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In my first post related to the recent Wasps v Leinster match, I looked at Wasps’ defensive issues around the breakdown. In this post, I will examine some issues they had away from the breakdown that led to Leinster tries. My analysis and tips to avoid the issues will follow each clip.

CLIP 1: Recognition and Changing Tactics

Here we see Leinster make great use of Johnny Sexton’s signature move – the loop. He’s used it countless times for Leinster and Ireland, so right off the bat, Wasps have no excuse for failing to adjust to it.

As the ball is passed, we can see that Wasps are evenly matched with Leinster, each having four players. Sexton has turned his whole body to pass and is already following the ball. This is a clear indication that the loop is a possibility, if not a certainty given the personnel involved. When the clip pauses again, we see that the Leinster forward has passed back inside as soon as he’s received the ball. The Wasps forward mirroring Sexton should be calling for a push here because the loop is now clearly on, but his two teammates have dropped their backsides and frozen on the big forward. He’s completely out of the play now so, instead, they should be pushing beyond him to pick up Sexton wrapping around and the outer threats. The lankier of the two (#6) rushes up but Sexton makes his pass. The bigger defender is too slow to catch up and the winger is left to face a three on one. Before I move on to the next issue, if the player mirroring Sexton had called a push defence, the three players outside him could have stayed connected and contained Leinster toward the touchline.

Wasps’ winger starts jockeying backwards to buy time for support to arrive and his fly half does show up to help. What they fail to do, however, is actually get connected to hold the Leinster attackers there or force them wide with a drift. The winger is still backpedaling while the fly half comes forward, getting himself into no-man’s land. Leinster’s prop makes a great dummy and pass around him to free his teammates. If the fly half had better communicated to the winger, they might have stopped the attack there.

Simply, defenders need to anticipate / recognise attacking threats and communicate options / changes to stop those threats. As soon as they lose their coordination and connection (i.e. keeping shoulders in line with each other to create a defensive wall), attackers can easily pick holes to get around, through or behind them.

CLIP 2: Tactics, Responsibility and Trust

Teams that attack with a conservative one-out, same-way pattern are typically hoping to occupy the defence in an area to create an overlap in another area. By pounding up the middle, they hope to eventually find a moment when they can outflank the opposition out wide. Defenders need to fold around the breakdown quickly, with the outside defenders moving further out to maintain line integrity toward the touchline. Players work quickly and communicate responsibility in transition to ensure gaps are covered. It’s easier for the folding defenders to come around the breakdown to the near side and push teammates out, rather than run behind those defenders and get wide themselves.

Given that the strategy described above is common in rugby, when the clip pauses, the defenders around the ball carrier could have been better at re-aligning themselves. Leinster’s ball carrier isn’t a major threat and is suitably covered by the defender in front of him, but the outer defender (with the scrum cap) needlessly joins the tackle. Instead, he could have stayed out and protected the gap, then slid out as the two other defenders folded around. His act leaves the next phase without someone who could have shored up their line.

The two folding defenders are in a good position and ready to come forward, but the player outside them (third out, with a beard) is both offside and guilty of ruck-inspecting. He hasn’t properly assessed the threat in front of him until the ball is passed. When the clip is paused again, Wasps are in a pretty good position to defend the unit in front of them, but as the play unfolds it’s painfully clear that they are not coordinated with each other. Leinster opt for a dummy runner + pull back play which could have been forced wide if Wasps had started an aggressive drift as soon as the scrum half passed. The defender with the big hair should have pushed out hard on the receiver, with the bearded defender taking the dummy runner and the fly half looking out for the deep option. Instead, the one with the big hair passively holds his gap, the bearded defender gets caught in two minds (focusing on both the passer and the dummy runner, taking neither), and the fly half pinches in on the dummy runner, allowing the deep option to swerve around him into the gap.

