by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
Recently Matt Cassel replaced New England MVP Quarterback Tom Brady in the Patriots huddle. Cassel has drawn attention to his promotion because he hadn’t started a game since high school. While attending college at USC, he was the backup to Carson Palmer and, more recently, Matt Leinart. In the extensive reporting that has followed this change in Coach Belichick’s lineup there has been a reccurring comment of why it is that Cassel will succeed.
Cassel has been referred to several times as being “like a coach” when on the field because he knows “what everyone is doing” during a given play. Said another way, Cassel has a command of the tactical overview of the offense. How can we apply to rugby ?
First we need to have a working definition of what a tactical overview for rugby includes. For this article, a tactical overview can be described as a pattern of play that is influenced by field position, the source and quality of our attacking possessions and what each player’s role is in the patterns. In our sport it might be unlikely that a loosehead prop would know what the fullback’s responsibilities are on a given attacking scrum or lineout. For players to be the most effective and efficient in their efforts, understanding what their teammates are supposed to be doing shouldn’t be as uncommon in our sport as it is. On high-performance teams it is no longer acceptable for the front row players to believe the pattern is to win the ball for the backs to use. Not just forwards, but the entire team benefit from a tactical map.
One of the missions that we coaches have is not only to design patterns of play, but also to teach all fifteen players on the field how to identify a good possession from a bad one and teach the players what the objectives are of the pattern based on the quality of possession and where the possession is on the field, providing a tactical overview. This is no different than other team sports where the players are interconnected throughout the course of play. In gridiron, the offensive center often calls out the blocking assignments for his teammates before he snaps the ball.
The assignments are based on what the defense is showing as it lines up prior to the snap. The center is connecting the efforts of his teammates in relationship to the play that was called in the huddle, be it a run or pass.
The play call was influenced by the down and distance of the attacking possession.
We can take a similar tactical overview in rugby. Say we have an attacking left hand scrum that positions our flyhalf just outside our 22 meter line. Based on the pattern of play, laws of the game, and the defensive alignment, we call an attacking move. Additionally, we also have to have a team-wide recognition of what happens next, based on the execution of the scrum. When a team has tactical understanding of it’s patterns and objectives, the players are able to acknowledge multiple cues and make adjustments within the pattern in seconds.
We have used attacking examples so far, but the same principles apply in a defensive tactical overview. Understanding how the performance of our defensive scrum affects what our flankers can and cannot do, how the midfield defenders can play, and what changes the deep three must make, are all due to the execution, or lack thereof in the tight five. Everyone is connected to each other’s performance.
What the best coaches do is build systems that connect player during each moment of the match. Technical systems create a team-wide sense of purpose, which allows players to anticipate a half a phase in advance.
All eleven players will need to be connected through Belichick’s systems, regardless of who plays quarterback. The same must be true of our 15 players.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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