Category Archives: Coaching

Why Do We Bother With Laws in Mini Rugby?

Mini-RugbyWe’re a quarter of the way through season and already it’s been a very promising year for our U8s.

Numbers are good, and at 29 players we have the biggest U8 squad our club’s ever had.

This presents challenges in terms of getting all the players involved in games, but by being organised we’re able to ensure that, come match day, all of them get a fair amount of time on-pitch and everyone gets a chance to run with the ball. In training we try and maximise this with small-sided games on reduced pitches, and we split up all the ‘best’ players between the teams so that there’s a mix of ability in each – then we ensure that these more skilful players don’t hog all the play. It’s not perfect, but we’re at least giving all the players the opportunity to develop their skills in a fun and enjoyable environment.

So far, so idyllic!! You would be forgiven for thinking that everything in our garden is rosy, but alas nothing is perfect and despite all of the above, I have a gripe. In fact, it’s a perennial gripe, one that I’ve noticed has become more of a problem at this level of rugby in the 6 years since I last coached an U8 team. And the gripe is this: we have a set of modified Laws for this form of the game, to provide a structured yet simplified framework for the kids to display their skills on; yet far too many coaches seem to regard a lot of these rules as inconvenient or optional. This creates points of tension and contention whenever we play a match against another club and – as my son has indicated to me – frustrates the hell out of my players when they feel the opposition has been allowed to cheat throughout the game.

There are a number of possible responses to this.

Response number 1. I relax my refereeing of the game and allow/encourage my players to infringe in the same way as other teams. This would allow them a level playing field to complete on, but it goes against the grain for me to tell my players it’s OK to cheat if it helps you win. I realise that as open-age players they’ll be expected to ‘play the ref’ and to be a bit smart and streetwise about infringing to slow down the opposition. However, I feel that when you’re taking players new to the game and moulding them into rugby players for the future, you should make every effort to reinforce respect for all facets of the game including the Laws – and for me that means serial infringers shouldn’t be allowed to prosper.

Response number 2. I just chill out and ignore it – different refs interpret the Laws differently, my players have to learn to accept this, and as a coach I have to set the example for them to follow. Any frustration I feel needs to be hidden and I ought to focus on what my players can do to outflank the opposition even if the ref is letting them infringe. I would agree with all of that – except for the fact that my players deserve better, and when they know that the ref is getting it wrong, I’m the one they ask why. Somehow, ‘never mind the ref, look at your own performance’ seems a little too harsh a message to give to a 7-year-old. In any case, it’s not as if the Laws for U8 rugby are especially complicated or difficult to referee correctly, so surely it’s not too much to ask that a ref be more than just vaguely competent?

Response number 3. I approach the ref in question, say at half-time, and request clarification on why infringements are or aren’t being dealt with. For example, to ask ‘I notice you’re not pinging them for handing-off sir, does that mean our players can do it too?’ However, this is fraught with difficulty. Some refs will take your oblique point and will clamp down on the relevant offence for the rest of the game, and will be happy that you’ve brought it to their attention. This is a definite win. However, other refs will take your intervention as a personal criticism and a rather tetchy exchange then ensues in which no-one emerges the winner.

I had one of these at a well-known festival in the south of England in April, in which a neutral ref was great at pinging my players for not passing within 3 steps after being tagged, but terrible at penalising the opposition for shoulder-barging my players out of the way. At half time I politely requested that he stop them from doing it; he very shirtily replied that he was the ref and I didn’t have the right to tell him how to ref the game and he hadn’t seen the offence in question. Not a successful outcome then, and one which probably left each of us looking at the other and thinking “Self-righteous prick!”

Response number 4.
Never to allow anyone but me to ref our games – just not practical I’m afraid, and in some cases not necessary as a number of refs are every bit as good as me or nearly so!

No, the only solution that is really acceptable is to get all coaches at our age group to referee using all the modified Laws, rather than ignoring certain ones to give their team an advantage.

It’s the only way to ensure a level playing field for both teams in a match.

‘Local variations’ can mean that in some cases your team is asked to play a vastly different set of rules than they are used to. A few years ago, our TAG age groups toured the North East and on starting their first match at their festival on the Sunday, were surprised to find a ‘double-tag’ rule in operation whereby ripping off both an opponent’s tags at once, gave you an immediate turnover. All the Northumbrian teams were aware of the rule, but it took our players some time to adapt. Not all differences are as pronounced, but it is true to say that every time we play a match, the Laws used are slightly different from the previous game.

For youngsters learning the game and the skills to play it, this kind of inconsistency needs to be stamped out. I meet coaches who justify a lax approach to refereeing mini rugby on the grounds that ‘They’re only kids’ (i.e. the poor little cherubs shouldn’t be burdened with being expected to follow the rules of the game).

So why do you think the Laws are there? The fact is, the simplified Laws for TAG rugby are designed for kids to be able to follow. Yes, it might be difficult and onerous to get it across, but with time and persistence, it’s definitely achievable. And once the habit is formed, it gets easier to help the players adapt to the Laws as they change with the different stages along the Age Grade pathway.

It might be that CBs and RDOs need to give some thought to mini rugby refereeing as part of a coach’s skill set so that we get more competent refs working with the youngest players, then match day will stop being a lottery based on what rules the home side thinks should apply.

Ten Commandments for Coaches

lancaster2With the new Age Grade season now properly under way, I’m looking at the role of coaches in developing players.

The turnaround in England’s fortunes in the 5 months between the end of the last World Cup and the conclusion of this year’s 6 Nations, as welcome as it was startling and unexpected, seems to have been due in no small part to the appointment of a new coach in Stuart Lancaster.

