The Coaches Corner - David Mays

December 21 2014

Dave Mays - Coaches Corner

Sevens and the Lead Up to Olympic Qualification: Full Time Professional 7s Teams Displaying an Edge

by David Mays
Posted Dec 21 2014

Over the last 2 years we have seen major strides being made in the rugby sevens arena on a global scale, not only has the game grown commercially, the
physical nature of the game has changed dramatically.

Here are a few observations that are blaringly obvious as an admirer and a coach of the sevens variant of the game.

Obvious to the naked eye!!
1. Bigger athletes
2. Faster athletes
3. Fitter athletes
4. Bigger collisions
5. Improved skill sets
6. Longer periods of play with ball in play (Less stoppages)
7. Full time sevens contracts available to chosen athletes (Central contracts-7s specific)
8. Athletes purposely focusing on sevens as a career avenue (Not just HSBC World Series)
9. High performance centers being established across the globe
10. Coach education mirroring the growth of the game (Fully certified courses) As a coach, my observations aren’t necessarily around the external factors of the game, as these are areas that you cannot control or establish unless in a formal administrative position, my sole focus is about developing athletes and team environments to suit what is happening in the modern game. When I say “modern” I mean an evolving game that changes week to week based on the squads that are chosen for each event, referees allocated to each game and sometimes the climatic conditions the athletes are exposed to.

My first observation is around the teams that are now professional in all facets of the game, i.e. contracted athletes, world rugby circuit, fully immersed in sevens development 12 months a year.

There is a perception that all teams on the world circuit are full time professionals, that compete 12 months a year as a 7s specialist, truth is, not all teams are full time sevens programs. New Zealand who holds more world titles and commonwealth games than any other nation, probably as a collective train less than 50% of the other nations!

If you were to research all the teams in the World Rugby circuit, you would find that the teams have varied connectivity time as a collective group and this has become my 1st observation of the present game, 3 tournaments into the world series of the 2014/15 campaign.

You have teams that have limited game plans and structures, then you have teams that play a different game plan each game for what type of team they play, why is this? Simple answer is, the teams that are together all the time have the luxury to create a strategic tactical approach for specific types of teams they play, the teams that only come together one week before an event, don’t have these strings to their bow!

There is a saying in life, “if you are standing still, your are going backwards”, or to put it simply, if you aren’t evolving, growing or strategically planning to move forward, you will be left behind!

Problem is, not all rugby nations have the funding and resources to create this type of environment and it’s showing in how the game is tactically and technically presently being played.

Simple facts:
1. Teams that have full time programs have superior physically developed athletes, than programs that only train prior to each event!
2. Teams that are full time have varied and adaptable athletes who can respond to opposition threats because they have prepared for these situations ahead of time through analysis and game sense actvities
3. Teams that are full time have game plans in place for each specific team they play, i.e, play X style against Samoa, Y style against England, Z style against South Africa
4. Teams that are full time identify through analysis all the weaknesses in opposition teams structures of attack and defence, prepare to exploit these in prolonged practice situations 5. Teams that are full time have multiple tactical options at their disposal through trial and error of a training environment, that develop over longer periods of time together
6. Teams that are full time have established a stronger performance culture through goal setting, objectives and codes of conduct that are established over time and not set in stone from the onset through lack of preparation time to create an evolving team culture
7. Teams that are full time learn to adapt to the coaches methodologies, expectations and philosophies, rather than have a stop start process of getting to know what the coach requires and needs from each individual during a sevens campaign.
8. Likewise the athletes learn each others character traits and create a more symbiotic environment where each and every members contributes accordingly to that teams cultural and expected codes of conduct over a longer period of time

There are other factors that are apparent in the present world 7s series, these being:

Teams are now analyzing referee character traits and statistics around refereeing decisions and actions. Teams are mapping a referees movements around the field and identifying repetitive interpretations they make in given circumstances during each game and acting accordingly upon them.

Example being: If a referee referees the breakdown a specific way around how
the tackler is releasing the ball carrier after the tackle is made, they will tell their athletes to do X or Y to counteract this refereeing interpretation to gain an edge to get a turnover, or ultimately a penalty gained.

Another example may be around positional play by the referee, i.e. where they stand on scrums/lineouts or how they track across field after a set piece has broken into phase play.

People may ask what difference this may make to a team’s tactics? For people who haven’t played sevens or coached sevens, one of the simplest ploys in sevens is to use referee as an hole to exploit, referees get caught up in defensive line at times and this provides an option to target as a gate to open if run properly. I won’t go into too much detail on this, but it’s an example of how teams track referees now to identify this opportunity. Only teams who have full time programs and analysis specialists can focus so intently on referee character traits.

If we were to look at the sevens circuit over the last decade and identify one area of the game that has grown the most over this time, it wouldn’t be hard to identify!

Physiology of the athlete is the biggest factor why the game has become one of the biggest spectacles on the sporting arena.

Faster, fitter, stronger are the simplistic observations that align with a rugby athlete, but the other factor that mirrors this growth is the psychological development of a modern sevens athlete.

Strong mind, strong body or is it the other way round? One thing is for certain are, the fitter you are, the better the mind works when under fatigue! GPS tracking has unearthed what we have known for a long time as sevens coaches, our athletes are covering more surface area each game and at a faster pace than ever before! Without professional support and dedication around this development, these figures would never increase!

Gone are the days where “Titchs” teams were fitter than all the other teams, all the other nations who have contracted athletes have caught up and maybe surpassed them based on present observations.

New Zealand’s strength as a sevens team has always been around being fitter than the opposition and eventually running teams out of steam, if this edge has been taken away, what can they do now to beat the opposition?

Out-skill them? Yes for sure, but now teams are on equal footing with this too!

