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Posts Tagged ‘tactics’

Photo: Eoin Gardiner from Clarinbridge, Ireland, Connacht v Munster 27-12-2010, CC BY 2.0

Last autumn, the Canadian universities’ women’s national championship was hosted in my city and after a few games, I started to notice that a lot of tries were scored from pick and goes. With all games filmed and archived, I went over the ones I’d missed and continued to keep an eye on this trend throughout the remainder of the tournament. After the final – which saw each team score three tries from pick and goes – I tallied up my findings. Of the 72 tries I counted (I missed, at most four, with one game’s footage cut short), a staggering 31 tries were scored from pick and goes! Another 22 were scored as a result of one-out runner off the scrum half or fly half. I found myself frustrated watching it because I’ve coached women for many years and enjoy watching their wide ranging abilities in open play. Most teams in this tournament had the personnel to play wider and more dynamically, but as defences had trouble with the pick and go, I can’t fault them for opting for it under the intense pressure of a national championship. Below, I’ll have a look at ways to tighten up ruck defence and several specific ways of dealing with the pick and go and pick and drive.

The ‘pick and go’ (picking up the ball from the base of a ruck and plunging into the defensive line around the fringes) and the ‘pick and drive’ (similar, but with a second player latching / hammering on and driving the ball carrier through the defensive line) can be difficult to stop. Ball carrier is often so low, he/she is difficult to hold or drive back. The ball is usually tucked into the gut and difficult to dislodge. The laws also tend to favour attacking teams as referees strictly police defenders slowing down play (roll away, release the tackled player, on feet to challenge) and seeing that all body parts of defenders are behind the last foot (including hands if in a three-point stance). In this clip we see the All Blacks power through Australia with relative ease as the Aussies never have time to set up and are standing too high to offer a significant challenge…

It’s certainly not an impossible tactic to stop, however. It is best recognise a team’s potential and desire to use this tactic and stop them as far away from the goal line as possible. It is also important to recognise that this tactic is sometimes used to ‘suck in’ defenders and open space out wide, so it isn’t wise to throw all your players into shoulder-to-shoulder ruck defence. A coordinated and determined effort is needed, and the following should be considered essential regardless of what tactic players choose to combat the pick and go / drive:

Alignment – getting set quick ensures readiness and time to analyse what’s about to happen. Being tight to the ruck and with two players almost shoulder-to-shoulder, there will be no holes to sneak into.

Low Body Position – defenders must get under attackers to prevent them sneaking centimetres and to gain leverage to drive them back.

Proactive / Anticipatory Action – knowing when the ball is out and being first off the line gives defenders the initiative.

Aggressive Challenges – regardless of who is first to align and get off the line, ultimately, the most physically dominant individual(s) will win the contest.

Regaining Possession – getting the ball back as soon as possible should be the principal aim of defence. This can include intercepts/steals or less direct ways of forcing a turnover, such as forcing a knock-on.

Two great clips worth watching to see these things consistently in action are goal line stands made by the All Blacks v France and Saracens v Leicester.

The scrum half’s role is essential here (not to mention the importance of wings and full back communicating needs out wide if the strategy is to draw defenders in) to ensure everyone is in position and focused. Good scrum halves act like NFL middle linebackers, reading what the attacking team is likely to do and feeding this information to teammates in the thick of the action. That information could be:

a) helping organise the side that is most under threat and moving people into position for the next phase

b) assessing the likely tactic and helping those in the front line with the best countermeasure to it

c) leading the call to strike when legal to do so

After building your defensive wall and being ready – both physically and mentally – for the next phase, we can then look at ways to stop the opposition.

Before the ball emerges, you can legally pressure the passer / picker by going through the ruck. Though we occasionally see it on TV, you shouldn’t be allowed to step over bodies on the ground. However, a well-timed drive through an attacking player in the ‘ruck’ can knock him/her backwards into the person about to play the ball. If momentum swings at this point, another defender or two can join in to counter-ruck and secure possession of the ball, as we see here:

The first opportunity you will see during a pick and go is a ball carrier standing tall. If this player’s legs are wrapped, there is no leg drive and the carrier can be driven back or taken down. In this clip, we see the results of stopping leg drive in the first instance and allowing it in the second:

Sometimes the ideal conditions don’t exist, and in the end the most physically dominant will win the contest. We must also remember that the ball needs to touch the ground, so getting body or hands under it can be the last resort. The attacking team will get a scrum, but here we can look to steal or otherwise shut down their attack under less pressure and slightly further away from the goal line.  In this clip, one player aggressively twists a larger one to prevent him from dotting down and two more fly in to get their hands under the ball.

