Always return to the core: Advice from Zinzan Brooke

Work on core skills hard enough and they won’t unravel under pressure. That’s the key message that All Black great Zinzan Brooke gets across when he was coaching his son’s U12s at English club Windsor.

Helping out with my son’s junior team has brought back great memories of my experiences at that age in New Zealand. My dad coached the team and my mum managed it and made sure we had oranges at half time. After the game sometimes we had hot chocolate – a real treat.

We played hard but also to enjoy. We’d rock up on Saturday morning, go through a few lineouts and scrums, and then play a match. I don’t remember about winning and losing, I just recall enjoying the game.

Taking this into coaching at grassroots, I still believe that we must make training enjoyable, but we should also aim to give the players a point of difference.

To me, that means having better skills than the opposition. You can generate passion and conviction quite quickly, but skills take time and attention.


The problem with skills work is that it conflicts with that well-known trait of boys – a short attention span. So we need to keep training varied and well paced.

But we have to concentrate on the core skills, such as catch-pass, tackling, rucking and ball retention. Every session should be able to fine-tune these skills. We often take them for granted but, under pressure, they can easily unravel. That means returning to the core all the time.

Once a match starts, it’s the seemingly mundane skills that count for so much. In training, some players will pick these skills up quicker than the others. But even the most natural players must keep working on them. Our challenge is to unlock individual players.


When it comes to tackling, for instance, it’s more than just the final elements of cheek-to-cheek or grip – players need to understand the importance of putting the attacker where they want them.

You don’t want to be in front of the attacker as he runs towards you, otherwise he can attack on either side. The best tacklers manipulate the ball carrier. We use simple activities like Manipulate the Attack (see below) to develop positioning and alignment.

In my day we had players like Richard Loe, a prop who never touched the ball in a game. Now all props have to tackle and handle. It’s important that youngsters learn all the skills now so they’re better equipped to step up in the future.

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