Out-think them? With analysis and full time athletes able to be studious through video review, analysis and game sense practices, the outthinking scenario is eliminated too.

There is one area that still can be exploited is the old adage, “A good big one will always beat a good little one” and has become apparent throughout teams selections over the last few years, teams are physically getting bigger, but its isn’t that apparent for the big 6 teams as they are all as big as each other, but its very evident when Samoa plays Cook Islands or NZ plays Japan etc, the physicality of the athletes is all too apparent and obvious to the naked eye that bigger teams who are fit usually beat smaller athletes who are fit! So how does the “Big 6” gain edges on their opponents who are equally as fit, strong and as big? This is where tactics and strategies come into play.

The teams who are together for 12 months a year are now at an advantage to the teams who are only together throughout the world rugby campaign, i.e. South Africa (Full Time) V New Zealand (Part Time) could be an example. Teams who have full time programs have multiple options from set pieces, broken field turnover options, kicking plays and ploys, different defensive systems from certain areas of field or teams they play, sweeper roles that vary, penalty plays, strike moves, subbing policies and yellow card actions, how to slow the clock strategies, 2 and 3 man off the cuff plays, individual roles created to exploit certain opposition athletes, breakdown and ruck attacking/defensive roles, no sweeper structures etc

Over the 3 tournaments I have seen certain teams change their tactics multiple times during that particular event/leg, this can only be done through hours and hours of preparation, trial and error under a training umbrella and analysis of opposition, only full time programs can achieve these outcomes!

The element of surprise and variety to an attacking game plan has seen Fiji, Australia and South Africa pull away from the chasing pack, not in terms of points in the World standings, but in terms of attacking threats they possess as an attacking group. These threats and opportunities created by the element of surprise will only become more apparent as the World Series progresses and the combinations, timing and accuracy of these set ploys will only improve, something that other teams need to try to combat. So what changes are we seeing in the game based on the first 2 legs in Australia and Dubai?

• Attacking options directly through the lineout channel (Touchline to 15 meter line), i.e. catch drive and feed close to the lineout itself with intricate 1 man lifts, or catch and peels that target teams who automatically think that the ball will be moved away from lineout by half back. These options and variety of play are only apparent in the full time teams on the circuit where they have the man power hours to achieve the accuracy and timing

• Changing the point of attack more frequently, i.e. teams that just move ball to outside channels and create go forward on extremes of field become predictable and defence structures know how to manipulate these scenarios, but a team like Fiji and South Africa will change direction of play continuously to find a mismatch. Simple pass and loops, late cuts and double team plays have become the norm for these 2 teams, but have created multiple tries and line breaks as the defence loses its shape and the ability to connect as a group of 6 in defence becomes impossible. On paper it sounds logical, but to watch it unfold in a structured manner is a joy to watch as a sevens coach and admirer of the game. Once again, this synchronicity is only attainable by full time teams!

• Another scenario that has been evolving over the last 4-5 events is where the full time teams are using a very clever ploy of attacking back to where the last breakdown had taken place. I.e. the ruck is formed, ball is then moved away by acting half back and then the 1 st receiver who receives pass either cuts back towards last ruck or passes back to last ruck to exploit an hole left by jackal or original tackling player. Question is why go back to the traffic you might ask? The thing is, teams who study and analyse oppositions traits at breakdowns, pick up trends in their defensive policies around the breakdown. They then create attacking ploys to exploit these weaknesses in defence. Only teams who are full time have the luxury to be that calculated and accurate in their attacking policies.

• The final situation I will identify is something that’s taken an eternity to show up in the world rugby series is the ability to exploit teams at the tackle area itself. Over the last decade I have been involved in sevens I have only seen one team who was effective and calculated at this attacking option, which was the Argentina team when Santiago Gomez Cora was in his prime. Its something that has puzzled me for a long time now, as its such an effective weapon if you can teach your athletes the opportunities that may arise if X or Y does this or that when defending the tackle area. Creating 2-3 man ploys around ruck have been minimal in a game that promotes open, wide, free flowing play, a ploy that actually inhibits the ability to play “Total Rugby”. Recently though we have seen the full time teams identify this as one of their attacking strategies against certain teams who usually have a lack of pace on outside. Teams who have a collective slower foot speed than other teams usually defend with limited numbers at the tackle area for fear of being beaten with pace on the outside. This obviously provides opportunities around the tackle area where only 1 defender may be on their feet to defend an edge of the tackle area. Simple 2 on 1 situations can be created if the opportunity arises, but most of all if the teams have practiced and have time to prepare for these opportunities, once again it’s the full time teams who are showing these options in their game strategies.

The final topic I will address is something that may only be apparent to coaches who have worked in with different sevens cultures and with different genders of athletes.

My subject really states, “Do not copy others”, learn from others, analyse, observe and identify what other teams deliver, learn from other coaches in their philosophies and methodology, but DON’T make it your template to follow.

I came to New Zealand 5 years ago to learn from the 7s guru “Titch”, after 5 years of shadowing his sevens environments, its apparent that his success is based around a few core principles that will forever be entrenched in 7s rugby, but what works in New Zealand wouldn’t necessarily be effective in Africa, Fiji, Europe or Asia.

The key objective in sevens has to be, coach to the athletes you have at your disposal, the resources, environment and circumstances you work under, plus the level of competition you face, playing like South Africa, New Zealand, Australia or Fiji isn’t attainable unless you are engrossed in those programs and with those athletes for 12 months a year!

One thing is for sure, the men’s and women’s teams that will hold a gold medal at the Olympic games will have more strings to their bows, through increased man power hours, than the teams that don’t have the time and resources to dedicate to their athletes!

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