The Why’s, What’s and How’s

While returning home from a recent trip I watched some TED lectures on the plane that reinforced my approach to coaching and in particular to game planning. Based on this broad verification of the planning process I will now explain how this generic model applies to rugby game planning. Bare in mind that the time taken to plan is greater than putting the plan into practice and performing the game plan in a game, often many times greater. But here’s the good part, the more you do it the more accurate it will become as well as the time taken getting less and less.



The “guts” of the lecture was an emphasis on why we coach our particular team so that we had a purpose and, just in case your mercenary instincts supercede all others the point was made that financial gain is a result and not the purpose of doing something optimally well.

The point was made that most of us know how to do something and some know what they have to do to achieve this but few have a defined “why?” and even fewer aim to continually revise why they do something so that there is continual improvement,”Kaisen” to the Japanese and their post-war mentor William Demming.

We are aiming to achieve a vision that we are continually revising but which, initially, is projected 4-5 years into the future. Even if personnel changes this continual revision enables new inputs to be fed into the process so we always have a vision this far ahead.

So let’s take each of these steps in turn from the big picture WHY? and then to the other 2 that contribute to achieving this.A broad knowledge of the talent you have available and it’s relative strength compared to the talent available elsewhere enables you to define a vision for your team and, depending on the time you are likely to coach the team and the resources available you can set a vision for a given period of time. Perhaps the longer the period of time the more ambitious that vision can be and the greater the need to have all core and support staff in the “War Room” to hammer out this vision. This is because it needs a degree of stability if planning is to take place for a rugby season as a minimum period of time for this vision. For some it may be the RWC cycle or the Olympic cycle maybe not greater?

In addition a review of the cycle should take place at the end of each to ensure it’s relevancy and to include progress that will assist in enhancing the vision so that in the 4 year cycle you are revising each year or season but are always setting a 4 year vision further on. I would suggest the same approach should be taken even if the appointment is for a season and the club, province, franchise or national union must have key personnel who have this vision. So the team has a collective vision even if there is a change in personnel.

It is also important to have player input into the broad strokes of the purpose for all those involved to be unified in their commitment.

But before the players can be included player selection takes place.

The criteria for selection must be based on the players available and what can be expected at this standard of play. Universal selection criteria by position  is inaccurate and may result in no players meeting the criteria or criteria that is not discriminating enough.

So how do we do this?


Take each playing position or number on the back of each player and list the functional roles that you would expect the players in each position to perform. Some may be specific to the position and some may be generic, applicable to more than one player and even the whole team.  Importantly the roles must discriminate between players in a given position as there will be no point in having criteria that most or all players in the position hold  or don’t have universally.

In addition criteria may include technical, tactical, strength and conditioning, decision-making, self management and others under these broad heading. Remember these will all have further, specific “sub-categories”.

You will now start to wonder how you are going to be able to monitor this huge range of criteria unless you use an algarhithm. The answer is to prioritise the criteria by thrashing out what are the most important criteria at this level of rugby.Maybe a categorised list of many variables can use an algarhithm to discriminate but for most the best bet will be to decide on a much smaller list of prioritised functional roles and to use these as the standard tool for selection..

Each role should have it’s own outcome as, achieving the outcome, will be the basis for judging a player. This can be measured by having performance aims as  benchmarks across the players in a particular position.

Now we must go into greater detail as we have to define how these outcome will be achieved using a sequential, prioritised list of key factors. This will not only help with selection but it will also be the basis  of coaching individual players and the mini-unit, unit and team patterns of play.


So we now have criteria for gathering information to improve the accuracy as to why we are coaching this team for the duration based on playing position and selection but shouldn’t we look at the performance of the current team and the groups within the team? As synergy tells us the whole is more effective than the some of the parts.

In addition to looking at individual players let’s look at the performance of the team. To do this we watch an episode of play from a re-start to the next whistle. We recognise that the outcome, the end product of the episode, is at best, superficial, but within the episode there will be a critical incident that most contributes to the end product. Some episodes may be very long and there may be more than one critical incident. In gathering information the coach must be able to trace the play back to the start of the episode and record the critical incident.

This is based on the Pareto Principle which states that 80% of the outcomes can be attributed to 20% of the critical incidents. Some say that this maybe 90:10 or even less. As you will recognise from the stats that are used in match broadcasts the benchmarks and outcomes that are attributed to the result are far from accurate.

The collection of critical incidents will be randomn and their identification must be accurate as, if it is not, all that follows will be a waste of time. So practice at identifying them is essential.


Once critical incident analysis has been used to gather a threshold of worthwhile information these can be categorised into attack and defence, strengths and weaknesses and into the principles of attack and defence which, once again are a prioritised, sequential list of truths that will explain the needs of the team. This may be the enhancement of a strength or the improvement of the performance of a weakness and produces the team profile.