This underlined for me the fact that even at the highest level, coaches make a massive difference in getting the best out of players – or in some cases, making a sow’s ear out of a silk purse.

Although the team drew one and lost two Tests in South Africa, there were signs that this England regime is heading in the right direction especially in terms of team ethos and player accountability.

As a junior coach for the last 8 years, I’d make the following observations (NB all of these are based on my experiences of junior rugby players in North of England – people working with different age groups and/or in different geographical locations might draw their own conclusions, and clearly Commandment 7 won’t apply to coaches of open-age teams; at least, I hope not!):

1. A great coach is in it for the development of his* players, both as rugby players and as people, as opposed to being in it for the benefit of his own ego.
* or her, obviously

2. A great coach never assumes he knows everything, or that he has nothing to learn from the players.

3. A great coach achieves maximum opportunity for player and skills development by finding a balance between coach-centred and player-centred learning that suits the squad as a whole.

4. At the same time, a great coach also recognises that the approach taken at Commandment 3 will not work for certain individuals, and so delivers appropriate development activity to suit these players as well. For example, a more supportive approach with players who are struggling to master a particular skill versus a greater measure of challenge to stretch players who have mastered the skill already.

5. A great coach listens as much as he talks, and asks more questions than he supplies answers – it’s preferable for the players to find solutions to their own issues than to have someone else’s ideas imposed on them.

6. A great coach does not tolerate prima donna players at whatever age, or allow ‘star’ players to dominate the team to the detriment of quieter, less pushy players. No one is more important than any other player or the team as a whole.

7. A great coach will listen to the concerns of players’ parents, but will not allow parents to dictate or interfere over on-field matters.

8. A great coach will ultimately aim to have his players grow to a level beyond which he can add any value to them – so that they outgrow him naturally as they develop.

9. A great coach will recognise when that moment has come and will hand them over to someone else – even if it is earlier than he had prepared for.

10. Finally, and coaches forget this at their peril, a great coach always remembers that players play rugby because they enjoy playing and so retains an element of fun and enjoyment in training throughout.

Are you a great coach? We’d all like to think we are, but I know I don’t always live up to every one of my ‘Ten Commandments’.

My teams won no trophies this year (the first time this has ever happened), but I’ve finished the season with 51 kids on the books most of whom turned out week in week out, who LOVE being there and who play attractive attacking rugby.

Of those 51, 45 have returned this season. They have a great willingness to try out new things in matches, a double switch and a dummy bringing them a try last time out, and they play for each other as much as for themselves. Every one of them is a star to me and there’s not a single one I’d want to lose.

We’ll see how they are as players at 19 and judge me then I guess!

Changes to Mini Rugby

mini-rugbyFrom September it is rumoured that the county that my club operates in will be added to the “Shaping the Game” pilot project that the RFU have been running in three counties over the last year (Durham, Hampshire and Warwickshire), which is based on research commissioned by the RFU in 2007, by Exeter University. The full recommendations are available for download here. The idea behind this pilot is to better manage the transition between TAG rugby at under 8 and contact rugby from under 9. It also involves changes to the Under 7 and Under 8’s game and, ultimately, if the overall pilot is rolled out, it will change all aspects of mini rugby. The RFU states that “the aim being to develop an improvement in young players’ skills and higher levels of their retention into the adult game.”

The bit I would like to discuss is the under 9 changes. The key changes are that there will be no scrum or line-out, and no rucks or mauls. The “tackle” is defined as any attempt at contact from the arm-pits down, and after bringing the ball carrier to ground, a tackler can no longer compete for the ball. There is also no ripping the ball out of contact.

In my last blog, “U9 Mini Rugby Frustration” I wrote about the fact that (in my opinion) tackle-shields (and the timescale imposed/coaching techniques) encourage young players to run into contact. I mentioned that there needed to be a balance. Rugby is a contact sport and many players take up the game so they too can play the game they watch on television.

Having coached under 7s and under 8s, I could see that many young players are keen to start playing ‘proper’ rugby. This phrase has driven a lot of discussion in forums about this pilot. Those in favour of the changes point out that contact is only a part of the game, but I have examples of players that stop playing at the end of the under 7 season because they do not want to play TAG for another season. In the worst case example, the player moved to another club that allowed him to play up a year.

My view, and it remains only my view, is that the basic structure of the pilot is flawed. Data on the impact of the initial pilot which was set as a three-year plan cannot have been captured after year 1. Of course, there are many statistics which show more tries being scored and more passes being made at under 7 and under 8 levels. This is where games are 4-a-side, but statistics still do not show whether all players scored more tries and were passed to. It just shows more of the activity.

The critical impact of this proposal cannot be measured yet – that is the retention of players. How do we know that those moving from under 8s to under 9s will come back to a game that differs from the sport they thought they were playing? One of the reasons for what is a watering down of the contact aspect of the game is that it was suggested that this puts some players off. What about those players who want that aspect of the game? Surely this is the beauty of our game. I read a blog from a coach I really respect recently, which said that this sort of approach is the same as taking your child to boxing because they wanted to play that sport, but not allowing them to punch anything.

The trick is to coach technique in all aspects of the game: evasion, contact, ball retention and recovery, passing, catching, etc., and work with the children to raise their skill levels and individual confidence in all the areas of the game. If we make it just an evasion game, do we not run the risk of alienating those players who aren’t fast and elusive? Isn’t it a coaching skill-set which needs to be improved rather than delayed?