Posts Tagged ‘tackling’

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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As a visual learner, I’ve always been interested in watching sport and trying new things (as a player) and adding to my knowledge (as a coach) from what I saw on the telly in addition to enjoying the spectacle.  The wonders of the Inter Web have allowed me to expand upon this as I can watch way more sport than I can with even the best cable packages.  Video clips on YouTube are an important learning tool for me as rugby’s a sport that does continue to evolve, both in the way athletes play the game and how coaches direct it.  There isn’t a lot of great coaching material that gets published – compared to my first sports, American football and basketball anyway – and even tv analysis leaves me scratching my head at times as presenters can be full of hot air.  So analysing video myself, looking at cause and effect over and over via the slide bar and watch again button, allow me to pick apart the action myself.

I don’t think it’s a difficult skill to acquire and I’ve proved this by running a classroom session with a high school girls’ team.  I asked them to get into groups based upon unit (front row, second row, back row, half backs, centres, back three) and find a try they liked.  I then asked them to show it to the whole team via the big screen in our computer lab and explain what elements led to the try being scored.  This was the first time I did something like this, previously walking through video clips by myself, and was fully prepared for it to fail.  I tried to boost confidence, esp. with the front rowers who said they just make tackles and ruck and have no idea how tries are created, with a little ‘coaching’.  I said to them that every action on the field should have a reaction from the defence.  If the defence reacts well, then the attack is probably going to be shut down.  If not, the attackers should get through – unless the attackers themselves have botched it somehow.  Little technical and tactical things that we can see – like not being aligned properly, looking up before securing the ball, poor communication leading to two players going after the same ball carrier leaving an attacker free, etc. – are really how tries are scored or not.  These subtleties might not be so obvious when watching a game on tv (not to mention live!) as the action is so quick, angles not ideal, and because there are so many players on the field.  (One reason I’m not such a fan of sevens is that mistakes are more likely and obvious given the extra space, whereas in fifteens attack and defence is more nuanced.)

There are plenty of great accounts on YouTube – with legal uploads too! – that you can observe and analyse to develop your knowledge of the game and to give you an idea of what to work on at practice.  Kids love this stuff as well, and especially for those of us in countries where televised rugby is hard to watch, sending them here is not only a way of getting them more excited about the game, but also to learn what Clive Woodward called the ‘critical non-essentials’ of the game that are hard to train for – like quick lineouts, dummy passes, quick tap penalties, etc.

Let’s look at the Aviva Premiership’s Try of the Week for round one of the new season.

The try scored by Christian Wade is so much more than just his amazing step and speed.

LESSON 1 – Attacking with purpose:  As the announcer says, Quins were probing in attack but Wasps’ aggressive defence stopped them.  Fly half Nick Evans runs sideways allowing centre Eliot Daly to take him down quickly in the tackle.  Running sideways isn’t a complete sin in my book, but you’d better have an exit strategy because tackling someone from the side is much easier than from the front, and Daly dominates the tackle.  One of the Quins backs needed to call for the ball, either wide, or on a switch to straighten up their attack.

LESSON 2 – Dominant tackles and tackle contest:  Poor body positioning from Evans aside, this could have just been a simple tackle that resulted in a ruck.  But Daly tackles him quickly and immediately gets back on his feet to challenge for the ball – nice and legal.  This is not possible with high / slow tackles, as support will be there to secure attacking ball.  In addition to Daly’s dominance and aggression in the tackle contest, he has immediate support from flanker Jonathan Poff.  Note how close together they are, making them stronger in the fight for the ball / counter ruck.  (It does become a bit messy … but the dominance aspect is something refs have to consider these days.  Players go off their feet most times, but the two Wasps players were in dominant positions and the ball was made available so quickly that, like the other few dozen times this happens in a game that doesn’t prevent a fair and reasonable contest, play continues.)

LESSON 3- Quick ball:  It could have ended with a ruck and the scrum half moving to play the ball or a forward to pick and drive around the fringe of that ruck – as I see most teams do.  The next key element before we see Wade’s brilliant feet in action is the lock not opting for the selfish / unthoughtful pick and drive, but the quickest of passes out to the players who had both space and a numbers advantage.  At 0:08, we see #5 Marco Wentzel play the ball in a diving pass to what ends up being four backs against one.

