Make breakdown training realistic, says Richie Gray

You will never beat “live” practice but how you get there is also important. Good use of training aids will develop the detail that allows your team to progress and keep them fit and reduce injuries, says Richie Gray, former contact skills coach for Springboks.

As a coach you must have a number of different methods to bring about the learning of skills. In the breakdown area, these are constantly changing as the laws, coaches and players evolve over time. And because there are more rucks now than ever, the result is that players have to be more dynamic and accurate within this part of play as well as able to cope with the physical demands.

Defences have become more organised and the individual tackling techniques and conditioning of the players within the defensive system have made a major improvement. The challenge for coaches and players is now to break these systems down with fluid perpetual attacking play.


The collision area is still one where most penalties occur – poor technique (players off their feet especially when fatigued, physically over developed players that are not in control of their body type) still prevails and if the game is to move forward this area must become technically more accurate and dynamic.

In the perfect game, the aim would be to never take contact as an attacking player, but as long as defences exist and rugby is a contact game there will always be collisions within the 80 minutes of play.

Coaching the collision area has taken many different forms over the past years from “live play” to the use of shields, tackle bags and suits. I have always been heavily involved in skills coaching and have tried to bring in different ideas like fatigue, reaction and psychological principles into drills, conditioned games and full contact training.


I have evolved my thinking on how to include pads, tubes and shields.

When I use training aids, I have a number of principles:

  • You must create training aids that make the athlete replicate the key movement patterns that happen within the chosen sport to improve his/her performance.
  • The training aid must give the athlete proper feedback.
  • The training aid must challenge the athlete physically and mentally at all times to be accurate in execution. This can be achieved through the specific weight, design and function of the training aid.
  • Training aids cannot be seen as an easy option. They must always hold a degree of difficulty related to key movement patterns – remember if it does not challenge you, it won’t change you.
  • In many ways you can’t beat “live” practice but as coaches we also have a duty of care to our athletes. In this way you can use training aids to work to a level of fatigue first before going “live”.


As a coach, to move your athlete forward, you must be able to coach and perfect the key principles of technique detail that relate to the specific movements within that sport.

My experience of travelling the world is that the detail is key, whatever you try to coach. Many coaches are systems based. Attacking patterns and defensive structures are at the forefront of their mindset. But as one pro-coach said to me, if you can’t tackle, your system is not worth s@*£.

Therefore, the skills coach is at the forefront of player development. I want my players to come away from a training session able to perform a technique under intense pressure.

We cannot do that by knocking lumps out of them at every session. That’s why innovation is key, coupled with realistic feedback both physically and mentally.

Here are some contact exercises to build your team’s collision skills.

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