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As mentioned in the first video analysis post I made a couple of months ago, there’s a lot that can be learned just by watching a clip and breaking down each little element, asking yourself “When Team A does this, how does Team B react / not react?”  Rugby’s a really simple cause-effect invasion game, with line breaks being easy to explain locally – at the point where the defence is breached (i.e. a poor tackle) – or as the result of several attempts at breaking the line (i.e. defenders over-committed to previous break downs, leaving fewer out wide on the key phase).

In this second instalment I’m going to attempt to explain some subtleties behind a very simple attacking element – depth.

In this try by Scotland over Ireland last year, the announcers praise it as a well-rehearsed move, but I think the real beauty in it is the advantages created by the two deep passes made that allows De Luca to get free, who sets up Ansbro from the game-winner.

Let’s watch … (if the time stamp doesn’t work, skip ahead to 10:23)

1. Stop at 10:30… the line out throw has been tapped down and played quickly.  A decoy runner causes the Irish defence to condense itself and hesitate its forward pressure.  Catching a defender flat footed is a great opportunity as he won’t easily be able to adjust to your sudden changes of movement.

2. Stop at 10:32… the pass has been played deep and the passer is already looking to go wide with another pass.  This is often where I’d expect to see teams use the strike runner, intending the second receiver to take advantage of the decoy’s effect on the defence.  Scotland, however, have banked on this and are using that second receiver, merely as a pivot.  He barely runs at all with the ball and is already turned to fire a wide pass.

This results in one of those hard-to-explain situations, but bear with me and maybe watch this section of the clip a few times.  With proper depth established between passer and receiver, I think there often exists two situations that attacking teams can take advantage of … and I’ve not yet figured out how to correct it from the defensive side, so let’s leave that for now (probably a slower rush forward, keeping feet moving so one can adjust… anyway… )

a.  The defensive line again hesitates because the passer has two hands on the ball and obviously isn’t going to bash it up right away.  Some players, like the Dan Carters of the world, shift into another gear and look to exploit flat footed defenders by attacking the space, often toward the inside shoulder of the next defender outside.  This player either takes him, or stays on his man, presenting a great 2 v 1 situation.  This doesn’t happen here.

b. The potential to, instead, pass to a deep runner presents a situation where the defender in front of him often gets caught in two risky situations.  In one case, he opts to maintain a flat defensive line with his team mates – giving the receiver of the deep pass lots of time and space to do as he wishes, and many great outside centres will attempt to beat his man on the outside or draw in the winger to put his man away (Conrad Smith is often the benefactor / orchestrator of just such a situation).  The other case – which we see here – sees a defender who either gambles or panics by rushing up early to close the space and make a hit well behind the gain-line (or sneak an interception).  The defender fails in his gamble. De Luca cuts inside and gets behind him.  Defensive line compromised and line break achieved, with others having to cover the outside centre’s mistake.  De Luca draws those covering defenders and makes a simple pass to Ansbro who also has plenty of space and side steps the final defender for a great try.

As one announcer says, “Simple move, done well.”  That’s it.  That’s all rugby needs to be.  It’s probably a rehearsed move, but the real killer elements are: the first decoy run which has the defence condensed from the get-go and also causes them to halt their forward run; the first deep pass which gets the ball to a play-maker in space with plenty of time to act; and the second deep pass, without hesitation or an unnecessary run, to free up the strike runner who catches his man making the wrong choice in a risky situation all based upon what to do when there’s too much space between.

… on second viewing, I noticed the second decoy runner in the backs, but think I missed it the first time as he probably wasn’t necessary.

Finally, it’s interesting watching the head-on replay as you can see #8 freeze dead because of the decoy, #7 come in to ‘help’ 8, but then have to cut back out.  10’s on the first passer’s outside shoulder and points for help from 7.  By this time, the defence is tracking sideways – never an ideal situation as they’re susceptible to cut-backs. 13 has made his gamble and all three covering defenders panic in focusing  on De Luca, freeing up Ansbro for the simple run.