When the situation isn’t so desperate and defenders have lined up quickly, there is time to assess the situation and coordinate a specific tactic. In this clip, the post defender attacks the carrier’s legs and as he’s forced sideways, the second defender drives him back.

In this clip, we see the importance of getting off the line in a hurry. It gives the defenders initiative as the post and guard take down the ball carrier, and allows the third defender to get over the ball and contest possession.

Here we see a pick and drive that’s aiming to punch a hole through the defence. The post defender goes very low and takes out the legs of the ball carrier. Two teammates join in to contest. The defending team is excellent at fanning out and re-positioning themselves immediately to nullify a quick pick option. Note, too, how there are more white jerseys on their feet and in position while their opponents are still on the ground / slowly getting themselves organised.

I’m sure there are other specific ways to target attackers during a pick and go, but as I said before, it all starts with quick alignment and a determined mindset to physically dominate the tackle contest. In my next post, I’ll look at dealing with one-out runners in the same high pressure red zone situation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wide Attack

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

Midfield Attack

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

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

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

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

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

Attacking Focus

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

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

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

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

2. Maintain a quick tempo and play to our strengths

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

Important Factors in Achieving This:

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

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I’m one who favours defending square and with coordination being more important than quickness. This ensures integrity of the line, without anyone rushing ahead of another or having to rely too heavily on a team mate. Staying square means you can defend off either shoulder and make easy adjustments as attacking players do.

Most, if not all, of the attack solutions found in the Drift and Blitz defence posts can be used against flat, man-on-man defences. In some of the video examples, you can see how teams started square, but then had to resort to a drift, otherwise turned their bodies to chase an attacker, or one player shot up ahead of his / lagged behind team mates. With coordination and trust being vital to effective defence, attackers should consider ways to break this and find opportunities for themselves or their support runners. This doesn’t require fancy, multi-faceted moves with decoy runners. It can be done with a simple dummy pass and/or sudden change of direction. I don’t know if there’s a ‘non-negotiable’ rule for any of these, but players should be trying these things out in training in natural 4v4 games in realistic conditions so they can work out what works for them. Some key reminders should be to keep the ball in two hands to always remain a threat, to keep changes of direction sudden and sharp, to aim for shoulders to draw attention.

Supporting players have to be especially proactive a they’re the ones who have a wider view of how defenders in line react to what the ball carrier’s doing. Too often, I see ball carriers – to their credit – trying to make things happen, but see their supporting players hanging back expecting to be given a golden pass. I think, more often, they have to go looking for space that’s created, defenders whose attention is drawn away from them, or to make an early call to the ball carrier regarding better options. A short while ago I read a great interview with World Cup-winning legend Jonny Wilkinson who said:

I remember coming off the pitch at Twickenham and doing TV interviews with the media being very flattering and I was feeling like a fraud, thinking: ‘Are you kidding me? I’m not a genius — I just heard someone say give him the ball, so I gave him the ball!’ My best-looking games were when someone was in my ear for 80 minutes telling me what to do.”

I figure if one of the greatest fly halves of all time can say that, then certainly decision makers at every level should be demanding more from their support. The decision-maker’s arguably more different task given that he won’t have a Will Greenwood outside him/her is to know what angles, dummy passes, decoy runners, etc. do to defences, quickly consider the advice, and pick the best option for what he/she sees in front. It’s another reason I think we need to play more realistic games at training, because this is rugby. Training against passive defenders – or no defenders at all! – will not allow players to develop these skills. And I challenge all my players, from props to full backs, to be able to step into that position and make a good decision based on what they see and hear.

So, after that long-winded introduction, how can we disrupt or manipulate well-organised defences? Let’s look at some examples:

Each of these two-man moves can be done anywhere on the pitch – in wide open spaces, or close to ruck. While more support might be needed to score, the aim here is to breach the defensive line. (I’ll cover support options and lines of pursuit in a later post, though I think the lines people take are often fairly easy to spot at ground level – Go for the space and move away from the threat!)

2 v 2 Options

The first is an example of a classic Unders Line, where it’s important that the ball carrier stays straight, to fix the defender, and that the supporting runner’s directional change is sudden and sharp. If the defender covering the ball carrier is properly fixed, the strike runner can aim for the space behind his shoulder, ensuring that he gets away from the man covering him. The Overs Line is pretty much the opposite, with the strike runner flaring outward instead of inward, aiming for the space behind the third defender or off the shoulder of his if he’s turned inward. Of course, the pass is different for each – soft and flat for an Unders, and hard and wide (maybe slightly deep, but definitely in front of the runner’s hands).

