8 Louis Picamoles to Census Johnston resulting in probably the easiest try the massive Samoan has ever scored.

Here’s the clip:

1. Play starts from a lineout in a game where Toulouse pretty much had forward dominance.  As is a common move with teams these days who have a strong pack, Toulouse make a few attempts to exert their dominance.  They start with a catch and drive and use their one re-start opportunity to get the ball to the hooker at the back, then restarting their shove.  As things break down, the hooker breaks off and has a go.  Some might elect to start another maul for an classic pushover, but Tolofua is a massive lad and decides to have a go.  Ospreys defence are up to the task and stop him short of the line.

2. The scrum half, Burgess, moves the ball wide to another powerful runner (they have a few!) Jean Bouilhou.  The width here is key as teams are always more likely to stack their defenders tightly around the fringes of the ruck, and in three-point stances to be able to stop the low pick and drives (see Sona Taumalolo).  Playing to a forward in the wide channels makes it more likely that he’ll be facing a significantly smaller back.  Bouilhou misses an opportunity to do what Picamoles does in a few seconds later if you stop at about 0:15-0:16 in the video.  He has just two defenders in front of him and a team mate.  He cuts back inside, not backing his power and though his team does set up a ruck and retains possession, I’d argue that he could have set up a score in one of two ways.

Simply, he could have attacked the gap between the two defenders, effectively drawing the outer one and passed before contact to the waiting player (possibly the fly half).  That close to the line, it’s incredibly hard to stop anyone who gets low enough, and if it’s Dossain, he’s a powerful player who’d be hard to stop.  In addition, at 0:16 you can see that the man who’d be responsible for defending the potential receiver isn’t squarely aligned with him.  By being a metre or so on his inside, it’d be very hard to effect anything but a side-on tackle, giving the receiver the chance to reach for the line with forward momentum or twist around to score.  Defending players within 5m of the goal line is best done when square-on with the ball carrier, and often higher than I’d usually advocate for a ‘perfect’ tackle, so the defender can: A. Stop his forward momentum, and B. Wrap arms to prevent the offload.

The second way Bouilhou might have set up a try for Dossain is performed by Louis Picamoles on the next phase.

3. With the ball bought into contact, we can see the eventual try scorer Johnston parked a significant distance away from the ruck in the lower right part of the screen at about 0:20.  He’s a big man and a quick, flat pass for him to run onto might see him charge over the line.  But as we see Louis Picamoles creep into a closer position at 0:22 we can see that Ospreys defence are already in low positions and that there are four of them on that short side.  Passing only to Johnston, who looks to be standing too high and who probably wouldn’t be charging onto the ball (I’ve seen him play a lot and this is often true with him), might see him smothered by any number of those four waiting defenders.

4. Burgess passes to Picamoles who immediately makes a dart for the space – not any one of the waiting defenders and certainly not square on.  By doing this he forces those present into the side-on / legs tackle which, as noted above, is not idea to stop any player – let alone someone of Picamoles’ bulk – this close to the goal line.  If you stop at 0:25, you will note that he’s managed to drag the defending forward, as well as drag in both the defending scrum half and winger.

5. For many players, this would be the end of the move.  Take the charge with the proverbial ‘blinkers’ on, unaware of where support is, lay the ball back and set up another ruck.  Johnston would have to come in to secure the ball and Ospreys would probably try to slow it down and buy time to re-align their defence as they had so ably on the last phases.  Instead, whether by presence of mind or by Johnston’s call – or both – Picamoles reaches his big hand around the back of the winger and delivers a soft offload to a waiting Johnston who only has to flop over to score.

6. Players with big hands, like Sonny Bill Williams, are often seen making such spectacular offloads because they can palm the ball and force it in virtually any direction.  I suspect Picamoles might be just such a player, but on the reverse angle we can see that he’s cradling the ball between his hand and forearm – which even high school girls I’ve coached can manage.  He delicately slides a pop pass to Johnson, who also demonstrates great technique in having both hands up and offering a target.