There are some other great examples of the use of depth in this video of England women taking advantage of a too-passive Scottish defence…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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While visiting my favourite rugby forum today I was pointed toward an interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker.  Entitled “How David Beats Goliath – How underdogs break the rules” he looks at how an a-typical group of middle school girls went to the national basketball finals on playing defence that was well within the rules, but often not seen as ‘fair play’ at that level.  He presents an interesting case that there are countless episodes in history, as well as sport, in which the underdog has emerged victorious by stretching the accepted rules of the game to focus on particular strengths and hide potentially destructive weaknesses.

The person who posted the article asked if there was anything like the full-court press employed by the girls’ coaches that exists in rugby.  Not only could I think of a few, but it reminded me of times when I’ve acted in much the same way.

I coached high school girls for a season and I – controversially at first – declared that we’d have no plays as I knew from experience (ages ago myself, and seeing people still do it) that teams spend hours on them a week and rarely use them by comparison, and less so use them effectively. I made sure that scrums were safe, and that we had three different jumps in the line out but we put those to bed quite early in the season as well, only ‘practising’ them during team runs for a few mintues at time before moving on.

Instead, we spent the vast majority of our time not even on drills, but on game related scenarios. We played a lot of defence and a lot of open field, dynamic attack scenarios.  Sometimes we’d play full contact, full-field, but often we played touch because our strategy was about playing in space, on our feet, with ball in hand.  Our only real tactics were:

  1. Get the ball away from the ‘muck’ (girls tend to clump around rucks, leaving lots of room on the wing)
  2. Attack spaces, not faces when out wide.
  3. Attack the branches of the tree, not the trunk when in tight.
  4. Support the ball carrier physically and vocally.  (Which allowed everyone to call out attacking opportunities as opposed to dumping all decision making on 9 and 10.)
  5. Our defence was well organised and we opted to steal the ball from the tackle rather than waste energy on rucks already lost.  This usually resulted in us having more defenders standing than attackers, allowing us to double team or attempt intercepts on the next tackle.

We won city the city finals and only lost the regional final, which would have sent us to provincials, because I was forced to play last year’s stand-out no. 8 who’d been out injured most of the previous month and who hadn’t really caught on to the game plan. In hindsight, I should have just stuck a random back in her place as the team would have defended well enough, but it was her constant taking the ball up herself and not getting it to the players in wider positions that killed us and cost us turnovers.  I only blame myself for that as I should have done more to include the injured star in the development of the game plan and to have been more willing to sub her when it was apparent her inclusion was hurting us.

I love coaching at that level not because I can take advantage of other team’s poor preparation and low level of skill – in fact, now that I’m settled in a new job / city, I aim to help other school coaches in developing their abilities to teach their kids better rugby.  I find girls more receptive to new ideas and are quick to adopt them wholeheartedly.  Even at the university level, I’ve seen women latch onto unorthodox strategy meant to mask their weaknesses and boost their strengths.  I’ve found teenaged boys and men less receptive to new ideas.

I’ve even got more ideas I want to try.  When I go back to the youth level next season, I’m also going to try re-starting attack in open play more like they do in Rugby League – having a forward or two (or all!) act as dummy halves, passing to the scrum half standing close by (because most youth scrum halves can’t throw the long passes) to play to fly half a little wider out.  I feel my rationale is sound for all teams at this level.  With everyone now adopting the tight post / guard defence around the ruck and maul, there’s very little room for a fly half to operate at the length of most scrum halves passes.  With more defenders standing out, rucks are more easily won, allowing one forward to pop the ball out to a slightly-wider scrum half.  The All Blacks do this a fair bit when Piri Weepu is playing 9.

It’s easy to try unorthodox strategies and tactics like that in relatively inexperienced environments. I had the fly half of our team kick a high ball on the first play to see how good their full back was, opening the green light for kicks later if she was obviously weak / team tracked back poorly (though we were great with ball in hand so didn’t often have to use that tactic). I’d also challenge the girls to go for double hits quite regularly; first tackler low to stop forward momentum and the second high to steal the ball.  This was adopted knowing full well that girls tend not to get the ball wide quickly, but also accounting that many of ours weren’t strong individual tacklers.