Defenders need to be aware of their opponent’s strategy – and most teams have a clear one these days – so they can anticipate patterns and plays, stopping them before they come to fruition. By working hard off the ball to get into position and not over-committing where not needed, defenders can maintain the defensive line across the pitch and have time to plan for the next phase (to act, not just re-act). As the ball is played, defenders need to aggressively move into position to deny the attacking team options, force them to make errors, and/or get into positions where the ball can be won back. If teams passively go about re-aligning and be exclusively reactive rather than proactive, then good teams will be able to attack as they wish without pressure. Finally, taking responsibility, communicating intent, and trusting teammates are essential components of effective team defence.

 

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Upon seeing last night’s massively lopsided Leinster v Wasps score, I assumed the English club was simply outclassed by one of the most dominant franchises in the northern hemisphere that can often boast a starting lineup chock full of Irish internationals. When I saw the extended highlights, however, I couldn’t help but think that Wasps had some simple-to-fix defensive issues that made Leinster’s job easy.

The following clips will show key moments where issues in Wasps’ breakdown defence allowed Leinster to score, with my analysis and tips to avoid such mistakes following each. (Other footage from this match in a follow-up post will look at some open field issues.)

CLIP 1: Defending the Ruck

At around 5 seconds in the clip, we see Wasps #5 in a moment of indecision as to whether he should stay or move to the other side of the ruck. Having moved across from the previous one, it’s important to note that not once has he got his body square and only briefly did he check over his shoulder to see where the threats were. On the reverse angle, we can see that his movement opens at least 5m of space between the ruck and the next Wasps defender. In addition, there were already four Wasps defenders on the short side covering just two or three Leinster players so he wasn’t even needed there.

Ideally, players should take responsibility for their own positioning and assessing the opposing team’s attacking threats. This clip demonstrates that it helps to have the scrum half patrolling just behind the main defensive line, helping to make sure all of the gaps are plugged and the threats accounted for. Whether or not you subscribe to that notion, defenders must endeavour to stay ‘square’ with the opposition (shoulders facing the opposing goal line) so they can see as much as possible. Rather than turning, Wasps’ #5 would have been better side-shuffling into position. It’s also important to organise ruck defence quickly and with purpose; it’s the shortest route for the attacking team to achieve an easy linebreak if not secure.

CLIP 2: Quick Realignment

A defending team should try to avoid giving away large linebreaks. A good mantra for a defensive line is to ‘bend, but don’t break’. When the attacking team gets deep into your territory, it forces defenders to turn and chase backwards. They expend more energy and have to realign without knowing where the attacking team is lining up for the next phase(s) than if they just had to shuffle backwards / sideways a little bit. In the above clip, Leinster get a nice linebreak from a long cut-out pass and score after two more phases. The initial pass and run are probably inevitable but where Wasps fail is in getting to and setting up for the subsequent phases.

In the replay and wide angle, we see that Wasps’ outer defenders tracks well to contain the winger and that there are enough players around the breakdown to prevent a quick pick and go try. Their #1 even does a good job of hustling back into a post position. Not quite so good is #3 immediately resting his hands on his thighs as he gets onside. He’s visibly tired and unready. I bet that if Leinster’s #12 attacked him, he’d not have been able to prevent a try given his body position. Poor readiness is critically demonstrated by both him and the hooker on the next phase, as Leinster’s scrum half is able to dart in himself to score. When he picks, Wasps’ #2 isn’t close enough to the breakdown, nor low enough to prevent the diving score and #3 was in a useless position behind the breakdown.

During phase play, whichever side is aligned and ready first has the initiative. To be fair, this try comes at the end of the first half and the large lads are clearly tired, but this is a time when players have to be especially switched-on mentally. With the big linebreak and five forwards having to get back to defend the next phase(s) just off their goalline, they must realise that their effort and focus is vital. If they work extremely hard for these few seconds – not just to get organised, but also to slow down the phase in contact – their teammates will have time to prepare themselves for the next one. Going for a steal might be risky at this level, given referees’ current tendency to issue cards for red zone infractions and the harm that can come from a penalty or kick to the corner catch-and-drive. But one player being a legal nuisance at the ruck in the corner could have bought the big boys a few precious seconds to get themselves more prepared.

