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Defence vs Attacking Rugby Coaching

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Is professionalism taking coaching in the right direction for the benefit of rugby?
It cannot be disputes that professionalism has done wonders for the game by providing financial rewards and compensation to coaches and back-room staff for their commitment, effort and overall sacrifice (both mentally and physically) to the sport.

However, we have to consider what coaches need to do to make the rugby game more entertaining for the supporters and TV pundits, and to attract more youngsters to play the game and maintain its sustainability for years to come.

The following issues need to be considered:

  • Do we need more physical contact?
  • Do we need more tries? Fast flowing, exciting and spectacular ones?
  • Do we need better education and training programmes for coaches to deliver quality rugby introduction and development modules to aspiring players?
  • Do we need to change the laws or rules, e.g. the tackled area, especially rucks and mauls, or less kicking?

So, the age old debate since rugby was first conceived remains: what is more important – attack or defence?

With the injection of professionalism and the financial rewards to clubs, management and players, winning has become paramount for survival in the top tier of the sport. This encourages a “win at all costs” attitude right across the rugby fraternity – from the successfully World Cups squads through the league ranks past the episodes of “bloodgate” and “scrumgate” down to mini rugby every Sunday morning during the season (Read “Love of the Game: Minis Coaching Advice”).

My contribution to this debate is to explore the reason for why coaches go for the defence option instead of venturing into attack mode.

  • Is it easier to coach defence?
  • Do the players prefer to dedicate their time and commitment to this option?
  • Do the management agree and believe this has the lowest risk of financial failure for their club / business?

The overriding factor for success on the field both in amateur and professional rugby is winning – not by how much, or by the style of play, but just the fact of winning is paramount.

The main factors affecting a rugby coach’s decision are their:

  • motives, objectives, beliefs;
  • coaching philosophy and style; and
  • the instructions/orders they receive from their top management/bosses.

Combining these factors (both external and internal) together with the overall coaching process from the planning, delivery and closure phases for training and matches, the coaches design their style, strategy and management plan for the team. This is all very complicated and intense to say the least, without the added burden of a “winning only” attitude.

So is this the main/only reason for coaches reverting to the easier defence option? To have a better chance of winning since “attacking rugby” is too difficult to coach and too risky to apply? In my opinion, if this is the case then this attitude reveals a coach’s inability to use their creative thinking and trust their players’ initiative and vision.

It is as simple as this: what you coach in defence, one does the completely opposite for attacking play. Look at the differences between defence and attack in the table below. I am sure that as coaches we will be able to develop many exercises, drills, sessions and conditioned games to address our weakness in coaching attacking rugby.

Action Defence Attack
Run Without the ball With the ball
Space Close it down Look for the gaps
Opponent Run towards Run away
Ball Prevent the pass Pass into space
Ball carrier Tackle to the ground Stay on your feet
Ball location Make it go backwards Carry it forward
Main goal No try scored Score a try
Ball Displace from attacker Keep possession
Support By the side Behind ball carrier
Player Confront Avoid

As coaches, we need to think outside of the box and expand our thinking into other areas by watching other sports or adding onto what other coaches have tried but failed to do. Maybe the issue is having the confidence to “have a go” with the permission of top management who hold the purse strings. But we can’t know the success of a new style or model of attacking rugby unless we attempt it.

Rugby is supposed to be a simple game, but unfortunately we make it very complicated for ourselves as coaches, players, referees, supporters and outsiders. Although we as coaches may now have modern technology to record and capture data of training and games, assisting us to analyse opposite teams’ strengths and weaknesses to devise one’s game plan for the next contest, this should not be used as an excuse to fall back on defence coaching instead of attack. We should not stop our creative and expansive thinking from coming up with something completely different from what the other 99% do to win matches.

I presume that a few (or maybe a lot of you) will say that it is easier to talk about the theory behind attacking rugby than to actually put it into practise and coach it. This is very true. Naturally when doing something different from the norm, which differs from what has gone on in the past, it is going to be difficult as a coach to get your message across to your players at the start. But after a buy-in from all involved, and several run-throughs, practise sessions and, of course, competitive matches against opposition, one may be surprised.

As we all know too well, people do not like change and are very resistant to a new way of life, work or playing a sport. For this transformation to occur and succeed, one’s mind-set needs to adapt. This needs to begin with the coach, who has to believe in it completely before convincing his players to follow his lead.

I am not trying to blame the cash, the “win at all costs” mentality, or coaching inabilities. We need a radical change to our overall approach to attacking rugby – starting with the coaches, who must introduce creative thinking into their strategy and spread their vision amongst the coaching ranks before passing it onto the rest of the rugby family.

If you play the role of a thinker, you play the thinking game

By: Harry Roberts, former Springbok and current Sports Consultant for Coach Education, Development and High Performance.

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