Let’s look at the definition of the principles. This has to be dogmatic as an impossible situation will arise if the meaning of a principle is different for each coach. You can make up your own but all those working with you must adhere to the same definition for the team profile to be meaningful and accurate.

All principles must be prioritised and sequential. By doing the first you can then perform the second and so on down the list to achieve the end result of attack or defence.



Gaining Possession

Attack is when the team is in possession of the ball. Even at a start or a re-start the team with the ball to throw into the scrum and line-out is the team on attack. The same applies to the team kicking off as they have the opportunity to retain possession should the kick be recoverable. Should the kicking team not take this opportunity the duration of the attack will be as long as the flight of the ball afterwhich the team will be in defence with a separate set of principles applying to them.

So, with this advantage the team can commence its attack by gaining possession.

Going Forward

Once in possession the team can go forward by running, passing and kicking in an effort to get over the gain line from scrums and line-outs as well as at the player generated restarts of post tackle, rucks and mauls all of which have a gain line to measure the team’s ability to go forward and create momentum over the gain line.

Should they use the kick option possession may be sacrificed for territory the gain being based on the effectiveness of the chase pattern and receipt pattern should the kick be returned. Which leads us onto the next principle, support.

Support Play

When the attack kicks the ball down the field the kicker is supported by chase and receipt patterns as explained above.

But when the ball carrier attempts to carry the ball forward, a task in which one ball carrier is opposed by 15 defenders the remaining 14 players in the attacking team support by acting as a decoy of the defence or as a passing option. Broadly speaking the passing option can be across the field, lateral support, which can exploit a numerical advantage in the attacking line.

OR support can be linear. When the defence is numerically greater than the attack the attack can exploit the space between 2 defenders by using a missmatch of the ball carrier over the defender directly ahead or by overloading this space by a number of support players running into this space each coming from behind each other and receiving a pass that is called an offload and which comes in a range of options. Support doesn’t always lead to a try and there becomes a need to re-create space ahead to remount the attack. In other words, continuity which is the next principle of attack.


Play after the tackle, at the ruck and at the mail creates gain lines but more importantly, offside lines for the defence creating space between the attack and defence so there is both time and space to attack again.

In the contemporary game this is a flawed concept because the tackled ball prior to and during the ruck is not contested by the defence while the attack commits greater numbers to retain possession. The “reward” for keeping the ball is for the attack to have fewer  players than the defence.

Kicking for territory or to regain and linear support can overcome this and so can the maul that has the additional benefits for the attack of an offside line and the option to move the ball in hand down the field while the defence is unable to tackle the ball carrier.

This pattern, once possession has been won, of repeatedly, going forward, supporting and continuity applies and builds pressure which is the next principle.

Applying Pressure

It is a big “ask” for a team to retain possession from a kick-off until they score so the initial criteria for applying may be to gain field position at the next re-start and to apply the principles of defence to regain possession closer to the defending teams goal-line.

Once here we have a series of “P’s” to apply pressure and score. These are patience to retain possession, penetration to get over the gain line, pace to exploit penetration and score.

After scoring return to the re-start at the kick-off and do it all again.

Mission accomplished.


A team is in defence when it doesn’t have the ball and, as  result, the principles lead to regining possession.

Contesting Possession

Without the throw-in the defence is less likely to regain possession at scrum and line-out but it shouldn’t prevent them from competing for the ball. The aim of this is to reduce the attacking options, make them play an inferior option and use this to enable the remaining principles to be performed more effectively and possession regained.

When the defence is receiving a kick re-start retention is all a matter of the type of kick but no matter what a clean catch immediately changes defence into attack.

Going Forward

The gain line is equally significant in defence as it is in attack and the ability to stop the attack before it is reached. This involves the defensive line moving forward as a unit so that each member complements the play of the others. The defence has an advantage here as the “backward” pass forces the attack to stand deeper allowing the collision to take place on the attacking team’s side of the gain line should the defence be well organised and fast enough.

Of course, once they meet, the attack has to be stopped, which leads us to tackling.

Applying Pressure by Tackling

The tackler of the ball carrier must stop the opposition from going forward as soon as possible by completing the tackle and creating a situation from which the ball can be regained.This principle is the first step, make the tackle.

Tackle Quality

The increased emphasis on tackling and the willingness of the defence to concede possession after the tackle and from the ruck place emphasis on the quality of the tackle in creating the possibility of getting the ball back.

Without going into the details of each type of tackle we can judge the tackle by its outcome. The following is a measure of tackle success.

0=Tackle missed

1=Ball carrier able to pass in the tackle.

2=Tackle delayed re-cycling the ball.

3= Possession regained.

Should the prime defender, the tackler, not be able to complete the tackle support can help complete the task.

Support and Regaining Possession

The most obvious task of the support player is to complete the tackle followed by contesting the ball on the ground, what is commonly called “jackalling”, from a standing position picking up the ball before the ruck has been formed. A difficult skill to say the least.

