Wagging the finger

After my whimsical blog entry earlier this week it’s time to get serious again.

A few weeks back, after the first game of the season I was asked if I was interested in taking up the position of sevens coach for the club. Naturally, I was. Coaching my own rugby team has always been a dream of mine. Of course, in my typical self-deprecating style, all I could think of was, “Wow, they must really be hard up to have asked me”. But, as anyone that knows me knows, I actually do take my rugby very seriously, and knew that by thinking of me they hadn’t made their choice lightly.

Before I plan to start in October I have decided to do a lot of preparation to make sure that my players got the most out of the sessions and that my time and theirs will not be wasted. In the past week I have also taken part in some newbie training sessions as coach, and a Verbandsliga (beginners league) training session as assistant coach. The Newbies course is a joy. Touch rugby, focus on fun and basic skills (so lots of passing), ball handling in general, and learning the attack, defence, and counter-attack methods. Pretty much everything I had been teaching in my summer touch rugby classes for the past two summers. The players learned fast and worked with the skills I taught them, and improved from mistakes.

Verbandsliga was something different. Young, eager, fit and strong. Good for rugby players but they also lacked skills and discipline. Fine, that was the job of the coaches to sort out and I was duly handed the task of demonstrating, teaching and supervising tackling. With several different levels amongst them I decided to teach the schoolbook tackle, what every schoolboy rugby player around the world is taught at the age of 9, so simple and effective and which never fails to take a down an opponent. Approach the attacker with small steps, crouch low at the last moment, keeping shoulders above the hips, step slightly to the side of the player and put a lead arm straight across their midriff, throw the shoulder into their hip and head against the arse and push whilst encircling with the other arm, bringing them to ground. If done right this will take down an opponent of any size or shape and will, most importantly, neither injure you nor your opponent. Then get up on your feet and steal the ball. Simple.

I demonstrate on a player or two. They then partner up and give it their best. Some problems are evident but I’m walking the line and offering advice and encouragement. Next thing there’s a bit of horseplay going on. Lifting and carrying the other players. I shout them down and tell them to get on with the task in hand and keep the tackles as I showed. One questions me and asks why we are not doing forward contact tackles and I remind him that I am the coach and know what they need to learn. Next thing the same player is doing a forward tackle into the midriff of the other player with head against the ribcage. I shout at him that if he does that again he’ll break his neck. He rubs his neck and apologises. Some are tackling around the legs, taking just one leg in hand and, naturally, get dragged along the ground effecting no tackle. I demonstrate again that the tackle will only happen if both legs are taken and they immediately improve.

Things are going okay and they all agree that this tackling method is effective, but I sense that they want something a bit more physical. We put them into two training lines and do attack/defence training, effectively a game of five on five. They learn fast with three coaches shouting at them and, eager to succeed, effect the moves promptly and efficiently. Ten minutes from the end of the session, however, disaster strikes. One of the players goes for a half-forward/half-classic tackle and gets only one leg of an attacker. The arm between the legs gets caught by the trailing leg and his shoulder is rendered, dislocating it. It is a huge blow not only because the player showed great promise throughout the session but, as we would later find out, the injury was worse than though putting him out of the game for six months.

With just two weeks before they play their first match this team will be facing a massive uphill task to reach a level acceptable for playing competitive rugby. It’s not really a pratical goal and the best that three coaches can do is try to minimise the mistakes the players make and to ensure that there are no major injuries. This is no light statement. If a player gets seriously injured in a training session then I hate to think what will happen in a competitive game, espcially if there is a rush of blood to the head. I get the impression that in Germany (and not just in the verbandsliga, but in senior teams, too) there is a tendency to misunderstand what rugby is actually all about. It is by far not a simple game to learn and, although appealing to players attracted to a physical game, it does also attract the overly aggressive and even the violent who see it as a legitimate way to vent. When this happens the game often takes on a violent air and descends into nothing more than a method to seriously hurt opponents while occasionally scoring tries.

There is also an indifference here to the necessary skills such as passing which is often seen as a boring and only occasionally useful part of the game, and a very dangerous tendency to play players that are considered experienced when they clearly are not.

Let’s take them in order.

Rugby is a safe game. There is actually a reason we don’t wear armour. Whilst American football encourages often life-threatening hits requiring protective armour, there are laws in rugby preventing dangerous play and penalising it with penalties and/or cards. A referee has the right to call off a game if conditions endanger any or all players.