CLIP 3: Defensive Scanning

Here again, we see Wasps’ #5 being passive at the breakdown. While his hands do appear to be off his thighs, he appears to be flat-footed with legs together – which is NOT the stance to adopt whether one is going to come off the line and ‘attack’ on defence or prepare to take someone in a low, submissive tackle. He’s also committing the critical sin of ‘ruck inspecting’ – i.e. looking only at the breakdown and not scanning for threats in front of him. It also appears the teammate outside him is also guilty of this. Both notice too late that a Leinster forward is charging right at them (and kudos to him, as he’s likely spotted that they weren’t focusing on him and called for the pass!). As a result, he and the scrum half achieve a massive linebreak because the Wasps defenders were not scanning the pitch for threats, let alone communicating responsibility to teammates in the immediate vicinity. This ‘little talk’ between defenders helps them stay organised and focused.

Leinster end up scoring from some brilliant passing, but again we see poor breakdown organisation from Wasps. After the tackle, Wasps have three defenders on the short side – both centres and a wing. I suspect that the one with the scrum cap realises this leaves a lot of forwards on the openside to prevent a possible all-in, wide attack and he pushes his centre partner over. The flanker who allowed the linebreak just gets back onside, having fell during the last play, and the wing is left to defend three players so shoots up to kill the play with the first receiver. Wasps’ flanker doesn’t attempt to stop the attack until the Leinster duo have crossed the gainline and by then it’s too late.

Simply, this is another example of why focus, scanning, and a ready-to-act body shape is vital in defence, at every phase. With a lot of teams adopting conservative approaches to attack (made easier by refereeing that favours attack over defence), stringing together many simple phases, it’s important that players do not lose focus. There will be many breakdowns that aren’t worth contesting, but each should invite defenders to scan for another attempt to disrupt the attack and get the ball back (the prime directive of defence!). If players fall into a lull of going through the motions, getting onside and merely setting the line, then they invite shrewd attackers to pick on the ones who aren’t ready to stop them.

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

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

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

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

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

Finer Points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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The following was written by a friend of mine, who spent the summer working for Rugby Canada as an intern. Ryan Surgenor has had overseas experience playing rugby, is studying TV production at college and is a regular colour commentator for Rogers Cable in Ottawa. What he offers are suggestions on what players who aspire to compete at a higher level can do to sell their talents to coaches. As this blog is largely aimed at coaches, I’d say there are some great tips here to support your players’ goals if you have any game film to lend them / skills to help them editing.  These tips would also be useful when putting together clips for your players to analyse.

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So you want to make a highlight video?  First you need to decide what is the purpose of your video, whether it is just for entertainment or for coaches to look at. There are a few things you need to include in the video in order to make it effective.

First up is attacking talent. For most coaches this is the first thing they look for in a video of a player. This gives them an idea of your athleticism and what level of athlete you are. Many people make the mistake of just including tries and huge runs. Those two things are definitely a huge part of attacking ability but do not give the coaches a well-rounded perspective on your athletic ability.

Some things to include in the attack category:

·         Offloads: this gives coaches the insight into your ability to control the ball in the tackle. A valuable skill that is really hard to coach.

·         Varied types of passing: Show multiple instances of your ability to change your type of pass given the situation. Gives a good indication of your overall skill level. Typical passes to include:

  • Spin pass
  • Pop pass
  • Pops from the ground
  • Switch passes
  • Touch passes

·         Foot work: As long as the footwork does not have a negative result it is a good addition. Just because you did not score a try does not mean it was not an impressive display. You could have put the defense on the back foot. Or forced a 2 or 3 v 1 tackle situation.

·         Running through gaps: Just like footwork, even if you did not score, it shows your ability to create line breaks.