Picamoles takes out three defenders to offload to Johnston

When I teach this sort of thing to my players, I focus on a few key things that address both going into contact properly as well as thinking about what happens next.  First off, I stress that I ALWAYS want players to dominate the contact area such that they can play the ball as they wish.  NEVER do I want them to simply ‘run into the trunk of the tree’, which gives the defender(s) the advantage.  So, we address the following:

  • Move toward defender’s centre line to ‘fix’ him / her in place
  • Suddenly move away and attack the space (or ‘branches of the tree’ – i.e. arms – if space isn’t big enough to run into)
  • Maintain a powerful running line that preserves space for support players (i.e. running a sharp angle draws in the outer defender and allows the carrier forward momentum; running flat, sideways angle has little to no forward momentum and allows defenders a chance at an easy tackle)
  • Keep the body height low so one is hard to stop, but not so low that one will topple forward if dragged down
  • Keep in mind where supporting players were – is there a chance for an offload should you draw in another defender?  Where would that offload best be made – flat to the side or slightly behind?  [Support players MUST be communicating this, as most ball carriers won’t be able to see where they are / are coming from once in contact… and as with the previous article on offloading, popping the ball to a defender who’s even a metre or more back is counter-productive.  The receiver MUST be at or challenging the gain line!]
  • Keep a solid grip on the ball, and keep arm(s) free on the way down – an added bonus of teaching players to be confident in contact and to fall on their sides.
  • LISTEN and LOOK for the opportunity to make the offload.  Nothing makes me more angry watching games where players offload to unready receivers or to no one in particular.  Offloads are great, but I always stress IF IT’S NOT TRULY ‘ON’ THEN A RUCK IS BETTER, and that includes the offload to a player who’s deep as you’re more likely to set them up to be tackled well behind the ground you just gained.

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I was reading an article today by Aussie, but wannabe-Irish (by the way he says ‘we’ when talking about them on tv), coach Matt Willaims about Ireland’s defensive woes.  Simply put, he was criticising coach Declan Kidney’s use of the sliding defence, whereby players come forward and then move across the field with the ball, suggesting that they should employ more of a rush defence, like the Welsh do, coming forward quickly to stop the ball reaching the outside channel.  Both cited the amount of tries Ireland have ceded out wide, being more so there than any other area.  I read a comment on the article that suggested it wasn’t the defensive system, but the players involved – a subtle criticism, I think, against inside centre Gordon D’Arcy, who many feel is past it. This last bit, for starters, highlights something that’s truer for us who coach amateur club / school teams – you can only work with what you have.  While D’Arcy might be in the twilight of his career, I can’t think that Ireland have any better inside centres available.

I’m not one who prefers one defensive system over another, and though I’ve not yet employed it as a club or school coach, I eventually see myself training my players to maybe use two or three for specific situations (I’ll write about that later, but to suggest my stance on it – we have different sets and countless ‘plays’ in attack, so three different ways of defending shouldn’t be too much of a stretch with training and communication systems in place).  I’ve been watching a lot of France’s play of late, who were to be Ireland’s opponent yesterday until the match was called due to a frozen pitch.  I seemed to recall that Ireland, with their talismanic centre Brian O’Driscoll, gave up a try to them last year that was similar to the one that prompted the criticism – last week’s inability to stop Wales in the wide channel.

Let’s dig up those clips …

It’s not the system that’s at fault here, and Ireland are definitely not using a sliding defence when North hits the line and offloads to Davies to score Wales’ second.  Just as in the first try to Davies, Ireland were caught flat footed.  If you play the clip up to about 1:12-1:14, you can see Ireland rush up and then slow down and almost stop dead, flat footed as George North hits the line.  This is a basic no-no of tackling at ANY level.  The moment you go flat footed, you lose your momentum, your power, and your ability to adjust to what the ball carrier does – you give the advantage of the tackle contest completely to the attacker.  The point failing here was not the system, but the level of commitment, and possibly communication.  There are three players within a 5m defensive zone – easily enough space for anyone at that level to cover themselves – yet it’s not quite clear who’s responsible for North (Wales’ 11).  The

If you look at last year’s game, you can see that with a bit better communication, patience and commitment, the French might have been stopped.  Just like last weekend, they rushed up (not too quickly, which I don’t think is as much of a sin as some would say – again, for a later article) and slowed down – note how both centres adopt a squatting position at about 0:05-0:08.  Definitely not a dynamic position that allows one to take away space and adjust to directional changes of the attacking players!