These tactics can be employed at higher levels as well, with proper training and total buy-in from the players.  Girls can be prone to getting caught up in a static maul, giving a turnover because of poor initial body position in contact and lack of brute strength to ‘rip’ out of a double hit.  Ireland’s men’s team has been quite successful at this over the past year.  So much was the belief in their tactic that they even surprisingly took it to one of the best ‘wide’ teams in the game – Australia.  A conservative approach would have seen the Irish play more man-on-man and not risk putting two or three defenders on a single ball carrier, who’d be more likely than most teams to pass before contact into space.  Australia should have recovered at half time, but opted to kick away possession rather than simply pass before contact and Ireland scored a famous victory.  Australia suffered from the “rush state” that Rick Pitino talks about in the article – they panicked and clearly didn’t think their way out trouble.  It’s a great example of changing the ‘rules’ a bit at the highest level, having total commitment to a plan and playing to strengths.  Bringing in the rush / blitz defence from League is another that reminds me of the full-court press.  Not all can do it, not all want to because the risks can be higher than the rewards, but some – like Wasps and Wales – have won championships on it.

I think the key for any such strategy is the buy-in from the players, and possibly even basing it upon a perception – or myth, even! – that fuses the team together. The girls b-ball coaches in the article seemed to have all the girls on their side because of the respectful way they were treated.  They fully committed to the game plan and seemed to revel that they weren’t like a typical basketball team, being under-sized and under-skilled. Such was the case with the young ladies that I coached, most coming from working class and/or immigrant families, revelling in beating the city’s rich kid schools (I didn’t ever bring that up, but I knew it was on their minds). They also seemed to feel extra special after our first league win, realising that ‘no plays’ didn’t matter.  Having been a London Wasps fan for many years, it seems to be the same for them.  During their glory years, they possessed a unified team culture based upon the perception that they were the underdogs – especially where finances were concerned.  They won several domestic and European titles despite not being rich enough to buy big stars, and instead developed their youth and embraced other team’s misfits and rejects, together buying into a game plan which matched their strengths and masked their weaknesses.

Thinking of the teams I’ve coached over the last 14 years which have been most successful, it was that unified team culture that was the common factor in each.

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By the end of the week, I’ll have been involved in three rather large sevens tournaments for Middle School (approx. 11-14 year old) students on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.  Sevens is relatively new to schools rugby around here, but with it’s recent admission to the Summer Olympics in 2016, I gather that the time was right to make the switch.  Some conversations I’ve had over the past few days, and going back to the start of the season, has altered my thinking somewhat with regard to how sevens can possibly take rugby one more step forward in this country.

I’m still a bit sceptical and worried that a full change could come because I fear the shortened code could take over university and even high school rugby, which would be a shame, because I still believe fifteens should be the main focus for our country.  It will always be the high profile sport and we should aim to remain part of that club even though Canada’s relative competitive status has slipped in the last decade and a half since professionalism was made official.  But as a development vehicle – a way to introduce rugby to youngsters and smaller schools / communities – sevens is the PERFECT way to grow the game.

One complaint I heard was that there’s no room for the bigger kids.  As a former front rower, I can sympathise and this is part of the worry I have if sevens were to take over high school sports.  At the moment, high school rugby still has room for chubby kids, but with our short seasons and lack of support / funds (at public schools) to field more than one team per sport, that’d be the end of rugby for them, I’m sure.  But at the Middle School level, the pitches are smaller and the physical / fitness abilities of all students is not yet so pronounced, giving the slow, chubby kid a better chance.  As one coach – surely a PE teacher! – said, it’s also an early enough stage to suggest to those kids that it’s time to take one’s fitness / nutrition / health more seriously and get in shape for sevens and eventually senior fifteens rugby.  If sevens had been around when I was in elementary school, I probably would have ended up the centre I’ve always wanted to be!  (We only had the very pedestrian baseball when I was a boy.)