LESSON 4 – Defensive recognition and communication:  Not only was winger George Lowe caught outnumbered, you can see that at 0:07 and 0:08 he’s not even taking notice that there are that many players outside him.  Same goes for scrum half Danny Care, who should know better as an England player, that the tackle was lost and he should be directing traffic to shore up their defence.  Lowe, as the last man in defence on the wing should have let that ruck go and positioned himself to not just cover Wade, but also call for help on the blind side.  Instead he runs in, then has to run back out to cover Wade.  Wentzel’s quick thinking pass sets the Wasps backs off, but better defence might have prevented them from such an easy run.

LESSON 5 – Who takes who?:  Lowe was one of last season’s great young discoveries and is no slouch of a player, but he needed to do two things (or at least have help) and he might have stopped the try.  Firstly, he retreats a bit to ‘jockey’ the two attackers in front of him – a tactic that’s meant to buy time and cause indecision in the ball carrier.  Giving space away is not ideal, but in this case he’s already in trouble so it’s not a bad option to allow coverage to come across.  If communication was better from the cover, he might have been able to step into the initial ball carrier or been able to stay on the outside man and trust that cover would take the ball carrier.  In this situation, I’d coach the second option, as it’d be more difficult for the cross cover to get to the outside and cover the speedy Wade should Lowe take the Wasps player who first gets the ball.  (That’s debatable, though.)

LESSON 6 – Timing:  The initial receiver is Wasps inside centre Andrea Masi.  First off, he does a great job to get back on side into a position of depth that gives him space to not only run when he gets the ball but also time to think about what his options are.  It’s not clear as to whether Wade calls for the pass or Masi sets him up, but either way the timing of it all was excellent.  Masi takes it forward in two hands, which is key because it means Lowe can’t be sure as to whether he’ll crash it up – as inside centres are oft to do – or pass.  If Masi had tucked it away, it’d have been easier for Lowe to commit to him as the pass wouldn’t be as likely.  His forward run also serves to commit Lowe to a certain degree.  If he’d passed immediately, Lowe could have slid off and immediately picked up Wade.

LESSON 7 – Easy space:  I tell me players to seek out ‘easy space’ as much as possible – clear room into which they can run.  Space between defenders is obvious ‘easy space’.  But important ‘easy space’ – especially when facing well organised defenders who aren’t allowing attackers to get into gaps – is also in between ball carrier and defender, i.e. the space in front.  This importantly gives the ball carrier time to create or preserve space for someone else.  And this is what Masi does so well.  Masi, now without the ‘easy space’ in front, having drawn Lowe somewhat, gives a well placed pass to Wade and puts him into ‘easy space’ out wide.  If Masi had selfishly cut into the ‘easy space’ out wide, Lowe would have drifted with him … possibly allowing Wade a switch back, but which would also make it easier for cross cover to take him out.  Instead, he fixes Lowe in his channel, preserves the width for Wade and gives him the opportunity to use it with a well timed pass.

LESSON 8 – Footwork:  Christian Wade is fast, easily one of the fastest in the Premier League.  But it’s not his straight line speed that gets him the try.  George Lowe is also fast and Wade isn’t the largest or most powerful of players so a well timed pursuit might stop him.  Wade brilliantly makes a subtle change of direction to run at Lowe, and then quickly swerves away and beats him to the outside.  Lowe’s reaction shows fear that Wade will beat him on his inside – though I’d say his positioning to stop that was pretty good – and as such he hesitates and nearly stands up.  Wade effectively ‘freezes’ or ‘fixes’ him in place and makes his real move.  If Lowe had backed himself, and committed to the pursuit and tackle, I think he might have at least got a hand to him.  Instead, by being hesitant and falling for the feint side step, he lost his momentum and his ability to close down the space and make a tackle on Wade.
There is is.  A one minute clip that can be broken down into many teachable elements.  Watching game tape can be tedious and boring for the players, esp. at school level where most are out for fun.  The aforementioned high school team interestingly enough all chose to talk about tries that matched how they liked to play on the field.  We never watched our own games, but I’d look for trends in the few that were filmed and by consulting my own notes and we’d work on those elements at practice – both ones that needed reinforcement and those that needed correction.  We did analyse our own game tape when I coached at a university, but there we only addressed major trends.  So I’d pick out two or three things we did well and two or three major things that needed work and we’d break those down as above as a highlight / reminder and make those elements the focus for training the following week.  I think involving the players in the discussion by asking questions rather than giving answers, making the whole process a constructive rather than instructive one, is most important.  The university women demonstrated this in their desire to discuss those few clips and act upon the lessons, commenting that they felt these sessions much more productive than the ones their friends on the football team had to endure where they’d watch the entire game and break down every little element – if they managed to stay awake!

