Bizarre title but if you think about it tackling is a skill, defence is a composite of skills combined that incorporates tackling, amongst other facets, that combine to make your try line impregnable. To teach tackling without reference to how you are going to defend could mean that you practise 1000s of head on tackles in training but actually in a match very few players will make that sort of tackle. So if we are looking at how we teach/practise tackling within the realms of also working on our defensive co-ordination we need to ask ourselves what we are trying to achieve from our defensive efforts? Not “to stop the other team from scoring” this doesn’t have enough detail and is taken as red anyway. But “to press the opposition to the opposite touchline to force them out of space” or “to close down their outside options forcing them back towards our forwards”. Both styles of defence will see a different type of tackle predominantly employed, both should see the attack having either more or less freedom to run dependent upon which defence you operate.
Working with athletes from the world of mixed martial arts has seen many of them comment upon the mindset required of a fighter. Thinking back to how I was taught tackling as an 11 year old just arriving at Secondary school, I remember being stood on one side of a 10×10 grid with my opponent on the other and told to run at each other from a variety of angles. No substitute for being dropped in at the deep end I hear you cry. But for me as a slight 11 year old I was scared and hated tackling practice. How many people get turned off the game at this stage? You cannot divorce collisions from rugby when you are teaching the game so it must be embraced. What scared me more than tackling was the disappointment of my Dad if I bottled out so in matches I threw myself headlong into collision after collision. I enjoyed the respect that it garnered and people talking about me as being a great tackler, I also spent a considerable time in hospital, largely with head injuries!
The relevance of that little anecdote, an atmosphere was created that made me want to tackle, to throw myself into the path of another person running at me at speed, an entirely unnatural act! This is how you create the mindset, consistent exposure to contact with the myriad of “confidence in contact” drills and warm ups that are out there. Repeated praise for improvement in performance no matter how poor the end result might be, and constant support to make the less physical players a bit more physical. The art is doing it without the trips to hospital from kamikaze kids who want to prove how tough they are.
There can be few more frightening positions to be in as a young player than when the opposition “giant” is bearing down on you one on one. Lets examine how we coach the solution to this problem. What happens in most cases? The intrepid tackler grits his/her teeth and plants feet firmly so as to be ready for the impending impact, they either bend forward to get low or crouch down to make the hit and wait for the moment. As a coach we are always telling our players to accelerate into the tackler. I always had a simple response to this for any coach that wanted me to accelerate into a monster who was careering towards me, “No!” Nowadays it seldom happens to me but there is one occasion that does reignite such feelings and that is when we teach tackling on “School of Hard Knocks” and Scott Quinnell picks up the ball. There is no way that I am going to accelerate into this man when he is running towards me head on, and I do consider that tackling was the strongest part of my game as a player.
Those same men who fight for a living from Mixed Martial Arts also referred to rugby as” ridiculously macho” citing this idea that two men run at each other as fast as they can and collide and one emerges as the winner. If Cage Fighters not only, think rugby is macho, but actually dangerous, then what is going on the mind of the 9 year old when we say tackle that child!
What is the effect of a tackler with planted feet? They either get run over or are easy to evade with agility and pace. But actually we don’t teach our players to run with agility do we, we tell them to “run straight and hard” actually encouraging the ensuing train wreck we hope that our defender will be the cause of. Our tackling practice even reinforces this as we want the defender to make a tackle so we condition the runner to run straight at him. Not a scenario conducive to making the tackler feel good about himself after he has been left Tony Underwood –esque having been steam rollered. Reverse the situation and I am running straight at SQ am I really going to smash headlong into a man who is so much bigger and stronger than me, yet again that is stupidity akin to those in charge of The Light Brigade! But how many times do we see this sort of practice set up by coaches from junior to senior level?
The scene is now set, we must make our charges feel good about themselves, when you feel good about yourself good things happen. Does a fly half make head on tackles? Is he in a position where he could be supported in every tackle he makes? Does tackling training for your No. 10 ever include the defensive support of the back row and therefore is actually not only tackling practice but defensive practice too? You will never make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so if you have a player who doesn’t get turned on by the prospect of crunching other people’s ribs find a solution, otherwise you will have a massive defensive weakness. You can make him more at ease with the prospect though by creating situations where he experiences repeated success.