The other negative comment was how it limited one coach’s preference to play a forwards’ game.  The cynic in me immediately shot back saying that’s a major problem with Canadian rugby now that we need to over-come – too forwards-oriented, without the basic skills and vision across all players to compete with other nations.  There’s no hiding in sevens.  Everyone’s got to tackle and ruck.  Everyone’s got to pass and run the ball in space.  But I do think there’s an opportunity on the smaller fields to play such a game, if one so desired.  … but I still have to think ‘why’???  Rugby’s such an amazing game to watch when people are running in space and the ball is being tossed about.  Even for those who like the biffo, there are still individual battles to be fought and even the close-quarter, up-the-guts battles should teams spread themselves too thinly on defence and allow a couple of the bigger lads to have an old fashioned Northern Hemisphere style rumble.  In short, smaller field sevens for middle school aged kids is perfect to practice any style of rugby in a microcosm. In this microcosm, fewer players means getting involved to a greater degree in both attack and defence, allowing kids a greater opportunity to become better at both!

What I also like about how Middle School rugby is run on Vancouver Island has to do with the spirit of the game, encouraging more kids to play.  First off, girls are allowed.  Despite contact, it’s not a big issue for pre- / early- teens whose growth spurts are all over the place (often in favour of girls until about 13/14!), so why not?  Girls that start that young, in my experience as a women’s coach, are always great later in life.  Related to that, playing levels are weight-graded so that the bigger kids cannot dominate and smaller kids are not on the receiving end.  Some might argue that this is bad for the big kid who has to play up a grade (in some cases where a Gr. 8 is too heavy and hasn’t a connection to a high school to play with Gr. 9s) or cannot, but I don’t think it’s as a cruel thing as some would make it out to be.  In some cases these players still play alongside their team mates, but with a yellow bib indicating they are ‘touch only’ players.  Either way, it forces the ‘big’ kids to use not their bulk and power, but actually focus on the skills and vision all the other kids have to acquire and develop.  We’ve all probably seen kids like this before – ones who dominate because of size at a lower level who have wasted years not acquiring any abilities because they didn’t need to and end up being poor teenage / adult players.  With weight grading, a level playing field is presented that’s good for all.

The final spirit-of-the-game bonus of adopting sevens relates to the growth of rugby on the whole and accessibility.  Instead of having to field a full side of 15 (or 11 as some do on the mainland), sevens allows schools with just 10 interested / able kids – and even less in some cases! – to field teams.  While maybe only one or two might end up sticking with rugby into their teenage years, there’s nothing wrong with growing the game one or two players at a time!  In such cases, sevens allows even the one kid who’s really interested in the game has a better chance of playing as it’s not so hard to get those few kids together, even if the others aren’t that into the sport.  When trying to get a full fifteen together, for a brand of rugby that requires more subs given the extra time and contact, many schools simply wouldn’t be able to adopt rugby at all.  For those schools which do have quite a lot of interest, sevens allows them to field two or even three sides, so that every kid gets a chance at significant game time.  By grouping together A, B (and C!) teams, kids at various levels of ability also get the opportunity to enjoy the game with less likelihood of getting smashed or utterly dominating – ensuring that each gets a fair chance to work on skills and truly enjoy the experience.

In conclusion, I think adopting sevens rugby (contact OR touch) is a great way to grow the game at the crucial grass roots level in Canada, and especially for the pre-teen age group.  I hope this recent increase in awareness and a move to include more kids continues to grow so that we can show that this is truly a wonderful sport for all.

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The following is an assignment I’ve given to the decision makers on my team…

By looking at the following screen captures from the recent England v Scotland match, take the opportunity to assess what England’s options are and what their best course of action could be.  The ideal situation would see them make a clean break with support on either side, but in analysing options in attack one must also consider the likelihood of the defence shutting it down.  Assuming a team will at least try, if not successfully, to defend well, then you must think ahead one or two phases to use them to manipulate the defence how you wish.

The teams you face play defence ‘reasonably well’ to ‘very good’, presenting a challenge to our attack beyond the first phase.  If you make a clean break, then the rest should be easy if support is there and communication is early and specific.  If we’re forced to play the ball from contact (offload, latch+drive and rip, etc.) or set up a tackle contest (ruck, maul), thus setting up a new phase of attack, then we have to work toward a loose pattern of play which will see us keep the defending team disorganised and under pressure.  A quick scan for opportunities and a snappy call might be the best way to exploit these weaknesses / opportunities, but this relies on great vision and experience from both the decision maker(s) and supporting players.  We will continue to work on this, but the simple and effective way is to have at least a few phases planned out based upon two key questions:  What are we likely to achieve from this attack with the defenders in front of us?  AND What can we do next, considering our support, our strengths, and how the defensive team (likely) reacted to the last attack?   (In doing so, never forget the Five Principles of keeping possession, going forward with support, and maintaining continuity and pressure.)