The second example is often called a Y-Line these days, with the ball carrier making the sudden move. He aims for the space behind the defender beside the defender covering him. This sudden and sharp angle either allows him to slip behind that defender or draw his attention. It should be a win-win scenario if done properly. If the defender stays on his man, he can exploit the space and get behind the defence. If the defender bites, he can pass to a supporting runner who picks a tight line behind the back of the turned defender. This is usually seen going out, but can also be done on the inside if there’s enough width.

The third features a classic loop. Some people think the receiver should pop back to the passer on the inside – before she goes around – while others have the receiver pop when she’s gone around and is straightening up into the gap. I don’t mind either way, but think that each depends on how soon the receiver got the ball, how much space is in front, and what the passer intends to do when she gets the ball back. Some teams use the looping player as a decoy / distributor to pull even more defenders out of line. Other scenarios would have the looping player strike into an open gap between the second and third defenders. Ideally, the looping player would keep both options open!

I might go into them in greater detail later, but you can combine both Unders and Overs lines together in what are called Blocker and Slider moves to really open well-disciplined defences, but I think at amateur levels, the above are usually quite effective.  That said, the essential element of a complicated move is usually just one move – in a Slider, for example, the second attacker suddenly flares outward toward the third defender. If teams are truly ‘playing rugby’, they’ll assess what that does and simply pick the best way to attack the way the defence reacted to that move.

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In this second post focusing on simple ways to beat typical defensive styles, I’ll focus on the blitz defence. It’s also referred to as a ‘rush’ or an ‘umbrella’ but for the sake of simplicity I’m going to stick with ‘blitz’. This tactic is more recent in rugby’s history, and I’m led to believe it comes from rugby league. London Wasps used to be renowned for it when league legend Shaun Edwards was coach there. In this link from BT Sport’s Rugby Tonight, you can hear Edwards talk about it: [click here]. It does have quite a few limitations and it’s often referred to as a high-risk/high-reward tactic because it can stop teams deep behind the gain line or give them a huge opportunity to break out if not done properly.

Blitz Defence Characteristics:

  • Defenders typically align on the outside shoulder of the attacking player, with the intent on keeping the play contained close to the origin of the play
  • They push up fast looking to make a tackle deep behind the gain line (or go for an intercept), making them vulnerable to side steps
  • Often the outer defender comes forward more than the interior group of three or four, which looks like a gate swinging shut (whereas one could say a drift defence looks like an open gate)
  • In other systems, a central defender shoots up ahead of the rest looking or the big tackle or intercept
  • In both cases at least one defender comes further forward than the rest, leaving space behind that can be exploited by the ball carrier or a strike runner
  • They also tend to leave a lot of space between the rushing group and the full back

Exposing a Blitz Defence:

Exploit the Space Behind

If outer defenders run too far forward, they give a great exit opportunity for the ball carrier. In the diagram, the passer dummies a pass hoping the outside defender sprints up to put a big hit on the receiver, but then slips behind with a sharp angle and a burst of speed. It’s key that the ball carrier run away from his/her defender and and behind the inside shoulder of the next defender. In some cases, that defender recognises this and is able to adjust. This defender is now out of the play allowing the player he was covering to sprint forward and go looking for an offload from the ball carrier.

BLITZ - Dummy and Go

Exploit the “Shooter”

If the pass is made early and a defender “shoots up” ahead of the rest, there’s an opportunity to send someone else from either side in behind. In this situation, the support runner has to run a sharp line aiming for the space behind the defender and make a timely call for a sympathetic short pass.

BLITZ - Shooter

Similarly, when one “shooter” comes forward to cut off a pass or in an overzealous attempt to intercept, a patient passer can hold and pass behind the shooter to a strike runner coming up flat.

BLITZ - Shooter 2

Pass Deep to Get Around the Blitz

As a blitz defence usually only involves a small section of defenders coming forward, there is an opportunity to go around the closing ‘gate’. The team using this option requires patience, quality execution and belief that they can play from deep (a tackle here can mean a costly turnover!). They have to hold their depth and make early and accurate passes with little forward running so they have time to get to the outside. It can be a less-risky option to take, however, if the players leading the blitz aren’t the most agile and if support is present to run into the holes created.

BLITZ - Deep and Around

Pass Over the Blitz

If the defending line is up fast and tight, there is still an option to pass (remember: the aim of a blitz is to contain the ball on the inside and contest from a powerful, go-forward position of strength behind the gain line). In many blitz defences, the wing holds back to cover a kick. If the passer has a good long pass, he/she can try lobbing a quick one to the winger coming up flat over-top the blitzing group. For reference, Quade Cooper often does this, but he has also thrown intercepts or set up the receiver for a big hit when the pass was floated too high, allowing time for a defender to get under.

