By Keith Wilkinson 

In the fifty years I have been involved in Rugby, the ability to “read” a game has always been prized, but often only as an afterthought.  

These days, it may be called “Game Sense,” but it means the same: An ability to understand and make decisions in the heat and pressure of a Game.

However, the problems have remained the same. How do you coach and encourage this game sense or ability to read what is happening? How can coaches persuade players to assume responsibility for their actions in the pressure of a Rugby match? How do we, as coaches, underpin “Game Sense” by developing a players’ understanding of the Game and what options are available to them at any given moment?  

When I joined the coaching ranks in the 1980’s, coaching Rugby was seen as a matter of teaching techniques, which were then developed into skills. All of these were conveniently broken down into discrete chunks of activity. The ability to “read a game” was acknowledged, but seen as something that came after you had played for ten or more years. Something probably innate, not taught.

New coaches came to NCCP courses to be educated and to understand how to teach the skills of the Game. These are listed in the RFU’s Better Rugby Manual as “Individual skills, Contact and winning the ball, Forward play, back play and team play…The Game could then be introduced to beginning players in a logical sequence.”

The emphasis was on skills and “it is only when Canadian players receive a thorough grounding in basic skills that our national team will have the tools to progress against the established Rugby-playing nations.” Senior players and old coaches led the NCCP courses and the new players (when we had any available to coach) were products which could be drilled, taught and then tested in a series of assessment of skills activities. The NCCP Theory Manual  of 1980 tells us that “Drills and exercises should be designed to allow a measurable means by which the coach may assess progress.”

And, as the authors of the March 1999 Level 1 Technical Manual pointed out, ”In the final analysis, the success of this (NCCP Coaching program) will be judged on the overall improvement of coaching in the country and a subsequent improvement in the standard of play.” 

In the 1991 and 1995 Rugby World Cups, Canada did have some success. However, I am not sure how much of this was attributable to the acquisition of skills. Ian Birtwell, Canada’s coach from 1989 to1996 placed a high premium on reading the Game and innovative coaching. For example, by the 1995 Rugby World Cup,  the team (somewhat reluctantly) adopted his ideas for a high intensity Game, making decisions on the fly. Against Australia in South Africa, the ball was kept in play for more than 30 minutes: The first time ever. The Canadians lost narrowly. They had to play and think fast for themselves.  

It is true that inexperienced coaches do need a background in the Game that allows them to teach Laws and skills, and in some situations like High School Rugby with its short season, these are necessary to even have a match. Ideally too, such coaching should be done in a positive and supportive manner. However, it should be obvious eventually that a sense of the game of Rugby only comes from individual players' responses to what Ashton has called, “stand-alone moments.”

These are those crucial points in a game (or practice) when the player must think clearly and act decisively without help. If Rugby coaching has a goal, surely it is to develop the players’ understanding of the game, how they can think for themselves and act independently. If not, we will teach skills, drill them like machines and debase the game to “Hit up, hit up, go wide.”

Players best learn “game sense” in playing games and using activities, not by learning skills and techniques. Skills are obviously necessary, but there is no such thing as a classic technique or skill. Try asking a group of coaches how to pass and catch the ball.

Games and activities in practice encourage awareness. If we really want our players to embrace creativity and develop game sense, then perhaps coaches should learn the Pierre Villepreux approach and say, “here is a ball and here's the pitch; let’s see that you can do. Villepreux believes the same basic principles apply to any level of the Game. 

To develop flair, to read the Game and to learn “Game Sense,” Ashton believes we must “make the aim of the practice session to set a barely achievable goal so that the player has to struggle with the situation. The successful resolution of the struggle moves the player to a decision-making process that is based on the correct selection of a skill” in the heat of competition.”

Implied in this is that practices should use opposition. Anyone can look good playing unopposed Rugby. This pressure from opponents involves making mistakes and making mistakes is an important part of the learning process. The important thing is that the mistake is directly relevant to the performance.

How then do we create situations that lead to this learning? Learning is achieved by overload. Overload means applying more  pressure than is currently the case in the game. While the field does offer a lot of space, in reality, the spaces are based on the positioning of the opposition in attack or defence.