·         Set up for a big play: if you do have an outstanding play that you are a part of, it is really helpful to provide context to the play. If you score off first phase in a lineout, show your positioning in relation to the ball.  Show how you set yourself in a position to make that big play.

·         Support running: showing that you are able to track a play and provide either offload support or rucking support demonstrates your awareness in the game.

Now that you’ve displayed your power on one side of the ball, now you have a chance to display your talents on defense. An important part of this section is to give the viewer a proper context for your plays. Its all fine and good that you managed to blow out a ruck on defense, but if you also include you getting back into the play after that event. It will increase the impression you leave on the viewer.

Some often forgotten aspects of defensive highlights:

·         What happens after the tackle: showing yourself making a good tackle is key. What comes after the tackle is almost more important. Make sure to show you rolling away after you make the tackle, or even better show you getting to your feet and providing pressure on the defense. Just make sure to pick clips that show off your ability to avoid getting penalties.

·         Defensive rucking: show the strength you have off the ball.  It lets the viewer know that if there is a call to be made for a counter ruck then you are a clear candidate for that call.

·         Include clips of defensive set up: This is a minor inclusion that leaves that extra impression upon an evaluator. Show yourself moving closer to a ruck if you are a forward, or calling the defense out if you are a back. If you are a 9 or 15 try and include audio of you directing people around.

·         Key actions in a turnover: If you were the guy to blow out a ruck, or hold a guy up in a maul be sure to include that. Not only does it give the impression of skill and strength but also knowledge of the game’s laws.

Lastly you should highlight position specific skills. These clips should show your ability to use the skills for certain positions well and with good results. Be careful not to show the same action over and over again. (Unless that skills major aspect is consistency, like kicking or lineout throws).

Of course each position has their specific skills. I will highlight a few for each position to give an idea of what to look for:

·         Tight head prop and Loose head prop

  • Scrummaging against different sized opponents
  • Winning scrums against the head
  • Boosting in the lineout
  • Driving in a maul. (show the impact you have, not the whole drive)
  • Tackles at the side of the ruck

·         Hooker

  • Lineout throws (both consistency and variation is types of throws)
  • Passing from the base of a ruck
  • Controlling the ball at the back of a maul
  • Successful strikes at ball in a scrum.
  • Stolen scrums where you can see your contribution

·         Locks

  • Ball control in the air
  • Blowing out rucks
  • Boosting
  • Speed from scrum to rucks

·         Back row

  • Speed from scrum to ruck
  • Any actions in the lineout
  • Ability to steal ball at the breakdown
  • ALL FORWARDS (editor contribution):  demonstrating ability to carry the ball and retain possession, as well as getting into good supporting positions from phase to phase.  Be careful to highlight carrying clips which have an impact on the play, as some ball-carrying forwards have a tendency to go off on their own or pick and go when there were better options available.

·         Scrum half

  • Passing from the back of the scrum and rucks
  • Sniping runs from the back of rucks
  • Passing – both consistency and varied types of
  • Long phases of play where you made it to each breakdown
  • Ability to direct forwards during phase play
  • Tracking of line breaks and tactical kicks, sweeping behind the main line in defence
  • Kicks – specifically box kicks and maybe penalties

·         Fly-half

  • Ability to take and create space
  • Ability to manage a team in attack, direction of phase play
  • Kicking (goal, tactical, strategic)
  • Passing ability
  • Defensive ability, including covering back after kicking

·         Centres

  • Ability to take and create space
  • Ability to put supporting players into space
  • Open field tackles and defensive coordination
  • Kick chases

·         Wings

  • Catching high ball, support for full back
  • Footwork and ability to finish moves
  • Tactical kicks when isolated
  • 1 v 1 tackles out wide
  • Chasing kicks

·         Fullback

  • Clearance kicks, tactical kicks
  • Catching under the high ball
  • Wide passes
  • Counter attack
  • Defensive positioning and control of the back three

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Now that our school year / season is over, I have some time to do some reflection on the highs and where we can go next year.  Throughout the season, I’ve wanted to write something about parental involvement in the youth game and have been slowly pulling stuff together that I hope will be useful to readers of this blog.