And, again, I don’t think it’s the defensive system that’s at fault here, but the lack of commitment and communication of commitment within the one that’s chosen.  At 0:25, there’s the start of what looks to be an effective sliding defence, but at 0:28, there’s obvious confusion as a French player alters his running line.  This freezes 10, though 7 definitely had him covered, and even sucked in 12’s attention.  O’Driscoll even, was too focused inward, allowing Rougerie to get outside him (note how he’s turned sideways at 0:30).  When you’ve got your defender turned facing the touchline, you’ve got him/her at your mercy!  If you’re speedy, you can beat him around the corner and face him into a side/rear tackle and have to chase down your speed (and avoid the fend!).  If the defender is over-committed to that chase, then a little step inside will see you slip right by – which is what Rougerie does here.  The much-maligned D’Arcy does in a couple of steps, bring down the big Frenchman, but what’s lacking – especially given that Ireland supposedly employ a sliding defence – is a more-determined commitment to covering across to pick up the counter-runner (in this case, Cedric Heymans).  Being beat by a cut-back is an inherent risk of a sliding defence (as is being beat around the corner or behind with a kick for fans of the rush defence), so the Irish players should know that once the ball has got wide, they must push across with great commitment.  In fact, that’s probably the most aggressive part of a sliding defence prior to the actual tackle – the slide itself is meant to usher attackers sideways and eliminate their space, but the push across to cover the switch-back has to be more aggressive as it’s the slide’s weak point.  It’s an effective defence when all are committed to covering those weak points, and communication is vital when determining who’s responsible for whom … even saying it for your own sake should be a mental kick up the back side to get there and do what’s needed of you.




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I recently discovered that the French Rugby Union has it’s own video sharing account at Dailymotion.  In addition to interviews and clips from big matches, they’ve got some great drill videos that I’ve only just started going through.  Have a look at this clip on the tackle contest, and note that there are plenty more down the right hand side (… and they’re even MORE useful if your French is better than mine!)

FFR – Le Ruck

FFR – La Melee (Scrum) … and another: Here

FFR- Le Lift

FFR – Kicking

Hand Fighting (for fending / tackling)



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

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

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

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


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

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

Here’s an example of a drill I use:

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

Love this bit from the Green and Gold Rugby Blog:

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

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

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

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

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

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Over my 13 years of coaching rugby I’ve had quite a few moments when I felt like the cartoon character that yelled ‘Eureka!’ and would have a tiny light bulb form above his head.  Some of these might seem quite simple, but bearing in mind I started coaching after just two years of playing, my coaching path has largely been one of self discovery.

Here they are:

1. Watching the Ball – Very early in my career, I realised I could bring stuff from other sports – and have never stopped, should I hear / see something I think I can bring to the rugby pitch.  I was never more than a blocker in football, but I remembered my coach telling the receivers to ‘catch with their eyes’ – meaning, keep your eyes on the ball until it’s secure in their hands.  It’s exactly the same on the rugby field.  When you see a player on tv dropping the ball in the open field, it’s almost guaranteed that his eyes were elsewhere before he secured the ball.

2. Thinking About the Target – My passing got a lot better when it was stated one should think about the target before the pass is made, focusing on that spot during the follow-through.  When I became a Touch player, and got to handle the ball more often, my passing improved – leading the receiver, rather than putting it right to him – as I thought about and focused on where he’d want it.  In addition, making that flick pass in heavy traffic is actually quite easy when one has an end-point for the follow-through in mind even while the ball is in flight!

3. Visualisation – Building on the last point, my goal kicking improved after reading an article by kicking guru Dave Alred, who talked a lot about visualisation.  I’ve since learned this is key to any closed skill – and explained why ski aerialists always did those funny arm swings – as there are things that require not only extreme focus, but sometimes can’t be seen if you’re to perform the skill correctly (i.e. keeping the head down well after the ball has left the tee ensures the body follows through the kick; leaning back to watch the ball fly takes the momentum out of it).

4. Flat, ‘Attacking’ Defence – when I first started playing, I don’t think there was as much focus on a ‘flat line’ defence as there was in the 2000s, after the Wallabies won RWC 1999 with rugby league defensive structures.  The flat line, ‘attacking’ aggressively closes down the space in front of the attacking team and provides them no obvious gaps.  Simple, but effective.

5. Economy of Effort – today I was reminded of lessons learned from heavy defeats suffered as a player, one coming during a 70-or-so to not-much loss to a touring Welsh side.  They continually had several players extra out wide and even then I realised we were committing way too many players to the break down.  If the few who got their first worked their butt off, or declared the contest lost, the rest could take up defensive positions elsewhere.  It’s a tough concept to get across sometimes, but to some players who feel they need to contribute, I say, “Be lazy!  Don’t go to every break down.”  I stress more clearly, though, that you have to have trust that the first few people there will do the work needed of them and that we need to have more players on our feet than they do so we can outnumber them on defence – and try and get the ball back in the next tackle contest.  Defence can be very tiring if players do not conserve their efforts for the winnable battles!

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