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This is the first of what will be several posts aimed at the players I’m currently coaching, reminding them of the objectives we worked on at the preceding training session.  I’m hoping to both reinforce learning and provide remedial knowledge to those who had to miss the session.  We’ll be repeating the lessons learned, those will miss will hopefully be familiar with the terms and concepts … if they do their home work!

We haven’t done any proper tackling yet, but have looked at some of the technical elements which are involved in making a proper tackle.  We also talked about the aim of the tackle and defence – to win the ball back – so looked at how to get back to our feet quickly and to get hands on ball legally and safely.  Finally, we looked at defensive shape in small groups and then as a team.  I’ve outlined some basic elements of that below, but will go into greater detail when we talk about rucking.

Preparing for Contact

  • Foot in the ‘hula hoop’ – getting one foot close enough to enter the hypothetical hula hoop at the feet of the ball carrier will get you close enough to make a proper tackle
  • Bending at the knees and dropping one’s butt provides stability and leverage when engaging in contact
  • Engaging with a shoulder stops the ball carrier’s forward momentum and can fold them in half if done in the right spot
  • Wrapping tightly and dominating one’s opponent should see you complete a take down quickly and end up on top, in a better position to steal the ball

Stealing the Ball After Contact(aka ‘poaching’ or ‘jackaling’)

  • Get to your feet as quickly as you can, even pushing off on the tackled player to do so
  • There’s no need to stand up fully erect, as squatting over the ball saves time and ensures you’re strong (low, balanced, shoulders above hips)
  • You must be on your feet and be able to support your own body weight to play the ball, you must also release the tackled player – a brief clap lets the ref know (see video below)
  • Remember the tackler can play the ball from any direction so long as a ruck has not yet formed ; ‘Tackle Assist’ or ‘2nd player in’ must enter through the gate, an area as wide and deep as the players on the ground

Defending, 1o1

  • Tackles are more easily made when the ball carrier is in front of you
  • Close down the distance between quickly to reduce the ball carrier’s space, time, and options
  • … but shorten strides, adopt a lower, more dynamic stance, and be on the balls of your feet closer to contact so you can adjust to the ball carrier’s attempts to evade you
  • NEVER wait for them to come to you, and NEVER get caught flat footed – both situations give the ball carrier the advantage
  • The group of players in front of the ball must remain flat so as not to provide obvious holes – which can be created by individuals rushing up too soon or lagging behind the rest.
  • Communication early allows everyone to better understand their roles and responsibilities – we will use:
  • “My Tackle” – taking responsibility, letting others know so they can make appropriate decisions
  • “My Steal” – someone immediately beside the declared tackler, indicating support and that he/she will either help complete the tackle or attempt to steal the ball or get stuck into an ensuing ruck / maul
  • Players beside them need to “Squeeze” in to plug holes and mirror the potential ball carriers on BOTH sides of the player about to be tackled.  (We learned that people tend to ‘pinch’ in, providing the attacking team with a hole to exploit, when no one took responsibility by yelling ‘my tackle’!)

Next week we’ll talk more about organisation at the tackle contest (i.e. ruck / maul, though we’ve already covered some of this).  If you want to read more about what we worked on in Tuesday’s session, check out my post here on here:  https://conversationalrugby.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/communication-in-defence/

and on ‘attacking’ on defence and maintaining shape here:  https://conversationalrugby.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/communication-in-defence/

Thursday will be dedicated to attack.

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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 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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In the previous article, I discussed how the defending team should ‘attack’ so as to take away the time and space available to the team in possession.  The issues discussed provide a focus to the shape of the defensive line as well as a sense of urgency.  The line must come up fast, but together so as not to ‘shoot’ up or leave ‘doglegs’ that clever attackers will angle for.  I also stressed that while the defensive line should be ‘flat’, it should not be absolutely ‘flat’ so that there is at least small degree of depth to the line to prevent kicks over the top, to be better placed to cover line breaks, and to be able to launch counter attacks more quickly.