I’ve been lucky in my first year at a new school to have a wonderful group of supportive parents who attend not only away games in our city, but some actually decided to take their spring vacation in the same location as our overseas tour!  (I imagine some of you just raised a red flag worrying about interference, spoiling the boys’ fun and chance to get away, but I didn’t see any of that – they were truly fabulous and it was great to hear vocal support for us so far away from home!)  Thinking about how positive and supportive they are kept coming up as I read news stories about parents in other sports / countries assaulting (verbally in most cases, but in one or two physically!) referees or how their verbal ‘support’ was often negative or confusing as they shouted dismay and tactical directions instead of praise.  Our parents are so great about only offering praise (and occasionally calmly asking ‘What was that call?’ to one of the coaches, genuinely wanting to learn more about the game), that we don’t mind them standing behind and with our bench.

Negative attitudes are unfortunately so prevalent that New Zealand rugby and English rugby league have found it necessary to make these two (great in the message they send) videos:

The simple message we coaches need to not only remember, but deliver to all our parents and spectators is:  Sport is for the participants; let them have fun, learn and grow in a positive and supportive environment.  I don’t think I need to go into the sort of abuse that can be heard on sidelines across many youth sports as – unfortunately – we’ve all probably heard it addressed to players from both sides, referees, officials and coaches. It’s completely unnecessary and as so passionately expressed in the videos above (esp. love the rugby league kid!) it embarrasses kids and makes them not want to play the game they love.  How sad is that?

The worst of the negative comments is directed at the players themselves, and though typically not abusive I think even those which fall into the ‘tactical direction’ category are detrimental.  I hope that standers-by are quick to shout down those who’d make a cowardly negative comment to a child or adolescent playing sport, but comments which also annoy me are ones which remind the player he/she’s made a mistake and, more subtly, continually tell them what to do in the game.

In the first instance, I think even kids at a young age and new to a sport know what constitutes successful play and what is a ‘mistake’.  I think we all learn from mistakes and it’s through picking one’s self up, moving on, and learning from mistakes that makes us better at something.  To react negatively and remind someone they’ve made a mistake only adds pressure to the voice of doubt that is an athlete’s own worst enemy – his or her own voice.  To varying levels, athletes know other people are watching them and don’t need the added pressure of having someone else fuel feelings of self-doubt.  At the very least, allowing them to move with the game and build a determination to succeed next time needs to occur.  Sometimes I even feel silence is a better reaction than ‘Nice try!’ if the athlete in question’s reaction is along the lines of a dejected “Yeah, right.”  Knowing how to help motivate a player after a mistake / loss depends on a lot of factors and can differ depending on the situation or day (esp. with teens!), but compounding the pain, shame, doubt, etc. with anything less than positive and constructive certainly doesn’t help.  I prefer to have a quiet word with athletes on the touch line in the game, after a game, or before training rather than shouting even positively worded instructions as I don’t want to embarrass them or fuel the self-doubt.  Some older players have told me they are the ‘kick up the backside’ type who want shouted instructions, but I’d still rather have them come over to me so I’m not sending the wrong message, encouraging others to shout out as well.  I don’t believe young athletes are that in-tune with how they learn / are motivated best, however, so have never taken that route with anyone teenaged or younger.

