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Posts Tagged ‘use of space’

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

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

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

  1. Open – Attack the Middle

Open - Middle

  1. Open – Go Wide

Open - Wide

  1. Split – Go the Same Way

Split - Same Way

  1. Split – Rewind and Go the Way We Started

Split - Rewind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wide Attack

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

Midfield Attack

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

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

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

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

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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’ve posted something like this before, but am going to be making of a poster for my team and shared this with someone who was interested. Thought a re-visit wouldn’t hurt!]

So one cold and rainy British Columbia evening when the guys really didn’t want to go outside I said we’ll try a little exercise I did at a conference. The speaker was Gary Henderson, a coach educator from the RFU, and he challenged us to think of the ruck as a ‘failure’ of the principles of the game. Yes, we can win the ruck and go again, but for that moment, we’re not necessarily going forward, support is tied in or waiting for the ball, continuity not certain, and the pressure might be off the defending team if they’ve now got a chance to re-align. So, he asked, what can you do to avoid that situation?

I’m now humbled to say we only came up with six, eight with some prompting to be more specific. So with that challenge, I asked the guys to better that. I didn’t give answers, but kept drawing out of them more specific options with questions.

I’m still fine-tuning this for my purposes, but I was really impressed with what we did … then they felt excited and went out in the sleet and mud to try some of these things.

1. Player, ball in two hands, running at space
2. Evasive footwork when contact possible / space closed
(I’m fine-tuning with swerve, side-step, cut as more specific options in different circumstances)
3. Dummy pass to throw defender off and re-open space
4. Pass when space isn’t present, especially when team mate has space (this could be a first option if I receive and there is no ‘easy’ space to exploit)
5. Fend (includes shifting the ball out of two hands for the first time) to fight defender when they close down
6. Power step to hopefully power through the would-be tackler (change of direction from the midline to throw defender off-balance and go through ‘branches’ instead of ‘trunk’ of the tree)
… contact initiated now … so this branches in two ways …
7. Offload
a. Screen pass
b. Around the body
c. While falling
d. From the ground
(or)
8. Hammer / Latch through contact (partner joins to hopefully plow through, or secure as we go into a maul or maybe a ruck)
9. Long placement on the ground (we reasoned that both a ‘jackknife’ or ‘pencil’ long placement of the ball can precede a ruck if someone’s there to play / move it quickly)
10. Ruck / Maul

So the ‘in-between’ stuff is what we work on a lot, in game-like settings. I don’t stress Gary’s word “failure” after using it for initial shock value, because rucks are part of the game and we have to win that contest. Before that, however, let’s really be conscious that we’ve got a dozen options before we have to resort to to a ruck, so we have to give ourselves the time to scan, think, communicate and coordinate those options. It’s important – vital, actually – that I put them in situations where they can practice these under match conditions so they can adapt to realistic pressure and get their timing right, together as attacking units.

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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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