BLITZ - Over the Top

Kicking Behind the Blitz

The group rushing forward often leaves a big gap between them and the full back, inviting a short kick behind for someone to re-gather. Although a lot of people hesitate to kick as one can be giving possession away, this tactic used more than once early in the game can also cause a blitzing team to ease off, not wanting to give away too much space behind. This is one of the reasons that teams use blitzes more as an occasional / situational tactic rather than a continuous style of defence.

BLITZ - Kick Behind

Finally, there are two more great examples here outlined by Scott Allen from The Roar:

 

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In recent years, I’ve been avoiding the use of set plays as I’ve too often found that players rely on them too much and end up missing easier opportunities. They also require a lot of rehearsal, which can be a huge waste of time given how infrequently they’re used or when you opt not to use them because the opposition has figured them out. So I’d been putting players in situations and games that forced them to be creative and to consider how best to support the ball carrier/passer. This has been quite successful with teens as most I’ve worked with have a creative spark – and what teen doesn’t like to show off, really? The past two years, however, I’ve been working with men’s sides and have found this more difficult as many are set in their traditional ways. So I’ve been working with them on what I call their personal and team “tool box” – skills and tactics they can use for given situations, the same way a builder picks a certain tool for a specific (or general) job.  [Surely we’ve all used a flat screw driver to open a paint can!]

Another big part of developing analytical and clever decision makers is to put them in typical game-like scenarios and have them assess the visual cues that often appear. This means doing more than 2v1s because, while it’s essentially what breaking down defences comes to, there are so many variables in a line of defenders, that players have to consider a fuller range of options and possibilities.

We always try and attack the ‘easy opportunity’ – things like mismatches in size, speed, or ability, poor alignment, obvious gaps, etc.  Again, for teens this is often simple enough, because in our league there are always ‘exploitable opportunities’ like this. The men, however, are generally more organised, especially as defence is such a major (and easy) focus these days.  So our scenarios therefore have focused on defensive styles and how to beat them based on the inherent limitations or opportunities in their structure (see below). In order to speed up the process of picking the right tool for the task at hand, we brainstormed ideas on how to beat each style and focused on just a few that fell within the team’s knowledge and abilities and which matched our preferred style of play.

Below, and in subsequent posts, I’ll outline some of the ‘tools’ we use for different styles of defence, starting with the classic drift defence.

Drift Defence Characteristics:

  • Defenders align on the inside shoulder and push out
  • Usually space in front on the outside – a tactic used when defending teams out-numbered – with last man hanging back to invite the ball to go wide so they can reduce width and push toward the sideline
  • Susceptible to cut backs on the ‘soft shoulder’ (i.e. inside shoulder, especially if the push becomes lateral)
  • Help from the inside defender is vital to cover the ‘soft shoulder’

Exposing a Drift Defence:

Attacking the Soft Shoulder

As defenders push out, it’s difficult to adjust to someone changing directions against the flow of the push. This is a classic ‘attacking the branches of the tree, rather than the trunk’ moment. A tight line on the inside shoulder might just catch an arm. Too close to the inside defender, and the ball carrier might be caught. If the inside defender is a bit lazy, then there’s a huge opportunity.

DRIFT - Cut Back

Inside Ball to Support Runner

The trick here is that there has to be a reasonable gap between defenders. Again, aided by a lazy inside defender, but not impossible if the timing of the support run and pass is good. The support runner might also expose a different gap than noted below if the inside defender pushes too early onto the receiver, leaving an even bigger gap. If the defenders are disciplined, though, it’s really the space behind the ball carrier’s defender that needs to be attacked.

DRIFT - Inside Ball

Pass Wide and Flat

As noted, drift defences tend to hang back on the outside hoping to force the attacking team toward or even into touch, often accommodating for a lack of numbers out wide. So a simple solution is to get the ball there as quickly as possible. The key element is to get the ball there quickly and relatively flat. If the pass is loopy and deep, the drift pushes out and comes up. Where it’s quick hands or a long and flat miss pass, the flatness of the strike runner will expose the space before the defenders have time to cover it. Drift defences are trying to buy time, so take it away. On the flip side, if the pass is a early, the attackers can preserve width the defenders are trying to close down by straightening up.

DRIFT - Wide

Looping Run

The looping run can be effective if the player looping around is actually quick and if the passer picks a line that effectively blocks the drifting defender. Timing is key here, as if the passer pops to the looping player too soon, s/he’ll likely get tackled from the side by the drifting defender. That said, if the passer recognises this happening, the passer can dummy, hold and go using the looper as a decoy. This situation is made easier for the looping runner if the third attacker moves wide, drawing the third defender. This would present one of those either/or situations that should be win-win … third defender stays on third attacker, and looper has a gap; third defender steps in on looper and s/he passes to the third attacker who should have a massive gap.

DRIFT - Loop

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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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