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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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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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I wrote a post on this topic before (found here), but was prompted to revisit this topic in a discussion today and thought I’d add my thoughts here as a reminder that amateur rugby should not be taken too seriously. At the level most of us are at, why not try the unorthodox regularly? It’s not as if coach / player careers hang in the balance. I’ve been reading a lot recently about fostering creativity, and yet most of what I see is pretty orthodox. I’m currently working with an academy side and am getting those familiar looks when someone tries something different, worried that I’m going to shout them down, but the reaction they typically get from me is one of encouragement or, at worst, did you consider the better options first? In such instances, I’ve been throwing more pressure on supporting players, because in high pressure situations ball carriers don’t always have the time to assess all their options (especially Canadians whose experience with the game is quite minimal compared to other countries where guys have been playing for more than a decade once they get to ‘academy’ age). I preach simple rugby, but have no problem with trying the unorthodox under the right conditions.

Early in my coaching career I was in charge of a U18 team (at just 20 years old) and we had some crazy plays that we did up just for fun. We were a high flying team that shocked bigger clubs by playing off the cuff and with a lot of fun. In playoffs, we met one of those who’d been knocked off their perch, but we learned they’d be dressing five provincial players who weren’t in the early encounter. We were down four tries at half and I reminded the guys to just go out there and have fun, play our style and not worry about the opposition. In the second half, our ambition in attack shocked them as it had in the league fixture and while we didn’t score until it was too late, we held them to no scores as we dominated possession and stayed in their territory with ball in hand. It was many years ago, but I’m certain we attempted a few things that we hadn’t before as our entire midfield were fly halves for their respective schools and loved the chip kick.

And speaking of the unorthodox, our try was scored off of one of those ‘silly’ plays. Scrum just outside of the 15m hash on the right, about 30m from goal. We stack most backs on the right side, with the left wing standing almost on the touch line and the full back directly behind the scrum. Ball goes right, fly half puts a huge cross kick toward the posts and about 20m deep. Our full back takes a huge leap and grabs it, draws both their fb and wing and fires a pass to our isolated wing for a try even the other team admitted was fantastic in the post-match get together.

It’s always reminded me that we’re out here to have fun first and while these days I don’t waste a lot of time on set piece moves at training, my players pretty much have the green light to do anything they want so long as their team mates are aware of the decision and that it makes sense given the conditions. I preach simple rugby, but when the simple stuff isn’t helping against a really tough team, then why not pull something out of the bag of tricks? Even just once or twice, and their defensive pressure might relax, not knowing when we’ll try again, and thus allowing us to go back to the simple stuff with defenders who are now second guessing.

What really angers me, though, is when teams go for the ‘orthodox’ all the time and either miss clear opportunities or do so in the face of what’s not been working. How often do you see teams slow down a penalty when the quick tap is on?  Another example: a rare shouting moment for me when our team kicked for touch on a penalty, into a stiff breeze (only gained 8m), and when our lineout success rate was 50% at best. We also had dominance with ball in hand. Previous coaches – and some from the national and provincial level! – had drilled into them to do the orthodox. Same goes for kicking from inside 22m. I was pleased to see our club’s U16s yesterday back their superior talent and run one from their own goal line for a wonderful try … yet I seemed to be the only one applauding it with gusto.

Unfortunately, a lot of coaches create an environment that doesn’t allow “50/50” play – and I get that many don’t want players to take silly risks – but they risk establishing a sense of fear in their players that prevents them from playing ambitious rugby. Instead, run scenarios that permit all kinds of possibilities (ex. Run a full team lineout in your 22 and condition the defence to give them a variety of looks) and help players with decision making based upon what they see and what their strengths and limitations are. I’m especially vocal about freedom the ‘green zone’ – which is sometimes, quite bafflingly referred to as the ‘red zone’ by even some pro teams – about 30m from the opposition try line. I pretty much allow any logical move in that area because the rewards outweigh the risks. Throw all the backs into a move, try a massive maul, have a drop at goal when the defence is tight, chip to the corner when we might have a 1 v 1 advantage, etc. etc. I also feel that at various levels of play, it’s easier to defend the orthodox and after a half dozen phases the attacking team is more likely to knock on, infringe at the break down or simply get in each other’s way.

Why not be more ambitious and have fun rather that do the ‘safe’ thing all the time? In future, no one will remember the try that came from 8 pick and goes and a centre crash, but players will still be talking about that huge cross kick or falling no-look offload to a trailing forward into their old age.

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