In a previous blog, “Game Sense” and the Philosophy of Coaching Rugby, I talked about coaches helping athletes develop “tools” to help them make decisions for themselves in the heat of a Rugby match. Players need to develop a game understanding and “sense,” and coaches need to know how to teach and help in this development process.

Working out the best way for Rugby players to learn is not new. D. Gallagher and W.J. Stead, in a book published in 1906, called The Complete Rugby Footballer, advised players, in an age when coaches were not tolerated, to “think over all the incidents of the last match in your leisure hours and particularly try to recall some of the most successful and unsuccessful tactics, and draw the morals from them to the best of your ability …This private study is very beneficial and tends to make a player use his head more when he plays the game.“

In the modern version of our sport, the coach is available to help (or hinder?) this process. In the fifty years I have been involved in Rugby, the ability to “read” a game has always been prized. But it has not always been a coaching priority. These days, reading a game is probably called having “Game Sense,” but the words mean the same: The player develops an ability to understand and make decisions even in the heat and pressure of a Rugby match. But, how is this “game sense” achieved most effectively?

How can coaches encourage “game sense” to help players read what is happening? How can coaches persuade players to assume responsibility for their actions in the pressure of a Rugby match? How can coaches underpin “Game Sense” by developing a players’ understanding of the Game and what options are available to them at any given moment?

In the 1980’s, coaching Rugby was seen primarily as 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 a decade or more of experience. “Game Sense” was regarded as something probably innate, emerging over time, but not to be learned.

In the 1980’s Canada developed coaches in NCCP courses where they learned 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 skills, Forward play, back play and team play…” Once these were mastered, then the Unit and team skills of the Game could be “introduced to beginning players in a logical sequence.”

The emphasis is on skills and the NCCP Manual continues by saying that “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.” Coaches took NCCP courses to copy down new drills and skills, and the players (when any were available to be coached) were seen as products who could be drilled, taught and then tested in a series of assessments.. 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 point 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.”

Of course for new players to learn how to play Rugby, they need coaches who are familiar enough with the Laws of the Game and the basics of the Game, to teach these so that matches can even be played, and this is especially true ion the short High School season. Ideally too, Rugby coaches should work in a positive and supportive manner, what Michael Lynagh describes as “Nurturing not Screaming.”  However, it should be obvious that if players want to excel, then they must eventually develop “game sense.” This can best be developed from individual players' responses to what Ashton has called, “stand-alone moments.”

These “stand-alone moments.” 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 be reduced to teaching skills, drilling players like machines and debasing the Game to shouted instructions from thr sidelines to “Hit up, hit up, now go wide.”

Players best learn “game sense” by playing games and using activities which challenge them. They are not little machines to be taught drills and skills, or filled up with Rugby, like something from Dickens’ Hard Times. They do not develop as players just by developing techniques and honing these to skills. Almost anybody can work out some way to pass the ball as soon as they pick it up. 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 and you will have as many techniques as you have coaches.

Time is much better spent on games and activities in practice which encourage awareness and decision-making.  If we really want players to embrace creativity and develop game sense, then perhaps coaches should learn from Pierre Villepreux and say, “here is a ball and here's the pitch; let’s see what you can do.” And, he uses this approach at all levels of the Game.

He is not alone. To develop “Game Sense,” Brian Ashton believes coaches must “make the aim of a practice 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.”  The coach must let the player make errors and adapt. In Villepreux terms, they must “use their eyes” and see what to do  next. The optimum decision making occurs when the ball carrier makes the right decision in relationship to what the defence is doing, and the support players react appropriately. Videotape has a role here in analyzing patterns and options, but the medium misses out the active component.

Clive Woodward coached the England players to appreciate the T-CUP concept (Thinking Clearly Under Pressure) and as part of this, players were encouraged to look at TCT  (Touchline-Cross bar-Touchline) to  see how the opposition was reacting to their play. The team needs to develop a common and consistent interpretation of the game at speed. The coach enables the team to have a sound knowledge of the game, to spend time with individuals, and with units and teams, reading the same cues and making similar decisions.

Implied in this approach is that practices should use opposition. Anyone can look good, or especially bad, playing unopposed Rugby. Pressure from opponents involves making errors  and making mistakes is an important part of the learning process. The important thing is that the mistake is directly relevant to the performance.  Learning is achieved by overload and applying more pressure than in a match.

The coach ensures that during practice, players are exposed to real game situations and the “chaos” that they will have to deal with. The coach acts as facilitator and provides realistic experiences with varying degrees of pressure. The coach guides players to possible decisions and responses through questions, analysis of patterns and the repetition of scenarios under different conditions.

At the top levels, this requires the coach to know the game intimately and usually to have played, refereed or learned the Game at a high level to support the players, and understand the options.  Even then, it is rare that a coach can produce instant results on the pitch. The coach may have to wait months or even ten years, for all the hard work to pay off. In the meantime the coach is advised in Rugby Canada’s LTRD plan to spend 50% of practice time on match play and scrimmage, a further 10% of time on tactical considerations and only 10% on Technical skills Coaches’ efforts are always worthwhile.

Canadian players need to develop “game sense” if the game is to be enjoyed by players and public alike. We need to escape the fixed patterns and technical skills approach to the game. Surely, it is better to paint creatively in oils, than try to paint by numbers and avoid crossing the lines.

Ironically, the growing importance of sevens may create a dilemma as the limited space of the 15–a-side game is far removed from the variable amounts of space in Sevens. This can occur to such an extent in Sevens that space may be conceded to create a situation that leads to a poor choice of attacking options and the defensive team regaining possession.