In this final article on defensive structure and execution, I will add something for those teams that are already doing this well but that could use greater focus with regard to individual responsibilities.  Why even greater focus?  One of the great factors in winning the Attack v Defence battle is the quest to have more of your players on their feet in a given phase than they do.  Referencing back to playing to the principles of the game article, one could consider the ruck a ‘failure’ to achieve all of those (arguably apart from continuity if the ball has emerged on the attacking side) and as such the defending team should NOT look at the next phase as simply preventing the other team from scoring, but see it as an OPPORTUNITY to win the ball back.  Well structured and continuous attack is what wins games in rugby, but organised and determined defence will win us the ball back and allow us to then enjoy possession.  So I tell my players that not every ruck needs to be contested – the tackler and one person to have a go is often all that needs to happen when the team in possession has ample support present.  The attacking team usually sends double that into contact – even at the highest level! – to ensure possession and have numbers in the tackle contest to resist any sort of counter ruck.  If one does the math, we should then have more players in defence than they have to attack and here is where we should determinedly aim to win the ball back even before a tackle takes place!

Borrowing again from the excellent NSW Rugby document “Effective Team Defence” from their Coach Education Series (2004), the following diagram lays out specific roles for those three players in front of the ball (at least) who are crucial to the integrity of our defensive line.

Before I even start discussing the roles, note how the diagram infers a slight stagger to the defensive line and how D3, D4, and D5 are aligned on the inside of their opposite numbers.  This demonstrates a classic drift defence, which seeks to shuffle the attacking team to that imaginary, but vital 16th defender, the touch line.  I believe that slight stagger also invites the wide attack, but as I’ll outline in the positional responsibilities, cuts off inside passes once they run out of room.  This sort of defence, sometimes called “open gate”, is often seen in sevens.  It’s lower risk than the outside-in “blitz” defence, but still requires much discipline should a dangerous winger get the ball in space.  But our hope is to shut down the attacking team at this midfield junction, and here’s how:

1. D3-D4-D5 are going to ‘attack’ as a unified defensive wall providing no clear holes to the attacking team.  Obviously their roles, and the roles of other players in the line will change if the ball moves, but for this explanation, let’s assume that 12 is going to take the ball to the line.

2. D3 is in what the Waratahs call(ed) the Hustle Channel.  By maintaining his line speed with the rest of his D4 and D5 team mates, he’s likely to force the attacking 10 to pass the ball on.  He needs to maintain this pressure at least until the ball is passed again so there’s no chance a pass inside can breach the defensive line.  In ‘hustling’ the ball away, he forces the attack wider, hopefully flatter (i.e. with less time and space in which to attack as they wish), and away from their source of support.  One of my biggest pet hates is players who run sideways with the ball as they’re effectively doing this for the defence!  Ideally, the defenders will each become the ‘hustling’ player within a flat defensive wall, forcing the ball / players to be shipped wide and eventually into touch.

3.  Let’s say that 12 has taken the ball to the line, and that D4 is going to at least wrap up the attacker.  TRUST is incredibly important if we want to play efficient defence.  If D3 and D5 do not trust D4, then they might squeeze in to ‘help’ make the tackle, providing passing / offload opportunities to 12’s supporting team mates.  [I’ll discuss this type of anticipation in attack in a follow-up article!]  At the point of contact, they must have a quick scan and ‘mirror’ what’s in front of them to prevent the ball carrier from finding one of his support runners with a pass.  D5 especially has the largest responsibility in the Jam Channel, to ensure first that the outer support player is covered.  Even when playing an inside-out defence, this player must still be SQUARE in both hips and shoulders with that person so that he isn’t able to beat D5 around the outside should a pass occur.  If the threat isn’t there, he can step up a bit in hopes of intercepting an offload, or can establish a ‘Post’ position at the ruck and call other defenders over … the following diagram will offer some possibilities for both players:

This is our three-player defensive wall in front of the ball that has to maintain its shape until the tackle is engaged.