Tackling, believe it or not, is not always about hitting your opponent as hard as you can and inflicting injury. It is meant to be physical, sure, but tackling requires bringing a player to ground and the most effective way to do this is by unbalancing him. Once tackled the tackled player must release the ball and the tackler then takes the opportunity of getting to his feet and stealing the ball. I can imagine many of you rolling your eyes and muttering “Yes, we know this, John”, but I don’t see this happening very often in a game, or even training for that matter. Tackling seems to be taught as a way to charge the mid-riff of a ball carrier and to then pick the ball away from his fallen corpse. Not a very effective method if the tackle goes wrong and both players end up injured, which is very likely in this situation, espcially if the players are of different body builds.

Passing is, with tackling, one of the two most important skills in rugby – if not the most important. Everyone, at some time or another during a game, will pass or tackle. All the other skills, such as kicking, rucking, scrumming, lineouts etc. are specific to certain players in the field. And yet, passing is generally accepted as being both boring and good enough only for training purposes – for warming-up, if you will. Astonishing. No wonder there isn’t anyone I watch playing here that can actually pass. However, it is always the first skill I teach new players and the first thing they practice before each new session with me. Passing drills, running lines, one-hand passes. I drill hem for at least a quarter of an hour before we do anything else. I see you rolling your eyes again, “But John, I CAN pass!”. Okay, you know how a ball can be passed, but do you know when to pass? Who to pass to? When not to pass? Where to pass to? How to make space and draw in a defender so that the receiver of the pass can take advantage of that? What to do when you can’t pass? Do you go to ground? Kick for space? Kick for touch? Do you try to maul? These are all the options that make passing more than just spinning a ball to a teammate. Passing opens the game, gives you more options for scoring, disrupts the defense, and allows for penalties caused by a desperate defence that may infringe. Apart from an attacking line from a scrum and a very rare back line attack most German rugby offensives consist of a pick and go, ruck, pick and go, ruck, a lucky breakout with a player running a beeline through the defense (but with no support), followed by a tackle, lost ball forward or won on their feet, and a counter-attack. No passing. Just big hits, recycle and ground by metres. This is WWI trench tactics. Not pretty, and a good opponent will sense your weakness and punish you for it. If you are in my coaching class you will learn tackling (my way) and lots of passing before you learn anything else. Otherwise you can go and play soccer.

Finally, I have often been told about a player that he/she is ‘experienced’. From this can mean that they have attended several training courses, and have played a few games. The Verbandsliga player who got injured this week was one such ‘experienced’ player. Apparently he had played a few games. But from what I saw of him he could barely tackle and had only basic passing skills. So, any time in future that I hear that a player is experienced I will instantly assume that they are a novice. It is a better assumption to make than putting them in to play against a real experienced player and ending up calling for the Krankenwagen again.

In my books an experienced rugby player is not only someone who understands the rudiments of the game, but also tackling, passing, the tasks of all of the different players on the pitch and how they affect you and vice versa, the objectives of the game, the laws of the game, at least basic tactics of the game, and how to enjoy the game. It is also quite mind-boggling how many players tell me that they enjoy playing in their position in rugby without knowing anything about what they are to do!

I don’t know who or what is responsible for all of this. Is it a general confusion with the game? Is it poor coaching? I think a bit of both. It took me 33 years to learn rugby and I am still learning. I also had great coaches from the age of 9 and so I was taught well, but it took me nine years in school to bring me up to an acceptable level, so it was not quick, and I was lucky to learn the game in digestible amounts. That is not a privilege available anywhere in Germany. The coaches here have an unenviable task of teaching a relatively unknown game in Germany to enthusiastic but inexperienced youths in a ridiculously short time. These coaches need to assess what to teach first and what is most important for their team to succeed and win games. Unfortunately, in some cases this can also lead to apathy over important skills I have already mentioned, and a disregard for safety, resulting in unnecessary injuries.

The majority of coaches are usually very experienced but also unpaid and the responsible ones deserve more than just thanks for sharing their knowledge and skills, not to mention their time. However, their greatest reward is watching many generations of new players taking up a beautiful game that is far more than just big hits and hard tackles.

I am one of those coaches now and have my own daunting task ahead of me. I’ll do my damndest to make the people in my team great players but I hope they’ll do their bit and help me to become an equally good coach.

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About scrumfive

Passionate about rugby. Philosopher, optimist, and cynic. A middle-aged Irish full-back in Germany trying to get fit again to play a few more games before being put out to pasture.
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