In addition the support player may help secure a turnover from a standing tackle that has become a maul when the opposition unable to re-cycle the ball.

The final option, the most favoured, is to bind with other support players in a loose scrum and drive the opposition off the ball.

Once possession has been regained the team that was previously in defence, now the attack, can take advantage of the hesitation by the team that has lost possession and now has to defend.

The team now in possession can now counter attack, the last of the principles of defence. Excluding the first principle of attack, gaining possession, the principles of attack now come into play.

Even though the team has the ball it is handy to look at the counter attack options as part of defence as they are different from the attack that is the product of gaining possession.

Counter Attack

As stated above it takes more time for a team to adjust to the transition when going from attack to defence that it does for the team to go from defence to attack. Perhaps it is a product of the greater enthusiasm attack generates.

In close quarter play a turnover can be generated when the ref plays advantage following an infringement by the attack. Other opportunities will occur if the defence is able to intercept a pass, grab loose ball or a turnover occurs at the post tackle and counter ruck. There may be others.

Counter attack opportunities occur when the ball is kicked and the defence gathers or catches it. Frequently there is greater time available to make play before contacting the defence. It all depends on the number of attackers reload in support of the catcher and their position across the field. As a guide the counter attacking team should run at the bulk of the defence, to hold them, and pass to the space that has been created away from them. “Run at the city and pass to the country.”

This categorised, detailed, accurate information will now invite a revision of “the why”, the vision and purpose of the team. It will result in the team defining what has to be performed to achieve the vision.

Once again the players have to be involved as they must be part of deciding what is going to take place. I have found that coaches who focus on how to play prevent the players from having an input and they are left doing what they are told by the dogmatic coach. Initiative is taken from the players.

What the team is to achieve can be divided into 2 parts.


The first is by deciding the outcome goals for the team, the performance goals for the team, its parts and each player, in otherwords benchmarks for performing each of these, and finally process goals.

Process goals are the details of how the parts should perform that will achieve the outcome. These the coach and players can do something about as they can perform them in a game having improved them in practice.


The second is to decide what the team is to achieve using each of the principles of attack and defence in various parts of the field. This may be in zones down the field and lanes across the field as well as from each source of possession.

These are the team’s game profile.

Practice has shown that there may be duplication in what is to be achieved based on field position and the source of possession.

The core of the game profile is that they should be concise and to the point unifying the backs, forwards and the team in a common mission.

Now that we are unified behind a common purpose, know why are we involved in this, and what we have to do to achieve the vision we are in a position to arrive at how we are going to do this as what we have concluded will have justified this and all members of the team, squad, coaching staff, management, administration and executive will have contributed to its accuracy and be committed to it’s performance.

So we have arrived at the patterns of play, the doing , in each part of the game profile.


While the majority of the content of the patterns of play will apply to each game as we play to our strengths and patch up or avoid our weaknesses some adjustment will take place based on the team profile of our opponents.

By comparing their attack with our defence and our attack with their defence we can fine tune the patterns of play for the next game. Not too many changes however. Tossing out the baby with the bathwater each week will get you nowhere.  Reflect on how some well known teams play each game. There will be consistency in much they do as it is their strengths that they impose on the opposition. Any adjustment that produces the game plan for each game will be the avoidance of opponent’s strengths and the exploitation of their weaknesses . Other variables that contribute to the game plan for a specific opponent are those that occur on the day. The weather, the condition of the surface of the field, altitude and, maybe the ref are examples of this.

In addition the team’s ranking in the competition, the current score in the game and the time remaining will also influence how the team will play on the day.

I won’t go into the patterns of play but can provide material that provide a blueprint for the patterns of each principle which can be modified to suit your team.

I hope you can see the tie up between the selection process and the patterns of play as you want to select players who can play to the patterns that have been derived.


To this point we have focused on the core but there are topics that can contribute to your success.

Amongst these are:

Planning in addition to game planning – practice, logistical and periodised/seasonal planning.

  • Strength and Conditioning.
  • Sport Psychology.
  • Game Sense.
  • Sports Nutrition.
  • Team Culture.

Information is available on all these either in a rugby specific or sport generic format.

Two more steps before you return to a revision of the vision and trace any changes through the remaining steps.


Monitoring takes place during the game. It may be objective based on statistics using the game profile, patterns of play and game plan variables. It should also be subjective based on the coaching staffs’ understanding of these variables. In particular the subjective analysis can be passed onto the players during the game to make tactical changes.


At the conclusion of the game the core is used to evaluate the team’s performance and to create accountability. Once again changes in the vision, selection and so on can percolate throughout the whole process. Change may be great but if this is the case the planning must have been poor. Sound planning results in little change so that there is consistency in the movement forward towards the vision.

And this is what the TED lecture started with generically that I have applied to a sport. It is applicable to most others as well.