Indicated by the red circle is our defensive wall, including the tackler in the middle, a defender on the inside in the Hustle Channel (who presumably was instrumental in seeing 10 make a deep pass to 12) and one on the outside in the Jam Channel.  In this case, it is fairly obvious that 12 is going to smash into them, and there are plenty of defenders on both sides so they’re excused in being a bit condensed.  Indicated by the blue and green circles, however, are the two threats that the Jam defender and Hustle defender have to be aware of.  Should the Hustle defender step in too early to help in the tackle, and 12 get an offload to 10 (green circle) on the inside, he could slip right through the middle.  The Jam defender also has to be wary of the player of the player circled in blue who’s coming in fast to support.  As discussed in the previous article, which used a series of photos to demonstrate shape, this team is well situated to cover any line breaks …

But as the ball had started from a ruck fully 10m away from where it now is, the defending team will want to make this the tackle they dominate and from which they regain the ball.  With immediate threats not present, and ‘Hustling’ and ‘Jamming’ defenders on both sides, the two such players in the red circle should be able to step in and try a double tackle and rip the ball or jackal over the ball once the tackle is made or establish a quick ruck to win the ball.  This is the sort of decision that individual players must make for themselves in the split second that contact is initiated.  I like to train this, at a basic level, with a 1(+2) v 4 drill whereby an attacker has a go at 4 defenders in a confined space, with two late support players.  The defenders must take away the space while maintaining their shape and communicate / decide on their roles as contact is initiated and the tackle contest unfolds.  Then, hopefully, they can apply this level of trust, discipline, and communication into a full game situation, still at training so we can work on this concept in a more realistic context and make corrections as needed.

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Often, it is true that the harder they fall, and quite easily as well.

I was reading a question posed by a coach on a forum asking how can one get a gentle giant to actually use his size rather than what’s currently happening – getting cut down in the tackle quite easily.  There is the perception that bigger = better when it comes to rugby player selection, but of the reasons why this is both true and false, one of the key ‘it depends’ factors is whether or not that player knows how to use his / her size ‘advantage.’

There were times in my playing days when I’d prefer to tackle the player who stood over 6’4″ because his longer legs and torso made for an easier target to hit and fold.  The main danger was the long fending arm, but if I could parry it away, it was easy to throw him off balance, even by grabbing said arm and dragging him in (though the current generation of young players probably never see a baggy long sleeved jersey any more, which made that easier!).  That’s probably the first tip for big players using their size effectively – long arms are great to keep would-be tacklers at bay.  Any player, for that matter, should aim for the shoulder, either to stand the tackler up and keep him / her – literally – at arms length, or even shove the tackler down to the ground if they’ve leaned in too early and not kept balanced.

Another thing to consider is how big players carry themselves forward.  Some I’ve known, and even see in the higher leagues, have trouble getting low and holding that position.  Being ‘low’ lowers the centre of gravity and makes one more stable.  Running into contact whilst standing straight up is an invitation to be dominated.  I see big players get rocked by little ones all the time because they’re running too upright with little forward momentum and making themselves an easy-to-tackle target.

There’s also the classic case of running straight into contact – which big Manu Tuilagi did way too much on his Saxons debut last week. A big side step before, or even just a determined power step into contact might help him avoid the easy tackle.  In the following photo, his body positioning isn’t bad as he’s not going to present an easy target, but he’d have been better off making a late step to get to the outside of one of the defenders.  In this case, he’s at risk of turning the ball over as both tacklers are likely to end up in dominant positions, one ready to jackal for the steal.

The power step, if you’ve not heard of it, is not as big as a sidestep, but sees the ball carrier attack the ‘branches of the tree’ as it were – stepping away from the midline of a defender and aiming for a shoulder.  The hope is to get the defender fixed to the ground with the straight run, and then forcing him off balance into a more difficult arm tackle.  Done with a low, balanced body position, and a degree of intensity, it’s a perfect way to break a tackle when there’s not much of a gap to run into or at least be able to pop a pass from contact to a supporting player.  Tuilagi could have made a big step toward the outside of one of these defenders to put him off-balance and attempt to break a falling, arms-only tackle.

Where all of this is in place, or is slowly developing for the ineffective big player, working on offloading awareness and ability might be a solution for your team’s sake.  This is especially true for a player whose size is likely to draw a few defenders rather than just one. And as such simple maths dictates that at least one or two team mates should be free somewhere!  A player like New Zealand’s convert from League, Sonny Bill Williams is a master at this – he’s a powerful straight-ahead runner who’ll often draw double or triple coverage.  His acute and perfect offloading ability means he’ll put team mates into space when his presence with the ball has drawn too much attention.  In this photo, he’s not only taken on just the one defender, but has put him off balance with a power step before contact (note how the tackler’s in a poor position and how stable SBW is), and not only is he getting an offload away, but he’s also screening such that the recipient of the pass should have a nice clean hole to run through.

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

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

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

[Videos have been deleted by the host. 😦  ]

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

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

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

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

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

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