How do we remove this head on collision? In truth we can’t, because you will always have an SQ type man who knows the best way for him to get from A to B is directly through you! However it doesn’t mean that I have to make the hit on the man who is running directly at me, can one of my supporting players do that whilst I act as bait, close another option for the ball carrier? ( you choose what role suits you!) The prospect of felling an SQ from an angle is eminently more acceptable than trying to stop him head on. Once defences become adept at stopping the battering ram it is the attackers responsibility to come up with another way of penetrating! Oh yes evasive running, back we come to this, and how easy is it to run evasively when you never really practise it? If coaches emphasise the need for ball carriers to avoid contact then suddenly players will become more evasive. What happens to the defender with his feet firmly planted when faced with an evasive runner??? They get beaten! So what we are saying is that defenders should not adopt the feet planted “I’m ready for you” stance, doesn’t that take us back to this idea of running headlong into a fast moving monster though? “No” in short.
As an ex military man I find I can visualise things in military terms. If I wanted to attack a position I would choose an approach route that took me out of the line of fire of their biggest machine gun. I.e. not running headlong at SQ! If I were that soldier in a defensive position I would want to channel my enemy to where I wanted him so I would be most effective. If the Soviet Legions were heading straight for me do I want to stand in their way or find another way of taking them on? Our Defensive system now comes in to play ( back to rugby not War anymore) through what we want to achieve in our defence we can channel attackers and encourage them to run in a certain way towards certain parts of the pitch, and if done well enough we could even focus them towards our biggest tacklers too.
I was privy to some advice a gentleman with considerable first class experience passed on to a player about catching a high ball, another situation where players tend to “set” themselves. He said that as opposed to “setting” the player should get to a position close to the eventual catch, slow down his approach, and take the ball whilst moving, actually accelerating through the ball as he catches it. This meant that the catcher could take into account any late directional changes, swirls of the ball, or even any misjudgement on his part. I tried it and it worked a treat. This theory can be applied directly onto the tackle, but we don’t want to be accelerating headlong into the runner, we want to take him from an angle so he is bringing less momentum to the collision. Easier to derail a train than to stop it head on! This type of tackling fits very well with defensive systems moving from the inside to the outside. It will be familiar to many players who operate a drift system and actually means that many of your tackles see you actually accelerating through your tackles as you work to close down the space between you and the attacker and eventually make contact. By teaching this idea of running through the tackle it unconsciously forces the defender to place their lead foot into the tackle as close as possible to the attacker, always a good thing as this brings the trunk and not the arms into contact with the player first making for a more solid “marriage” between hunter and victim! ( remember “mindset!”)
Going back the military idea apparently the US Army used to teach a defensive tactic that saw soldiers from one position responsible for defending the soldiers in another position and vice versa, each firing across the others frontage. In rugby terms this would be comparable to a player not being responsible for players in his own channel but in the adjoining one and therefore never meeting SQ head on!
In summary both with teaching and practising tackling never take it in isolation, relate it to the team’s goal in defence.
If players are likely to have support close at hand then set up practises in which situations will develop that reflect this.
Always ensure the defender enjoys success, they MUST believe they can do it, so it is no good conditioning the attacker to run gently for example, create a situation where the odds are in the defenders favour either by the space permitted, the support available or the lack of options for the attacker.
Never allow your defenders to plant their feet, they must always be encouraged to move towards the tackle, this then means they must approach the tackle from one side or the other, defenders that get square onto their target can beaten on both sides, whereas if they come from one side the attacker only has one option and we have begun to channel him.
Never condition attackers to run directly at a defender, this doesn’t make it easier for the defender it only fills him with trepidation or conversely presents him with an easy challenge, it also de-trains your attackers.
When players are encouraged to run evasively as opposed to being “told” to run straight and hard, THEY are making the choices about how their rugby develops. Defenders will have to adapt to cope with forcing a collision upon an evasive target, they will have to develop the skills that actually will stand them in good stead for their senior rugby career as opposed to managing to stop practitioners of route 1 rugby. The focus for the defenders becomes “how do I get hold of him effectively to make the tackle” as opposed to” oh my God here he comes!” Believe it or not we as coaches are probably responsible for creating the single most frightening situation on a rugby pitch that any individual young player faces – the train wreck. When attackers run evasively and defenders approach from an angle it is almost eradicated, which in terms of retention and changing the image of rugby to newcomers has got to be a good thing. (Remember the Cage Fighters?)