The Big Questions:

  1. Clean Break: What is the ideal, yet reasonable, “clean break” situation considering who we have in position and how the opposition is currently set up to defend?
  2. Pass From Contact: How will individual defenders react to this move BEFORE we reach the tackle line?  What’s our pre-contact option (if available and logical) and can we keep the attack going by playing the ball from contact?
  3. Into a Tackle Contest: If a tackle contest occurs, where is our support?  How will the defenders adjust to the tackle contest and our developing second phase (assuming we can win the ball efficiently)?  What is the best option for the next phase, with sufficient attackers ready, if we have:

a)      Quick Ball, or…

b)      Slow Ball

  1. Things to consider as opportunities:  Lack of Defenders Present, Defender not square, Defensive Line not flat, Defenders on the back foot, Over-commitment of defenders to an individual, Space behind Defenders.
  2. Things to consider as threats:  Defenders in abundance and ready to rush forward, Defensive patience and ability, Lack of personnel on our part to challenge the defence.

Challenge: For each of the following images, provide an Ideal Clean Break move, a Logical Continuous Option from Contact, and an option (or two) for the Next Phase Move from a Tackle Contest

(Sample)

The purpose of this exercise to to get players thinking about how they would use their abilities, the abilities of their team mates, and the things we are good at to successfully attack a variety of defensive arrangements.  We often do this at training for those more kinaesthetically inclined, but for those who are more visual / analytical, this is the sort of exercise that will get them thinking about attacking opportunities before they step on the pitch.  The hope is that at least some will become accustomed to defensive sets – both good and poor – and use logic and self-knowledge to speed decision making when faced with them in games.

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The other night at training the players were working on changing pace, and I noticed how changing gears for them meant trying to find another higher one after hitting top speed. Others not blessed with pace were left in the wake of those who did. Wondering what they were trying to get out of the self-directed drill, I asked them a question: Is it okay slow down to a jog when you’ve got the ball?

Immediately, a few players said, yes, but I challenged them to tell me why. Sprinting with the ball can allow you to gain the most ground, yes, and we want to play the game at a high tempo to take advantage of opportunities. But there are times when such opportunities aren’t so apparent and you’re staring at a defender who’s got you lined up fairly well, so a change of pace can allow you time to Scan, Plan, and Act. A ball carrier who goes from a run to a jog can…

* Buy time for support to get in position to be an option / provide assistance
* Lull the defender into believing she has an easy tackle, only to have the ball carrier pop/pass to her support sprinting past
* Lull the defender into believing she has an easy tackle, only to have the ball carrier speed up again and/or change direction and run past
* Cause a moment of indecision / overestimation on the part of the defender, to provide the attacker with a chance to ‘do the opposite’ (this is a ‘big concept’ – but in a moment of panic, a defender might predict your move before you’ve made it. At a full sprint it’s hard for you to adjust, so by adjusting your pace a bit, you can take a second to gauge what she is going to do and then quickly alter your approach to beat her. Essentially, this the thinking behind a simple sidestep.)
* (Anything else? Happy to hear your suggestions!)

One of the best at altering pace and reacting to a defender’s cues is New Zealand’s Victoria Grant. Always having the ball in two hands – which, as I’ve said before, causes indecision in defenders as you can pass in any direction easily – she uses a variety of steps and paces to gauge what defenders are doing and then simply take advantage of it.

While not the best example of her ‘slowing down’ at :33 in the following video, you will see that by avoiding the top gear straight run, she’s able to change direction a few times and almost literally turn the Aussie defender inside out. Such moves are simply not possible at full stride.

 

Edit:  I followed this article up with an explanation of Running Rugby.  Click on the green bit in the last sentence to read about the major asterisk I’ve now placed on THIS article.  Slowing down can lull defenders, but one must have been going fast in the first place!

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

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

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

[Videos have been deleted by the host. 😦  ]

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

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

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

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

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

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