In the second instance, I’m not a fan of parents / supporters / team mates on the side lines offering tactical suggestions to athletes.  I hope that most of it becomes ‘white noise’ for the athletes and they’re able to block it out, but I suspect especially at lower levels of rugby (where pitches are smaller) and other sports where the playing surface is small, that it’s difficult to do so.  There are very few sports out there that I know of where an athlete has time to take regular instruction from an external voice (i.e. not team mates, but from outside the playing enclosure) and focus on doing his or her job.  I should search out studies on this, but I imagine there’s a difference in attention and application of feedback when it comes from team mates versus that which comes from outside of the game.  I’d suspect that our brains would see it more of a distraction than if it was a team mate directing you to get into position for a play.  The worst of it is completely unhelpful – I watched a university-level game last year where a very loud man paced the touchline yelling ‘RUCK!!!’ at virtually every ruck.  I’m certain at that level that the guys knew they had to ruck to win / secure possession.  I also try to stop our players from doing this on the field as the constant white noise of obvious / already communicated information blocks them from focusing on other developments / threats.  One example is the constant yelling of ‘ready, ready, ready / hold, hold, hold’ on defence – once is enough, the rest of the time should be spent on specific communication regarding who has who, their line speed, calling out potential threats.  How are athletes supposed to think about this stuff when people on the sidelines are constantly yelling unhelpful directions at them?  Even as a coach, the only commentary I provide is periodic and very specific to a situation – always focusing on positive / constructive – when I realise that an athlete is really missing an opportunity to learn.  I want my players to learn by playing, and me constantly giving them instructions inhibits their ability to acquire this knowledge themselves – a higher level of thinking which will see the lesson learned stick more so than if they’re told what to do.  I had to laugh but feel for the athletes of one team I witnessed recently as one of the players actually told his coach to ‘Shut up!’ as his useless instructions and rants finally got on his nerves.  I applauded him for speaking up, but unfortunately it only shut the coach up for a few minutes.  (It’s no surprise that, despite their physical ability, they weren’t really talented rugby players, masked by a lot of fancy plays that didn’t work. They’d probably never given the chance to develop their game sense without the coach telling them what to do all the time.)  These sorts of rants to athletes and officials are, frankly, embarrassing for everyone involved.  If coaches and players on the sidelines who know the inner-workings of the team’s strategies and tactics shouldn’t be sending in pointless messages, then parents really shouldn’t be!

Getting back to our great parents, I want to help them become even better supporters next year by running a little “intro to rugby” class for them as some have asked for it, as it’s a game most of this country is still pretty clueless about.  I’d also see such an event an opportunity to translate our values, mission and other sorts of important messages regarding selection, playing time, and a code of conduct we expect from all spectators.

I found this brilliant sample code of conduct via Twitter from Head Master Keith Richardson from Wynberg Boys’ High School in South Africa:

Advice To Parents - Keith Richardson

Our parents are pretty good about following all of these, but something like this would be great to send to them at the beginning of the season with an encouragement to come out and support the boys and continue to share our values of fair play and respect with everyone.  It’d also empower the majority to positively deal with any transgression as I think it’s important – as with bullying in schools among kids – to be vocal about standing up to inappropriate behaviour and standing up for others.  I’m still working it in my mind as to how we might do an ‘intro to rugby’ session for our parents next year as it’s still six to eight months away, but I thought it’d be fun – and more likely to increase attendance – if we made it a sort of fun food and trivia night.  Rather than do a boring lecture with video, I think we might try a ‘pub trivia’ sort of scenario where ‘new to the game’ parents are matched up with those who’ve played or know the game (not a guarantee given rugby’s complex laws!!!) and we have some fun learning about the game, complete with video clips to show answers.  It’d also be great bonding if the boys played alongside their parents.  Watch this space for when I finally get this plan drawn up!

To cap this long post off, however, I think it needs to be re-stated that sport at any level offers the participants the opportunity to have fun, bond with friends, develop fitness, movement ability and decision making abilities, not to mention experiencing a range of mental aspects which develops character, resilience and confidence.  To do ANYTHING which inhibits this is to ruin such a wonderful opportunity to develop better human beings.

I might have shared this on the blog before, and forgot to include it into the original draft of this post, but this video sums up what youth sport and parental support for their kids in sport should be about:

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